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Tag: Patients

Should Doctors Keep Patients’ HIV Status a Secret?

At my infectious-diseases clinic in Southeast Washington, I work with some of the city’s most indigent patients. Some don’t have jobs, a home, a car or enough to eat. But recently, I saw a patient whose problem made these issues seem trivial.

Dealing with fatigue, a cough and a fever for several months, this woman in her 40s had been evaluated by four internists. They had tested her for a variety of conditions but not HIV. Each had recommended rest, two prescribed antibiotics, and one suggested an over-the-counter cough medicine. Experiencing no physical relief from these suggestions, the woman had decided to “lay down and die.”

However, after her longtime partner insisted she get medical help, she agreed to go to a hospital emergency room. After a rapid test, which she initially refused because she said she was not at risk for HIV, she learned that she was HIV-positive.

After that ER visit, she brought her partner, whom she credits with saving her life, to my clinic to be tested; she was concerned that she had transmitted the virus to him. He tested positive. About a week later, when he accompanied her to an appointment with me, I asked if he had been seen by a doctor to discuss treatment. He said no and indicated that he wanted to establish care in the clinic.

When I asked if he had ever been on HIV drugs, he gazed at the medication chart and pointed out his previous regimen, a cocktail that contained indinavir. Because I and many other doctors stopped prescribing this medication a decade ago, I knew he had been keeping his condition from her for years. He stopped talking and avoided my gaze. It was clear he knew that I had learned his secret. I had many questions for him; but this visit was for her.

It was not the right moment to dredge up this history and ask how he could keep his diagnosis hidden while watching his partner struggle with her health. I chose not to ask about his dishonesty, their relationship and whether they had used condoms to protect her from getting HIV. At this point, I needed to help her understand that, even though she felt weak and sick, the medications would soon make her feel better. And that, with the right treatment, she could still live a long life.

While talking with my patient about her treatment, my mind kept wandering back to her partner’s secret. Was it my role to admonish him in front of her, or would that make things worse? What would they say to each other when they got home? I wanted to discuss these questions, but did I have a right to insert my judgment into this situation? At a private visit with me two weeks later, she let me know that this was the moment she realized he’d been keeping his diagnosis from her for years.

As a physician, I am not allowed to reveal any medical information about my patients or their circumstances without their written permission. This confidentiality is sacred. But in this case, that constraint felt inappropriate and irresponsible.

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Medicare’s Observation Status-and Why Attempts to Make Things Better May Make Them Worse

There are tens of thousands of policies in Medicare’s policy manual, which makes for stiff competition for the “Most Maddening” award. But my vote goes to the policy around “observation status,” which is crazy-making for patients, administrators, and physicians.

“Obs status” began life as Medicare’s way of characterizing those patients who needed a little more time after their ED stay to sort out whether they truly needed admission. In many hospitals, “obs units” sprung up to care for such patients – a few beds in a room adjacent to the ED where the patients could get another nebulizer treatment or bag of saline to see if they might be able to go home. Giving the hospital a full DRG payment for an inpatient admission seemed wrong, and yet these patients really weren’t outpatients either. The Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ (CMS’s) original definition of obs status spoke to the specific needs of these just-a-few-more-hours patients: a “well-defined set of specific, clinically appropriate services,” usually lasting less than 24 hours. Only in “rare and exceptional cases,” they continued, should it last more than 48 hours.

A recent article in JAMA Internal Medicine, written by a team from the University of Wisconsin, vividly illustrates how far the policy has veered from its sensible origins. Chronicling all admissions over an 18-month period, Ann Sheehy and colleagues found that observation status was anything but rare, well defined, or brief. Fully one in ten hospital stays were characterized as observation. The mean length of these stays was 33 hours; 17 percent of them were for more than 48 hours. And “well defined?” Not with 1,141 distinct observation codes.

To underscore just how arbitrary the rules regarding observation are, an investigation by the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released today found that “obs patients” and “inpatients” were clinically indistinguishable. Their major difference: which hospital they happened to be admitted to.

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The Affordable Care Act Will Fail Without Patient Engagement

What’s behind the recent EHR public relations blitz and our passionate debate in The Health Care Blog? It’s fear for the Affordable Care Act’s future. Oh, the ACA can weather political challenge in the short term, but in the long run, only health cost containment will matter. EHRs are the ship that institutions are counting on to navigate payment reform and, from the institutional perspective, physicians and patients are just along for the ride. From the citizen perspective however, cost containment will be seen as rationing unless patients and physicians are appropriately engaged in the most costly decisions.

The impact of yet more regulations, such as Stage 3 Meaningful Use, could be too late to save the ACA. For now, the administration and those of us that hope the ACA succeeds must work to shift EHR vendors and their institutional customers toward patient engagement using the tools of policy guidance, public relations and federal procurement.

First, a crash course in health economics. If you have a few minutes, read Accountable Care Organizations: Can We Have Our Cake and Eat It Too? by Jessica L. Mantel. Otherwise, just struggle through the next two paragraphs summarizing why EHRs are the lynchpin of health reform via the ACA.

Cost containment requires either cost controls or a shift away from fee-for-service payment. The ACA is based on accountable care as an alternative to fee-for-service. Accountable Care Organization (ACO) is shorthand for the new health care payments regime. By paying ACO institutions instead of individual service providers, health insurance companies and Medicare provide direct economic incentives to reduce waste, lower costs and, if we’re not careful, withhold needed care. An ACO is by definition an organization or institutional construct.

The EHR is is not the Jedi knight’s lightsaber, it is an institutional tool designed to bind the individual service providers into the Federation’s collective. Not surprisingly, patient engagement is an afterthought.

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The Office Visit Revisited

A patient calls or emails me with a problem. I talk with them over the course of a few days, using whatever form of communication works best.  Eventually, they need to come to the office to be seen – either for something needing to be done in-person (examination, procedure, or lab test), or because of the advantages of face-to-face communication.  At the visit, I not only deal with one problem, but there are other issues needing to be addressed.  Finally, after the visit, follow-up on the problem continues until it is either resolved, or at least is not causing much trouble.

So how do I document that?

In the past I would’ve had a clear structure for the “office visit” and separate “encounters” for the documentation of the communication done outside of the office.  The latter would be done largely with narrative of the conversation, and some direct quotes from the patient.  The former, the “office visit” would include:

  • A re-telling of the story of the “chief complaint” and what’s been happening that caused this encounter to be necessary.
  • A sifting through other symptoms and past-problems to see if there is any information hidden there that may be useful.
  • A documentation of past problems (already in the record) to support the thought process documented later in the visit.
  • An overview of the physical exam, again to support the  decisions made as a result of the visit.
  • A discussion of my thoughts on what I think is going on.
  • A telling of my plan on how to deal with this.
  • A list of any advice given, tests ordered, medications changed, prescriptions written, and follow-up as the details of that plan.
  • A signature at the end, attesting to the validity of what is contained in the note.

But here’s the problem: it’s not real.  I don’t make all of my decisions based on the visit, and the patient’s story is not limited to what they tell me.  Details may be left out because they are forgotten, questions aren’t asked, or things just haven’t happened yet.  This signed and sealed unit of care, represented as a full story, actually represents only fragments of the story, of many stories actually, and only as a moment on the continuum of the patient’s care.
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Flipping the Doctor’s Office

Consider the doctor’s office: the sanctum of care in American medicine, where a patient enters with a need — a question or an ailment or a concern — and leaves with an answer, a diagnosis or a treatment. That room, with its emblematic atmosphere of exam table and tiny sink and bottles of antiseptic, is in many ways the engine of our health care system, the locus of all our collective knowledge and all our collective resources. It’s where health care happens.

But in a less sentimental light, the doctor’s office doesn’t seem so exalted. Yes, it remains the essential hub for clinical care. But what occurs in that room isn’t exactly ideal, nor state-of-the-art. The doctor-patient encounter is fraught with tension, asymmetrical information, and flat-out incomprehension. It is a high-cost, high-resource encounter with surprisingly limited value and limited returns. It is too cursory to be exhaustive (the infamous fifteen-minute median office visit), too infrequent to create an honest relationship (one or two times a year visits at best), and too anonymous to be personal (the average primary care doc has more than 2,300 patients).

At best, it offers a rare personal connection between doctor and patient. At worst, it is theater. The doctor pretends she remembers the patient, and that she has actually had the time to read the patient’s chart in full; the patient pretends that he hasn’t spent hours on the Internet trying to diagnosis himsef, half-admitting what he’s really doing day to day, and pretending he won’t second- guess the doctor’s orders the moment he gets back to a computer.

As woeful as that sounds, we know that there’s real value here. This encounter can be meaningful; it should and must be meaningful. The doctor is a necessary interface to medicine, and his office is a source of care, expertise, and trust. The patient is eager and receptive to learning, primed for guidance and direction. Pragmatically, the doctor’s visit is a powerful part of modern medicine. The problem is that we, collectively, are not optimizing this resource; we have not reconsidered and re-evaluated how we might exploit the visit to its full advantage.

So how can we improve this situation? How can we fix this thing?
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Caveat Online Health Information Emptor?

Patients who search on free health-related websites for information related to a medical condition may have the health information they provide leaked to third party tracking entities through code on those websites, according to a research letter by Marco D. Huesch, M.B.B.S., Ph.D., of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

The research letter was recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine entitled “Privacy Threats When Seeking Online Health Information” and looked at how 20 health-related websites track visitors, ranging from the sites of the National Institutes of Health to the health news section of The New York Times online. Thirteen of the sites had at least one potentially worrisome tracker, according to the analysis performed by Dr. Huesch.

He also found evidence that health search terms he tried — herpes, cancer and depression — were shared by seven sites with outside companies. According to the paper:

“A patient who searches on a “free” health-related website for information related to “herpes” should be able to assume that the inquiry is anonymous. If not anonymous, the information knowingly or unknowingly disclosed by the patient should not be divulged to others.
Unfortunately, neither assumption may be true. Anonymity is threatened by the visible Internet address of the patient’s computer or the often unique configuration of the patient’s web browser. Confidentiality is threatened by the leakage of information to third parties through code on websites (eg, iframes, conversion pixels, social media plug-ins) or implanted on patients’ computers (eg, cookies, beacons).”

Dr. Huesch says that he was inspired to investigate this area by the archive of coverage on the topic by The Wall Street Journal on how the technology and market for your online information work. The most recent piece in this series is on Facebook privacy settings and some of the risks associated with “Graph Search.” This entire series is very good and worth the read.

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A New Trend? Hospital Successfully Sues its Patient’s Attorneys for Filing a Vexatious Malpractice Suit

Connecticut’s Appellate Court recently ruled that hospitals and doctors can successfully sue their patients’ attorneys for filing a vexatious malpractice suit. The Court also ruled that the trial judge’s decision that the patient’s suit was vexatious will often create an estoppel against the attorney. The attorney will consequently be precluded from contesting that decision. The only issue will then be the amount of damages—double or treble—that the attorney and her firm will be obligated to pay the hospital or the doctor.  See Charlotte Hungerford Hospital v. Creed — A.3d —-, 2013 WL 3378824 (Conn. App. 2013).

Whether this is going to be a trend in our medical malpractice law remains to be seen. In the meantime, I provide the details of that important decision.

Attorneys representing the family of a psychiatric patient, who committed suicide, filed a malpractice suit against a hospital and some of its doctors. They alleged that the defendants prematurely discharged the patient from the hospital’s emergency room while she was still experiencing a severe mental health crisis. Allegedly, this untreated crisis was the cause of the suicide that the patient committed four days later.

The suit was supported by an opinion letter from a registered nurse (!!). Under Connecticut law, as in many other states, the supporting opinion letter must come from “a similar health care provider.” The attorneys thus should have retained a psychiatrist, rather than a nurse, as an expert supporting the suit. Their failure to do so rendered the suit defective and the trial judge properly struck it out.

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Hospitals Lost Jobs Last Month. Should We Be Surprised?

An old data series got new life, when the Brookings Institution issued a report that compared health care jobs growth versus all other industries.

It’s “a truly astonishing graph,” according to Derek Thompson at The Atlantic. “I knew health care had been the most important driver of national employment over the last few years, but I had never seen the case made so starkly.”

Thompson wasn’t alone in his surprise. (Hopefully, readers of The Health Care Blog would be less astonished.) But lost within the reaction—and even mostly overlooked within the industry—is that not all health care jobs are growing, or at least not growing at the same pace.

Take a look at the following chart. It resembles the Brookings data, with one major change: The hospital employment curve has been separated from all other health care jobs growth.

 

Notice how hospital employment essentially flatlined across 2009—a hard year for the sector, which was still insulated compared to the rest of the economy. But many organizations pared back on staff and sought to cut non-essential services to survive the Great Recession.

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What the EMR Saw

Lately, my virtual inbox in our electronic medical record has seen a surge in requests for prescriptions for the vaccine against Herpes Zoster, shingles. This has made me think a lot about our responsibility as physicians to inform patients about the evidence behind our recommendations – but who informs the patients when doctors are kept out of the loop or put under pressure to prescribe without seeing the patient?

What has happened is that our local Rite-Aid Pharmacy started to give these shots, covered by many insurers, but still requiring a doctor’s prescription.

I cannot give the shots in my clinic, because as a Federally Qualified Health Center, we are reimbursed at a fixed rate. The shingles vaccine costs more for us to buy than we charge for an entire office visit. I used to have the discussion about the shot, and would give patients a prescription to take to the pharmacy if they wanted it.

The pharmacy can give the shot at a profit, because it is considered a medication, just like a bottle of Lipitor.

The new system creates a bit of a dilemma for me. I get a message through the pharmacy that the patient wants the shot, and I don’t have the opportunity to sit down and review the effectiveness, side effects and long-term efficacy according to the available evidence with the patient.

For example, the shingles vaccine only cuts the risk of getting shingles in half. This is about the same effectiveness as the flu vaccine, but far less than, say, the vaccine against smallpox, which has now been eradicated.

Most patients are very surprised to hear about the 50% efficacy when I catch up with them at some later date; so many health care interventions are portrayed as both completely effective and absolutely necessary.

I see my role as a primary care physician as a guide and resource for patients, who are bombarded with overly optimistic claims and recommendations by mass media, drug companies and retailers.

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Getting Back to Normal

We have become a pill popping society. It makes absolutely no sense that twenty percent of our population regularly uses a psychotropic medicine and that the United States has more deaths each year from overdose with prescription drugs than from street drugs.

The causes of excessive medication use are numerous- the diagnostic system is too loose; some doctors are trigger happy in their prescribing habits; the drug companies have sold a misleading bill of goods that all life’s problems are mental disorders requiring a pill solution; and the insurance companies make the mistake of encouraging quick diagnosis on the first visit.

My purpose here is to advise individuals on how best to deal with the risks of overdiagnosis and overtreatment.

Elsewhere I have suggested the things government needs to do. A diagnosis, if accurate, can be the turning point to a much better life. A diagnosis, if inaccurate, can haunt you (perhaps for life) with unnecessary treatments and stigma.

Spend at least as much effort ensuring you have the right diagnosis as you would in buying a house. Become a fully informed consumer, ask lots of questions, and expect clear and convincing answers from any clinician who offers a diagnosis and recommends a treatment. If the diagnosis doesn’t seem to fit, get second or third opinions.

Never accept medication after receiving only a brief diagnostic evaluation, especially if it has been done by a primary care physician who may not be expert in psychiatry and may be too influenced by drug salesmen.

Don’t believe drug company advertisements that end with, ‘Ask your doctor.’ Drug companies profit if they can convince you that you have a psychiatric disorder and need medication. They portray the expectable problems of everyday life as mental illnesses due to a chemical imbalance because this sells pills and makes money- not to help you.

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