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Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Adventures in EMR Vol. 2 Chapter 3: Jogging in Quicksand

Being an eye doctor in 2018 means that you will take care of patients whose care is covered by a government program of some sort. In order to be able to get paid for your labors you need to record your work in an electronic medical or health record (EMR), and that EMR must be able to comply with  certain diagnosis and quality reporting standards. Failure to comply with these requirements does not mean you can’t take care of these patients, nor does it mean that you won’t get paid for doing so. It just means you will eventually get paid roughly 22% less for that work than someone who has an EMR that does comply.

15 months of effort to get our legacy system into compliance led to 3 months of research culminating in the purchase of a new EMR with a very sophisticated, dedicated ophthalmology/eye care format. With our purchase came on site training (with overtime pay for staff) and literally hundreds of man-hours of preparation work (on the clock) performed by both staff and doctors before we went “live”. The entire adventure was nothing less than a series of “OMG, you have GOT to be kidding” surprises for each one of us, starting with this killer: I would have to pay to retain access to the information SkyVision had gathered on our patients over 13 years. Yup. You heard that right. Even though we would never enter another electron of information into our old system, in one way or another I was going to have to ransom my own medical records.

As embarrassing as it is to admit it, I probably own that particular surprise. Really shoulda seen that coming.

What I also didn’t see coming, indeed what none of us saw coming, was just how different it is to practice medicine in the age of EMR. From Hippocrates through Osler and on to Marcus Welby and whatever the name of the doc played by George Clooney in “ER” was, medical care proceeded in the same orderly fashion. Once again we have Dr. Larry Weed to thank for codifying this process in the form of the SOAP note. Subjective -> Objective -> Assessment -> Plan. You listen to your patient’s story, cataloguing her symptoms and their salient characteristics (onset, severity, duration, etc.). Next comes the collection of data including your exam findings and any test results you may have. From this accumulated knowledge you make a diagnosis, or at least assemble a differential diagnosis, either of which launches a plan of action. The flow is so obvious that it’s somewhat astonishing that it took Dr. Weed to publish this as a process breakthrough.

From the minute we sat down with our laptops and tablets in front of us to learn how to use our new EMR, every single SkyVision staff member fell through the looking glass into a world gone, at best, sideways. Charting to billing, documenting everything that goes into taking care of a patient from the primary point of view of the payers, renders the SOAP model moot. Everything begins and ends with the diagnosis, the Assessment in SOAP-speak. What you plan to do comes next, and you now have to justify what that will be by demonstrating that the diagnosis can be found in the data. Your patient’s complaints have to be explained by your findings. Our tidy little straight line progression handed down from Hippocrates has been scrabbled. SOAP has become APOS.

How perfect is that?

Everyone is aware of how time consuming it is to enter data into a compliant EMR. There is just an endless number of boxes to click, even if you ignore the nonsensical sections that apply to worthless quality measures (childhood vaccine history review at the dermatologist? Smoking cessation at every eye doctor visit?). Even with the pre-loading and on-the-fly development of protocols that “pre-fill” all of the boxes for very common evaluations (e.g. cataract surgery in my world), it just takes a boatload of time to enter all of the information that is demanded. I hear those clicks in my sleep.

Remember, I already used scribes to enter information; if they are slowed down patient flow slows down, too. If I stay and enter information myself my schedule backs up downstream. If the scribe stays with the patient in the room after I’ve gone on to another patient there is no place to put the next patient in line. Leaving the charts “open” so that they can be “finalized” later is an option, of course, but one with three penalties. The practice gets socked with overtime expenses, the staff is overworked and can’t be home, and believe it or not that open chart is “timed” as a quality measure as if the patient was there waiting all that time. Doing a better job ends up dinging your quality score. Merde.

So what did we do and how did it go? We started 5 months ago with 3 charts in the new system per doctor per 1/2 day session. Sounds pretty reasonable, huh? Ease your way into it. Try not to upset the whole apple cart. Maybe just bruise an apple or two. The plan was to slowly increase the number of charts filled in the new system each week by slowly expanding the type of visits we recorded. You know, post-ops before massive, complex pre-op evaluations. New patients who didn’t have any data in the old system. It sounded pretty good when our trainer suggested it. Naturally, as soon as we expanded our universe of new EMR patients we crashed the entire office flow. What had been a finely tuned machine that seldom ran even five minutes behind on a single patient became a battlefield filled with folks waiting 30, 40, even 60 minutes for their exams within an hour of the opening bell.

It was like jogging in quicksand.

I’d really love to tell you that 5+ months in it’s all unicorns and rainbows. That we are now up and humming along, seeing the same number of patients we always have and running on time like we used to.  I’ll admit to occasionally coming across a random footprint that might have been left by a unicorn, and every now and again we catch flashes of color, a rainbow seemingly just out view. We had to hire a part-time tech to assume the task of “pre-populating” the new EMR charts with information from the old system. Every staff member has had to drop parts of their duties to take on the tasks of entering patient information on the front side or finalizing the chart entry so that it is consistent with our billing on the back. I will have to buy access to my old records in the old format, at least temporarily, so that we don’t get slowed down learning a new way to look at old data.

The best way to describe where we are after 5+ months is that we are now running rather than jogging in that quicksand. Exams that once kept a patient in our office for a maximum of 67 minutes now take closer to 90 (we really do track that kind of stuff). Where we rarely had a single patient more than 15 minutes behind schedule we now routinely have  5 or 6 who run an hour late every single day. A couple of week ago I was worried that this one change was going to drive us out of business because of the increased costs, and what I assumed would be mounting ill will from patients who were disappointed in their wait times and stopped coming to see us. Not gonna lie, it didn’t look very good.

A funny thing happened on that road to ruin paved in quicksand: my staff and my patients collectively said “no way.” Crazy as it sounds, two groups of folks who were suffering alongside me looked at the alternative and said “no”. Oh sure, there were certainly patients who trashed us on rating sites because we ran late on a single visit, including some who’d given us straight 5 out of 5 stars for years. But most of them read our “Under Construction, Pardon Our Dust” signs, gritted their teeth, and basically said that we’d earned their patience. Staff is coming in early and staying late. They are huddling and brainstorming ways to restore our flow. Our charting is no better than before but we do send out better letters. Some day we may even be able to do some of those things that Larry Weed talked about when it comes to managing large amounts of information and making complex decisions.

But for now it’s still nothing but pain. It’s hard and the hardship is slow to abate. We all feel the sense of unfairness, that we were forced into this position, and that what we have now does not make our patients any better off than they were before. I would not have chosen this path, not for any reason, had I not been forced to do so. I have no idea, and I will never know if it would have been easier had I picked the other option. Beware all ye who travel here. You are about to embark on a journey where each step is taken in quicksand. It will be a long, long time before you are cleansed of the residue.

Remember, your SOAP has been replace by APOS.

 

Adventures in EMR Vol 2 Chapter 2: The War of the Roses

Unsportsmanlike conduct, piling on should have been the call, but alas, no flags were thrown. After roughly 15 months of crossing our fingers and hoping that our original EMR vendor would be able to guarantee our compliance with the twin pitchforks of ICD-10 and quality attesting it became clear to us that we could no longer afford our “spend and pray” strategy. We felt forced to initiate divorce proceedings with our legacy software and begin the search for a new program that would ensure our compliance, and in so doing allow SkyVision Centers to survive as an independent entity.

Well, that’s what we thought we were doing anyway.

Our original search for an EMR program in 2004 was undertaken from a position of strength in the skinniest of markets. There were only a few vendors who made a product suitable for eye care, and we were making a “want” buy rather than a “need” buy. In this position we had the luxury of working with the ultimate game plan: we could play to win. By this I mean we could clearly state what our objectives were and lay out in clear terms how we expected our new EMR to enhance our business. I mean enhance in every single manner, most definitely including the bottom line. Our search was meant to bring in technology that would not defend against loss but to help us bring in more revenue, to help us win.

SkyVision Centers entered the eye care market with a single, borderline maniacal focus on enhancing a patient’s experience in the office. Face it, there is no way that any but the most sophisticated patients are going to be able to differentiate between doctors and practices based on quality measures having to do with outcomes and safety. Our medical world is quite opaque in ways both inadvertent and purposeful. Discussing “bad doctors” or “bad hospitals” just isn’t done. By the same token, touting better outcomes or safer care is considered borderline slander by other doctors and institutions. Hence we simply considered all of this–quality, safety, etc.–to be the “table stake”, an assumption that each patient made, and we decided to set ourselves apart by our focus on how each patient FELT during their care.

If you think about this, we should also  be able to make all of these assumptions about something as basic as an EMR, right? That it should enhance both the doctor’s and the patient’s experience during care, or at least not have the opposite effect. Our original EMR was quick and efficient, was adaptable to our existing care and process protocols rather than the other way around, and allowed us to maintain eye contact with our patients for >90% of any care experience in the office. This, more than anything else, explains why I hung on for so long after any objective outsider would have already jumped ship to a new, regulatory compliant program.

It took precisely 90 seconds to realize that our patient-centered ideal was going to take a hit by changing our EMR. That’s how long I had to listen to the consensus best patient/doctor interface among the “modern”, compliant programs. Every single program arrives with a pre-set protocol, an indelible and unalterable set of mandatory processes that you WILL implement into your practice. Another 90 seconds spent reading the front page marketing pitch of this new batch of EMR candidates makes it clear that you are not looking at a program designed from the doctor/patient interface out to the billing office on its way to the payer. Every single product now sold that will comply with the various and sundry “quality” and reporting requirements is built from the billing interface back to your exam.

That’s an awfully tough pill to swallow.

Let me take just a minute to address the subject of scribes, staff members whose job it is to transfer the data that a doctor obtains and put it into the medical record. The solution to all of the problems created by EMRs is supposed to be solved by using scribes. Many (most?) doctors who are new to EMR are also new to the concept of using a scribe. Not so, though, in ophthalmology, at least at the level that I have practiced since I left residency training. For the most part I have had a scribe in the exam room with me from my very first day of practice. Our scribes were not just Carol Burnett Show era secretaries but highly trained technicians who simply rotated through their turn writing exam findings, diagnoses and plans with a pen on paper. I’ve always had this, and we utilized scribes in EMR v1.0 as well. Part of the unfairness was that I anticipated the need to hire MORE scribes simply to tend to the software’s protocols, so we were losing before the game even started.

What then does it mean to be playing “not to lose” when choosing the next EMR? The very first premise is little more than trying not to lose money you’ve earned by receiving a penalty for inadequate fidelity to all of those reporting rules. After that it becomes something more like trying not to lose your soul. Which program would allow us to maintain as much of our substance and our style while allowing us to continue to take care of the same number of patients? I was willing to forgo growth (loss #2 before game time). How long would it take for us to transition between platforms? Was there a program that would let us go fast enough that our patients would forgive us the obvious change in what it felt like to be in the office, even if that change was a 25-50% longer experience? I mean AFTER the transition. 25-50% longer in the office AFTER we are good at the new program. That was the reality I encountered in my search.

I’m not gonna lie. My biggest fear was that I would choose the wrong program. Well, check that; my biggest fear was that I would choose a program that would hurt us more than another one I might have chosen. I did my homework. I reached out to colleagues who do what I do and had chosen an EMR in the last 3 years. I went into offices and watched staff members and doctors use the programs I looked at. It was unbelievably depressing in all honesty. The lack of eye contact with patients and the slavish attention demanded by the computers in the room was appalling, not to mention the drudgery. Death by a thousand clicks.

Check that. A million clicks.

A consensus arose among eye doctors, one that I agreed with, that there are two EMR products on the market that are better than all of the other options, and that it is essentially a toss-up between them. Every colleague I chatted with felt this way, including those who were content with their present programs; they would choose one of the two (and not their present program) if they were starting from scratch. After narrowing down my choice to two it was almost a coin toss to be truthful.

After pouring lots of money into that car I already had in the hope of returning it to functionality I was ready to buy a new car. To spend yet more money on one of the two choices before me. No matter which one I chose, I was choosing something that would mean an existential change in how we practiced medicine at SkyVision Centers. Because there were only two, no matter which one I chose I would forever be haunted by the question of whether life might have been just a bit less unpleasant if I’d chosen the other one.

Changing your EMR because you have to is like the War of the Roses: there is no winning or losing, there are only degrees of losing.

Next Chapter 3: Jogging in Quicksand (where only the “A” counts in SOAP)

Adventures in EMR* Vol 2 Chapter 1: Government Forces a Divorce

It’s hard for me to empathize with docs and medical organizations who as late as 2015 0r 2016 lamented the U.S. government’s irresistible demands to electrify the medical record and had not yet done so. Along with the other follies imposed on all quarters in healthcare, the Accountable Care Act (ACA) spawned in the early days of the Obama administration decreed that all care provided to patients covered (paid) in any way, shape, or form by the federal government must be recorded in electronic (computerized or digital) form. More than that, this digital health record (EMR) must conform to the nebulous and ever shape-shifting requirements known as “Meaningful Use” (MU). Armed with 30 pieces of silver on the front side and the promise of slow, withering financial ruin on the back, CMS went about the business of coercing organizations large and small to move from paper to electrons.

Why, you ask, if I am so obviously disdainful of this occurrence, do I find it hard to empathize with folks who’ve been harmed by this process? Well, our group SkyVision Centers (SVC) saw the value of using an EMR at the time of our founding in 2004, back when Mr. Obama was a very junior Senator from Illinois and about to be “discovered”. The concept of an EMR, with the medical record warehoused in a server rather than in a folder, was so obvious to us at the time that we never considered the use of a traditional chart as we developed our bleeding edge business plan. As a University of Vermont grad I had learned about medical information processing at the knee of the great Larry Weed. Indeed, my biggest frustration with the EMR’s available in 2004 (and still to a degree in 2018) was that they did not allow me to do the kind of information processing that I learned from Dr. Weed’s associate Dennis Plante, who taught me about computerized medical decision making in 1984.

Those doctors and those medical groups that were still using a traditional paper chart in 2015, 16, or 17 missed the boat by 10 years; their enhanced pain brought on by their inertia was self-inflicted. More than that, the larger among these groups (I’m looking at you, UPenn) essentially recused themselves from leadership positions that they could/should have taken. As an aside which I will explore in an epilogue to this series, very large early adopters (think Cleveland Clinic, The Mayo Clinic, and Harvard Pilgrim Health among others) bear a significant responsibility for the mess we now find ourselves in by abdicating their leadership role as medical institutions in favor of maximizing their return as business entities in the earliest days of EMR.

Back in those UVM days Dr. Weed built his case from two very specific premises: there is simply too much medical information for any doctor to be able to house it in his/her brain, and decision making based on the data available for any one patient is too easily influenced by a doctor’s frame of reference and biases. Sounds familiar, especially if you spend any time on Twitter and follow folks like Vinay Prasad, Saurabh Jha, and Amitabh Chandra. Dr. Weed clearly envisioned a universe of connected records (mind you, this was well before anyone outside of the government  had heard of the internet) that would allow the free interaction of multiple doctors with all of the information available on any patient. Without using the word Dr. Weed described “interoperability” perfectly. (Note that UVM had all testing results–radiology, lab, etc–available on computers in the 80′s. Sister hospital Maine Medical Center one-upped them with computerized order entry in 1983.)

Mind you, most of this was not really available in 2004 when SVC was looking for its EMR. We just assumed that it would eventually be programmed into a larger system as more doctors and practices saw the light. Our rationale for implementing an EMR at this early time in history was driven by the obvious advantages that it would give us when it came to providing the best possible patient experience when we were taking care of patients with eye problems. Utilizing an EMR allowed us to maximize our efficiency so as to minimize the amount of minutes wasted over the course of a care visit to SVC, fulfilling with our pocket book our mission statement to provide “The Best Experience in Eye Care”. Our specific EMR choice fit seamlessly into our Toyota manufacturing-derived system of workflow and enabled us to vastly exceed our patient’s expectations when it came to the office experience.

We were on the cutting edge. So what happened? Well, in short, Obamacare with all of its regulatory burdens happened. Onerous “quality” measures came and went in the early days of the ACA. My professional organizations as well as the owners of the EMR we’d chosen lobbied vociferously against the implementation of what would have been disastrous burdens on the field of eye care (among other specialties). Back at home we doubled down on our market advantage as the best office experience for our patients and slow-rolled along with our EMR provider as it did the minimum necessary to remain compliant. In hindsight I was clearly choosing efficiency and the maximization of the patient interface with the practice over Larry Weed and the information interface.

We probably could have continued this way if not for ICD-10, the coding change that increased the number and complexity of mandatory diagnosis reporting when billing. For reasons that remain unclear to me our EMR provider could not accommodate the change to ICD-10 in a way that allowed us to properly document our charges for very specific, common eye problems. This is a problem, you see, for eye doctors of any stripe take care of patients who are covered by government-funded programs. Failure to comply now meant penalties that would ramp up to 22% of payments in an industry that routinely runs a profit margin of 25-30%. Each slow step in the right direction was followed by multiple steps backwards and sideways.

We as a group never felt that our concerns and clear business needs were being adequately addressed. Have you ever owned a car that had a serious problem? One that seemed as though it was fixable, at least at the onset? Maybe it was a car that you loved, or maybe it was just a car that was paid for and did the job for you. You put money into the car to fix it and it’s not better, so you spend some more, and then you spend some more. At a certain point you realize that no matter how much money you put into fixing that car you just can’t lose the thought that it’s not going to be enough. You just can’t shake the worry that despite all of that money you are still going to end up on the side of the road at midnight in the middle of nowhere. After months of expensive upgrades that were late in coming it became clear that we could not be guaranteed that the EMR we’d been using since our creation would be able to carry us forward in a financially safe manner by meeting the government’s regulatory demand.

In effect, the U.S. government, through the regulatory demands of the ACA, forced us to initiate divorce proceedings with our EMR. To survive it became clear that SVC would need to buy and implement an entirely new EMR.

Again, you might ask, why can I not empathize with those who are late to the EMR game and suffering the pains of implementing a new EMR into their organizations if we are now in those same, exact shoes? I think it’s a fairness thing, and I fully acknowledge the irony that I am a guy who routinely quotes Scar’s great line “Life’s not faaaiiirrr.” You see, in my mind, we did the right thing way before we had to by spending money we really didn’t have in 2004 on an EMR way before it was mandatory. And we spent. And we spent. As anyone who has ever worked with mandatory software knows, your key critical programs are the gifts that keep giving…to your vendor. For our commitment to providing a better experience for our patients (and admittedly more business for the practice) we would now be rewarded by having the privilege of paying for a whole new system.

And as I will discuss next, paying for the “right” to see all of the information we’d already paid for.

Next Chapter 2: The War of the Roses

 

*Like all good reporting where one hopes to discuss global issues rather than very granular, product-specific issues, this series will not name any products that we have previously or are now using.

Evaluating and Treating Stress

Let’s talk about stress, shall we? It’s the Holiday Season in North America after all. Frankly, it’s been on my mind pretty much all day, every day, for a couple of years now. Probably because it appears to have taken up permanent residence in my body and soul for that same couple of years. Lots and lots of talk about stress around me, too. Everybody is talking about “having stress” in their lives, especially as the holidays roll around, so let’s talk.

First of all, as in all things it’s important that we lay some ground rules, establish some definitions so that we are sure to be talking about the same thing. Stress is what appears in your body in response to stressors; stressors are what you have in your life that produce stress, like serving dinner to family on Christmas Eve. I know, I know, it’s a pretty fine point, but bear with me because I think it will make a bit more sense in a moment.

In my day job I am constantly asked if various and sundry ailments are caused by stress. The most accurate and honest answer, from a strictly medical/scientific standpoint, is “yes”. What people are actually asking me, though, is: are the ailments that they have a direct result of the stressors in their lives? Again, perhaps a bit of a fine point, but it will matter. Everyone routinely conflates “stress” with “stressors”.

You can reduce the stress in your body; you may or may not be able to effectively reduce the stressors that cause it.

Think about that for a moment. You can do quite a few things that will reduce the ailments you may have because stress has been induced in your body. The simple science is that chronic stress throws your neuro-endocrine “fight or flight” response out of whack. Our bodies secrete cortisol when faced with acute stress. This is in turn associated with a release of adrenaline. Your pupils dilate, your BP and heart rate go up, and you shunt blood to skeletal muscle in preparation to do battle or to flee.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, causes an increase in both the basal cortisol secretion and a blunting of the normal daily secretion pattern of more in the AM and less in the PM. You have a flatter curve over the day, and the whole curve is elevated. In time you have a chronically elevated BP, and your state of chronic “readiness” begins to affect all manner of the rest of your systems. Stress then becomes a stressor itself, a repeating negative feedback loop. For example, your sleep pattern gets fried. Heck you may not sleep very much at all. That makes stress worse. That “lump in your throat” feeling when you are just pre-panic”? Yeah, that can be there all the time. It even has a name: globus.

Rather ominous word, that. Globus. Stresses me out just typing it.

Here’s the rub: if you could avoid stress—the adverse affect on your body—who wouldn’t do so? When people talk about trying to have less stress in their lives what they are actually saying is that they wish they had fewer and less powerful stressors causing that stress. Work issues, illness, family strife, money issues…life would just be better if we didn’t have them. Pretty simple. Get rid of stressors, get rid of stress. Sadly, our ability to excise stressors from our lives, or even insulate ourselves from them, is somewhere beyond inadequate and approaches impossible.

What to do then? If we cannot avoid the root causes of our stress, how can we relieve it? It turns out that both the magnitude and particular variety of stress can often be measured. Specific symptoms (sleep abnormalities, globus) will point toward equally specific interventions. There are laboratory tests that can be ordered given your particular stress (e.g. midline fat deposition); nutrition adjustments can be made in response (elevated cortisol reduces insulin sensitivity->consume carbohydrates during periods of lower daily cortisol levels).

For me the bottom line is this: we likely have little to no ability to control stressors, those exogenous factors that incite stress. Further, left to its own devices, our body will respond with stress. We can manage that stress by acknowledging it, evaluating it, and then proactively going about counteracting it. You are a Black Box experiment with an n=1.

Attack stress in exactly the way you attack fitness or nutrition. Weigh it, measure it, analyze it, and then attack it.

The Enemy is the Couch

One of the repeating themes in all of my writings on fitness is that it is exponentially more important that one gets off the couch than it is what one does after getting up. To be sure, we in the CrossFit community have been reasonably and accurately accused of being zealous in our support of our chosen post-couch activity. Unlike “Fight Club” it has been observed that the first rule of Crossfit must be that you ALWAYS talk about CrossFit. Fair dinkum. Still, while we may be proven more right than not in the end, there exist other effective fitness options.

My nephew, a retired hockey and lacrosse player, has found his post-collegiate sweet spot in one of the cycling/spinning communities. His preferred version is “Soul Cycle”, but that’s probably more like saying Ben & Jerry’s when you really mean ice cream. You and I know all kinds of folks who swear by Pilates, Barre, various and sundry types of Yoga, and the legions of people who lace ‘em up and run at all kinds of levels at all kinds of times in all kinds of places. In the end even the most zealous among us has to admit that each and every one of these non-CF activities are substantially better than continuing in an unhealthy relationship with your couch.

Fitness, and by extension health, are profoundly complex entities. Hence my own personal difficulty in arriving at a single integer that can be used to measure relative health. It also explains the abject failure of the collective whole of the health wearables industry to come up with a single meaningful, actionable measurement. Still, we ought not dismiss the wearables industry entirely if for no other reason that putting on that Fitbit, or launching Health on your Apple Watch more often than not is like magic; it levitates your ass off that couch.

Simplifying our discussion about fitness and health along the straight line between relatively high intensity exercise versus what could be called long-slow aerobic exercise blinds us to both the essential value of forsaking the couch, while at the same time limiting our ability to explore why it is that there doesn’t seem to be that one, single best approach. Part of the genius of CrossFit is that it starts with a definition and then demands measurement. CrossFit proper has enjoyed explosive growth, growth which is now also occurring in a parallel universe of derivative programming offered by trainers who got their start owning a Box. Is it, are they, better than everything else out there?

Does it matter?

Zero sum games require that someone lose in order that another wins. Likewise, a zero sum grading of ideas means that one eventually must become axiomatic at the expense of the demise of another. Zone/macro quantitative strategies of nutrition vs. Paleo and similar qualitative strategies, for example. A complex system demands that we constantly assess not only the “games” themselves, but also the relationships between the various “games”. Perhaps the greatest gift that I have received from my discovery of CrossFit and the CrossFit community is my ongoing curiosity about all things fitness, and by extension my willingness and desire to pursue the inquiry. By extension I have learned that what works for me may not necessarily work for you.

Is it better to do my CrossFit Rx or my nephew’s Soul Cycle? The answer of course is ‘yes’. Should one do the “Taking Back Eating” macro program or find health in “The Paleo Solution”? Likewise: ‘yes’. Broad acclimations await better measurement followed by the evaluation of those measurements across very large groups of people. However, you and I need not await those conclusions because we can embark on a highly actionable study of our own, n=1.

All it takes is getting off the couch.

 

Tone Across the Service Line

Ever listen to how people address folks on the providing side of the customer service continuum? Do you ever stop to listen to yourself, or think about how you will sound before you speak? Fascinating. In North America we are moving ever more swiftly to an economy that is majority a service economy; we don’t really make stuff so much anymore, we help people use stuff someone else made, or provide assistance based on a knowledge base or skill set. Listening to people on the receive side of the equation is fascinating.

We have been forced to change our EMR at SkyVision. Our office is running behind schedule because of this. My ears are on high alert for how our patients are reacting. I’m prompted to this line of thought by three interactions in the office that happened while I was loitering at the reception desk. Three individuals not so much requesting a service but demanding it, doing so with a tone that implies not only a deep sense of entitlement but also a deeper lack of regard for the individual who will provide that service. Both in tone and content the to-be-served make it clear to the service provider that he or she is there to serve only them. In fact, the servers only reason to exist is to serve, as if the to-be-served were some kind of different, superior version of the species. It’s loathsome, actually.

I spend every waking moment of each working day on the “serve” side of the equation, whether I am a SkyVision plying my profession or CFB coaching. Having achieved some measure of expertise in both it’s very rare that I am on the receiving end of this type of behavior, but it does happen. More often is the case that it is someone lower on the org chart who gets this. The receptionist, phone operator, or check-out person who gets this “lower life-form” treatment, not the doctor or business owner.

Life can be hard for these front line people in a service business. There’s not only a “customer is always right” mentality on the other side of the interaction but also a sense that being a customer who will get what they want is as much as human right as Life or Liberty. That’s what it sounds like, anyway, if you are off to the side listening. No matter how frustrated one might become from a service situation gone wrong it’s important to remember that there is no continuum in the relationship when it comes to the inalienable rights, nor is there any evolutionary hierarchy across that desk or over that phone line.

Danny Meyer, the great NYC restauranteur, is probably closest to correct when he says “the customer is not right all of the time, but mostly right most of the time. A customer [only] has the right to be heard.” How you express yourself when you are on the “receive” side of the customer service experience is not only an important measurement of how you value the person across from you providing the service, but frankly is probably also a predictor for how likely you are to be successful in being heard. It’s instructive that none of the three SkyVision clients who made difficult (bordering on unreasonable) requests in an unpleasant manner were accommodated because doing so would have required an extraordinary effort which may not have been successful in any event.

Sorry, no pithy statement to wrap it up this week. In the end we all want what we want, and we all need to be heard. It helps to look at the person on the other end of the service divide as if you were looking in a mirror. Would you say that, like that, to the person in the reflection?

Cost + Quality + Convenience = Value

My wife Beth and I had a rather spirited discussion about how we in the U.S. might be able to pay for the healthcare of our citizens. Being ever practical, and also owning the job of writing the checks that pay for the “health insurance” our company offers its associates (including us), Beth in effect is arguing for a national consensus on something we might describe as a baseline ‘value’ for healthcare. Others would label her concept a ‘floor’, but you get the idea.

What Beth intuitively understands is the tension between cost, quality, and convenience. You pick a baseline or a floor level of value and offer that to everyone. With training as a nurse and 15 years in healthcare administration, her idea of what constitutes the sum of cost, quality, and convenience naturally overweights the integers for cost and quality: outcomes should be essentially equal across the board at the baseline or floor level, and the costs of achieving that should be in some way equitably shouldered by something we could describe as “society”. Very practical. A strategy that lends itself to being observable and measurable.

What’s the rub? Well, only two of the three elements that make up value are covered. To obtain an agreed upon level of medical outcomes (mortality, morbidity, longevity, etc.) the cost is covered. Ah, but HOW you obtain those outcomes is still a variable. It is the FLOOR of value that is guaranteed. Our family is experienced a bit of this recently with Beth’s Mom. After a hospitalization she was living in a setting that ws providing excellent care at a reasonable cost, but it was a setting that did not provide any extras; it was old, not very pretty, and she could  have had a roommate. Her (and her daughters’) experience, what we might call “convenience” or  in our formula, was found to be lacking. The girls opted to move her to a nicer setting, one that will eventually involve a higher cost because of the enhancements to the experience, with no change in the already best possible outcome, or quality.

Therein lies the problem with any discussion about literally anything that we might discuss as a “right”. Is everyone entitled to anything other than the minimal amount of convenience/experience necessary to obtain the best outcome at an affordable cost?

If we examine food, we find something quite similar. No one among us would say that X Million people should go without food. Indeed, we don’t even really talk about true hunger in the U.S. anymore, we talk about “food insecurity”, the concern that we may become hungry. By the same token, though, no one asserts that everyone is entitled to the same quality of food. Not even a little bit. No, quite the contrary, all that is discussed is cost and convenience (access).

Now, of course, we in the CrossFit world (and to a degree in the medical world) argue that quality is an ineluctable part of nutrition, that one must extend the equation outside of food alone so that an explicit choice is made that prioritizes quality calories over other purchases (cell phone, cable, fancy car, etc.). While this is accurate and proper I believe that we can reasonably quarantine nutrition and keep it separate from other needs, at least for the purpose of our discussion. The universal concept of the interplay between cost, quality, and convenience holds true in nutrition/food on a global, grand policy making level:

You can pick any two, but only two, when you are declaring what is the minimally acceptable level.

My formulaic approach to the coverage of needs has a little wrinkle that should be mentioned: quality cannot be increased ad infinitum. In all examples we might evaluate there is a practical limit to the ability to improve quality or outcomes. The law of diminishing returns arrives in the form of the asymptote as quality rises. On the other hand, cost and convenience are unbound and can rise almost infinitely. It is the alcohol in a drink that confers the health benefit; the same outcome occurs no matter what you drink. One person’s jug wine from Costco is another person’s Chateau Lafite served in the Gulfstream V. You get the picture.

What will become of our conversations about issues such as healthcare? Will we arrive at a similar juncture to the one we have now in food, clothing, and shelter? Where quality (outcomes) and cost issues are addressed and everyone is left to make their own call on convenience/experience? Beth can’t see how it can be any other way. Me? I’m much less optimistic. That old “want vs. need” thing just keeps popping up. Confusion arises when a truly generous people confuse what people want with what they need. Need is measurable and therefore finite, whereas want is neither. We can, and should, all work to pick up the check for the needs of each. “Want”, on the other hand, is the proverbial “free lunch”, and we as a society will need to agree on that before we can even begin to discuss begin to talk about the mechanics of paying the bill.

TANSTAAFL. Heinlein was right.

 

Full-Ass

“It’s better to full-ass one something than to half-ass a bunch of things.” Anonymous

At the moment I am living day seven of another week of on-call coverage for one of the largest hospitals in Ohio. When asked recently by colleagues why I still do hospital coverage I had to admit that I really didn’t have an answer. I don’t really have to do it, and yet it doesn’t really seem like it feels right not to. There’s a kind of “pay it forward” debt to the giants who came before me that still lingers, I suppose. That debt’s been paid, with a bundle of interest, many times over, and it may be time to close the ledger.

Why now? Well, it has very little to do with the work itself because that hasn’t really changed all that too very much over the years. No, it’s more about the work that’s NOT being done by others, work that they own and are responsible for and don’t do, that will ultimately drive me away from this part of my day job. It’s really no different than any other job or workplace anywhere. The lazy and the shiftless, the incompetent and the entitled all see it as just fine to kick the can downstream to whomever they can get away with kicking it to.

I’ll bet you just had a dozen images of this from your own life flash by, right?

Boy, there are a thousand reasons you will hear to explain and rationalize why they feel it’s perfectly reasonable to get you to do their work. After awhile it gets really old. The first thing you should do when you encounter this is to look within and make sure that YOU aren’t doing this anywhere to anyone else. Gotta make sure that your virtue is intact before you saddle up the high horse! Once you’ve ascertained that all is right and proper with your own work ethic you then have a bit of a choice to make: rock the boat or sail along. Sadly, though you know the consequences of the latter (you continue to do that slacker’s work), be prepared for the possibility of not being thanked for pointing out reality to bosses and co-workers. It’s entirely possible that you will be the one criticized. Totally fair, right?

In the end there is no best answer to this dilemma. All you can do is use the feelings generated in you by being on the receiving end of this work-shifting to make yourself a better worker, no matter who it is you do that work for. If you do, indeed, reach that point where you just can’t look at yourself in the mirror any more because the injustice is simply too much to accept, it’s OK to call it as you see it. That’s where I am today, and that’s what I’ll be doing this week. To be sure, all of that “pay it forward” I’ve done will get me an audience, though it may not mean I will be able to effect change. Other than workload, that is. As of tomorrow, in this tiny part of my day job, I will be doing the very best job I possibly can, as I always do, for each of my patients each time I see them.

What I won’t be doing is picking up the other half an ass that someone else missed before I full-ass my part of the job.

Sunday musings: Opiate Overdoses and American Health

To the victors go the spoils. History is written by the victors. Truer words, eh?

I find myself turning off all manner of information outlets of late because they are all just so many repeats. The other side of that victor coin is that the vanquished simply repeat the lines of the victor when s/he was losing. Look no further than the kerfuffle about the Accountable Care Act. If you remove time stamps and the naming of characters what one hears or reads is essentially unchanged today from what was said or written some 7 years ago.

Try it.

My sense of ennui is so strong that it is fairly paralyzing. Is there no one out there who is willing or able to propose something that is truly new? Can we not even even come up with new or original complaints and criticisms? Must we be doomed to this endless cycle of sameness about seemingly everything?

It’s almost as if the vanquished do not so much fail to learn from history but that they work very hard to faithfully replay history in exquisite detail, dooming us all.

We are looking at a true health crisis in the U.S. In 2016 some 40,000 Americans died from opiate overdoses. This is more than the number of deaths by firearms by a factor of 4, and is similar to the number of deaths in automobile accidents. This morning I read a startling statistic: 7 million working age men are out of the employment market, and 1/2 of them take painkillers on a daily basis. Crazy, huh?

On CrossFit.com we agree that there is a general crisis of health in the American populace stemming from over-consumption of calories (most of which are high glycemic index carbs) and under-consumption of physical activity. Another equally startling story in this week’s news is the growing acceptance of excess body weight fat as some kind of new normal, a normal that should somehow be institutionalized.Total capitulation, that.  In this discussion one must add the over-consumption of alcohol, because countless studies have shown that this legal substance is responsible for all kinds of negative health effects, both direct and indirect. (As an aside, it does give one pause when one considers the possibility of legalizing another neuro-depressant, marijuana). As if this isn’t enough, we now must add to this toxic recipe the ingestion by any route of opiates.

The U.S. is regularly taken to task for its failure to sit at the top of the world’s life expectancy leader board despite spending the largest amount per capita on healthcare in the world. This criticism becomes more and more unreasonable as we dive further into what it is that actually drives statistics such as life expectancy. Deaths from overdoses are illustrative of the folly of conflating health and healthcare: there is nothing in the healthcare system of treatment that drives this statistic, and the death of these primarily young people has a disproportionate effect on the life expectancy statistic in which it is years lived that we are counting (and losing).

What, then, is to be done, especially in the setting here of health-conscious individuals? It behooves each of us to take a bit of personal responsibility in the discussion and pledge that we will utilize accurate nomenclature, and in turn demand that everyone else in the conversation do likewise. Health and healthcare are not synonyms. Likewise, healthcare and health insurance (itself somewhat of a misnomer) are not the same; one does not lose healthcare when one does not have health insurance, and for certain the ownership of a health insurance policy does not guarantee one access to healthcare. Indeed, because the outcome was inconvenient to the majority of entrenched healthcare interests, the landmark study of Oregon Medicaid recipients that showed no improvement in health outcomes in those with Medicaid compared with those without has been mostly ignored and purposely forgotten. We need to engage in this conversation, but do so with strict fidelity to meaningful terms.

From there we should lead in whatever way we can. This effort is not at all about the treatment of disease, at least not as far as we here are concerned, but rather one of Public Health. There are quite specific areas to be addressed if we wish to effect change. Each area must be subjected to a root cause analysis. Over-consumption of low-quality carbs is near and dear to CrossFit, Inc., and the battle against “Big Soda’s” influence has been engaged. Other influences such as agricultural subsidies should have a similar bright light shined in their direction. How is it that the dramatic reduction of drinking and driving has failed to render deaths from drunken driving a statistical anomaly? Perhaps someone can convince one of those know-better do-gooder billionaires globe-trotting in search of a trendy problem to throw money at to look a bit closer to home when they apply their famous intellect to new thinking about old problems.

As to the tragedy that is opiate overdose deaths, can we please have someone with no skin in the game be given no-risk access to any and all applicable data and just turn them loose? Some guy did a deep dive into the issue of scrubbing the internet of all vestiges of child pornography using a combination of massive computing power and an outsider’s view. Give someone like that the ability to examine the entire opiate ecosystem to uncover some of the hows and whys so that we can make some decisions of the whats of our response with more than just our typical SOP of some self-designated, conflict-of-interest-infected expert who declares that his/her solution should work because of what they are sure must be going on. This seems to be a new thing, after all, and rather young, too. Prior opiate societal infestations surely share some aspects with our present crisis, but I don’t recall the opium dens in the days of the Crusades so routinely offing their customers.

Anything that can be measured can be analyzed. Anything that can be analyzed can be altered utilizing the results of that analysis. What is needed is the double-edged sword of courage to uncover an unpleasant truth, and strength to set aside all manner of short-term personal gain in favor of a long-term solution for societal benefit.

We ought not let 40,000 lives representing hundreds of thousands of years not lived to be lost in vain.

Unshakable Belief Meets Unmovable Facts

This week I spent some time talking to a couple of folks who, unbeknownst to them, were talking about each other. Well, talking to them is not really accurate–they were having a discussion and I was having a listen. Both were talking about the effects of a particular happening on a particular person they both knew, effects that both could surely see if only they cared to remove their blinders and look.

They told wildly different stories. Their belief sets were so unshakable, so impervious to penetration by petty inconveniences like facts and reality, it was as if they wore not lenses to clarify but masks to obscure. The blind running from the blind, if you will. I’m fascinated when I see this; I see this almost every day when I am plying my trade as an eye surgeon. So much of what is “known” about medicine isn’t really known at all but “felt”. I constantly run up against an unshakable belief that is often expressed in a statement that begins “well, I think…” Indeed, I heard this from both folks telling me what was transpiring.

I’m fascinated and exasperated in equal parts by this because of how completely this unshakable belief nullifies the otherwise logical power of observable, measurable fact. If I step back and think a little more deeply about this phenomenon I am also terrified that I, too, may harbor similarly unshakable beliefs that blind me to the truths of a fact-based reality. This weekend brought me to a gathering of true experts in a particular field of my day job, one I was quite flattered to attend. There were a couple of points that I’m just convinced my colleagues got wrong, points of view it looks like I shared only with myself. Am I right? Is my insight so keen, my ability to analyze the data presented so much better, that I am just a full step ahead? Or is it rather that I am clinging to a point of view supported only by the virtual facts created by personal beliefs I am unable or unwilling to walk away from?

This simple awareness and acknowledgement–that I may suffer from “belief” bias–might be enough to inoculate me.  I certainly owe my patients (and my readers) an effort to investigate that.

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