I scribbled my signature on a pharmaceutical rep’s iPad today for some samples of Jardiance, a diabetes drug that now has expanded indications according to the Food and Drug Administration. This drug lowers blood sugar (reduces HbA1c by less than 1 point) but also reduces diabetes related kidney damage, heart attacks, strokes and now also admission rates for heart failure (from 4.1% to 2.7% if I remember correctly – a significant relative risk reduction but not a big absolute one; the Number Needed to Treat is about 70, so 69 out of 70 patients would take it in vain for the heart failure indication. The NNT for cardiovascular death is around 38 over a three year period – over a hundred patient years for one patient saved). There are already other diabetes drugs that can reduce cardiovascular risk and I see cardiologists prescribing them for non-diabetics.
It’s a bit of a head scratcher and it makes me think of the recently re-emerged interest in the notion of a “Polypill” with several ingredients that together reduce heat attack risk. The tested Polypill formulations are all very inexpensive, which is a big part of their attraction. Jardiance, on the other hand, costs about $400 per month.
The “rep” asked whether this medication would be something I’d be likely to discuss with my diabetic patients.
“Well, you know I’ve only got fifteen minutes…” dampened his expectations. But I told him about the Polypill studies. I think patients are still not ready to make the distinction between on the one hand medications that treat a more or less quantifiable problem like blood sugar levels, blood pressure or the much less straightforward lipid levels and on the other hand ones that only change statistical outcomes. Most of my patients have trouble wrapping their head around taking a $400 a month pill that doesn’t make them feel better or score a whole lot better on their lab test but only changes the odds of something most people think will never happen to them anyway.
Health tech rabble-rouser, Jonathan Bush, marked his return to digital health with an appearance on the Health 2.0 stage, and quick chat with WTF Health about his new role as Executive Chairman at Firefly Health. As if conquering EMRs wasn’t enough, JB’s planning on disrupting primary care for his second act. With $10.8M series A funding and a huge addressable market, this may not be such a crazy idea after all. So, what made us miss this guy so much during his year-long hiatus from health tech? Just watch. This interview goes from the “Kabuki theater of the doctor’s office visit” to “Marie Kondo-ing” healthcare to Machiavelli and universal healthcare’s impact on the health tech market. Welcome back, JB.
Filmed at the Health 2.0 Conference in Santa Clara, CA in September 2019.
In medicine, contrary to common belief, it is not usually enough to know the diagnosis and its best treatment or procedure. Guidelines, checklists and protocols only go so far when you are treating real people with diverse constitutions for multiple problems under a variety of circumstances.
The more you know about unusual presentations of common diseases, the more likely you are to make the correct diagnosis, I think everyone would agree. Also, the more you know about the rare diseases that can look like the common one you think you’re seeing in front if you, rather than having just a memorized list of rule-outs, the better you are at deciding how much extra testing is practical and cost effective in each situation.
Not everyone with high blood pressure needs to be tested in detail for pheochromocytoma, renal artery stenosis, coarctation of the aorta, Cushing’s syndrome, hyperaldosteronism, hyperparathyroidism or thyroiditis. But you need to know enough about all of these things to have them in mind, automatically and naturally, when you see someone with high blood pressure.
Just having a lifeless list in your pocket or your EMR, void of vivid details and depth of understanding, puts you at risk of being a burned-out, shallow healthcare worker someday replaced by apps or artificial intelligence.
So many primary care patients have several multifaceted problems these days, and the more or less unspoken expectation is that we must touch on everything in every visit. I often do the opposite.
It’s not that I don’t pack a lot into each visit. I do, but I tend to go deep on one topic, instead of just a few minutes or maybe even moments each on weight, blood sugar, blood pressure, lipids, symptoms and health maintenance.
When patients are doing well, that broad overview is perhaps all that needs to be done, but when the overview reveals several problem areas, I don’t try to cover them all. I “chunk it down”, and I work with my patient to set priorities.
What non-clinicians don’t seem to think of is that primary health care is a relationship based care delivery that takes place over a continuum that may span many years, or if we are fortunate enough, decades.
We knew that the most powerful way to provide substance abuse treatment is in a group setting. Group members can offer support to each other and call out each other’s self deceptions and public excuses, oftentimes more effectively than the clinicians. They share stories and insights, car rides and job leads, and they form a community that stays connected between sessions.
Participants with more experience and life skills may say things in group that we clinicians might hesitate saying, like “Now you’re whining” and “Time to put on your big boy pants”. They can become role models by being further along in their recovery and by at the same time revealing their own fear or respect for the threat of relapse.
What has also happened in our clinic, entirely unplanned, was that after an informational meeting where we explained the group model and had a national expert physician speak about opioid recovery, several parents raised their hand and said there should be a group for families, too.
We listened and within a few months we started such a group and now, a year and a half into it, the group is co-led by a few of our patients, who naturally had become leaders of the patient group earlier.
U.S. physicians report that more than 20 percent of overall medical
care is not needed.
The Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that up to
30 percent of the costs of medical care delivered in the U.S. pay for tests,
procedures, doctor visits, hospital stays, and other services that may not
actually improve patient health.
Unnecessary medical treatment impacts the healthcare industry through
decreased physician productivity, increased cost of medical care, and
additional work for front office staff and other healthcare professionals.
Most of today’s
primary care is, in retail terms, a loss leader — a well-oiled doorway to the
wildly expensive sick care system. For decades, practitioners have been forced
into production factories, seeing as many patients, ordering as many tests, and
sending as many referrals as possible to specialists. Patients, likewise, have
avoided going in for regular visits for fear of the price tag attached, often
waiting until they’re in such bad shape that urgent (and much more expensive)
care is necessary.
The system as it
stands isn’t delivering primary care in a way that serves patients, providers,
employers, or insurers as well as it could. To improve health at individual and
population levels, the system needs to be disrupted. Primary care needs to play a much larger role in healthcare, and it
needs to be delivered in a way that doesn’t make patients feel isolated,
neglected, or dismissed.
care is making a comeback — the kind that doesn’t just treat symptoms, but sees
trust, engagement, and behavior change as a path to health.
Imagine if your bank handled all your online transactions for free but charged you only when you visited your local branch – and then kept pestering you to come in, pay money and chat with them every three months or at least once a year if you wanted to keep your accounts active.
Of course that’s not how banks operate. There are small ongoing charges (or margins off the interest they pay you) for keeping your money and for making it possible to do almost everything from your iPhone these days. Yes, there may be additional charges for things that can’t be done without the bank’s personalized assistance, but those things happen at your request, not by the bank’s insistence.
Compare that with primary care. The bulk of our income is “patient revenue”, what patients and their insurance companies pay us for services we provide “face to face”. We may also have grants if we are Federally Qualified Health Centers, mostly meant to cover sliding fee discounts and what we call “enabling services” – care coordination, loosely speaking.
Only a small fraction of our income comes from meeting quality or compliance “targets”, and those monies only come to us after we have reached those goals – they don’t help us create the needed infrastructure to get there.
Then look at how medical providers are scheduled and paid. We all have productivity targets, RVUs (Relative Value Units – number and complexity of visits combined) if our employer is paid that way and usually just straight visit counts in FQHCs (because all visits are reimbursed at the same rate there). Sometimes we have quality bonuses or incentives, which truthfully may be the combined result of both our own AND other staff members’ efforts.
The drought is over! On Episode 93 of Health in 2 Point 00, Jess and I talk deals, deals, deals. Ginger, which provides digital mental health services, raises $35 million and is growing quite fast; VillageMD, one of numerous companies who are trying to figure out a new way to do primary care, raises $100 million; Health Recovery Solutions, which does remote patient monitoring, gets $10 million. In other news, Livongo’s stock price collapsed a little bit, but it was crazy when it first came out so now prices are more “normal”; uBiome files for bankruptcy, and Tula Health’s $2.5 million raise gets quite possibly the best press release we’ve ever seen (you’ve got to hear this). —Matthew Holt
In business literature I have seen the phrase “getting paid for who you are instead of what you do”. This implies that some people bring value because of the depth of their knowledge and their appreciation of all the nuances in their field, the authority with which they render their opinion or because of their ability to influence others.
This is the antithesis of commoditization. Many industries have become less commoditized in this postindustrial era, but not medicine. Who in our culture would say that a car is a car is a car, or that a meal is a meal is a meal?
The differences between services with the same CPT code for the same ICD-10 code aren’t, hopefully, quite that vast. But they’re also not always the same or of the same value. There is a huge difference between “I don’t know what that spot is, but it looks harmless” and “It’s a dermatofibroma, a harmless clump of scar tissue that, even though it’s not cancerous, sometimes grows back if you remove it, so we leave them alone if they don’t get in your way”.
I always feel a twinge of dissatisfaction when, after a visit, a patient says “Thanks for your time”. It always makes me wonder, on some level, “did my patient not get anything out of this other than the passage of time, did we not accomplish anything”?
I would urge THCB-ers to read Reframing Healthcare by Dr. Zeev Neuwirth. While much of the territory he covers will be familiar to those of us with an interest in healthcare reform (meaning just about everyone reading this blog), Chapter 5 breaks new ground in the field of primary care.
Primary care is perhaps the sorest spot in healthcare, the
sorest of industries. Primary care providers (PCPs) are underpaid,
dissatisfied, and in short supply. (The supply issue could be solved in part if
employers didn’t pay employees
bonuses to get useless annual checkups or fine them if they don’t, of
They are also expected to stay up to date on a myriad of
topics, but lack the time in which to do that and typically don’t get
compensated for it. Plus, there are a million other “asks” that have nothing to
do with seeing actual patients.
For instance, I’ve gone back and forth three times with my
PCP as she tries to get Optum to cover 60 5-milligram zolpidems (Ambien)
instead of 30 10-milligram pills. (I already cut the 5 mg. pills in half. Not
fair or good medicine to ask patients to try to slice those tiny 10 mg pills
into quarters. And not sure why Optum would incentivize patients to take more
of this habit-forming medicine instead of less.)
This can’t be fun for her. No wonder PCPs burn out and leave
the practice faster than other specialties. What some of my physician
colleagues call the “joy of practice” is simply not there.