America might never agree on how much doctors deserve to earn. But there ought to be much less debate on the immense debt today’s medical students incur on the way to becoming doctors.
Few people are more aware of the stress of medical student debt than med students themselves, and there’s evidence that it affects our specialty and practice decisions later on down the line.
Enter this tweetchat. What began as a typical med student complaint about their debt load evolved into a provocative discussion about the underlying factors and potential solutions to the debt problem.
We’ve incorporated some notes explaining perhaps unfamiliar concepts, but otherwise this is the unvarnished product of a few med students procrastinating on a Sunday night.
Allan Joseph (AJ): The easiest way to tell if med-student debt is becoming an acute problem is if the demand for medical-school spots (easily measured by the number of applicants) is declining relative to the supply. That’s just not happening. In fact, the opposite is.
When Michael injured his knee, he did what any responsible person would do. He was not incapacitated, and though the knee was painful and swollen, he could get around pretty well on it. So he waited a few days to see if it would get better. When it didn’t, he saw his primary care physician, who examined it and quite reasonably referred him to an orthopedic surgeon. The orthopedic surgeon considered ordering an MRI of the knee but worried that insurance would not cover a substantial portion of the $1,500 price tag, so he suggested a less expensive alternative: a six-week course of physical therapy that would cost only $600 – a quite responsible course of action.
At the end of this period of time, Michael was still experiencing pain and intermittent swelling. The orthopedic surgeon made another quite responsible decision and ordered the MRI exam, which showed a torn meniscus. The orthopedic surgeon could have recommended arthroscopic surgery, which would have earned him a handsome fee and generated revenue for his physician-owned surgery center. Instead he again acted quite responsibly, advising Michael that the surgery would actually increase the pain and swelling for a time and probably not improve his long-term outcome. Based on this advice, Michael declined surgery.
Though everyone in this case proceeded responsibly, the ultimate outcome was inefficient and costly. Many factors contributed, but perhaps the most important was the fact that Michael’s physician outlined choices based on an inaccurate understanding of the costs associated with his recommendations. The orthopedic surgeon thought that the cost of six weeks of physical therapy was 60% less than the MRI. In fact, however, the actual payment for the MRI from the insurance company would be only $300, not the “retail” price of $1,500. What appeared to be the less expensive option was actually twice as expensive, and it delayed definitive diagnosis by six weeks.
This story is emblematic of a larger problem in contemporary healthcare. No one – not the patients, the physicians, the hospitals, or the payers – really understands in a thorough way the true costs of their decisions. After receiving care, patients routinely receive by mail multi-page “explanations of benefits” that show huge differences between list prices and actual payments. Most find it baffling to try to determine who is paying how much for what. Physician practices and hospitals get calls every day from panicked patients who believe that they are being billed for exorbitant costs, when in fact most or all of the charges will be paid by insurance at a huge discount.
Whether having meals with physician-relatives, attending a professional society meeting, or walking the halls of a hospital, I find that a common issue on physicians’ minds during our discussions is the American Board of Medical Specialties’ (ABMS) Board Certification process – and particularly our program for maintaining certification known as Maintenance of Certification (MOC).
Questions range from “I know you’re old enough to have grandmother status – do YOU do MOC?” (Yes) to “How can I fit this into my already insanely busy life?” Comments range from appreciation for some aspect of the program to frustration with one of the program components.
As the relatively new leader of ABMS, I welcome the opportunity to discuss issues pertaining to Board Certification and MOC. I hope this post will generate thoughtful dialogue that will result in continuing improvements to the certification process developed by ABMS and our 24 Member Boards. That, in turn, will help us render MOC more relevant and meaningful to participating physicians and will assist them in their efforts to provide quality patient care and improve our health care system.
For many years there were few, if any, requirements for maintaining ABMS Board Certification. Physicians took an exam after graduating from their residencies and thereafter had no further obligations for testing or evaluation. However, over time the error of this approach became obvious. Medical science continuously changes, and the pace of that change has accelerated.
We continue to see progress in improving the nation’s health care system, and a key tool to helping achieve that goal is the increased use of electronic health records by the nation’s doctors, hospitals, and other health care providers. These electronic tools serve as the infrastructure to implementing reforms that improve care – many of which are part of the Affordable Care Act.
Doctors and hospitals are using these tools to reduce mistakes and hospital readmissions, provide patients with more information that enable them to stay healthy, and allow for rewarding health care providers for delivering quality, not quantity, of care.
The adoption of those tools is reflected today in a release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics which provides a view of the Medicare and Medicaid EHR Incentive Program and indicates the program is healthy and growing steadily.
Nearly 80% of office-based physicians used some type of electronic health record system, an increase of 60 percentage points since 2001 and nearly double the percent in 2008 (42%), the year before the Health Information Technology and Economic and Clinical Health Act passed as part of the Recovery Act in 2009.
About half of office-based physicians surveyed said they use a system that qualifies as a “basic system,” up from just 11% in 2006.
Almost 70% of office-based physicians noted their intent to participate in the EHR incentive program.
Figure 1. Percentage of office-based physicians with EHR systems: United States, 2001-2013
The report also noted that 13% of physicians who responded said they both intended to participate in the incentive program and had a system that could support 14 of the Meaningful Use Stage 2 “core set of objectives,” ahead of target dates. This survey was performed in early 2013 – before 2014 certified products were even available.
In a previous blog we demonstrated how guidelines can compromise the care of individual patients when designed to serve the health care system.
Why should treating physicians defer to guideline committees at all, we asked? For decades medical students have been taught to read and understand information from published papers.
We are all trained in critical appraisal and can keep up with the clinically meaningful literature, the literature that is relevant and accurate enough to present to patients. Just because there are nearly 20,000 biomedical journals does not mean that any, let alone all are replete with meaningful information. We can discern the valuable from the not valuable; why do we need others to tell us?
In fact, we even argued in our last post that patients can and should judge the value of medical information. After all, they face the consequences of misinterpreting the likelihoods of benefit and of harm associated with various options for care.
No one remembers the numbers that describe the chances for benefit and harm or ask more questions about the veracity of information than a patient who must choose. The smartest information managers we have ever encountered are our patients; when informed, they quickly determine the validity of the information and apply their personal values to the estimations of the chances for benefit and harm.
Take the example of a patient who recently entered into a therapeutic dialogue with one of us, RAM. This was not the traditional clinical interview. This patient had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and was scheduled for an approach to treatment that the diagnosing physician had offered as the most sensible. However, the decision did not rest easily.
The appointment with RAM was scheduled because the patient sought a dialogue that might offer a chance to reflect on the rationale for the approach he was about to initiate. Two hours into the dialogue, the patient, a 40ish year old African-American man accompanied by his wife, were mulling over the marginal benefits and harms of the options for treating an early stage prostate cancer.
The wife asked how many African-Americans were in the study under discussion. “None”. The husband perked up and then asked, “How many people in the study was my age?” “None”. They then asked if the difference in benefit was a certain, fixed amount? “No, it varies over this range.” – examining the descriptive statistics.
They then asked when the study was started and did it pertain to the present day. “It started over 15 years ago” and the stage of disease of the men in the study was generally more aggressive than in this particular case.
The Massachusetts Medical Society may be the first to notice that Meaningful Use EHR mandates favor large providers and technology vendors. Control over the Nationwide Health Information Network sets the stage for how physicians refer, receive decision support, report quality, and interact with patients. State health information exchanges and policy makers are caught in the cross-fire over health records interoperability. Are the federal regulations over Stage 2 being manipulated to put physicians and the public at a disadvantage?
On Dec. 7, the Massachusetts Medical Society took what might be the first formal action in the nation. A resolution stating:
“That the Massachusetts Medical Society advocate for a more open, affordable process to meet technology mandates imposed by regulations and mandates; e.g., that all Direct secure email systems, mandated by Meaningful Use stage 2, including health information exchanges and electronic health record systems, allow a licensed physician to designate any specified Direct recipient or sender without interference from any institution, electronic health record vendor, or intermediary transport agent.”
Meaningful Use is intended to support health reform by promoting interoperability and innovation in health service delivery. The Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, is fundamentally a free-enterprise model without single payer or even a public option. Obamacare depends on the market for eventual cost controls and sustainability. Meaningful Use is regulation designed to enable market-driven health reform by reducing interoperability barriers.
Although Meaningful Use regulations have already handed out $17 Billion to drive “voluntary” adoption of interoperable electronic health records, meaningful interoperability is still elusive. Meanwhile, the doctors are chafing about Meaningful Use intrusions and policymakers worry that the regulations will actually increase costs.
Thank you, my patients for all you have done for me. Thank you for the encouragement and support. Thank you for believing in me enough to join me in this crazy new way to do health care. Thank you for giving me the honor of being the one you call “my doctor.”
Your trust motivates me to work harder to justify that faith in me – a faith I often don’t have and, one I certainly wouldn’t have without you. I hope and pray this holiday season is a blessing to you. May you find peace in this time of year so often without peace.
May you also have a happy and healthy new year. May you stay out of the ER, away from the hospital and, yes, away from doctors. May you have no need for lab tests, procedures, x-rays and medications (and if you must have medications may they be very cheap.)
If, however, you do get sick, remember that I am here to help you get well, feel better or avoid getting any worse. And if I cannot do any of these, I will still be there to stand by your side through the hard times, and to offer whatever comfort I can give. Doing these things is what it means to me when you call me “my doctor.” It is why that is such an honor.
Again, thank you for all you do for me. God bless you.
Rob Lamberts, MD, is a primary care physician practicing somewhere in the southeastern United States. He blogs regularly at More Musings (of a Distractible Kind),where an earlier version of this post first appeared.
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.
The shortcomings of the Fee For Service (FFS) model are widely known.
During the 1800s, the British empire shipped prisoners to newly formed penal colonies in Australia (technically, these were British prisoners, but that doesn’t make a catchy title). Ship captains were compensated for each prisoner who boarded the ship. The financial incentive ruled over decency, each captain stuffed as many prisoners on to the ship as it could handle. Of course, the prisoner survival rate lingered at a precarious 50%, while those who managed to survive the journey often arrived beaten, sick or starving.
Attempts were made to improve the survival rates, through what might be considered early wellness programs. Captains were mandated to bring citrus to combat scurvy, a 19th century wellness program. Doctors were required on each ship carrying prisoners, improved access ala concierge medicine. I’m sure someone may have proposed it’s the prisoners responsibility to survive the trip and they ought to engage in their own survival. Nevertheless, requiring lemons and limes and placing physicians on the ships proved equally ineffective.
In 1862, economist Edwin Chadwick suggested a change to the incentive structure. Ship captains were no longer compensated for each prisoner who boarded in England, but, instead, received payment for every living prisoner who got off the ship in Australia. The first pay for outcomes program in healthcare. The survival rate on ensuing trips jumped from 50% to 98%.
The moral of the story is that incentives matter.
Primary care physicians are the ship captains of the 21st century.
American patients are prisoners of the US healthcare system.
Misaligned incentives are the root cause for what ails the system.
Christopher DeNoia is the Vice President of Business Development at Amplify Health, where this post originally appeared.
What do Louis Pasteur, Jonas Salk, Sigmund Freud and Barack Obama have in common? They all championed controversial medical revolutions and if not for their bravery in the face of conflict, billions would have died.
Sterilize instruments to kill invisible bugs? Inject disease particles to build immunity? Look into our subconscious to explain everyday behavior? Give basic healthcare to everyone? Ludicrous. That is why we named these advances after these men.
As an oncologist who has seen the fatal cost of our patchy, imbalanced and unfair healthcare system, I have to be at very least hopeful about ObamaCare; AKA the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The list of benefits is so vast that whatever glitches happen along the way, I know that cancer patients will be helped:
-No pre-existing condition exclusion: So the 31-year-old programmer with Stage 1 breast cancer can change jobs without losing insurance.
-Healthcare coverage by parents until their child is 26: So families will not lose their homes paying for Hodgkin’ s disease in a 22-year-old.
-Guaranteed payment by insurers for patients entering experimental trials: So patients with any insurance can be involved in research, and everyone benefits from the latest advances.
-Free healthcare screening: So that my 58-year-old neighbor with a family history of colon cancer gets routine exams and life saving colonoscopies.
-Uniform healthcare insurance standards: So that the 45-year-old man with stomach lymphoma I saw last week, does not have to suffer and die because his employer brought a health policy, which excluded chemotherapy.