“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.
On Christmas Eve, I took care of a patient who had just undergone surgery for an infected artificial shoulder. He was to be discharged on intravenous antibiotics three times a day for six weeks. This is a pretty common treatment. Patients are generally able to give themselves this medication with the help of a home care nurse who visits once a week. The total cost of this is approximately $7000 for nursing visits, antibiotics and supplies ($120 per visit for eight nursing visits plus $143 per day for antibiotics)
The social worker informed him that Medicare would not pay for home care nurse visits or supplies. BUT, Medicare pays for inpatient rehabilitation, which he would be eligible for to receive these antibiotics. Given the choice of paying $7000 for home administration versus $0 for inpatient rehabilitation, naturally he chose inpatient rehabilitation.
The problem is, is that his inpatient stay costs taxpayers approximately $21,000. $350 for room and board plus additional costs for antibiotics and supplies, totaling approximately $500 a day. Furthermore, although he was well enough to be discharged home before Christmas, he needed to stay until he could be placed in rehab. Because of holiday scheduling, most rehabilitation facilities were not accepting admissions. Thus, he had to stay in the hospital an extra four days in the hospital over the weekend and holidays. Given that the average cost of a hospital stay is $2338 in Maryland that added an additional $9352 or so of unnecessary expenses.
In sum, because financial incentives encouraged my patient to spend $0 rather than $7000 out of pocket, Medicare spent an unnecessary added $30,000 on his hospitalization and care.
For years we’ve read that the US faces a looming shortage of nurses. Shortfalls in the hundreds of thousands of nurses are routinely predicted. These predictions have been good for nursing schools, which have used the promise of ample employment opportunities to more than double the number of nursing students over the last 10 years, according to CNN.
Yet somehow 43 percent of newly-licensed RNs can’t find jobs within 18 months. Some hospitals and other employers openly discourage new RNs from applying for jobs. That doesn’t sound like a huge shortage, then does it?
But the purveyors of the nursing shortage message have an answer for that. Actually two answers: one for the short term and another for the long term. The near term explanation is that nurses come back into the workforce when the economy is down. Nurses are female and tend to be married to blue collar men who lose their jobs or see their hours reduced when the economy sours, we’re told. Nurses bolster the family finances by going back to work –or they stay working when they were planning on quitting. There’s something to that argument even if it’s a bit simplistic.
The longer term argument is that many nurses are old and will retire soon, just when the wave of baby boomers hits retirement age themselves and needs more nursing care. Don’t worry, the story goes, there will be tons of jobs for nurses in the not-too-distant future. This logic comes through again in CNN’s story:
Demand for health care services is expected to climb as more baby boomers retire and health care reform makes medical care accessible to more people. As older nurses start retiring, economists predict a massive nursing shortage [emphasis mine] will reemerge in the United States.
There’s a big discussion going on in the health tech community about a controversial keynote speech given by Vinod Khosla at the Health Innovation Summit (HIS), in which he stated that 80% of what doctors do could be replaced by machines.
If you’re a doc like me who has no idea who the heck Vinod Khosla is (he’s a venture capitalist and co-founder of Sun Microsystems), why he’d be a keynote speaker at a healthcare event and what the heck HIS is, well, that’s the point of this post. You see, there are a whole lot of folks like Khosla out there – investors, entrepreneurs, tech types – who are attempting to redefine healthcare according to their own personal vision. Where we see a healthcare system in crisis, they see opportunity – just another problem with a technological solution. Computer-driven algorithms are the answer to mis-diagnosis and medical error, IPhone apps can replace physician visits, video connectivity can increase access.
Where we see illness and distress, they see a market.
And what business folks like to call disruption in the marketplace. Think about what happened to downtown small town USA after the first shopping mall opened. Or what happened to movie houses when Netflix started offering DVD rentals online. Or where all the independent bookstores went when the first Borders opened up, and what happened to Borders when the Kindle hit the market.
Out with the old, in with the new.
If Khosla is right, the we docs in our offices and hospitals are the old downtown department stores, the bookstores and the bricks and mortar businesses in an online revolution. We’re replaceable. At least most of us.
After 18 years in private practice, many good, some not, I am making a very big change. I am leaving my practice.
No, this isn’t my ironic way of saying that I am going to change the way I see my practice; I am really quitting my job. The stresses and pressures of our current health care system become heavier, and heavier, making it increasingly difficult to practice medicine in a way that I feel my patients deserve. The rebellious innovator (who adopted EMR 16 years ago) in me looked for “outside the box” solutions to my problem, and found one that I think is worth the risk. I will be starting a solo practice that does not file insurance, instead taking a monthly “subscription” fee, which gives patients access to me.
I must confess that there are still a lot of details I need to work out, and plan on sharing the process of working these details with colleagues, consultants, and most importantly, my future patients.
Here are my main frustrations with the health care system that drove me to this big change:
- I don’t feel like I can offer the level of care I want for my patients. I am far too busy during the day to slow down and give people the time they deserve. I have over 3000 patients in my practice, and most of them only come to me when there are problems, which bothers me because I’d rather work with them to prevent the problems in the first place.
- There’s a disconnect between my business and my mission. I want to be a good doctor, but I also want to pay for my kids’ college tuition (and maybe get the windshield on the car fixed). But the only way to make enough money is to see more patients in my office, making it hard to spend time with people in the office, or to handle problems on the phone. I have done my best to walk the line between good care and good business, but I’ve grown weary under the burden of having to make this choice patient after patient. Why is it that I would make more money if I was a bad doctor? Why am I penalized for caring?
- The increased burden of non-patient issues added to the already difficult situation. I have to comply with E/M coding for all of my notes. I have to comply with “Meaningful Use” criteria for my EMR. I have to practice defensive medicine to avoid lawsuits. I have more and more paperwork, more drug formulary problems, more patients frustrated with consultants, and less time to do it all. My previous post about burn-out was a prelude to this one; it was time to do something about my burn out: to drop out.Continue reading…
I recently viewed health care through the lenses of a technology entrepreneur by attending the Health Innovation Summit hosted by Rock Health in San Francisco. As a practicing primary care doctor, I was inspired to hear from Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, listen to Thomas Goetz, executive editor of Wired magazine, and Dr. Tom Lee, founder of One Medical Group as well as ePocrates.
Not surprising, the most fascinating person, was the keynote speaker, Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems as well as a partner in a couple venture capital firms.
“Health care is like witchcraft and just based on tradition.”
Entrepreneurs need to develop technology that would stop doctors from practicing like “voodoo doctors” and be more like scientists.
Health care must be more data driven and about wellness, not sick care.
Eighty percent of doctors could be replaced by machines.
Khosla assured the audience that being part of the health care system was a burden and disadvantage. To disrupt health care, entrepreneurs do not need to be part of the system or status quo. He cited the example of CEO Jack Dorsey of Square (a wireless payment system allowing anyone to accept credit cards rather than setup a more costly corporate account with Visa / MasterCard) who reflected in a Wired magazine article that the ability to disrupt the electronic payment system which had stymied others for years was because of the 250 employees at Square, only 5 ever worked in that industry.
Years ago, Charlie, a highly respected orthopedist and a mentor of mine, found a lump in his stomach. He had a surgeon explore the area, and the diagnosis was pancreatic cancer. This surgeon was one of the best in the country. He had even invented a new procedure for this exact cancer that could triple a patient’s five-year-survival odds—from 5 percent to 15 percent—albeit with a poor quality of life. Charlie was uninterested. He went home the next day, closed his practice, and never set foot in a hospital again. He focused on spending time with family and feeling as good as possible. Several months later, he died at home. He got no chemotherapy, radiation, or surgical treatment. Medicare didn’t spend much on him.
It’s not a frequent topic of discussion, but doctors die, too. And they don’t die like the rest of us. What’s unusual about them is not how much treatment they get compared to most Americans, but how little. For all the time they spend fending off the deaths of others, they tend to be fairly serene when faced with death themselves. They know exactly what is going to happen, they know the choices, and they generally have access to any sort of medical care they could want. But they go gently.
Of course, doctors don’t want to die; they want to live. But they know enough about modern medicine to know its limits. And they know enough about death to know what all people fear most: dying in pain, and dying alone. They’ve talked about this with their families. They want to be sure, when the time comes, that no heroic measures will happen—that they will never experience, during their last moments on earth, someone breaking their ribs in an attempt to resuscitate them with CPR (that’s what happens if CPR is done right).
Today I am going to write about how the US could save up to 10% on its healthcare bill.
The US spends more on health care than any other nation, $8,500 per person per year. Multiply that by 300 million people and try to grasp the vast sum of $2,5 trillion.
A lot of changes are taking place with the intent to save healthcare dollars. So far, many of those changes have involved creating new layers of middlemen, whose paychecks will come out of the same healthcare budget as MRI’s, prescription medicines and physician salaries.
Every so often physician salaries come into focus as a place where money might be saved. Some people even picture physician pay as a major driver of healthcare costs.
Now, I am just a country doctor, and I don’t have an MBA or any financial background. But I used to be pretty good at math, and I’d like to think I still am.
If the 2.5 trillion dollars this country spends on healthcare is paid to or prescribed by our 850,000 physicians, then each doctor controls 3 million dollars from our nation’s healthcare budget.
Of course, physicians aren’t the only providers or prescribers. I don’t have a figure for how much money is controlled by our 100,000 Nurse Practitioners and 70, 000 Physician Assistants. I also don’t know what portion of our 50,000 chiropractors’ work falls inside the traditional healthcare budget, but let me assume each physician on average controls only 2-2.5 million dollars worth of products or services…
Then, if every physician took a $200,000 pay cut, we could reduce our healthcare spending by up to 10%!
If you care a great deal, I’ll give you an account number you can use to make a deposit.
[Note to Self: Send this Alert to the folks at Commonwealth. Also to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. CC Uwe Reinhardt as well. You never know what they might do. They certainly talk about this topic a lot.]
While you’re thinking about the initial question, here are a few follow-up questions:
Do you care whether I have life insurance?
What about disability insurance?
What about retirement insurance? (A pension or savings plan.)
Do you care whether I keep my money at an FDIC-insured institution?
Or whether I bought an extended warranty on my car?
Or whether I bought travel insurance before taking my scuba diving trip to Palau? (It pays off if you get sick and can’t go.)
I’m sure there are busybodies who would like to run everyone else’s life. But society as a whole has taken a more rational approach. We basically don’t care whether people insure to protect their own assets (at least we don’t care enough to make them do so). But we do care about events that could create external costs for other people.
I have been thinking about the difference between slow medicine and UCLA medicine. It has made me realize how complex and difficult it is to transform American health care so that we lower per-capita cost and increase the quality of our lives. And yet we must achieve these two goals.
Slow medicine is practiced by a small, but growing subculture whose pioneer and spokesperson is Dr. Dennis McCullough, author of the book My Mother, Your Mother: Embracing “Slow Medicine,” The Compassionate Approach to Caring for Your Aging Loved Ones. Slow medicine is a philosophy and set of practices that believes in a conservative medical approach to both acute and chronic care.
McCullough describes slow medicine as “care that is more measured and reflective, and that actually stands back from rushed, in-hospital interventions and slows down to balance thoughtfully the separate, multiple and complex issues of late life.” Shared decision-making, community and family involvement, and sophisticated knowledge of the American health care system are some of the slow medicine practices that sharply contrast with UCLA medicine.
UCLA medicine is the status quo where the hospital is the center of the medical universe; where care is often uncoordinated and hurried, and where cure is the only acceptable outcome for both patient and physician. I call it UCLA medicine because the CEO of that well-regarded medical center was quoted in a New York Times Sunday Magazine article as saying, “If you come into this hospital, we’re not going to let you die.” This is a statement that puzzles me as an old time anatomic pathologist.