Americans tend to like fast things: instant coffee, sports cars, and speed dating. Many share a fascination with record holders, such as the world’s fastest runner or texter. And increasingly, the same goes for medicine. The number of minute clinics is exploding. Some emergency rooms now post their current wait times on roadside billboards. And increasingly, physicians and other health professionals are under pressure to increase the speed at which they see patients.
A friend of mine, a family physician, was recently advised by the new manager of his practice that he will be penalized if he doesn’t increase the number of patients he sees each day in clinic. A thorough and compassionate physician who is known for the quality of the relationships he builds, he asked the man, “How am I supposed to work faster and still provide good care?” The practice manager thought for a moment and responded, “Why don’t you stop asking open-ended questions?”Continue reading…
EMR Alert – Featuring radiologist note in illegible font color
For the past couple of years I’ve been working as a traveling physician in 13 states across the U.S.
I chose to adopt the “locum tenens lifestyle” because I enjoy the challenge of working with diverse teams of peers and patient populations.
I believe that this kind of work makes me a better doctor, as I am exposed to the widest possible array of technology, specialist experience, and diagnostic (and logistical) conundrums. During my down times I like to think about what I’ve learned so that I can try to make things better for my next group of patients.
This week I’ve been considering how in-patient doctoring has changed since I was in medical school. Unfortunately, my experience is that most of the changes have been for the worse.
While we may have a larger variety of treatment options and better diagnostic capabilities, it seems that we have pursued them at the expense of the fundamentals of good patient care.
What use is a radio-isotope-tagged red blood cell nuclear scan if we forget to stop giving aspirin to someone with a gastrointestinal bleed?
A post I wrote nearly three years ago has recently gone viral, bringing tens of thousands of readers and a huge number of comments. It’s a letter I wrote to my patients who do something that all but guarantees a bad relationship with many (if not most) physicians: they don’t get better. There are basically two responses I get to this post: either readers are grateful to have a doctor admit to our flawed humanity, or they are furious that I would suggest that patients, the ones with the disease, should see physicians as needy and flawed humans and therefore watch how they act around them. If you haven’t done so, read the comments to this post and hear the deep frustration and anger brought out by a letter that sympathizes with their pain and (apologetically) tries to help.
Amidst the dichotomy of reactions, both of which I understand, is the obvious question: why has a relationship that exists for the purpose of healing and helping become one of frustration and anger? The corollary to this question is perhaps more important: what can be done to heal this broken relationship? A reader of my last post (about viewing patients from a different perspective) asked me point blank: ”Dr. Rob, for the 99.999% of us who do not have a primary care doctor who is thinking as progressively as you, what advice can you give so that we can get our doctors to be treating us in the manner in which you are treating your own patients?”
I must admit, I get a bit uncomfortable with this, as it sounds like I am putting myself above my colleagues morally. Ironically, it is my deep understanding of my own huge flaws, coupled with an upbringing that scorned conformity, that rips me away from the survival self-centeredness most docs eventually adopt. Putting myself on any moral high ground only invites a very public (and deserved) fall back to the low ground I usually inhabit. No, I’m also not putting myself down out of false-modesty; I’ve made peace with my flaws, embracing them for what they are: a lens with which I can understand my fellow human scum-bags. Of course, as my best friend (and best man) used to remind me: “remember, I am doctor scum bag to you.”
Now, I don’t lay the whole problem at the feet of the fallen nature of mankind. I believe that our system of “health care” doesn’t just fail to counter the flaws of our nature, it actively promotes bad relationships. It does this by:
Reducing patients to “problems.” The payment system requires we use “problem codes” to classify patients and justify visits. The problem-oriented approach is not just a byproduct of the payment system, though, it is at the very core of medical education. Despite a 100% ultimate failure rate, we are still taught that death and disease are the opponents we need to outsmart or out-procedure. Perhaps its analogous to the public infatuation with the tawdry and grotesque (the more gruesome the murder, the more news shows cover it), but we physicians love “interesting cases.” But nobody ever wants to be an “interesting case.” Ask any of the people who commented on the blog post. Boring is better.
Health information technology has, in many ways, been a calling for me. I passionately believe in the ability of technology and information to reduce costs, improve quality and transform healthcare. For the last seven years (I won’t say the “better part” as my wife and kids would probably not appreciate that characterization…on the other hand, they would quickly confirm that it has consumed most of my waking hours), I have collaborated with hundreds organizations in healthcare and technology across the public sector and the private sector to try and positively influence the adoption and use of health information technology. By many measures, this work has been successful.
Awareness levels and perceived value of health IT among doctors, hospitals, policymakers and many other audiences has improved dramatically. A wide majority of physicians in the U.S. have by now adopted technologies such as electronic health records and e-prescribing. Playing a small part in this progress to date has been the most gratifying work of my career.
But then came Dad and his own personal experience with health IT. My father’s experience as a patient has left me questioning the level of progress that has been achieved.
This week the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) issued a new report describing its vision of primary care’s future. Not surprisingly, the report talks about medical homes, with patient-centered, team-based care.
More surprisingly, though, it makes a point to insist that physicians, not nurse practitioners, should lead primary care practices. The important questions are whether nurse practitioners are qualified to independently practice primary care, and whether they can compensate for the primary care physician shortage. On both counts the AAFP thinks the answer is “no.”
AAFP marshals an important argument to bolster its position. Family physicians have four times as much education and training, accumulating an average of 21,700 hours, while nurse practitioners receive 5,350 hours.
It is unclear how this plays out in the real world but, intuitively, we all want physicians in a pinch. Researchers with the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews reviewed studies in 2004 and 2009 comparing the relative efficacy of primary care physicians and nurse practitioners. They wrote “appropriately trained nurses can produce as high quality care as primary care doctors and achieve as good health outcomes for patients.” But they also acknowledged that the research was limited.
There is no question that nurse practitioners can provide excellent routine care. For identifying and managing complexity, though, physicians’ far deeper training is a big advantage. In other words, difficult, expensive cases are likely to fare better from a physician’s care.
Just over two years ago, President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a law purported to increase access to health care and to “bend down” the health care cost curve. A great debate over the implications of that law, especially in the areas of coverage, affordability, and quality of care, has arisen. Furthermore, a series of political and legal challenges have generated uncertainty about the law’s prospects within the health industry and at the state level. Despite this, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has already issued over 12,000 pages of regulations elaborating on the original 2,700-page law, leading to more uncertainty regarding how appointed and career federal officials will determine the exact shape of the law’s final requirements. All of this uncertainty raises real concerns about how the new law will impact the most crucial actors in any health care reform effort: doctors.
Doctors are demonstrably nervous about the new law and how it will affect their incomes, their access to technologies, and their professional autonomy. According to a survey by the Doctors Company, 60 percent of physicians are concerned that the new law will negatively impact patient care. Only 22 percent are optimistic about the law’s impact on patient care. Fifty-one percent feel that the law will negatively impact their relationships with patients. These statistics raise questions about how and whether doctors will participate in the new system.
Last year, about 80,000 emergency-room patients at hospitals owned by HCA, the nation’s largest for-profit hospital chain, left without treatment after being told they would have to first pay $150 because they did not have a true emergency.
Led by the Nashville-based HCA, a growing number of hospitals have implemented the pay-first policy in an effort to divert patients with routine illnesses from the ER after they undergo a federally required screening. At least half of all hospitals nationwide now charge upfront ER fees, said Rick Gundling, vice president of the Healthcare Financial Management Association, which represents health-care finance executives.
So sure you can get non-emergent care in an ED – if you pay for it out of pocket. Please understand I’m not saying that all care should be free. I’m saying that the emergency department is no different than a physician’s office. If you have insurance, or can pay for care yourself, you get it. Otherwise, you don’t. No matter where you are.