I’m sure you get a lot of hate mail, especially from folks in my profession, so when you got this letter from me you probably assumed it was more of the same. Let me reassure you: I am not one of those docs. I do think patient privacy is important, and actually found you quite useful when facing unwanted probing questions from family members. I believe the only way for patients to really open up to docs like me is to have a culture of respect for privacy, and you are a large part of that trust I can enjoy. Yeah, there was trust before you were around, but that was before the internet, and before people used words like “social media,” and “data mining.”
But there have been things done in your name that I’ve recently come in contact with that make me conclude that either A: you are very much misunderstood, or B: you have a really dark side.
What is “Patient Engagement?” It sounds like a season of “The Bachelor” where a doctor dates hot patients. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was. After all, patient engagement is hot; it’s the new buzz phrase for health wonks. There was a even an entire day at the recent HIMSS conference dedicated to “Patient engagement.” I think the next season of “The Bachelor” should feature a wonk at HIMSS looking for a wonkettes to love.
Here’s how the Internets define “Patient engagement”:
The Get Well Network (with a smiley face) calls it: “A national health priority and a core strategy for performance improvement.”
Leonard Kish refers to it as “The Blockbuster Drug of the Century” (it narrowly beat out Viagra) – HT to Dave Chase.
Steve Wilkins refers to it as “The Holy Grail of Health Care” (it also narrowly beat out Viagra) – HT to Kevin MD.
On the HIMSS Patient Engagement Day, the following topics were discussed:
-How to make Patients Your Partners in Satisfying Meaningful Use Stage 2 Objectives; Case Studies in Patient Engagement, session #64; -Review Business Cases for Implementing a Patient-Centered Communication Strategy and Building Patient 2.0, session #84;: and -Engaging People in Health Through Consumer-Facing Devices and Tools, session #102.
So then, “patient engagement” is:
-a grail (although I already have a grail)
-a “meaningful use” objective
-something that requires a business case
-something that requires “consumer-facing devices and tools” (I already have one of those too).
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.
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. Continue reading…
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…
I was furious. I went to the office on Sunday to see what work the electrician had done (and to discuss decor issues with my wife), and my office was deserted. The inspection was supposed to happen on Monday, allowing me to get furniture in the office and see patients on Tuesday. A text message back from my contractor said that the electrician would be in on Monday and the inspection would happen on Tuesday. Apparently he didn’t realize I was so ambitious (read: crazy) to see patients so soon after construction was completed. Apparently my panic wasn’t obvious to him.
On Sunday I broke with my usually placid demeanor (read: codependent) and expressed my emotions on the issue quite clearly. Many panicked calls from supervisors and electricians later (read: effusive apologies and promises to fix things), and the reality had not changed: inspectors would not be coming until Tuesday, and so my opening, already a month after I planned, would wait one more day. What a terrible way to start my new practice: canceling appointments on my first day.
Then I realized something: I don’t need an office to do my job. One of the things I am trying to overturn is the practice of requiring all care to be conducted in the exam room. Why can’t people talk to their doctor on the phone? Why can’t they email questions? Why not videoconferencing for visits? Why not texting me a picture of the rash (depending on the location, of course)? Why hold my expertise hostage to the ransom of an office visit? So then what’s the big deal of not having an office?
It has always been my assumption that my new practice will be as “digital” as possible. No, I am not going into urology, I am talking about computers. [Waiting for the chuckles to subside]
For at least ten years, I’ve used a digital EKG and spirometer that integrated with our medical record system, taking the data and storing it as meaningful numbers, not just pictures of squiggly lines (which is how EKG’s and spirometry reports appear to most folks). Since this has been obvious from the early EMR days, the interfaces between medical devices and EMR systems has been a given. I never considered any other way of doing these studies, and never considered using them without a robust interface.
Imagine my surprise when I was informed that my EMR manufacturer would charge me $750 to allow it’s system to interface with a device from their list of “approved devices.” Now, they do “discount” the second interface to $500, and then take a measly $250 for each additional device I want to integrate, so I guess I shouldn’t complain. Yet I couldn’t walk away from this news without feeling like I had been gouged.
Gouging is the practice of charging extra for someone for something they have no choice but to get. I need a lab interface, and the EMR vendor (not just mine, all of the major EMR vendors do it) charges an interface fee to the lab company, despite the fact that the interface has been done thousands of times and undoubtedly has a very well-worn implementation path. This one doesn’t hurt me personally, as it is the lab company (that faceless corporate entity) that must dole out the cash to a third-party to do business with me.
Doing construction in my office, I constantly worry about being gouged. When the original estimate of the cost of construction is again superseded because of an unforeseen problem with the ductwork, I am at the mercy of the builder. Fortunately, I think I found a construction company with integrity. Perhaps I am too ignorant to know I am being overcharged, but I would rather assume better of my builders (who I’ve grown to like).
Yet thinking about gouging ultimately brings me back to the whole purpose of what I am doing with my new practice, and what drove me away from the health care system everyone is so fond of. If there is anywhere in life where people get gouged or are in constant fear of gouging, it is in health care. Continue reading…
“Lance Armstrong is a bad guy who has done some very good things.”
These are the words of a sports radio personality I listened to yesterday. He was obviously commenting on the confession (to my pal Oprah) by Armstrong about his use of performance enhancing drugs. The sportscaster, along with many I heard talk on the subject, were not as upset by the fact that Armstrong used the banned substances, or his lies on the subject, but the way he went after anyone who accused him of what turned out to be the truth. Armstrong used his position of fame and power, along with his significant wealth, to attack the credibility of people in both the media and in the courtroom. The phrase, “he destroyed people’s lives” has been used frequently when describing his reaction to accusations.
It’s a horrible thing he did, and shows an incredibly self-centered man who thought the world should bend to his whim. It’s more proof to the adage: absolute power corrupts absolutely.
But simply dismissing Lance as a cad or a horrible person would be far easier if not for the other side of his life. In his public battle against cancer, he inspired many facing that disease to not give up their battle. Even for those who eventually lost, the encouragement many got from Armstrong’s story was significant. On top of that, the Livestrong foundation did much to raise money and awareness for cancer and for other significant health issues. This foundation exists because of the heroic story of Lance’s successful battle to beat cancer, as well as his subsequent cycling victories. Whatever the lies he told in the process, he did beat cancer and he did win the Tour de France multiple times.
OK, I’ll admit it: I had no idea. I thought that the whining and griping by other doctors about EMR was just petulance by a group of people who like to be in charge and who resist change. I thought that they were struggling because of their lack of insight into the real benefits of digital records, instead focusing on their insignificant immediate needs. I thought they were a bunch of dopes.
Yep. I am a jerk.
My transition to a new practice gave me the opportunity to dump my old EMR (with all the deficiencies I’ve come to hate) and get a new, more current system.* I figured that someone like me would be able to learn and master a new EMR with ease. After all, I do understand about data schema, structured and unstructured data, I know about MEDCIN, SNOMED, and HL-7 interfaces. Gosh darn it, I am a card-carrying member of the EMR elite! A new product should be a piece of cake! I’ll put my credentials at the bottom of this post, in case you are interested.**
So, imagine my shock when I was confused and befuddled as I attempted to learn this new product. How could someone who could claim a bunch of product enhancements as my personal suggestions have any problem with a different system? The insight into the answer to this sheds light onto one of the basic problems with EMR systems.
Problem 1: Different Languages
As I struggled to figure out my new system, it occurred to me that I felt a lot like a person learning a new language. Here I was: an expert in German linguistics and I was now having to learn Japanese. Both are systems of written and spoken code that accomplish the same task: communication of data from one person to another. Both do so using many of the same basic elements: subjects, objects, nouns, verbs. Both are learned by children and spoken by millions of people. But both are very, very different in many ways.