Tag: Pay for Performance

The Difficult Science, Part II

“Despite their great explanatory powers these laws [such as gravity] do not describe reality. Instead, fundamental laws describe highly idealized objects in models.”

— Nancy Cartwright, “Do the Laws of Physics State the Facts?”

In Part I the limitations of science in helping us make wise choices and decisions about our health were examined.

Because of an inherent difficulty in establishing causation, absolute certainty is unattainable even in science. Medical knowledge follows Karl Popper’s theory of science because the right answer, whether about what causes ulcers or if you should take hormone replacement therapy, keeps changing with the publication of new studies. And most depressingly of all, a respected expert on evidence-based medicine concludes, “The majority of published studies are likely to be wrong.”

Part I ended with some suggestions that seemed to imply that savvy patients should enroll in a graduate level statistics class and understand the subtleties of observational studies, meta analysis, and randomized controlled clinical trials. Being an informed health care consumer is evidently difficult indeed.

Part II explores how we all have to change if we are to live wisely in a time of rapid transformation of the American healthcare system that everyone agrees needs to decrease per-capita cost and increase quality.


When I talk to physicians about pay for performance programs, I am always asked why should doctors be responsible for patient behavior that they cannot control. Even if we were able to have health care access for all and eliminate every error in medicine, we would only account for 10% of whether an individual stays healthy. Environment and genetics account for about 35%, but the remaining 55% of whether one stays well depends on behavior (exercise, smoking, diet) and social support systems (families, communities, places of worship).

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The Measurement Question

I sat at home with a sense of relief. I had just finished my first month of residency – a grueling inpatient hospital month where I was pushed to new limits.  I now finally had my first “golden weekend” (meaning I had both Saturday and Sunday off). More importantly, I had survived my first month without any patient deaths on my service. Given how sick people are when they come to the hospital, I felt pretty good about this result.

That feeling lasted less than 24 hours. As I logged in from home onto the electronic medical record to finish some documentation, I realized one of my patients was in coma due to a sudden stroke. This patient had few clinical symptoms and appeared the healthiest amongst all the patients I managed the entire month. A heavy knot quickly developed in my stomach, as I could not shed the feeling that perhaps I did something wrong. I scoured the medical records, retracing my management. Over the next couple of days I discussed the case with other colleagues and experts in the field, and read in depth on the management of this condition.  To my relief it was clear that I did not nor did anyone involved in the patient’s care make an error in management. Unfortunately, however, this patient eventually passed away.

As I reflect on the experience, an important point stands out in my mind. This patient exhibited few signs of being “sick” and was managed very well by all the physicians during the course of the hospital stay, but died. On the other end of the spectrum are patients who appear incredibly sick, and despite a poor prognosis survive against odds. One of the goals of residency is to learn to assess a patient and quickly identify who is in imminent danger and may need immediate attention. Unfortunately, however, physicians cannot predict everything, as situations similar to the one above are not uncommon scenarios. Given this fact it makes the discussion about measuring healthcare and pay for performance very cloudy.

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