Tag: primary care

The Promise of Medicine

Edward MillerDr. Miller is the Dean and CEO of The Johns Hopkins University Medical School. These remarks were made at the National Press Club, June 21, 2010.

I. The Promise of Medicine

Let me start with a short story: It was the summer of 1971. I had just finished my training in anesthesia at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and was about to embark on a two-year fellowship in physiology at Harvard. I was asked if I wanted to be “the” anesthesiologist for the month of August on Martha’s Vineyard. It was to be part vacation and part work, and I needed the money.

Shortly after arriving, a young woman (who now runs a well-known tavern in that community), needed a surgical procedure. She had no insurance but was able to pay the medical bills out of pocket. She, however, could not afford the normal three-day stay in the hospital. She pleaded with me to have the minimal amount of medicine so she could be discharged the same day. To this day, I vividly recall helping her out to her car so that she could recover at home. You see, at the time, there was really no such thing as outpatient surgery.

Thanks to a revolution in anesthetics, outpatient surgery is a very common norm today. In fact, at Johns Hopkins Medicine facilities, we performed twenty-four hundred such procedures just last month.Continue reading…

Nope. Won’t Happen.

Friday, June 18, the Senate aproved a plan that blocks a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments to physicians; the axe was scheduled to fall that day. Leadership on both sides of the aisle pushed for the reprieve; it will remain in place for six months. The measure will now need to be considered by the House, which in May approved a fix that would last longer. If the House agrees–and it is all but certain that it will–the 21 percent cut wil be replaced with a 2.2 percent pay hike. The bill will not add to the deficit. The proposal is fully offset by changes in Medicare billing regulations, antifraud provisions and the tightening of some pension rules, eliminating Republican objections that it would push the federal government deeper into debt.

In six months, Congress will have to consider the matter once again, just as it has ever year since 2003. This is the third time this year that Congress has averted Draconian cuts to physician’s payments. What, you might wonder, is going on? Here is the backstory: in 1997, Congress enacted a so-called “sustainable growth rate” (SGR) mechanism to keep Medicare physician reimbursement rates in check. Congress has never allowed the full cuts called for under the SGR formula to take effect and it never will.

Why don’t legislators simply repeal the cuts to doctors’ fees that they have been postponing for years? Why just put off the measure for another six months?

Because too few of our elected representative possess the chutzpah to stand up and say that blind across-the-board cuts were an extraordinarily dumb idea in the first place.

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AMA and Congress: Playing “Chicken” Again

Nine times in the past eight years, Congress has, at the last second, delayed the automatic cuts in doctors’ Medicare fees that it decreed some 13 years ago to prevent Medicare spending from outpacing other consumer expenditures.

The AMA threatens that doctors, especially primary care doctors, will stop accepting Medicare patients if the cuts go through. Congress hurtles toward the head-on collision, citing runaway budget problems. Doctors are kept in suspense, their claims held in abeyance while carriers wait for Congress to fix the problem retroactively if it has missed its deadline. The AMA claims credit when the wreck is averted, and urges doctors to continue paying their dues while it feverishly works for a permanent “fix.” Only the AMA, it implies, stands between Congress and certain disaster.

Every time cuts are postponed, the next scheduled cut gets deeper. It’s like a balloon mortgage payment in reverse.

And the controversy gives columnists another occasion to rail against those greedy overpaid doctors, unwilling to assume a bit of shared sacrifice despite the economic downturn.

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The Primary Care Workforce: Help is on the Way

The best electronic health record on the planet isn’t going to help anybody unless a physician uses it. The HITECH incentive scheme should enhance the woefully poor EHR uptake rates among US providers, as should innovative vendor business models that remove cost-barriers which have prevented many from getting in the game.

But there’s an even more fundamental issue, which is a looming manpower shortage among the ranks of US primary care physicians, a topic we’ve covered numerous times, most recently here. There simply aren’t enough physicians to use those EHRs!

Communities across the nation have long suffered from a lack of PCPs. The problem is expected to worsen as baby boomers age and the number of medical students who enter primary care continues to drop. If nothing is done to change current trends, the Association of American Medical Colleges estimates our country will be short 21,000 and PCPs in 2015 and a whopping 47,000 in 2025.

Now, finally, something is being done. And while it may not be enough, it certainly points us in the right direction. More importantly, it sets a precedent for future interventions by the federal government.

This Wednesday, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced $250 million worth of new investments designed to support the training and development of more than 16,000 new primary care providers over the next five years. The investments were mandated by the Affordable Care Act, that controversial health care bill signed into law by President Obama in March.

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Care, Primarily


He came in for his regular blood pressure and cholesterol check.  On the review of systems sheet he circled “depression.”

“I see you circled depression,” I said after dealing with his routine problems.  ”What’s up?”

“I don’t think I am actually clinically depressed, but I’ve just been finding it harder to get going recently,” he responded.  ”I can force myself to do things, but I’ve never have had to force myself.”

“I noticed that you retired recently.  Do you think that has something to do with your depression?” I asked.

“I’m not really sure.  I don’t feel like it makes me depressed.  I was definitely happy to stop going to work.”

I have taken care of him for many years, and know him to be a solid guy.  “I have seen this a lot in men who retire.  They think it’s going to be good to rest, and it is for the first few months.  But after a while, the novelty wears off and they feel directionless.  They don’t want to spend the rest of their lives entertaining themselves or completing the ‘honey do’ list, but they don’t want to go back to work either.”

He looked up and me, “Yeah, I guess that sounds like me.”

“What I have seen work in people, especially men, in your situation is to get involved in something that is focused on other people.  Volunteer work at the food pantry, work for Habitat for Humanity, or anything else that lets you help other people.  I think the reason people get depressed is that they turn their focus completely on themselves, which is not what they are used to when they are working.” (I knew that this man had a job that helped disadvantaged people).

“That’s great advice, doc.” he said, with a brighter expression on his face.

“It’s from experience,” I responded.  ”I’ve seen a lot of retirees start to feel like they are on a hamster wheel, just entertaining themselves until they die.  I know I wouldn’t want to retire that way.  Knowing you, I wouldn’t imagine you would either.”

We talked for about 15 minutes about the various groups around town that would need someone of his skills.  I told him about how my parents went to Africa for a year after Dad retired.  He actually taught physics over there, but that is what they needed.  Of all the time I spent with him, over half of it was regarding his post-retirement “blues.”  He wasn’t clinically depressed, so I couldn’t charge for depression as a diagnosis.  The code I used?  99214 for Hypertension and Hyperlipidemia.

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How Can We Encourage Medical Students to Choose Primary Care?

A Radical Suggestion – Pay Specialists Less

Since 1997 the number of US medical students choosing to go into primary care has decreased by more than 50%. It seems that sources as diverse as the Obama Administration and the Wall Street Journal think that we should find a way to encourage medical students to choose primary care specialties in order to allow Americans to have the best and most cost effective care. This is very problematic when primary care specialists earn considerably less, often 50-70% less than physicians in specialties where most of the revenue is produced by doing procedures. For years when asked about the disparity in physician salaries I’ve said, “I think primary care physicians are fairly compensated. I just think a lot of other physicians are overpaid.”

If you look at the 2009 AMGA survey of physician income it is clear that the pay you can expect as a physician has little to do with how hard you work, how long you train, or how stressful or difficult your work is, and everything to do with whether you perform procedures that are highly compensated. It is hard to think of specialties less demanding in terms of afterhours call, emergent life-threatening care, and overall lifestyle than dermatology ($350,627), diagnostic non-interventional radiology ($438,115) and Radiation Therapy ($413,518) (median salary in parentheses). Compare these to what I’d consider some of the most difficult, intellectually challenging, and demanding specialties: Pediatric Oncology ($205,999), Infectious Disease ($222,094) and Adult Neurology ($236,500). Family Medicine is one of the very few specialties where the first number in the median salary is a 1.

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The Times Hits the Right Notes on Hospitalists

You probably saw yesterday’s hospitalist piece in the New York Times, arguably the best lay article on the movement to date. It hit all the right notes, and did so with uncommon grace and fairness.

The piece, written by the Times’ Jane Gross, profiled Dr. Subha Airan-Javia, a young hospitalist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. While Dr. Airan-Javia spends about half of her time in administrative, largely IT-related roles (like many of my faculty), the article (and an accompanying profile) gave us a day in her life on the wards:
seeing patients, collaborating with consultants, talking to families, and orchestrating discharges. The fundamental advantages of the hospitalist model – tremendous availability, markedly improved efficiency, and a unique focus on systems improvement – came through unambiguously. For example, regarding availability, there was this:

Because she was on the floor all day, [she] was able to schedule a long meeting with a man who held power of attorney for a patient who was close to death and incompetent to make decisions… Expansive and gentle, the doctor discussed why she would recommend a transfusion but not a feeding tube.

As for efficiency, Gross cited my 2002 JAMA review, which found that hospitalist care was associated with an approximately 15% reduction in hospital costs and length of stay.

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What’s Behind Today’s Primary Care Crisis? You Don’t Know the Half of It


If you’ve ever been on a diet, you know that it really helps to keep a food log. Seeing your consumption chronicled in one place is illuminating – and often explains why those love handles aren’t melting away despite two hours on the treadmill each week.

In today’s issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, internist Rich Baron chronicles the work of his 5-person Philadelphia office practice during the 2008 calendar year. Rather than “Why am I not losing weight?”, Rich’s study aims to answer the question, “Why does my work day feel so bad?” The answer: an enormous amount of metaphorical snacking between meals.

In the NEJM study, Rich (who is a dear friend – we served together on the ABIM board for several years) found that each of the physicians in his practice conducted 18 patient visits per day (a total of 16,640 visits over the year for the practice). That’s not an unmanageable workload, you say. You’re right, but that was just the appetizer. On top of these visits, daily each physician also:

  • Made 24 telephone calls
  • Refilled 12 prescriptions (a vast underestimate of the daily refills, since a) the number reported in the study doesn’t count refills done during an office visit, and b) the study counted the act of refilling 10 meds for a single patient as one refill)
  • Wrote 17 e-mails to patients
  • Looked at 11 imaging reports, and
  • Reviewed 14 consultation reports.Continue reading…

A Backhanded Way to Make Policy

One of the arcane steps in government regulation of health care is the Physician Payment Rule. This is the manner in which CMS, the Medicare agency, annually allocates payment dollars among the various specialty services. The PPR effectively makes policy.

The construct for all of this is a zero-sum game. When CMS wants to raise fees for some specialties (e.g., primary care doctors), it is required to reduce the fees for others.Continue reading…

Commentology: Thoughts on the Death of Primary Care


Vance Harris MD writes:

We are our own worst enemies, as we have allowed insurance companies and Medicare to set the value of our services. Clearly those values they impose have nothing to do with our contribution to the health of our patients or the cost savings we bring about.

Case in point:

How many dozens of chest pain patients have I seen in the last month who I didn’t order an EKG, get a consult, set up nuclear imaging or send for a cath? Only I have the advantage of knowing just how anxious most of these patients are and that they have had the same symptoms time and again over the last 20 years. After a pointed history and exam, I am more than willing to make the call that 27 hours of chest pain is most likely not angina in nature. When I take the responsibility on my shoulders I am saving the system tens of thousands of dollars. Most of these patients present to my office directly and are worked into a busy day pushing me even deeper into that mire of tardiness for which I will be chastised by at least 6 patients before the end of the day. Most of those who scold me are retired and have more free time in a day than I get in a month. My reward for working these people in and making a call that puts me at some risk is at most $75 if I count the less than $25 I get paid for being able to read an EKG without sending it off to be interpreted by a cardiologist. My incentive pay for saving thousands of dollars on each patient for 1-2 days in the hospital, stress treadmill and cardiologist referral is $75. Now there is motivation on a busy day to not send someone to the ER.

How many times has an anxious patient come in, almost demanding an endoscopy, who I examined, after taking a good history, and then decided to treat for 3-4 weeks before making the referral? Few of these patients are happy with me after the visit, no matter how many times I explain that it is reasonable to treat their reflux symptoms for several weeks before considering endoscopy. This delay in referral has lead to many a tense moment in the last 20 years. Cost savings to the system is again thousands of dollars each and every time I do this. I am willing to make the call and go with the treatment first before getting the scope. My reward is about $55 from Medicare and the Big Blues.

How many low back pain patients have come to the office in agony knowing that there has to be something serious to cause this kind of pain? Again a good history and a directed exam allows me to reassure the patient that there is nothing we need to operate on and that the risk of missing anything in this setting is low. This takes a lot of time to explain as I teach them why they don’t need, and better yet, why they don’t want to get an MRI at this point. If someone else ordered the MRI guess who gets to explain the significance of bulging disks and narrowed foramen to an alarmed patient? Setting realistic expectations on recovery and avoiding needless imaging that rarely helps, in the acute setting of a normal exam, saves the system thousands of dollars again. My reward is another $55 if I am lucky.

How many times does a good shoulder exam allow me not to order an MRI giving the patient time to heal and recover before imaging racks up another couple of thousand dollars followed by orthopedic referral for a shoulder that doesn’t need surgery? Another $55 will shower down on me at the end of the day when I send off the bill for that exam.

How many basal cell and squamous cell cancers have I discovered while examining some ones shoulder or abdomen or even a sore throat? How many of those was I stupid enough to remove the same day, only to find out that I would be paid for only one procedure and it would always be the least expensive of the two? How many appeals have been successful to Medicare when I performed the service and was denied payment?

How many diabetics do I struggle with, trying to get them to take better care of themselves? How many hours have I spent with teenage diabetics who will not check their blood sugars and forget half of their insulin doses? I have spent hundreds of hours dealing with them and their families trying to effect changes that will someday allow them to get their disease under control. I do this because the only Endocrinologist in the county will not see pediatric diabetics. I can’t say that I blame him as the time spent seems like a total waste. That is, until one day they open their eyes and want to take care of themselves. My reward for years of struggle and years of 30 minute visits trying to get them to take responsibility for their health is a few hundred dollars at best. The savings to society for my hard work and never give up attitude is in the tens of thousands of dollars.

I continue on in my 22nd year giving advice and services to 30 plus patients each and every day. Having me in the system has resulted in savings in the hundreds of thousands of dollars each and every year. My financial incentive to hang in there and work hard is the following. Twenty years ago I made about twice as much as I do now. This year I will make less as it seems even more of the claims are being reviewed while payment sits in someone else’s account drawing interest.

I have always served my fellowman out of a sense of love and compassion and for those reasons I went into medicine. I have been richly rewarded by my patients over the decades as they appreciate my judgment and skills. Isn’t it a shame that after all this time and with skills honed by decades of experience, I can barely afford to work as a physician? Taxes will be collected, no pass for the working physician, not like the Goldman Sacks guys and their buddies with the 9 billion in bonuses given last year after the 58 billion in funds we gave them.

My parting words next year will be good luck having PA’s provide the safety net with their 2 years of training. Good luck getting newly trained physicians to take over once they see my salary. Good luck having internists in your community with only 1% of medical students going into Internal Medicine. Good luck recruiting the primary care specialists when you are short 70,000 now and 1/3 plan on retirement within 3 years.

If there is any irony in this at all, it is that I will find myself in the same boat as I struggle to find a doctor to take care of me. Now that is ironic. Anyone know who is taking new patients in California?

Vance Harris, MD