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Tag: Overtreatment

Health Care Needs Its Rosa Parks Moment

On Wednesday, October 25, 2017 I was at the inaugural Society for Participatory Medicine conference. It was a fantastic day and the ending keynote was the superb Shannon Brownlee. It was great to catch up with her and I’m grateful that she agreed to let THCB publish her speech. Settle back with a cup of coffee (or as it’s Thanksgiving, perhaps something stronger), and enjoy–Matthew Holt

George Burns once said, the secret to a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending—and to have the two as close together as possible. I think the same is true of final keynotes after a fantastic conference. So I will do my best to begin and end well, and keep the middle to a minimum.

I have two main goals today. First, I want to praise the work you are doing, and set it into a wider context of the radical transformation of health care that has to happen if we want to achieve a system that is accountable to patients and communities, affordable, effective — and universal: everybody in, nobody out.

My second goal is to recruit you. I’m the co-founder of the Right Care Alliance, which is a grassroots movement of patients, doctors, nurses, community organizers dedicated to bringing about a better health system.  We have 11 councils and chapters formed or forming in half a dozen cities. I would like nothing more than at the end of this talk, for every one of you to go to www.rightcarealliance.org and sign up.

But first, I want to tell you a bit about why I’m here and what radicalized me. My father, Mick Brownlee, died three years ago this Thanksgiving, and through his various ailments over the course of the previous 30 years, I’ve seen the best of medicine, and the worst.

My father was a sculptor and a scholar, but he was also a stoic, so when he began suffering debilitating headaches in his early 50s, he ignored them, until my stepmother saw him stagger and fall against a wall in the kitchen, clutching his head. She took him to the local emergency room, at a small community hospital in eastern Oregon. This was the 1970s, and the hospital had just bought a new fangled machine—a CT scanner, which showed a mass just behind his left ear. It would turn out to be a very slow growing cancer, a meningioma, that was successfully removed, thanks to the wonders of CT and brain surgery. What a miracle!

Fast forward 15 years, and Mick was prescribed a statin drug for his slightly elevated cholesterol. One day, he was fine. The next he wasn’t, not because his cholesterol had changed, but the cutoff point for statin recommendations had been lowered. Not long after Mick began taking the statin, he began feeling tired and suffering mild chest pain, which was written of as angina. What we didn’t know at the time was the statin was causing his body to destroy his muscles, a side effect called rhabdomyolysis. Even his doctor didn’t recognize his symptoms, because back then, the drug companies hid how often patients suffered this side effect.

The statin caught up with Mick at an exhibit in Seattle of Chinese bronzes, ancient bells and other sculptures that my father had been studying in art books his whole career. Halfway through the exhibit, he told my brother to take him home; he was too tired to take another step.

Three days later, he was in the hospital on dialysis. The rhabdomyolysis had finally begun to destroy his kidneys. Three weeks later, he was sent home alive with one kidney barely functional. Soon his health would begin to deteriorate at a steady pace.Continue reading…

A Culture of Overtreatment

flying cadeuciiThe Dallas/Fort Worth Healthcare Daily ran a fascinating excerpt from the Steve Jacob’s book So Long, Marcus Welby, M.D.* The excerpt contained some very interesting assertions and statistics. For example:

  • Consultant PwC, relying on that Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report, estimated that malpractice insurance and defensive medicine accounted for 10 percent of total health-care costs. A 2010 Health Affairs article more conservatively pegged those costs at 2.4 percent of healthcare spending.
  • In a 2010 survey, U.S. orthopedic surgeons bluntly admitted that about 30 percent of tests and referrals were medically unnecessary and done to reduce physician vulnerability to lawsuits.
  • A 2011 analysis by the American Medical Association found that the average amount to defend a lawsuit in 2010 was $47,158, compared with $28,981 in 2001. The average cost to pay a medical liability claim—whether it was a settlement, jury award or some other disposition—was $331,947, compared with $297,682 in 2001.
  • Doctors spend significant time fighting lawsuits, regardless of outcome. The average litigated claim lingered for 25 months. Doctors spent 20 months defending cases that were ultimately dismissed, while claims going to trial took 39 months. Doctors who were victorious in court spent an average of 44 months in litigation.
  • A study in The New England Journal of Medicine estimated that by age 65 about 75 percent of physicians in low-risk specialties have been the target of at least one lawsuit, compared with about 99 percent of those in high-risk specialties.
  • According to Brian Atchinson, president of the Physician Insurers Association of America (PIAA), 70 percent of legal claims do not result in payments to patients, and physician defendants prevail 80 percent of time in claims resolved by verdict.Continue reading…

In Medicine, More May Not Be Better

The dull whir of the computer running in the background seemed to have gotten louder as the patient fell quiet. She was a young woman, a primary-care patient of mine, seeking a referral to yet another gastroenterologist. Her abdominal pain had already been checked out by two of the city’s most renowned gastroenterologists with invasive testing, CAT scans and endoscopic procedures.

But she wasn’t satisfied with her diagnosis — irritable bowel syndrome — or the recommended treatment and wanted a third opinion. I tried to reason with her but failed to convince her otherwise. Even when I acquiesced and gave her the referral, she walked out visibly unhappy. I sat there listening to the whirring, feeling disappointed.

Physicians love being liked. They also love doing their jobs well. With other incentives, such as monetary returns, dwindling, the elation we get from satisfying a patient as well as providing them good care is what still makes being a doctor special. But is keeping patients satisfied and delivering high-quality care the same thing? And more important, can patients tell if they are getting good care?

Policymakers certainly think so. In fact, under the Affordable Care Act, Medicare, and Medicaid hospital reimbursements are now being tied to patient satisfaction numbers.

But the association between patient satisfaction and the quality of care is far from straightforward, and its validity as a measure of quality is unclear.

In fact, a study published in April and conducted by surgeons at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine showed that patient satisfaction was not related to the quality of surgical care. And a 2006 study found that patients’ perception of their care had no relationship to the actual technical quality of care they received. Furthermore, a 2012 UC Davis study found that patients with higher satisfaction scores are likely to have more physician visits, longer hospital stays and higher mortality. All this data may indicate that patients are equating more care with better care.

Although patients and their physicians generally have similar goals, that is not always the case. As a resident, who is not paid on a per-service basis, I have no incentive to order extra testing or additional procedures for my patients if they’re not warranted. But one study found that physicians who are paid on a fee-for-service basis and therefore have an incentive to deliver services — needed or not — are more likely to deliver these services (such as an MRI for routine back pain).

On top of that, as another study found, they also are more liked by their patients. It is no wonder then that the number of patients with back pain, one of the most common reasons for physician visits, are increasingly being overmanaged with MRIs and narcotic pain medications.

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The Biggest Urban Legend in Health Economics–and How It Drives Up Our Spending

The wellness emphasis in the Affordable Care Act is built around the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2009 call to action about chronic disease:  The Power to Prevent, the Call to Control.   On the summary page we learn some shocking statistics:

  • “Chronic diseases cause 7 in 10 deaths each year in the United States.”

  • “About 133 million Americans—nearly 1 in 2 adults—live with at least one chronic illness.”

  • “More than 75% of health care costs are due to chronic conditions.”

Shocking, that is, in how misleading or even false they are.  Take the statement that “chronic diseases cause 7 in 10 deaths,” for example.  We have to die of something.   Would it be better to die of accidents?  Suicides and homicides?  Mercury poisoning?   Infectious diseases?    As compared to the alternatives, it is much easier to make the argument that the first statistic is a good thing rather than a bad thing.

The second statistic is a head-scratcher.  Only 223 million Americans were old enough to drink in 2009, meaning that 60% of adults, not “nearly 1 in 2 adults,” live with at least one chronic illness — if their language is to be taken literally.   Our suspicion is that their “133-million Americans” figure includes children, and the CDC meant to say “133-millon Americans, including nearly 1 in 2 adults, live with at least one chronic illness.”   Sloppy wording is not uncommon at the CDC, as elsewhere they say almost 1 in 5 youth has a BMI  > the 95th percentile, which of course is mathematically impossible.

More importantly, the second statistic begs the question, how are they defining “chronic disease” so broadly that half of us have at least one?    Are they counting back pain?   Tooth decay?  Dandruff?   Ring around the collar?    “The facts,” as the CDC calls them, are only slightly less fatuous.   For instance, the CDC counts “stroke” as a chronic disease.   While likely preceded by chronic disease (such as hypertension or diabetes) and/or followed by a chronic ailment in its aftermath (such as hemiplegia or cardiac arrhythmias), a stroke itself is not a chronic disease no matter what the CDC says.  Indeed it is hard to imagine a more acute medical event.

They also count obesity, which was only designated as a chronic disease by the American Medical Association in June–and even then many people don’t accept that definition.   Cancer also receives this designation, even though most diagnosed cancers are anything but chronic – most diagnosed cancers either go into remission or cause death.    “Chronic disease” implies a need for and response to ongoing therapy and vigilance.  If cancer were a chronic disease, instead of sponsoring “races for the cure,” cancer advocacy groups would sponsor “races for the control and management.”  And you never hear anybody say, “I have lung cancer but my doctor says we’re staying on top of it.”

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The Promise of Electronic Healthcare Records

Last week, Don Berwick completed his 17 month tenure as administrator of Medicare and Medicaid.   The nation should be grateful that such a visionary was at the helm.  The nation should frustrated that he was never confirmed.

In his parting interview with the press,  he noted that 20 percent to 30 percent of health spending is “waste” that yields no benefit to patients.

Berwick listed five reasons for the enormous waste in health spending:
*Patients are overtreated
*There is not enough coordination of care
*US health care is burdened with an excessively complex administrative system
*The enormous burden of rules
*Fraud

Certainly regulatory reform is needed, but electronic health records can go far to addressing each of these issues.

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Myths about Medical Malpractice: Part 2 Crisis or Hoax?

Conservatives call it the “malpractice crisis.” Public Citizen, a liberal non-profit consumer organization based in Washington D.C., calls it “The Great Medical Malpractice Hoax.”

No doubt you have read that ambulance-chasing lawyers have escalated their assault on health care providers, and that as a result, malpractice insurance premiums have been levitating, along with malpractice suits, further hiking the cost of medical care.

Various solutions have been floated, including “caps” on compensation for pain and suffering; “health courts” where expert judges replace juries; immunity for doctors who follow “best practice guidelines;” and “full disclosure” policies which urge doctors and hospitals to move quickly to disclose errors, apologize, and offer compensation.

In the end, the best solutions would make malpractice reform part of heath care reform. Our malpractice system should be redesigned to reduce medical mistakes, fully compensate patients who are injured by human error, reward doctors and hospitals that disclose errors, and penalize those that try to “cover up.” When it comes to the cost of malpractice, reform should slash the exorbitant administrative costs built into an adversarial process that moves at a snail’s pace, while subjecting both plaintiffs and defendants to what a recent report from the American Enterprise Institute rightly describes as “inhumane.”

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Save Money on Medical Costs – Get Your Old Medical Records

There are many tips to saving money on medical costs like asking your doctor only for generic medications, choosing an insurance plan with a high deductible and lower monthly premiums, going to an urgent care or retail clinic rather than the emergency room, and getting prescriptions mailed rather than go to a pharmacy.

How about getting your old medical records and having them reviewed by a primary care doctor?  It might save you from having an unnecessary test or procedure performed.

Research shows that there is tremendous variability in what doctors do.  Shannon Brownlee’s excellent book, Overtreated – Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer, provides great background on this as well as work done by the Dr. Jack Wennberg and colleagues on the Dartmouth Atlas. Some have argued that because of the fee for service structure, the more doctors do the more they get paid.   This drives health care costs upwards significantly.  Dr. Atul Gawande noted this phenomenon when comparing two cities in Texas, El Paso and McAllen in the June 2009 New Yorker piece.

Between 2001 and 2005, critically ill Medicare patients received almost fifty per cent more specialist visits in McAllen than in El Paso, and were two-thirds more likely to see ten or more specialists in a six-month period. In 2005 and 2006, patients in McAllen received twenty per cent more abdominal ultrasounds, thirty per cent more bone-density studies, sixty per cent more stress tests with echocardiography, two hundred per cent more nerve-conduction studies to diagnose carpal-tunnel syndrome, and five hundred and fifty per cent more urine-flow studies to diagnose prostate troubles. They received one-fifth to two-thirds more gallbladder operations, knee replacements, breast biopsies, and bladder scopes. They also received two to three times as many pacemakers, implantable defibrillators, cardiac-bypass operations, carotid endarterectomies, and coronary-artery stents. And Medicare paid for five times as many home-nurse visits. The primary cause of McAllen’s extreme costs was, very simply, the across-the-board overuse of medicine.

Doctors apparently seemed to order more tests.  Patients, not surprisingly, agreed.  After all, without adequate medical knowledge or experience, how sure would you be if a doctor recommended a test and you declined?Continue reading…

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