Consider the doctor’s office: the sanctum of care in American medicine, where a patient enters with a need — a question or an ailment or a concern — and leaves with an answer, a diagnosis or a treatment. That room, with its emblematic atmosphere of exam table and tiny sink and bottles of antiseptic, is in many ways the engine of our health care system, the locus of all our collective knowledge and all our collective resources. It’s where health care happens.
But in a less sentimental light, the doctor’s office doesn’t seem so exalted. Yes, it remains the essential hub for clinical care. But what occurs in that room isn’t exactly ideal, nor state-of-the-art. The doctor-patient encounter is fraught with tension, asymmetrical information, and flat-out incomprehension. It is a high-cost, high-resource encounter with surprisingly limited value and limited returns. It is too cursory to be exhaustive (the infamous fifteen-minute median office visit), too infrequent to create an honest relationship (one or two times a year visits at best), and too anonymous to be personal (the average primary care doc has more than 2,300 patients).
At best, it offers a rare personal connection between doctor and patient. At worst, it is theater. The doctor pretends she remembers the patient, and that she has actually had the time to read the patient’s chart in full; the patient pretends that he hasn’t spent hours on the Internet trying to diagnosis himsef, half-admitting what he’s really doing day to day, and pretending he won’t second- guess the doctor’s orders the moment he gets back to a computer.
As woeful as that sounds, we know that there’s real value here. This encounter can be meaningful; it should and must be meaningful. The doctor is a necessary interface to medicine, and his office is a source of care, expertise, and trust. The patient is eager and receptive to learning, primed for guidance and direction. Pragmatically, the doctor’s visit is a powerful part of modern medicine. The problem is that we, collectively, are not optimizing this resource; we have not reconsidered and re-evaluated how we might exploit the visit to its full advantage.
In the past few months, since The Decision Tree book came out, I’ve had the privilege to talk with many doctors about the opportunity and challenge of engaging patients in their own health. Some physicians, not surprisingly, have been suspicious, and even hostile to the idea that patients have a role to play. But thankfully, those have been rare exceptions. Most doctors I’ve spent time with have been eager to hear about new tools that might engage their patients, and they’ve been eager to share well-earned advice on where there’s work to be done. It has been a delight and an education to talk about the potential of healthcare with these physicians who are, after all, doing the hard work of providing medical care every day.
A high point in my continuing education came a couple weeks ago, when I was invited to speak at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation‘s Fall Nursing Conference, where I met a number of nurses who are eager to help patients gain some control over their health. A few days later I gave a lecture on patient engagement at the University of Minnesota Medical Center. The invitation came from Dr. David Rothenberger, an esteemed surgeon who has consistently emphasized the importance of innovative thinking in medicine. Dr. Rothenberger also runs a program for physicians with promising leadership potential, and part of my day involved talking with them about the changing nature of clinical medicine, and the challenge of engaging patients in their healthcare.
These were good doctors, deeply motivated to help their patients, and there was scant resistance to the notion of an empowered patient who might seek to engage in their care and treatment. Indeed, they seemed to relish the opportunity to work with such patients.
Though the prospect of learning about our DNA might seem wrapped in mystery and intrigue, genetic information is not so different from any other metrics we know about ourselves: Our age, our weight, our blood pressure. With a little scrutiny, any of these numbers can tell us something about our health and ourselves. It’s the same with a genetic scan – it gives us some perspective on our health, though far from the complete picture. It is, in other words, a place to start thinking about how we’re living our lives.
It’s important to remember, though, that genetics is a very new science, and that getting a scan today is the equivalent of buying the first generation iPod – it’s a work in progress, and will get much better as time goes on. There’s a lot that science doesn’t know yet about the exact influence of DNA on our health, and the journey is part of the ride. But it’s a rare opportunity, unprecedented, perhaps, in history, that the general public might be granted unfettered access to experience science as it happens. It’s not something that everyone will be comfortable with, but we shouldn’t underestimate how profound this opportunity is.Continue reading…
One of the great humdingers in the current debate over healthcare reform is the duplicitous role of technology in increasing costs. Sophisticated medical technologies save thousands of lives every year, giving us scans that spot tumors early and devices that keep our hearts beating and our blood flowing.
But these miracle technologies come with a paradox. In nearly every sector of the economy, technology drives costs down – just as your digital camera gets cheaper and better every year, so technology drives down the cost of manufacturing, the cost of retailing, the cost of research. But for some reason, in healthcare, technology has the opposite effect; it doesn’t cut costs, it raises them. In fact, medical technologies – from CT scans to stents to biologics – are a significant factor in the 10% annual growth rate of healthcare spending, a rate that’s nearly triple the pace of inflation. (Overall, the US is now estimated to spend a stunning $2.7 trillion on healthcare in 2010.)
This was made clear once again last week, when a Massachusetts state audit found that healthcare costs rose 20% from 2006 to 2008, largely because of new imaging technologies. The single largest increase was for digital mammography, a new – and expensive – way to screen for breast cancer.
What’s going on here? Why can’t technology work its magic in healthcare, the way it does in the rest of the economy?
In case you’ve been preserved in amber the past month, there’s been lots of excitement in technology circles about the iPad – as well as other tablet computers – and how they’ll transform (take your pick): games and word processing and movies and magazines and newspapers and music composition.
But there hasn’t been a great deal said about their possible usefulness in healthcare.
In truth, healthcare has a horrible record with technology. Medical technology, after all, is one of the principle reasons that annual healthcare costs in the U.S. are at $2.5 trillion, and climbing. The CT scan may beguile radiologists and diagnosticians, but it’s also a horribly inefficient technology (it doesn’t scale, there’s no price transparency, etc.). In short, everything that technology is good for in the rest of the universe – lowering costs, reducing expertise – it has exactly the opposite effect in healthcare and medicine.
There have been attempts here or there to introduce consumer-style tools to medicine. Dozens of companies, for instance, offered versions of the Palm Pilot that promised to recognize a physician’s unique needs. But too often these one-off gadgets fell into the wrong quadrant of the efficiency and expense matrix. And the fact that pagers are long dead in every corner of the world except in hospitals serves as yet more proof that healthcare is a bizarro world when it comes to technology.
And consumer-facing tools have fared just as poorly. Fancy set-top boxes that promise to connect patients to their doctors via telemedicine, and cumbersome monitoring devices for people with diabetes or other chronic conditions haven’t exactly inspired confidence.
So: enter the iPad. Does it have a chance?
Yes, and for two reasons. The first is this: In the past healthcare technology has always been about the hardware – building a box that promises to do something, and then trying to educate patients or providers on how to use the box. That hasn’t worked because of bad interface design; the mission was complexity, not simplicity. But the tablets, and the iPad in particular, are designed to be as simple as possible (just one button). They’re not really about the hardware, at all – in fact, if these tools work as promised, the hardware disappears. The device will let users engage with information immediately, without having to negotiate a cumbersome interface. Indeed, the device itself vanishes and the user connects directly with the experience. That’s a powerful shift, and it has great potential for health.Continue reading…
Want to know the future of medicine and healthcare in one sentence?
For my money, it goes like this: The real opportunity in healthcare is to combine our personal data with the huge amount of general biomedical and public health research, in order to create customized information that’s specific to our person and our circumstance. We need relevance, and the right information at the right time will help us make better choices for prevention, helping us stay healthier longer, it’ll help us navigate diagnosis, letting us select screening tests that are useful and not unnecessarily fearful, and it’ll let us make better decisions on care and treatment – when we’re trying to choose among various treatments to find our way back to health.
It’s in the last category – care and treatment – that I wrote a recent post at the Huffington Post about one man’s story with prostate cancer. Tom Neville got a diagnosis and then had to struggle to find information to help him make sense of what to do. Ultimately, he chose surgery, but the difficulty of the choice led him to create Soar Biodynamics, a company that offers decision-making support for men assessing their prostate health.Continue reading…
The task of health care reform in 21st century America is to decrease per-capita cost of care and to increase the quality of care delivered to patients. It’s complicated. A famous Rand study concluded that Americans only receive 55% of the care that science dictates. Patients intuitively believe that more health care is always beneficial. Medicare reformers would like to do comparative effectiveness research so that CMS and private insurers could wind up paying only for therapy that actually works. Some estimate that 30% of all care delivered in the United States is waste. What some call waste, others label revenue, and Atul Gawande becomes famous for identifying waste/revenue in McAllen, Texas (http://bit.ly/ENlli).
Neuroscience tells us that the smartest human can only keep track of seven variables at one time, and physicians tell us that diagnosis and treatment of a complicated patient can involve as many as 100 such variables. Computers are good at cataloging, organizing, and retrieving information, but physicians are not yet routinely utilizing them at the point of care. Computers are also good at allowing us to analyze large data sets and learn from experience. Patients yearn for the warmth and caring of a doctor who really knows and cares about them. Behavioral economics pioneered by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman taught us that human brains are designed with inherent biases that make us less than rational decision-makers. We now know that human physicians and patients suffer from biases such as Pygmalion complex, confirmation bias, focusing illusion, incorrectly weighing initial numbers, and being more impressed with single cases than conclusions based on large data sets (http://bit.ly/49q4Uy).Continue reading…