Wang Li is a 48-year-old farmer from Dalian, China. After a two-day trip to the major provincial hospital, he’s heading home to his village to die. Wang has lung cancer, and even with insurance, his surgery will cost him 20,000 RMB — $3,000, which is twice his annual salary. The surgery would be curative, but it doesn’t matter. “I cannot burden my family,” he said.
I am a Chinese-born, American physician who just returned from a two-month research trip spanning twelve cities and nine provinces in China, where many of the health care reforms in contention in the U.S. have already been tried. As Americans contemplate the decisions ahead, consider China’s cautionary tale.
Today’s China is one of great disparity. The wealthy minority receives top-notch care, while the poor majority suffers from little access to care and no way to pay for it. Stories abound of patients like Wang Li who sign out of hospitals when they run out of savings, knowing they will die without treatment.
“The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.”
You will hear this statement not just from physicians, but from lots of other folks engaged in scholarly work of all stripes. That’s because it is not merely true; it is a deep and universal truth that permeates all of mankind’s intellectual endeavors.
The implication of this for the practice of medicine is that a little knowledge can be very dangerous.
What do I, as a fully trained, extensively experienced primary care physician bring to the evaluation of patients who seek out my care that cannot be matched by so-called “mid-level providers” (PAs and NPs)? It is not (always) my knowledge, but rather the experience to know when I do not know something. In short, I know when to ask someone else’s opinion in consultation or referral.
I had a scary experience lately with a PA who didn’t even know what she didn’t know (and who still probably doesn’t realize it.)
The patient had been bit on the hand by a cat. I saw the injury approximately 9 hours after it had occurred. The patient had cleaned it thoroughly as soon as it had happened, and by the time I saw it, it was still clean, bleeding freely, not particularly red or swollen, and only a little painful. Still; cat bites are nasty, especially on the hands. Therefore I began treatment with oral amoxicillin-clavulanate, and told the patient to soak it in hot water several times a day.
Six hours later (after one oral dose of antibiotic) the patient called me back: the wound was now much more painful, red, swollen, and there were red streaks going from the hand all the way up to his elbow. Frankly, I was a little puzzled. He was already on antibiotics; the single dose probably hadn’t had enough time to make much of an impact. And yet the infection was clearly progressing.
As a primary care doctor in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, I have been searching for the holy grail of patient engagement for over 15 years. My journey began with an alpha-numeric pager and a medical degree. I shared my pager number with my patients along with a pledge to call them back within 15-minutes, 24-hours a day. My communications evolved into email and texting, with the predicate that by enhancing communication, I could carefully guide my patients down the byzantine corridors of healthcare – with a high probability we could avoid mistakes – if they would agree to share the ownership of their treatment plan. My life’s work has been where the rubber meets the road; where doctors interface with patients: office, hospital or smartphone.
Technology has washed over almost every industry and transformed it, radically. Healthcare is on the precipice of destiny. The wave is here.
Over the past three decades healthcare has lurched from one existential crisis to another; often manifested by an acronym solution: HMO, ACO, PCMH, P4P, PQRS; each a valiant attempt to reign in costs and solve for aligning incentives. However, we can’t have hospitals, doctors, health systems and payers accountable to healthy outcomes if the 300,000,000 people are not paramount to the equation.
In November 2008, the New England Journal of Medicine convened a small roundtable to discuss “Redesigning Primary Care.”
U.S. primary care is in crisis, the roundtable’s description reads. As a result … [the] ranks are thinning, with practicing physicians burning out and trainees shunning primary care fields.
Nearly five years out — and dozens of reforms and pilots later — the primary care system’s condition may still be acute. But policymakers, health care leaders and other innovators are more determined than ever: After decades where primary care’s problems were largely ignored, they’re not letting this crisis go to waste.
Ongoing Shortage Forcing Decisions
The NEJM roundtable summarized the primary care problem thusly: Too few primary care doctors are trying to care for too many patients, who have a rising number of chronic conditions, and receive relatively little compensation for their efforts.
It’s been a month since I started my new practice. We are up to nearly 150 patients now, and aside from the cost to renovate my building, our revenue has already surpassed our spending. The reason this is possible is that a cash-pay practice in which 100% of income is paid up front has an incredibly low overhead. My admitted ineptitude at financial complexity has forced me to simplify our finances as much as possible. This means that the accounting is “so simple even a doctor can do it,” which means I don’t need any front-office support staff. I don’t send out bills because nobody owes me anything. It’s just me and my nurse, focusing our energy on jury-rigging a computerized record so we can give good care.
Our attention to care has not gone unnoticed. Yesterday I got a call from a local TV news reporter who wanted to do a story on what I am doing. Apparently she heard rumor “from someone who was in the hospital.” I was the talk of the newsroom, yet I’ve hardly done any marketing; in fact, I am trying to limit the rate of our growth so I can focus on building a system that won’t collapse under a higher patient volume. I explained this to the disappointed reporter why I was not interested in the interview by telling her that I left my old practice because I needed to get off of the hamster wheel of healthcare; the last thing I want to do now is to build my own hamster wheel.
For the record: I am a geek. I love technology. I adopted EMR when all the cool kids were using paper. Instead of loitering in the “in” doctors lounge making eyes at the nurses, I was writing clinical content and making my care more efficient. I was getting “meaningful use” out of my EMR even when nobody paid me to do it.
But now who’s laughing? While they are slaving away trying to get their “meaningful use” checks, I’ve moved on to greener pastures, laughing at their sorry butts! It’s just like my mom promised it would be. Thanks mom.
Really, for the record, I am not so much a technology fan as a “systems” guy. I like finding the right tool for the job, building systems that make it easier to do what I want, and technology is perfect for that job. I am not so much a fan of technology, but what technology can do. Technology is not the goal, it is the best tool to reach many of my goals. There are two things that measure the effectiveness of a tool:
1. Is the tool the right one for the job?
2. Is the person using the tool properly?
So, when answering the question I posed at the end of my last post, what constitutes a “good” EMR, I have to use these criteria.
I have been taking a vacation from blogging as I try to get through a very busy academic quarter. But my last blog, “My Son the Electrician” elicited a lot of comments and I have always wanted to follow up. And today I see that the Chicago Sun Times has generously quoted me, in particular noting how I liken physicians to entrepreneurs. Lest anyone get the wrong impression, let me briefly explain what I mean.
Like entrepreneurs, physicians launch their careers by making large investments – up to ten years of post-graduate training. Such investments do not come with a guarantee. Entrepreneurial physicians – those who own their own practices or work in small partnerships, must build their practices and maintain relationships with other physicians. All successful physicians, whether entrepreneurs or employees, enjoy personally and professional satisfying careers and comfortable, sometimes more than comfortable, incomes. But only physicians entrepreneurs have ultimate responsibility for their practices and their patients.
One of the many challenges I face in my clinical work is keeping track of a patient’s multiple health issues, and staying on top of the plan for each issue.
As you might imagine, if I’m having trouble with this, then the patients and families probably are as well.
After all, I don’t just mean keeping up with the multiple recommendations that we clinicians easily generate during an encounter with an older patient.
I mean ensuring that we all keep up with *everything* on the medical problem list, so that symptoms are adequately managed, chronic diseases get followed up on correctly, appropriate preventive care is provided, and we close the loop on previous concerns raised.
This, I have found, is not so easy to do. In fact, I would say that the current norm is for health issues to frequently fall between the cracks, with only a small minority of PCPs able to consistently keep up with all health issues affecting a medically complex adult.
It feels like part of me is dying. I am losing something that has been a part of me for nearly 20 years.
I bought in to the idea of electronic records in the early 90′s and was enthusiastic enough to implement in my practice in 1996. My initial motivation was selfish: I am not an organized person by nature (distractible, in case you forgot), and computers do much of the heavy lifting in organization. I saw electronics as an excellent organization system for documents. Templates could make documentation quicker and I could keep better track of labs and x-rays. I could give better care, and that was a good enough reason to use it.
But the EMR product we bought, as it came out of the box, was sorely lacking. Instead of making it easier to document I had to use templates generated by someone else – someone who obviously was not a physician (engineers, I later discovered). So we made a compromise: since it was easier to format printed data, we took that data and made a printed template.
I am not sure if my lack of blogging is a good sign or a bad one. It’s been a week and a half since I started my new practice and I finally am getting this chance to come up for air. It’s been an über hectic and very draining time, but I am happy to report that the end of the week was significantly better than the beginning.
Here are some things I am learning.
1. Starting a business is really, really hard
I did my best to make my business as simple as possible, mainly because I understand my own deficiencies when it comes to business-related activities. Of course, being in a leadership role of a practice for the past 16 years helps me understand incredibly confusing concepts like accounts receivable, budgets, paying bills, and avoiding going to jail for spending all the collections on lottery tickets and reporting it as “research.” I purposefully designed the business to require as little accounting as possible, and in general I think I accomplished that. People come in to see me, pay me by swiping their card on the nifty card-reader on my iPhone, and I email them the receipt. That’s not the hard part (aside from people touching the “skip signature” button with their hand while they are signing).
The hardest part of starting a business for me is knowing what overhead items are necessary and what are not. Building the office took a month longer than I expected and cost twice as much. Yet I signed “yes” to all of the things that added cost. Some of them were necessary, like doing the things needed to comply with ADA, compliance with electrical code, and having furniture. But where to draw the line? I want the office to send a message of “professional, yet welcoming,” which means it can’t look cheap but doesn’t look posh either. I want the office to be consistent with my logo, a door opening that says “come on in,” and “welcome.” But everything adds cost, and mounting cost is tough when delay in opening means I am earning nothing.
Everyone is willing to give advice, but most of the advice given has little foundation in my reality. People say “it will all work out,” or “you’ll do great,” reassuring me that I don’t have to fret about things. It’s as if I can sit back and relax while things “work out.” The reality is that the reason they will work out is that I will spend most of my waking hours (and some while I’m not awake) working, worrying, thinking about details, and trying to plan for a very uncertain future. Continue reading…