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Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Archive for the ‘Eye Care’ Category

Why Private Practice Survives

“I’m surprised these kind of places are still open.” –Physician employed by World Class Medical Center

“And yet, here you are, bringing your mother in for a visit.” Technician checking in mother.

In my day job I am an ophthalmologist, an eye doctor who takes care of medical and surgical diseases of the eye. Our practice, SkyVision Centers, is an independent practice, what is often referred to as a “private practice”. As such we are neither connected nor beholden to either of the large organizations here in Cleveland, both of which have large ophthalmology practices with offices near us. The mother in question was originally seen on a Sunday in my office through an ER call for a relatively minor (but admittedly irritating) problem that had been ongoing for at least a week.

That is not a typo; an ophthalmologist saw a non-acute problem on a Sunday.

Now Dr. Daughter swears that she tried to get her Mom in to see a doctor all the previous week. “She” even called our office (more in a moment) and was told all of the doctors were booked. Strictly speaking, the staff member who answered the phone was absolutely correct in noting that our schedules were full (actually they were quite over-booked in the pre-Holiday rush), and that we would not be able to see a patient who had never been to our office. Dr. Daughter works for a massive health system that advertises all over town–on billboards, in print, on the radio and online–that anyone can get a same-day appointment with any kind of doctor in the system, including an eye doctor. In fact, we saw several dozen existing patients that week for same-day requested ER or urgent visits with the urgency determined by the patient, not our triage staff.

What’s my point? Dr. Daughter never made a single phone call. She had one of her staff members call on behalf of her mother; neither I nor my staff is responsive to proxy calls from staff. I know Dr. Daughter and much of her extended family. Over 25 years practicing in the same geographic area and populating the same physician panels she has sent me barely a handful of patients, even though I care for a substantial majority of that extended family. Despite that my staff would have moved Heaven and earth to find a spot for Mrs. Mom if Dr. Daughter had called either my office or me personally.

I know what you’re thinking: Mrs. Mom would get in because her daughter is a doctor. Nope. Not the case. I may have taken Dr. Daughter’s phone call for that reason, sure, but Mrs. Mom gets an on-demand ER visit despite it being our busiest time of the year because she is the family member of other existing patients. We treat family members as if they are already SkyVision patients; we just haven’t officially met them yet.

Now you’re thinking “what does this have to do with private practice?” Without meaning to be either too snarky or self-congratulatory, this is precisely why private practice continues to not only survive, but in many cases thrive. We have the privilege of putting our patients first. Really doing it. Same day urgent visits? No need to put it up on a billboard; we just answer the phone and say ‘yes’. Lest you think we are simply filling empty slots, or that we have open ER slots we leave in the schedule just in case, let me assure you that this couldn’t be further from the truth. We. Are. Booked.

Well, it must be that we are so small that the personal touch is easy. Surely if we were huge we couldn’t get away with this. Sorry, wrong again. A bunch of my buddies are orthopedic surgeons in a massive private group on our side of town. Like 15 docs massive, with all of the staff you’d expect to go along with that many doctors. Got an orthopedic emergency? You’re in. You may not get the exact doctor you’ve seen before on that first visit, but you won’t be shunted to either an ER or an office an hour away, either. The staff members making appointments for a particular office are right there, sitting up front. The same goes for the enormous Retina practice that spans 4 counties here in Northeast Ohio. Ditto for the tiny little 3-man primary care practice up the street from me, lest you think only specialists do this.

The private practice of medicine survives because the doctors go to work for their patients, and they don’t leave until the work is done. Private practice docs bend their own rules on behalf of those patients. Every day and every night. You know what happens when private practices are acquired by massive medical groups like the two 800 lb. gorillas in Cleveland? All of those rules get made by people who don’t really take care of patients at all, and they never bend a single rule ever. Those former private practice doctors become shift workers beholden to an institution, no longer working for their patients at all.

That family doctor or specialist who was routinely asked on a daily basis if someone could be squeezed in is not only no longer asked, she doesn’t even know the question was there in the first place. Everything is handled by the institution’s call center, somewhere off in a lower rent district, with no sense of what is happening at that moment in the clinic. Your doctor might have a cancellation and a spot open to see your emergency. Indeed, if she’s been your doctor for a long time she would probably rather see you herself because that would make for better care.  But there are now someone else’s rules to follow, efficiencies to achieve so that they can be touted, and institutional numbers to hit.

“I’m surprised these kind of places are still open.”

“And yet, here you are, bringing your mother in for a visit.”

On her way out, after impatiently waiting while her mother thanked me profusely for seeing her when she was uncomfortable, Dr. Daughter extolled the virtues of her employer. Fixed hours. Minimal to no evening or weekend call duty. A magnificent pension plan that vests rather quickly. I should join up, she said. She was sure that World Class Medical Center would love to have me.

I smiled and wished her, her Mom, and the extended family a Happy Holiday Season. As I turned, shaking my head a bit, my technician put her hand on my arm.

“If you did that, who would take care of her Mom?”

CPOE, An Epic Misadventure: Update

It was the missed workouts that finally got me. That, and the fact that I was not getting to the gym after surgery because I had to RE-DO orders I’d already entered. That caused me to crack. Why I was missing workouts.

Computer Physician Order Entry went live in December at one of the surgery centers where I operate. As is my lifelong pattern, once I decided that I would remain “in the game” at that particular center I simply viewed CPOE as a new set of rules to learn, a new challenge to conquer (however involuntarily), a new game to win. Maybe it’s my first-born status, or perhaps just the result of an upbringing where everything was a contest to be won, but I learned the ins and outs of the system in less than a month. My office staff, the surgery center staff, and I then went about the task of generating a process that would minimize the depth of the “time sink” into which CPOE had tossed me. On days when I was only operating out of one OR I was only down about 2:00 for every laser done and pretty much dormie on the rest of the cases because I could enter orders during pre-existing “dead air” time.

A funny thing happened on the way to happily ever after: patients we knew were scheduled were failing to show up on the OR schedule in time for me to enter their orders, and orders I’d entered started to turn up missing. That’s right…I had sucked it up, learned the system and taken my paddling like a good plebe, and the system insisted on inflicting this random form of unearned pain. The first time it happened I just re-did the orders. The second time I went off. My “Doc Whisperer” watched me put in every order for this coming week, documenting my status as a quick and accurate little Dr. Lemming. Patient lists and screen shots document my every order. All of this is to no avail. Once again, orders I placed for cases to be done tomorrow do not exist in any part of the Epic wasteland that is the EMR at World Class Hospital.

Is anybody paying attention to this? Does anybody care?!

Not only have I been forced to take time out of my day to do something I did not need to do previously, to perform acts of documentation that once took me a fraction of the time it now takes electronically, but these impositions are now compounded by the fact that work I’ve done is nowhere to be found. Lost in the ether, in a world that no longer even uses ether. This is maddening. Is there even a “Happy enough, ever after” with EMR?

Sadly, I’m afraid this is to be continued…

Evidence Based Medicine? Preferred Practice Patterns? You Are Behind the Times

If you practice Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM), or religiously follow a Preferred Practice Pattern (PPF) such as one published in a white paper by a specialty society or organization, you and your patients can be assured of one very important fact: you are providing care that is neither up to date nor care that can be described as “Best Practices”.

You might be increasing the likelihood that your patient’s medical insurance will pay for their care, in part because insurance companies have already figured out how to make money on older treatments and protocols. I guess you can feel good about that, or at least feel good that your staff won’t be forced to fill out all of those appeals forms when state of the art care is denied. So you’ve got that going for you. What used to be considered good enough care might feel better to you if your patient isn’t avoiding the older treatment because of payment issues like they do with the newer. Adherence to some care is better than non-adherence to “Best Practices”, right?

There are certainly some of you out there in doctor land who think that citing EBM or fidelity to a PPP will inoculate you from medical malpractice tort. Sadly, nothing is further from the truth. Not only will your adversary nullify a PPP by citing a “Standard of Care” that is up to the minute when it comes to how to treat literally anything (though as we know “Standard of Care” is neither Best Practices nor EBM), but there are so many instances of EBM not allowed as evidence at trial that it’s nearly useless to try. Even the strongest body of research can be nullified at trial by introducing a single non-peer reviewed study with opposite findings to a naive jury of lay people.

EBM and PPP are the result of years of studies that were launched based on prevailing thoughts at that time. They are subject not only to what is fashionable among the medical intelligentsia, but also what is fundable. The potential ROI from the industry side of the medical pie has a direct impact on not only what is studied but what treatments are available at all. A company with a blockbuster drug that has years of patent protection remaining will be unlikely to support the study and use of its own competitor or successor until under the gun of generic competition. Governmental funding of maladies without either a popular champion or sympathetic victim is slow in coming, if it arrives at all. Both EBM and PPP enter the public arena only after months or years of time spent “in committee” with old data.

At the end of the clinic day both EBM and various PPP’s suffer from being out of date on the day they are published. Because of this they create at least as many problems as they attempt to solve. In addition to providing ammunition to insurers all too happy to avoid paying for newer, more effective care that might be more expensive, the wide dissemination of various articles on EBM or PPP’s can sow confusion and doubt in the minds of those patients most in need of Best Practices, particularly those with severe or complex problems.

Any specialty in medicine could provide examples, but since I’m an eye doc let me offer one that illustrates most of the nuances involved. We’ve long known that elevated tear osmolarity (salt content) is a component of dry eye (DES). Prior to 2009 testing the osmolarity of human tears required a complex, time-consuming process that also suffered from the twin-blade cut of being both expensive and not covered by any insurance plans. Consequently the use of tear osmolarity as a core diagnostic test in the care of DES was pretty much a non-starter.

In 2009 TearLab introduced a much simpler, much less expensive test that could be done in the course of a regular office visit, and in 2010 the company received a waiver from the FDA which allowed doctors to use the test in an office setting without being certified as a clinical laboratory. Approval for payment by insurance companies, including Medicare, came shortly thereafter. As with any new test that becomes widely available it took a couple of years for clinicians to figure out the full extent of the meaning and application of the results. The short version of this part of the story is that tear osmolarity testing has become an integral part in both the diagnostic work-up and ongoing follow-up of DES patients in any advanced DES clinic due to its clear therapeutic value. It also fits into the prevailing financial model and patient mindset in which diagnostic testing is an insurance covered benefit.

What’s the problem then? Our largest professional organization, the American Association of Ophthalmology (AAO) publishes a series of PPP’s addressing many common entities in eye care, and DES is one of them. The latest version was published in 2013 after more than a year of discussion in committee based on practice patterns  and publications from 2011 when Tear Osmolarity was not yet in widespread use. The PPP made much of the fact that this at the time new test had not yet been widely adopted and that there was still some discussion about its true clinical worth. BOOM! In rushed a Medicare administrator in January 2015 with a proposal to withdraw payment for this “non-essential” test of “unproven” value.

The problem, of course, is that Tear Osmolarity is now widely and quite rightly accepted as a part of today’s “Best Practices” of DES care. Ironically, the use of Tear Osmolarity is actually an example of EBM, but that evidence has emerged subsequent to the initiation of the PPP process. Removing insurance payments will erect a barrier between patients and their best chance at treating their disease.

Thought leaders in my field as well as other, more nimble professional organizations than the AAO have offered assistance to TearLab to prevent a change in the insurance payment for tear osmolarity testing. Both eye doctors and their patients will likely survive this misguided attack on an extremely useful technology. It does make one wonder how many other instances exist where a seemingly good idea (PPP, EBM) is misused in the eternal battle between those who provide medical care and those who are charged with allocating the monies used to pay for that care. Funny, isn’t it, how the medical powers that be, professional organizations like the AAO, are always a bit behind the times, and the payment powers that be (and often plaintiff’s attorneys) use that to their advantage?

Preferred Practice Patterns and many examples of Evidence Based Medicine need to come with an expiration date, or at least a warning that using them cannot be construed as either “Best Practices” or cutting edge. Even at the time they are first published.



CPOE: Another Epic Misadventure Begins I

It’s my own fault, really. I admit that I had allowed myself to believe that the uneasy peace I’d made with Epic, the EMR utilized at World Class Hospital, would be a lasting one. A peace for all time. I would interact with the beast on a quarterly basis, signing verbal orders that kindly nurses had accepted and op notes for surgeries that deviated just enough from the routine that they needed to be dictated fresh. In return I would be allowed to simply sign orders, op notes, and other sundry paperwork as I had been doing for the last 24 years. Simple. Everyone wins. My OR days run efficiently saving me, my patients, and the institution countless hours of wasted time, and I continue to bring the majority of my cases to one of the outpatient surgery centers owned by World Class Hospital. (It should be noted that I am the lowest cost eye surgeon in the entire system, thereby generating the greatest per/case profit for WCH). I truly believed that I would still find sanctuary in the OR from the thousands of chickens pecking away at my professional satisfaction and by extension my general degree of happiness.

BzzzzzzPfffffTttttt…sorry Doc, that’s the wrong answer. Johnny, tell our contestant about his lovely parting gifts.

For the first 16 or so years of my post-residency career literally every process change in which I’ve been involved has had a direct, positive effect on outcomes or safety, patient experience, or my efficiency. About 8 years ago tiny little negative things started to creep in, some of which chipped away at that efficiency. A few more forms to sign. More pre-op checkpoints for my patients to pass on their way to the OR. Along with this came the madness that arises when a huge organization plays defense against an unregulated regulator like CMS (medicare) or JCHO (the hospital regulator). Not one, not two, but three personal checks by the surgeon to confirm the surgical site. A pharmacy either running scared or run amok that demanded a brand new bottle of eye drops for every laser patient despite an industry-wide infection rate on lasers of 0.00000001%. It was mostly piddly-diddly stuff, and the OR staff did their very best to run interference and preserve our efficiency.

Now? Oh man. The introduction of the Epic EMR into the OR has turned our 2-nurse room into a 2.5-3 nurse set-up. There is so much dropping down and clicking necessary to fulfill the beast’s demands (man, would this analogy be perfect if they still let us call them Computers On Wheels?! Feed the COW!). Previously, one circulator could do all of the paperwork, prep the patient, and have time to spare to facilitate room turnover. Admittedly I move pretty quickly as I do cataract surgery, but it’s impossible for just one person to do all of these tasks now that Epic must be served, without all of the rest of us sitting on our hands and waiting. The local administration and the staff have rallied around me and my patients and for most cases an extra pair of hands is there to keep things moving. Heck, I do my part as well by taking the trash out of the room and bringing the used instruments back to the sterilization room.

With the introduction and implementation of CPOE (Computerized Physician Order Entry) all of our efforts to improve efficiency, with all of the wonderful things efficiency brings, will be for naught.

How can I possibly know this before experiencing it even once? People talk, and doctors are people. I’ve chatted with a score of surgeons about how long it takes for them to do what Epic and World Class Hospital requires of them, and I’ve got a bit of experience just signing stuff after the fact. It just simply takes a lot of time. Add to that an institutional indifference to the psychological effect of hoovering  time out of a surgeon’s day and you’ve created the world’s biggest, most frightening chicken peck.

Tell you what, let me share a few numbers with you before we make the switch, memorializing them here, dated, before the transition, so that there’s no possibility that I made stuff up after the fact. The baseline numbers I am about to share admittedly are rosy in part because everything that can be done to/with the paperwork by someone NOT me happens as part of well-established routine. Details such as start/stop times, IOL serial numbers, etc. are filled in by support staff; there is little to no chance that this will be the case when everything moves from paper to screen judging by other surgeon’s experiences.

95+% of my cases are either cataract surgeries, post-cataract lasers, or lasers to treat dangerously narrow anterior chamber angles. Through a combination of fortunate genetics and hard work I have become very good, and very fast, at all of these procedures. My team and I achieve enviable outcomes and microscopic complication rates despite the fact that we move very, very quickly. A patient having cataract surgery spends approximately 15 minutes in the OR. For comparison sake, a study from a prestigious eye hospital recently posted an average time in room of ~33 minutes for its top three cataract surgeons. Turn-over time (patient out/next patient in) is 6-7 minutes. On average it takes me 26 seconds to complete ALL of the paperwork that must be done in the OR. It takes another 9 seconds to sign the op note when it is returned from transcription; this is important because Epic will require either finding, editing, and signing an op note in the OR, or dictating one on the spot.

Our team of nurses and doctor has achieved an even more enviable efficiency when doing lasers. The average time it takes for a patient to have the entire laser experience–enter the laserium, be seated at the laser, have the laser successfully performed, and leave the room–is 3 minutes. That is not a typo. The average set-up in the United States is closer to 15 minutes or more for this procedure. At the conclusion of the laser it takes me on average of 17 seconds to complete all of the paperwork that is required, and again 9 seconds on average to sign the op note when it becomes available.

You’re probably thinking why this is a big deal, aren’t you? That I should stop whining and just get on with it. Here’s the rub: I do lots of these procedures each time I go to the OR. Any additional clerical time must be multiplied by the number of cases done that day, and all of that time will be stolen from my day. When I finish in the OR I then do other stuff that’s pretty important. Sometimes I go back to the office and see patients, patients who may have had to wait a long time for their appointment. On really good days I get to go to my beloved CrossFit gym to get a workout in. An even better day is one on which I get my WOD in and then sit down in front of the computer to write. These latter things, especially, make me happy. They make it worthwhile to work as hard as I do. Every extra minute it takes me to do something I already have to do not only brings frustration in the OR itself but also keeps me from parts of my life that bring me happiness. A happier doctor is generally a more effective doctor.

We are establishing a baseline today, and that baseline includes a certain degree of happiness. What do you think the chances are that CPOE will increase my happiness? Stay tuned for Part II.


Tales From Bellevue Hospital: The Blue Chair

As I mentioned, I’m on call for our large semi-suburban hospital for the month of July. I was consulted for a patient who has monocular vision loss that is unexplainable, at least given the capabilities we have as ophthalmologists when we see patients at the bedside in the hospital. The consult brought back memories of Julys past as a resident on call.

Bellevue Hospital, and the Bellevue Hospital residents provide medical care for the New York City prisoners who are housed at Riker’s Island. This is actually quite an opportunity, especially for a child of suburbia like yours truly. It’s not as if I had never come across people in the criminal justice system prior to my Bellevue days, it’s just that I didn’t have such routine and regular contact.I don’t remember exactly, but there are at least three or four entire floors at Bellevue dedicated to the care of Riker’s Island inmates who have medical problems. One or two are for the criminally insane, and others who have some degree of mental illness. The remaining two floors house prisoners with problems as varied at coronary artery disease and pink eye. As disconcerting as it was for someone like me to enter a locked ward, the accommodations at Bellevue were at least a full order of magnitude nicer than those at Riker’s Island. This provided an interesting opportunity for Riker’s Island inmates to create a medical reason to leave The Rock, and created a very interesting learning opportunity for all of the residents  to discern real from not so real.

This  might have been the most fun part of my entire residency experience.

People who have something to gain from having an eye problem all seem to have the exact same complaint: “I can’t see.” Sometimes it’s “I can’t see out of my right (or left) eye,” and sometimes it’s simply “I can’t see.” The savvier the patient, the more subtle the symptom. The trick as the doctor on call is to simply demonstrate that their vision is substantially better than what they are describing. Oh yeah, it’s important to do so in such a way that you don’t make them too very angry; you don’t want to become a Bellevue Hospital “target” yourself!

Every resident develops a repertoire of tricks that he or she will use, a go–to list that tends to work for the majority of the malingering patients. To be truthful, especially when caring for children, sometimes the patient is actually convinced that he or she really CAN’T see. The kids are really pretty easy, though. I found, and frankly continue to find, that even with my limited attention span (often described as being slightly shorter than that of your average gnat) that I have more patience than almost any child under the age of 18. Most eye charts will start with a 20/10 line, and then move through 20/12, 20/15, and then several to many 20/20 lines. If you start at 20/10, by the time you get the 20/25 or 20/30 that line looks absolutely enormous! I think I’m batting about .997 in kids with 20/400 vision in the ER who “miraculously” and up with 20/25 vision in the exam room.

Folks who have something to gain from being diagnosed with visual loss weren’t always wards of the state or city. Occasionally there would be people who stood to gain from being diagnosed with profound visual loss for other, less existential reasons than wanting a ticket out of Riker’s Island. My favorite was a Hispanic woman who came with an entourage of family members, her complaint being complete and total loss of vision in both eyes from some vague and poorly defined trauma suffered at the hands of a landlord who was trying to evict the her from a rent–subsidized apartment. Her examination was totally unremarkable. Everything about her eyes was so  normal it was eerie. My suspicions were high because she just didn’t seem all that distraught over her new blindness, you know? There’s an instrument called an indirect ophthalmoscope which is used to examine the peripheral retina. The light we use can be cranked up to a level which is quite frankly rather painful. I explained to my patient through her translator that I was terribly sympathetic, and very concerned about how she would ever be able to survive if she was  evicted, what with her being totally blind and all. I just had this one last test to do, to look at her retina. With phasers set on stun I started to examine her eyes with the light cranked up. She started screaming in Spanish. What’s she saying? What’s she saying? Remember, now, this is a woman who has no light perception, everything in her world is black. Her son grabbed my arm and started yelling at me. “Turn that light off. It’s too bright. It’s hurting her eyes!” Yup, just another satisfied patient.

The prisoners really were the most fun, though. You had to be on your toes because some of them were actually quite dangerous. If the corrections officers were chatting amongst themselves in the waiting room you could be pretty sure that the patient in your exam chair was nonviolent. If, however, there was a corrections officer standing roughly 1/2 inch from each arm of the patient, well, that was one you had to worry about. But the prisoners got it, they got that this was a game. If they could beat me they got a stay at the Bellevue Hilton. On the other hand, if I got the best of them, it was back to Riker’s Island. The guys who complained of decreased vision in just one eye were actually not too difficult to fool. Again, all I had to do was prove that the vision and the supposedly “blind” I was normal. We quote discovered” all kinds of sight threatening needs for a new pair of glasses at two o’clock in the morning in the Bellevue consultation room.

The guys who complained of decreased or lost vision in both eyes were more challenging and therefore more fun. Can’t see anything at all? Piece of cake. All I have to do was prove that they had locked on to some image. There must be three dozen prisoners who complained of total loss of vision in both eyes who headed back to Riker’s Island one minute after entering my consultation room after they leaned over to pick up the $10 bill that I put on a footstool of the exam chair. Did you know that your pupils constrict when you focus on an image inside arm’s-length? You can imagine how handy that three-year-old Sports Illustrated bathing suit issue came in, and how many prisoners learned about accommodative pupillary construction after looking at THAT picture of Christie Brinkley.

There is one story out of all of my adventures with the Riker’s Island prisoners that stands apart. It was July, and I was doing my duty helping out the new first-year resident on one of his first nights on call. We got a call from the ER about this terrified patient who had lost vision in both of his eyes; he was defenseless. Dave, now a world famous pediatric ophthalmologist, was really unsure of how to proceed so I told him that we would do it together. We sat back and watched very carefully as the prisoner entered the room. He was totally on his own, not assisted in the least by the corrections officers. He managed to navigate around all of the little articles I had placed between the door and examination chair, not hitting a single one. He found the chair, turned just like you or I would, and sat down. His examination was perfect, naturally. After putting drops in his eyes to dilate his pupils this is what I said: “I can see that you are terribly frightened sir, and frankly I can’t blame you. I’m very concerned about your vision, and I’m going to do everything I possibly can to make sure that you are alright. I just put some drops into your eyes so that your pupils will dilate. Dr. Granet and I will then examine your retinas once the drops have worked. We are going to talk about what we’ve seen so far. Please go back into the hallway and take a seat in the blue chair, and we’ll come and get you in just a few minutes.” The prisoner left the room, once again navigating the “mine field” without incident.

Dave bowed his head, a little tiny twitch at the corner of his mouth as he shook his head. “There’s only one blue chair out there, isn’t there?” He smiled as he strolled over to the door. Sure enough, there was our patient, very calmly sitting in the single blue chair, surrounded by a dozen empty red ones!

We had to invite the corrections officers into the exam room when we explained our findings.

Tales from Bellevue Hospital: On Call 4th of July

I am on call this month for the largest community hospital on the West Side of Cleveland. Covering a semi-suburban ER is quite different from covering a true big city ER, especially when the semi-suburban hospital has gutted both its trauma and eye services. My on-call role now is little more than that of foot servant, covering the loose ends of other people’s arses in the pursuit of a perfect chart. Bellevue, at least the Bellevue I knew in the 80′s, was quite a different story. Although it was July it was July in New York, pre-Guliani New York, and it was Bellevue Hospital.

There are only two kinds of people in New York City: Targets, and people who hit Targets. At Bellevue we took care of the Targets.

It’s the first weekend in July. For most people in America that means the 4th of July and everything that goes along with that. Barbecues. Fireworks. Festivals and ballgames of all sorts. And beer. Lots and lots of beer. But in that curious sub-culture of medical education the first weekend in July means the first time on call for newly minted interns, newly promoted residents and fellows of all sorts. Everyone and everything is new, just in time for July 4th and its aftermath.

Funny, but I ended up on call for every 4th of July in my four years of post-med school training. I’m not sure which, or how many, of the residency gods I offended, but whatever I did I apparently did in spades ’cause I hit the first weekend jackpot every year. I have no memory of my first on call as an intern, but the “Target Range” was open for business those first couple of years at Bellevue, for sure! In fact, if memory serves, the phrase “Target” was coined by yours truly that very first weekend of that very first year as an ophthalmology resident.

“Hey Eye Guy! We got a John Q. Nobody who got shot in the temple just standing on the subway platform. Says he can’t see. Whaddaya want us to do with him? By the way…welcome to Bellevue.”

Crowds and beer and heat and stuff that explodes. Welcome to Bellevue, indeed. Some poor schlub survives the bar scene after the parade, makes it through pickpocket alley intact, gingerly stepping over detritus living and otherwise, only to get shot in the head as the A Train approached the station in a random act of anonymous violence. The bullet entered through the right temple, destroyed the right eye, and wreaked havoc in the left eye socket before coming to rest against the left temple. Right eye gone and malignant glaucoma in the only remaining left eye. And there I was, all of 3 days into my opthalmology residency, backed up by a chief resident of similar vintage. Whoa…

There’s no way to avoid it. After all, med students have to graduate and residencies have to start some time. There’s just this unholy confluence of weak links in the system all coming together in time for the second (after New Year’s Eve) most difficult ER day in our big, academic hospitals. Get sick or injured on June 4th? Everyone’s on top of their game and everyone’s in town. July 4th? The fix is in, and the game is as rigged against you as any carnival game attended by a dentally challenged carnie.

As I sit here, an Attending on call for yet another 4th of July weekend, covering the ER and cowering each time the phone rings, the Tweets and Facebook posts heralding the arrival of a new crop of interns and residents send me back to Bellevue. Year 2, cursed again, covering the spanking new 1st year ophthalmology resident (was it Dave?) as he got his welcome “gift” from the ER. “Hey Eye Guy. We got a Target down here for ya. 10 year old girl. Some dumbass tossed a lit M80 to her and she caught it. Went off before she could get rid of it;  blew off her right hand and looks like her right eye is gone. You from NY? No? Welcome to Bellevue, pal.” Yup…there’s something about the 4th of July in every teaching hospital in the U.S., and just like everything else, whatever it is, there was more of it at Bellevue.

Only two kinds of people in New York, Targets and people who hit Targets. At Bellevue we took care of the Targets.


Tarnishing a New Technology

The technology is fabulous. I mean, Femtosecond Laser Cataract Surgery (FLCS) is really, REALLY fabulous. It deserves a full roll-out. It is nothing less than the logical next step in a progression of medical treatments that extends back in time to the days of the Pharaohs and Cleopatra. Yet we debate its merits (Is it better? Is it safe?) in a sad and tawdry replay of the introduction of its predecessor technology, a chapter in the august history of ophthalmology that is still cringe-worthy among the vanishing actors still alive from that tragicomedy. That original sin, the denigration of the technique of cataract removal called Phacoemulsification (Phaco) by the establishment could at least stand on technical grounds;  Phaco 1.0 was rather rough stuff. Here we have no such ground on which to stand; the new technology of FLCS at launch is at LEAST as safe and effective, and promises to become more of both as it develops.

Why, then, my obvious angst?

The problem lies not with the technology but with the business model, and by extension how that is dividing the community of cataract surgeons. You see, what was really tragic about the the response of the ophthalmic community during the transition to Phaco for cataract surgery was the outright character assassination of those on the forefront of adopting Phaco by those still entrenched in the status quo. In my opinion the same is starting to happen now, only it is those who are adopting the new technology who are subtly smearing those who have yet to do so.

At the turn of the most recent century a company called Eyeonics (since purchased by Bausch & Lomb) and its CEO Any Corley ushered in a new era in cataract lens implants. With these new implants came an equally revolutionary new business model. Through the tireless work of Corley and his associates patients were given the option of paying an additional charge to add an UNCOVERED service on top of a medically necessary service that was otherwise fully covered by insurance. While the costs of the basic aspects of cataract surgery (remove the cataract; replace the removed natural lens with an artificial implant) would continue to be paid by health insurance (including, most importantly, Medicare), a patient now had the option of paying to add an additional service such as the treatment of astigmatism or presbyopia (the ability see up close as well as at distance) without the need to wear glasses.

Mr. Corley and Eyeonics did the grunt work of convincing the bureaucrats in what is now CMS that this was OK, and this  success launched some of the most vibrant technological advances anywhere in medicine. We now have no fewer than 6 “premium” lens implants, with at least another 6 in development. This is really exciting stuff and it is the direct result of the lobbying work done to create this new business model: extra charges for services that are beyond the basic, standard services necessary to accomplish the treatment of a medical necessity, in this case the removal of a cataract.

So what’s the problem? In a nutshell, the industry that has given us the FSLC is conflating this advancement in the fulfillment of the basic aspects of  cataract surgery (FSLC) with the provision of additional services that are not medically necessary (treatment of presbyopia). Indeed, such luminaries in my world as Eric Donnenfeld, Dan Durrie, and Steve Slade are on record as saying that FSLC is already safer than traditional Phaco, and that it already produces superior outcomes in ALL circumstances, specifically including the implantation of a standard lens implant. How then is this a “premium” service? Why is FSLC not being sold as the next development in the long line of successful improvements in cataract surgery for the masses? For Heaven’s sake, if FSLC is truly safer than what industry and industry consultants have taken to calling “manual cataract surgery” (despite the inconvenient fact that FSLC still involves some pretty tricky manual steps), how can one justify calling this a “premium, non-covered procedure” for which a patient must pay more? Seriously, pay more for safety? Pay more for better outcomes?

THAT my friends is the problem. In order to get what may turn out to be the safest surgery, for the first time in history patients must now pony up. Think about how this would play in, oh, heart surgery. “Well Mrs. Jones, your heart surgery can be done with the older technique and covered by your insurance, but for $2000 extra we can do the better, safer laser version for YOUR heart.” Nice, huh?

Our ophthalmic device manufacturers, including interestingly the same Andy Corley I previously lauded, have taken the easy route. Rather than “man up” and go before Medicare and the other insurers to justify a request for insurance coverage of the additional cost of what the podium speakers are calling a safer, better procedure, they have instead opted for the cynical, cowardly route of mis-applying the “Corley Rule” and having the patient pay. Worse than that, there is a very clear message coming from the podium (though not necessarily Donnenfeld, et al.)  and various editorials that those of us who have achieved stellar visual outcomes with spotless safety records are somehow now failing to provide our patients with the new “standard” if we opt to wait at this stage of development. Really. That’s what they are saying. Indeed, even some who are old enough to have been the targets of this kind of behavior in the 70′s and 80′s  say that out loud.

Listen, I get the excitement about a new technology that will probably win out as both better and safer. Heck, new often wins just because it’s new, or because people THINK it’s better and safer even if it’s not (read: Femtosecond laser LASIK  flaps vs. modern mechanical keratomes). I’m good with that. At 53 years of age I will almost surely perform FSLC for a significant part of the rest of my career once I begin. But don’t try to tell me that this is anything other than the latest step in a progression of procedures that began with “couching” in ancient Egypt. Don’t expect me to feel OK with the cynical decisions that everyone in the pipeline have made in order to avoid having the battle on insurance coverage for something they are already calling a “standard”. You simply can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that this is a safer surgery with better outcomes and then say that the regular Joe or Jane should reach into their pocket and pay EXTRA for the next better version of regular surgery that has always been covered by insurance, and then expect me to get in line and salute the “Jolly Roger” you’ve just hoisted.

The technology of the Femtosecond Laser Cataract Surgery is great. The cynical business model is not. Let’s not tarnish this wonderful new technology by repeating the bad behavior of the 70′s during the transition to Phaco by speaking ill of our colleagues who may not be as willing to jump on the bandwagon of a cowardly industry unwilling to do the right thing in support of of its own creation. It is our job as ophthalmic surgeons to demand that the device industry do the hard work to come up with a more appropriate business model if they want to sell their lasers.

As far as I’m concerned it is also our duty as colleagues to not forget the trauma we inflicted upon ourselves in the Phaco transition by smearing one group or another, however subtly or quietly that might be done. Both sides of this controversy must do whatever it takes not to repeat that tragic history as we move inexorably toward the universal adoption of the newest heir in the cataract surgery lineage. In general I’m a fan of our industry partners, but they created this issue by abdicating when it came time to support their invention.

It’s up to us to force them to own up to that and fix it.

Evaluating A Surgeon: Basic Theory

Transparency is the new buzzword in medicine. Systems should be transparent with regard to prices, if not costs. Doctors and other providers of healthcare services should publish their costs and fees, too. Various ratings and measurements have been developed in an attempt to measure that nebulous and elusive entity “Quality”. Calls have been made for transparency here as well; hospitals, doctors, and others are browbeaten to release any and all manner of quality measurements so that we might create something one could call an “informed patient”.

The first, and therefore most important challenge in the quest to measure quality is to agree on a definition of just what quality is. Like all rational discussions the first order of business is to agree on terms and the terms of engagement.

Let’s take the question of evaluating the quality of an individual surgeon. What are the salient metrics? Are we concerned with only outcomes? You know, success rates, complication rates, stuff like that. Is there more to the measurement? Should we be concerned with EFFICIENCY, the ability to obtain high quality outcomes in a more timely manner? How about VALUE, the soft and difficult to measure combination of quality and COST? In this day and age of “economic credentialing” in which doctors, hospitals, and other providers are held responsible for the cost of care, not only on an individual basis but also a societal one, it seems as if value is an inescapable aspect of quality, at least in the eyes of our government and the people who actually pay for healthcare.

Quality measures will be different for surgeons of different stripes; we will want to evaluate different complications and their rate of occurrence for an ophthalmologist versus, say, a cardiothoracic surgeon. Even similar adverse events like infection rates will have a different meaning across specialties. One classic example of a surgical complication is post-op infections. From my limited reading about heart and chest surgery it appears that the post-op infection rate is around 1-2%. This would be scandalous in eye surgery where the post-op infection rate is 100X lower, closer to .01-.02%. Stuff like this should be fairly easy to uncover, or at least you’d like to think so. It turns out that even this metric is rather hard to come by since multiple doctors will participate in the treatment of post-op infections, and literally no one offers up these stats uncompelled. Similar issues apply to specialty-specific complications (vitreous loss, graft leak) for similar reasons.

Right away the difficulty of measuring quality is obvious: even the simple quality measures appear to be something other than simple to discover right now.

Outcome measures are even trickier. Since I know eye surgery best let me stay in that arena and use cataract surgery as my example. For our discussion let’s assume that we have magically been granted unfettered access to every eye surgeon’s charts (and that they are all legible, and that they all contain the same basic information). It should be a rather simple proposition to draft meaningful criteria–let’s say “how well do the patients see after cataract surgery.?”  Would that it were so. The answer to that very simple question–how well do you see after surgery–depends on several variables, and further varies if you ask the question slightly differently. How much improvement did the patient achieve compared with pre-op? How fast did the improvement come? How well does the patient see without eyeglasses?  Is the patient more or less dependent on eyeglasses following surgery? What level of vision constitutes a success? Does the surgeon get the same results with complex cases?

I imagine these issues are not specific to ophthalmology. I can see the same types of questions and complexities in orthopedic surgery, for example. Think about hip replacement–along with cataract surgery and cardiac bypass surgery, hip replacement is arguably one of the most significant medical developments when we think about the quality of life enjoyed by an older person. What defines success in hip replacement? How long do you allow for success to occur for it to be deemed one for the  ”win” column? Do we give bonus points for speed in the OR, both from a patient’s standpoint and an economic one? How about a surgeon’s ability to achieve the same level of success in a thin 70 year old tennis player and an obese, cart-riding smoker?

Seriously, if docs can’t come to an agreement about what constitutes “quality”, how can we in good faith measure it? Furthermore, if we WON’T define it we have no one but ourselves to blame when some nameless, faceless 30 year old sociology major in D.C. does it for us.

Nobody asked me (again), but as long as I’m here let me offer up a 3-part proposal to measure and promote quality using surgeons as a theoretical template. Let’s start with a thought exercise borrowed from CrossFit. Fitness training using the CrossFit methodology involves high intensity exercise while trying to maintain near-perfect movement and form. One is shown three targets from a shooting range. The first has random bullet holes all around the bullseye, the second has every shot dead-on perfect, and the third has 95% of the shots within the center bullseye and 5% on-target but not perfect. Which one represents the most desirable CrossFit training strategy?

In CrossFit the answer is “C”, 95% accuracy with the misses still close because this represents the optimal combination of form (accuracy) and intensity (speed). Is this directly applicable to surgery? Well, that depends on how far outside the bullseye the misses land, doesn’t it? And in surgery I think we also need a more accurate measurement of intensity; we need a clock. Speed matters, from both a medical standpoint and a financial one. The shorter a surgery lasts while still hitting the target, the less physically and mentally taxing it is for the patient, and the fewer costly resources (OR time, staff time, doctor time, supplies, etc.)  you are consuming during surgery. All things being equal, the surgeon who achieves the desired outcome faster without increasing her complication rate is the better surgeon.

Put surgeons on the clock.

A successful outcome must be explicitly defined for each common surgical procedure. Pre-operative factors that reduce the likelihood of success should certainly be taken into account (e.g. a morbidly obese cart-riding smoker and hip replacement), but care needs to be taken so that a measurement can’t be gamed (two guttata do not constitute a corneal dystrophy and increased likelihood of swelling) in order to work with a lower standard. Surgical societies should show some spine and make a call, define what constitutes a high-quality outcome, regardless of the howling that will emanate from the mediocre and the incompetent. It’s gonna happen anyway, and physicians making the call would be orders of magnitude better than MBA’s and philosophy majors.

Lastly, quality should be measured, publicized and praised, and those surgeons (and other doctors) should be explicitly rewarded with as many cases as they can (or wish to) handle. They should also be paid more. Once we decide what constitutes quality we can measure it and publish the data. People will understand this, just like they understand the data in a box score. Why is it so OK for the baseball player with the highest batting average or lowest ERA to be paid more based on his success, yet somehow the most efficient surgeon who has the best outcomes is labeled a “money grubber” who must somehow be doing something wrong if he is also very busy? We want that high batting average guy at the plate in the 9th inning of a tight ballgame, and we pay him more because of his higher quality outcomes. Why aren’t we doing the same thing with surgeons? The very least we can do is stop accusing surgeons of being successful!

It’s time that we apply basic theories about quality to medicine in general and surgery in particular. Indeed, it should be easier to do it with surgeons. Make a call–define a successful outcome. Pull out a stopwatch. Faster, more efficient surgery is less expensive and generally less taxing physically for patients. Once the data is available be transparent and publish the results. I know what Miguel Cabrera is batting this year; my patients (and potential patients) should know my “batting average” in the OR. While I hold out little hope of being heard on this last point, uncountable articles support the benefit of the carrot at the expense of the stick when it comes to promoting excellence. Higher quality should beget higher pay. At the very least we should stop with the assumption that the busy surgeon is somehow “getting over”, guilty of somehow gaming the system (eg. doing unnecessary surgery) until and unless proven innocent.

She may just be better.


Why No Real Innovation In EMR?

Apple just released a smaller Tablet, the iPad Mini, and was razzed by the cognoscenti because it broke no new ground. “Reactive.” “The first  time Apple plays defense.” “Nothing to see here, people. We’re walking…we’re walking.” While the Apple Fan Boys (and Girls) were lining up to add to their Apple quivers, the rest of the consumer world reacted with a communal shrug. Why? No real innovation, and that was a surprise in the world of consumer electronics recently dominated by Apple’s serial innovation.

It makes you wonder a bit, doesn’t it, why there’s so little innovation in the world of medicine when it comes to the storage and transfer of information. With all of the cool stuff already available (voice recognition, “pens” that convert script to text, intuitive “next step” software), why do we have such stodgy, clunky software attached to yesterday’s hardware in all of our EMR choices? For heaven’s sake, we don’t even have a universal platform upon which the various and sundry products are built, and so we continue to have interoperability issues more than 10 years after folks started putting this stuff into play. Why is that?

Every computer product I’ve bought and used over the last 10 years has been easier to use than the one it replaced. Each one has allowed me to do more, and usually with a smaller and less expensive gadget. I know it’s a cliche by now, but my phone has more computing power than the first SERVER I bought to run an entire medical business. For $400. I can talk to it, order it to do stuff, and get all kinds of help I never needed faster than I could realize I needed it, and it fits in my pocket. Yet in a medical office state of the art consists of serial drop-downs and mandatory field entries that may or may not include anything germane to my patient. Able to chat with my cell phone through a bluetooth headset, my EMR demands my full, undivided attention, with gaze fixated on screen.

How come?

In the world of consumer electronics the game is all about predicting what the next, big “gotta have it” gadget or service will be. The most exciting and successful products almost invariably carve out new territory and then go on to viral-like growth because they fulfill a need. This kind of technological progress is so powerful that the people who buy this stuff abandon perfectly functional gadgets that do everything one needs or wants in favor of that next, new-better gadget. This phenomenon in turn drives the makers of consumer electronics to create, to innovate. But not in medicine.

Why is this so?

The so-called “market” for EMR is simply non-existent. The power of innovation, either in response to consumers established, stated needs and desires or in anticipation that something new and better will simply take off in the marketplace is non-existent. The kinds of companies that seemingly come out of nowhere were bludgeoned by government mandated requirements that tiny, bootstrap companies just couldn’t fund the effort. Big companies that innovate like a tiny start-up and create whole, new categories, like Apple, simply didn’t. They all just doubled down on old tech and old ideas, an entire industry making iPad mini’s and calling it progress. The perceived danger of innovating and then having a revolutionary product found to lack “meaningful use” stifled the entire industry. Innovation in EMR was DOA.

And now? Now we have the largest medical institutions in the country abandoning their own efforts at software development and marching like lemmings to the Epic sea. The real-world analogy would be the government saying that you could create any type of gadget you could think of to listen to music, but you can only sell record players and vinyl albums on which you must listen to the songs in the exact order in which they appear on the disc to be assured that the check would clear. Oh, and the doc or nurse could only listen through noise-cancelling headphones that would need to be removed in order to talk to a patient.

It doesn’t have to be like this, of course. All it takes is one company with a little vision and some gumption to find a single big-name player with the courage to see that the status quo is sick. Sure, the vast governmental bureaucracy needs to fix a target and then get out of the way so that something that looks like a real consumer electronic product can emerge. That’s all, really. One product that feels like as “0f course” as the iPod, discovered and purchased by one person who folks watch like TechCrunch, a dispassionate and largely uninterested government standing to the side, idle.

A 7″ computer that could power my company 7 years ago hits the market to a collective yawn? Is it really so much to ask for this type of innovation in EMR?


The Role of The Boss in a Flat Organization

Skyvision centers is a hybrid organization that brings together multiple, disparate skill sets in a medical environment. If you ask any of the staff or doctors who we are and what we do you will hear something along the lines of “we’re a customer service business; our product just happens to be eye care.” The founding principle for Skyvision was the creation of a truly patient-centered experience achieved by borrowing liberally from such customer service stalwarts as Nordstroms and the Canyon Ranch Spa organization. These practices were then layered on top of a flow process that was adopted from the Toyota manufacturing system in order to allow the doctors and staff to provide medical care that exceeded all industry standards for outcomes, safety and efficiency.

It became clear very early in the development of Skyvision that a traditional management structure would be counter-productive. Most small businesses, and essentially all medical businesses, are run using a steep pyramid set-up: doctor at the top, office manager next, and all kinds of middle management on top of the folks doing the real work of caring for patients. Command and control was exactly the wrong strategy for us. We adopted the ultimate flat organizational structure, the POND.

The Pond Theory of Management is best viewed from overhead. Unlike the pyramid of the traditional management flow chart, the Pond Structure is nearly invisible when you look from the side. Staff members “float” on the pond like overlapping lily pads. Tasks are determined initially by job description. Responsibility for seeing that larger projects are accomplished is determined by “mutual affirmation” in the overlapping individuals, and those who affirm a leader take on the responsibility of helping that task leader succeed.

With the appropriate systems in place and so much of what we think of as traditional staff management happening on something that looks like “cruise control”, what is the role of the “Boss” in a flat organization? Rising just above the lily pad-covered surface of the pond are the very few “flowers”, the leaders of the organization. If the “Tribe of Adults” is managing its own intra-staff personal relationships and taking responsibility for outcomes, what does the Boss do?

The common misperception of management in a flat organization (and in groups practicing TQM/CGI) is that there is no longer a leader or “Boss” role at all. This, of course, could not be further from the truth. The primary role of leadership in a flat organization is to make broad policy decisions and set major goals for the organization as a whole. The first of these is to choose to have a flat organizational structure! It is the few leaders who are charged with setting the general course of the business, from choosing the products or services to be offered, to determining the variables that will be measured to keep the organization on track.

Once the organization is up and going it’s important to identify the metrics necessary to maintain a tight focus on the goals that have been chosen. Monitoring these metrics and reacting to them is the responsibility of the “Boss”. From just above the Pond an effective leader is able to offer broad guidance without being involved in the minutiae of the day-to-day machinations of the business by reacting to these metrics. This also frees up the Boss’ time for critical planning, meeting with significant customers, and other larger picture tasks that will help the business grow and prosper.

It seems as if the flat organizational structure is designed to inoculate the Boss from any real staff management, doesn’t it? In reality, the only thing that the Boss might miss out on is any of the fun aspects of day-to-day interaction with employees. For better or for worse while the Boss may not do the hiring it is the Boss, and only the Boss, who must do the firing. At the end of the day, a business that chooses a flat organizational structure is not immune to any of the factors that make an individual employee an unsuitable member of the team. Remember, there are no managers, only a Boss, and no one else available to perform this (hopefully rare) task.

The role of the Boss in a Flat Organization is at once bigger and smaller than in a traditional hierarchical structure. Smaller in that the number of management tasks he is asked to perform is radically reduced. Bigger since the remaining tasks are more global and reach into every aspect of the business. Certain types of individuals are more geared to fulfilling this role (it helps to be a little more laid back and patient), and certain abilities are more helpful (delegation, data analysis, “blue-sky” planning). Indeed, the more of these characteristics one has in a leader, the fewer leaders you need!

The better the Boss, the flatter the organization.




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