This was a special early in the day edition of #THCBGang. It was at 9.15am PT/ 12.15 pm ET (so if you are coming at 1pm it won’t be live today at the normal time as it’s already happened!). It was part of the Primary Care Transformation Summit which has been running since Monday and continues to the end of Friday. It’s a who’s who of everyone in primary care. You can check out the wider agenda but we were on immediately before the day 3 keynote from head of CMS Innovation, Liz Fowler.
Joining Matthew Holt (@boltyboy) to discuss primary care and more were are WTF Health host & Health IT girl Jessica DaMassa (@jessdamassa); futurist Jeff Goldsmith; & Dan O’Neill (@dp_oneill) who is now at primary care group Pine Park Health.
You can see the video below & if you’d rather listen than watch, the audio is preserved as a weekly podcast available on our iTunes & Spotify channels.
In some practices, patients with seemingly simple problems are scheduled to be seen by a nurse or medical assistant. Sometimes they can even just drop off a urine sample in case of a suspected urinary tract infection.
This is a dangerous trap. What if the patient rarely gets urinary infections, has back pain and assumes it is a UTI instead of a kidney stone or shingles on their back just where one kidney is located; what if they have lower abdominal pain from an ovarian cyst or an ectopic pregnancy?
Another dangerous type of “nurse visit” is when patients focus on one symptom or parameter, thinking for example that as long as their blood pressure is okay, their vague chest pressure with sweating and shortness of breath isn’t anything serious. It’s one thing if I want a couple of blood pressure checks by my nurse, but a whole different thing when it is the patient’s idea, assumption or self diagnosis.
In many cases, a telephone call with the provider or a triage nurse can be safer and more diagnostic than starting with a nurse visit. Because the symptom history is usually more important when making a diagnosis. And nurse visits tend to be skimpy when it comes to the clinical history, even though the provider assumes responsibility for the diagnosis and treatment of a patient they didn’t talk to or examine.
Almost two years into this new age of varying degrees of self quarantine, I am registering that my own social interactions through technology have been an important part of my life.
I text with my son, 175 miles away, morning and night and often in between. I talk and text with my daughter and watch the videos she and my grandchildren create.
I not only treat patients via Zoom; I also participate, as one of the facilitators, in a virtual support group for family members of patients in recovery.
I have reconnected with cousins in Sweden I used to go years without seeing; now I get likes and comments almost daily on things that I post. I have also video chatted with some of them and with my brother from my exchange student year in Massachusetts 50 years ago.
I have stayed in touch with people who moved away. And I have made new friends through the same powerful little eye on the world I use for all these things, my 2016 iPhone SE.
Members of my addiction recovery group stay in touch with each other via phone or text between clinics. They constantly point out the value of the social network they have formed, even though they only meet, many of them via Zoom, once a week. The literature has supported this notion for many years and is very robust: Social isolation is a driver of addiction.
In the tech world, we have come to expect our devices to become outdated and obsolete very quickly. The biggest tech companies in the world didn’t even exist a few years ago. Bitcoin, a virtual currency which at least I can’t wrap my head around, seems to be more attractive than gold.
I get the sense most people embrace or at least accept the speed of change in tech.
But medical advances that occur rapidly are frightening to many people. Vaccine hesitancy, for example, involves concerns and characterizations like “unproven” and “guinea pigs”.
But can we as a society strive for and reward rapid progress in one area and reject it in another, especially if we feel threatened by outside forces or phenomena – be that a virus, climate change or the collapse of our economy’s infrastructure like supply chains and raw materials.
Tech has its own momentum, more driven by profit motives than altruistism or a desire just to make peoples lives better. Medicine clearly has profit as a driving force, but also a goal of improving life for people. Curing or mitigating disease must rank higher than making life more convenient.
The medication and allergy lists seem like they would be the most important parts of a health record to keep current and accurate. But we all see errors too often.
I think it shouldn’t be possible to enter an allergy without describing the reaction. Because without that information the list becomes completely useless.
The other day I saw a patient who needed an urgent CT angiogram. The allergy list said “All Contrast Materials”, which isn’t even “structured data entry”, and thus not recognized by the computer if my EMR (Me again, Greenway!) would have been clever enough to check for allergies when I order a CT scan.
After a lot of probing, the “allergy” in this case turned out to be a host of nonspecific, chronic symptoms after several lumbar CT myelograms in a short period of time many years ago.
Some people claim to be penicillin allergic because “it never works”. Others list ciprofloxacin or sulfa antibiotics because they get a yeast infection after taking them. Others were slightly nauseous after their first dose of an SSRI like fluoxetine or fatigued after starting gabapentin.
Some symptoms listed as allergies are poorly understood. For example, morphine causes itching in many patients, even skin manifestations like blushing as well as sweating. But this is not usually a histamine mediated symptom, and not an allergy. Other opioids, like hydromorphone, tend to have less risk for itching.
Cough from ACE inhibitors isn’t a true allergy, but we often note that in our allergy lists. People with this side effect can safely be switched to angiotensin receptor blockers, ARBs.
Before Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1450, books in Europe were copied by hand, mostly by monks and clergy. Ironically, they were often called scribes, the same word we now use for the new class of healthcare workers employed to improve the efficiency of physician documentation.
Think about that for a moment: American doctors are employing almost medieval methods in what is supposed to be the era of computers. Why aren’t we using AI for documentation?
The pathetically cumbersome methods of documentation available (required) for our clinical encounters is only one of several antiquated presumptions in American healthcare. Other inefficiencies, often viewed as axioms, especially in primary care, make the trade I am in chock full of time wasters.
Whereas in most other “industries”, people talk about reach, scale, leverage and automation, primary care is still doing things one patient at a time. The automation in our field is not one where processes happen without human involvement according to preset patterns. Instead, it is an ongoing effort to make medical providers behave in automatic fashion with patients on a one-on-one, one visit at a time basis. The value of one-on-one is when you individualize, give unique advice considering multiple individual parameters; saying “in your particular case”, rather than “everybody should eat a healthy diet”.
Primary care here is wasting time in many ways:
When health maintenance and disease prevention is done by physicians. I keep writing about this, but a standing order to offer pneumonia or shingles shots, diabetes or lung cancer screenings and so many other things to people over a certain age or with certain risk factors can be handled by non-physicians. This would keep the six figure problem solvers doing what only they can do. It would also (a not-so-wild guess) probably double physician productivity.
Perhaps it is because I love doctoring so much that I find some of the tools and tasks of my trade so tediously frustrating. I keep wishing the technology I work with wasn’t so painfully inept.
On my 2016 iPhone SE I can authorize a purchase, a download or a money transfer by placing my thumb on the home button.
In my EMR, when I get a message (also called “TASK” – ugh) from the surgical department that reads “patient is due for 5-year repeat colonoscopy and needs [insurance] referral”, things are a lot more complicated, WHICH THEY SHOULDN’T HAVE TO BE! For this routine task, I can’t just click a “yes” or “authorize” button (which I am absolutely sure is a trackable event in the innards of “logs” all EMRs have).
Instead, (as I often lament), I have to go through a slow and cumbersome process of creating a non-billable encounter, finding the diagnostic code for colon cancer screening, clicking on REFERRAL, then SURGEON – COLONOSCOPY, then freetexting “5 year colonoscopy recall”, then choosing where to send this “TASK”, namely the referral coordinator and , finally, getting back to the original request in order to respond “DONE”.
Leo Dufour is not a diabetic. He is in his mid 50s, a light smoker with hypertension and a known hiatal hernia. He has had occasional heartburn and has taken famotidine for a few years along with his blood pressure and cholesterol pills.
Over the past few months, he started to experience a lot more heartburn, belching and bloating. Adding pantoprazole did nothing for him. I referred him to a local surgeon who did an upper endoscopy. This did not reveal much, except some retained food in his stomach. A gastric emptying study showed severe gastroparesis.
The surgeon offered him a trial of metoclopramide. At his followup, he complained of cough, mild chest pain and shortness of breath. His oxygen saturation was only 89%.
An urgent chest CT angiogram showed bilateral pulmonary emboli and generalized hilar adenopathy, a small probable infiltrate, a small pulmonary nodule and enlargement of both adrenal glands, suspicious for metastases.
He is now on apixiban for his PE, two antibiotics for his probable pneumonia and some lorazepam for the sudden shock his diagnoses have brought him.
Week after week, I hear from colleagues in diverse specialties about how exhausted they are from practicing medicine.
It’s no surprise that they are looking for careers outside of medicine. The demands and strain are unsustainable.
So it’s also no surprise that a recent survey showed 40% of primary care clinicians are worried that their field won’t exist in five years and that 21% expect to leave primary care in three years as a result of COVID-19-related burnout.
WhileCOVID-19 is the tipping point, this burnout is the result of the relentless and mounting administrative burden placed on us by electronic medical records (EMRs), coding and billing requirements and prior authorizations. And then it is exacerbated by uncertainty mounting in the primary care field, with new medical care entrants popping up everywhere — from retail pharmacies to digital health startups — aiming to create their own primary care model, replacing rather than working with existing ones.
Where it All Began
The roots of this burden began three decades ago with the advent of an acronym that few outside of the healthcare world know of today — the resource-based relative value scale (RBRVS). This payment system, launched in 1989 and subsequently adopted by Medicare in 1992, led to what we know now as the foundation of the U.S. healthcare payment system.
The RBRVS system assigns procedures a relative value which is adjusted by geographic region. Prices are based on physician work (54%), practice expense (41%) and malpractice expense (5%).
Since the initiation of the scale, the relative value of specialist work has remained much higher than primary care. This disparate compensation, in combination with most health maintenance and patient supportive tasks delegated to primary care, has led to significant fatigue.
I have a patient with no health insurance but a brand new Mercedes. He says he can’t afford health insurance. He cringes at the cost of his medications and our office visit charges. His car cost a lot of money and I know that authorized Mercedes dealers charge around $140/hour for their technicians’ (not mere mechanics) time. A routine service costs several hundred dollars, which he seems more okay with than the cost of his own healthcare visits.
His new Mercedes is under warranty, but his body is not. He is risking financial disaster if he gets seriously ill with no insurance coverage.
I have another patient who needed a muscle relaxer for a short period of time. His insurance wouldn’t cover it without a prior authorization. The cash cost was about $14. We suggested he pay for the medication and told him his condition would have resolved by the time a prior auth might have been granted. He elected to go without.
The brutal truth is that a primary care doctor’s opportunity cost, how much revenue we can potentially generate by seeing patients, is around $400/hour or $7/minute. There is no way I could request a prior authorization in under two minutes. So it would have been more cost effective to pay for his medication than to do the unreimbursed paperwork (or computer work, or phone work) on his behalf. But, of course, we can’t do that.