Tag: primary care

Rating the Raters: Physician Compare

Let’s say you’ve enrolled in a new health insurance plan and need to find an internist who participates. How do you decide which doctor to choose? My (long deceased) grandmother made her choices by using the following criteria: She looked for a male doctor with a Jewish-sounding last name who graduated from an American medical school—preferably one located in New York City. Nowadays her narrow (and culturally biased) criteria would have excluded some of the most esteemed practitioners around.

If you are like most people, you don’t depend on your grandmother’s advice to find a physician, but rather ask friends, colleagues or other doctors for recommendations. But taking one person’s experience with an internist or surgeon as a signal that he or she is “really good” is still far from the optimal way to choose a practitioner.

Over the years, several commercial websites like HealthGrades and Angie’s List have cropped up that provide such consumer-friendly information as the distance a doctor’s office is from the patient, and whether foreign languages are spoken there. They usually include ratings that reflect consumers’ personal experiences with the practitioner. For people who want to dig deeper, most state medical boards collect data that can be searched to find out where your doctor went to medical school, where he did his residency and what board certifications she has. In some states you can also search to see if the doctor in question has received disciplinary action or been sued for malpractice.

This is a lot of on-line legwork for the average person—a task that even professionals can find difficult. Chip Amoe, assistant director for federal affairs at the American Society of Anesthesiologists told a group recently, “When I tried to go find a primary care physician, I couldn’t. You know, it was very difficult. I had to go on several different Web sites to be able to find [one].”

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Alzheimer’s Disease: The $20 Trillion Enemy We Must Not Forget

In the last several weeks I lost my phone (recovered), my iPod (gone) and even a piece of jewelry (I am pretty sure the cat is guilty).  I was at the airport when I couldn’t remember where I parked my car for long enough to wonder if I actually did drive myself there.  (Don’t judge me; I know you do it too.)

All of us are prone to losing objects and forgetting appointments and struggling for that word on the tip of our tongue that we definitely should know.  Sometimes we even forget the names of people who live in our house just for a second; admit it: how many times have you called your child by the dog’s name?

Those momentary lapses of memory can be amusing or frustrating, but they usually don’t slow us down much.  We laugh it off and say, “wow, I must be getting old” and move on to the next task.  An op-ed I read recently in the NY Times, however, made me realize we don’t long have the luxury of humor when it comes to this issue.

Authored by Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor (ret.), Nobel Laureate neurologist Dr. Stanley Prusiner and Age Wave expert Ken Dychtwald, and entitled The Age of Alzheimer’s, the article pointed out these astonishing facts:

Starting on Jan. 1, our 79-million-strong baby boom generation will be turning 65 at the rate of one every eight seconds. That means more than 10,000 people per day, or more than four million per year, for the next 19 years facing an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. Although the symptoms of this disease and other forms of dementia seldom appear before middle age, the likelihood of their appearance doubles every five years after age 65. Among people over 85 (the fastest-growing segment of the American population), dementia afflicts one in two. It is estimated that 13.5 million Americans will be stricken with Alzheimer’s by 2050 – up from five million today.Continue reading…

Doctor Patient

I did a little “self care” earlier this week.  I did it by not caring for myself.

I went to the doctor.

I was sitting in the waiting area for my appointment and saw the mother of one of my patients.  ”Why are you here?” she asked.

“I have a doctor’s appointment.”

She got a curious look on her face, asking, “Don’t you doctors just take care of yourselves?  I thought that was what doctors did.”

We do take care of ourselves, in fact we do it far more often than we should.  Being your own doctor allows for a lot of denial.  When you spend your day advocating healthy lifestyles after you had trouble finding pants would fit in the morning, denial is necessary.  Do as I say, not as I do.

I realize that this is hypocrisy; that is why I was at the doctor on Monday.  My patients have noticed my expanding waistline, commenting on it more than I would wish.  Certainly my pants get in the way of denial as well, not forgiving the fact that I have been under a whole lot of stress.  Pants don’t accept excuses.

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The Electronic Medical Home

In previous blog posts, I’ve mentioned an idea deserves its own dedicated post.

Over the weekend, I keynoted the eClinicalWorks National User’s Conference in Florida. One of the attendees emailed me the following question:

“I have a number of questions regarding certain types of patient-level data that might cause us problems in the future of HIE. No one, to date, has been able to answer these and I thought I might ask you.

The first, and easiest, is how we we going to handle the following situation:

1) I am seen in Boston as a child and my mother says that I am allergic to Penicillin (or pick your drug of choice). The nurse-practitioner asks a few questions of my mother, who isn’t terribly forthcoming with information but insists that I am allergic. While he/she has reservations, they record it as an allergy in their eclinicalworks EMR. It goes to the Massachusetts HIE.

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Losing Patients With Insurers

We are losing patients.  Certain insurance companies are trying to “play hardball” with doctors, unwilling to negotiate with us over their outlandishly low rates.  We have lost patience.

So the signs went up in the exam rooms today:

As of the start of the year, we will only accept X, Y, and Z Medicare advantage plans, and we are presently negotiating with A and B insurance companies.  Please consider this when enrolling in plans.

It is highly likely we will drop one of the insurance plans altogether, and we are one of the last practices in our town to accept them.

Patients are distraught.  Some of them who have seen us for years are now going to have to go elsewhere, while others that just joined our practice because their previous doctors dropped out of the plan will once again have to find a new doctor.  Patients aren’t mad about this, just sad.  The conversations go like this:

“So you are dropping X insurance?”

“We will if they don’t change.  They are paying us significantly less than other plans.”

“That’s crazy.  We just left a doctor because of the same thing.  Now we have to move on.”

“Yeah, I am very sorry about that.  I just want to see patients; I don’t want to do this kind of thing.”

“Well, I don’t blame you.  They pay $1000 for an ER visit for an ear infection, and they won’t pay you what you charge?”

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So That’s How The Rates Are Set

The Wall Street Journal published a very important article this week. Written by Anna Wilde Mathews and Tom McGinty, it is entitled, “Secrets of the System: Physician Panel Prescribes the Fees Paid by Medicare.

Here’s the lede:

Three times a year, 29 doctors gather around a table in a hotel meeting room. Their job is an unusual one: divvying up billions of Medicare dollars.

The group, convened by the American Medical Association, has no official government standing. Members are mostly selected by medical-specialty trade groups. Anyone who attends its meetings must sign a confidentiality agreement.

Yet the influence of the secretive panel, known as the Relative Value Scale Update Committee, is enormous. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversee Medicare, typically follow at least 90% of its recommendations in figuring out how much to pay doctors for their work. Medicare spends over $60 billion a year on doctors and other practitioners. Many private insurers and Medicaid programs also use the federal system in creating their own fee schedules.

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Crossing the ROAD to Real Reform


“So, why didn’t I take the ROAD again?”

It’s a question that I regularly hear from many of my co-residents in internal medicine – and no, we’re not questioning our travel routes to the hospital.

We all know why we chose internal medicine: the intellectual challenges inherent in treating across organ systems, the excitement of primary scientific investigation and diagnosis and the like. As we struggle through the rigors of primary care training, however, it’s hard not to look wistfully at our colleagues in such lucrative, ”lifestyle” specialties as radiology, ophthalmology, anesthesia and dermatology – the “ROAD” to riches in modern medicine – and wonder exactly how green the proverbial grass on the other side might be.

In the wake of the Affordable Care Act’s [ACA] passage, conventional wisdom suggests that we’re about to find out. After all, with the ACA’s passage comes the influx of more than 30 million new customers to American primary care offices and hospitals. In a health care marketplace where just two percent of all graduating American medical students will pursue careers in general medicine (according to a 2008 JAMA study), an exponential jump in supply will mean a requisite increase in demand – with a boost in wages for primary care docs surely close behind.

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Doctors, Hospitals and the Yankees

Joe Boyd hated the Yankees.

“Those damn Yankees.  Why can’t we beat ‘em?”

Then he got the opportunity to save his beloved Washington Senators by making a deal with the devil – giving up his soul in exchange for being transformed into “Shoeless Joe” to propel his team to win the World Series.

Interesting.  I think a lot of doctors are making their deal with the devil.  They are looking for a small gain in comparison to a long-term of misery.  True, Joe Boyd made out in the end; but that will only happen if someone from Hollywood writes our script.

Here’s the problem: at the core of our problems with healthcare is the total lack of cohesive communication.  Doctors have no idea what other doctors have done with a patient.  Tests get ordered, medications get changed, procedures, hospitalizations, even surgeries are done without communication to other doctors who would benefit from this information.  The conduit of communication is this:

Doctor: “So, how have you been doing over the past few months?”

Patient: “Didn’t you get the notes from the hospital?  I was in for two weeks.  I had a heart attack and a stroke and now I am in rehab for both of these.”

Doctor: (checks chart uncomfortably) “No, I didn’t hear about it.  Why don’t you tell me about it….”

Situations like this happen daily at my office.  Patients are started on medications by specialists without my knowledge.  Lab tests are done that I have no access to.  Huge changes happen in the lives of the patients for whom I have cared for over a decade, and I get nothing.  Even consults I order are done without any communication back to me.  On the other side of things, my patients are hospitalized without any consideration of the care I have been giving over the past decade.  Patients are treated as if their care starts from scratch every time they enter a new venue.

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Care Coordination Metrics: One Can of Worms that NEEDS to be Opened

“Track who is on a care team — and share info with the patient.”

That’s just one of the summary recommendations coming from expert testimony given in a recent public hearing on how to improve care coordination through the use of health information technology. The Meaningful Use workgroup and Quality Measures workgroups are now wrestling with how to translate this recommendation into meaningful use criteria for HITECH Stages 2 and 3.

Seems like a good idea — simple, straightforward — perhaps even obvious. The EHR (electronic health record) could be a great tool for keeping care team members in the loop and on the same page about a patient’s care.

But then I thought about this for a few minutes, and the complexities started dawning. This seemingly simple recommendation — “Track who is on a care team and share info with the patient” — is the proverbial can of worms.

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Northwestern Memorial Hospital Faces a Brave New World

If you have read my earlier blogs, you know that I am writing a book about the organization of healthcare delivery. A recent story in the Chicago Tribune reminds me that I need to keep my nose to the grindstone. The article told of changes underway at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. In order to prepare for new payment models, the medical staff and hospital want to create something along the lines of an Accountable Care Organization. The ACO will accept an “all-in” fee for treatment of specific conditions. The ACO makes money if it can keep costs under the fee and receives bonuses if quality objectives are met. The ACO model, or versions of it, have floated around for some time, and prepayment is certainly not new. What is new is that payers will now prepay for all costs associated with episodes of care, as opposed to prepaying hospitals for inpatient stays, or prepaying primary care physicians for a year of primary care.

The ACO model tries to better align the payment modality with the “product” that patients would naturally purchase. This should, in theory, lead to a matching of incentives with production. Hospital prepayment leads to a shift to outpatient care. Primary care physician prepayment leads to too much hospital care. Episode of illness prepayment should eliminate these gaming incentives.

Northwestern Memorial and its medical staff still face a dilemma. Should they create a new third legal entity to accept the prepayment, or should the prepayment go directly to the hospital or medical foundation? More importantly, should the hospital and medical foundation become partners in the new venture, or, more radically, unite into a single entity without creating the new entity? Healthcare executives have not always approached this question in the most thoughtful manner, as this short film painfully shows. (Painfully funny if you approach it with the right mindset.)

Integration has many positive connotations, and executives who create new integrated organizations can usually keep their boards at bay. This may explain why so many executives are eager to integrate. But integration comes with numerous challenges. It will take an entire book to make this argument clear, but consider the following two questions. First, what happens when physicians switch from being entrepreneurs to being employees? Second, accepting all-in capitated payments turns the ACO into a de facto insurance company. Will the ACO have the capabilities to be an effective insurer? I hope that Northwestern Memorial does not face the future with its eyes wide shut. Many hospitals have fared quite poorly by jumping on the integration bandwagon without understanding the risks.

David Dranove is the Walter McNerney Distinguished Professor of Health Industry Management at Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management, where he is also Professor of Management and Strategy and Director of the Health Enterprise Management Program. He has published over 80 research articles and book chapters and written five books, including "The Economic Evolution of American Healthcare and Code Red". He has a Ph.D. in Economics from Stanford University.