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Measuring Health Part 2:The Traditional Metric ‘M’

Any measurement of health must provide some sort of predictive value with regard to the likelihood that one will remain healthy. While the entire idea of screening tests is fraught with controversy–both false positives and false negatives bring with them real risks–there are still a number of health measurements in the realm of traditional medical care that have a proven value when trying to predict downstream adverse health events. The trick, of course, is to decide which ones matter, filter that group to come up with tests that are as close to universally available as possible, and then decide how much weight each particular test in the group of survivors should receive in the single cumulative metric that is then created. This measurement, call it “M”, will be one of the variables in our calculated health measurement.

Let’s start with the simplest of all medical inquiries, a medical history. More specifically, let’s include a brief family history in our calculation of M. While it is becoming increasingly easy to obtain a very accurate genetic profile that identifies very specific health risks, these genetic tests are both controversial and expensive. Until the very real societal issues of knowing your exact genome and the risks it includes have been worked out by both ethicists and elected government, we should take a simpler and more narrow approach and ask two very simple questions: Has anyone in your family died from heart disease? Has anyone in your family died from cancer? Equally simple follow-up questions (How young were they? What kind of cancer) would allow us to add risk (reduce M) or ignore the historical note since the disease is not hereditary.

From here we move to an equally spartan individual medical history. Again, just two questions in this part: Do you smoke? Do you drink alcohol? The negative effect of smoking on an individual’s health, both in the present and future tense, must be accounted for in any measurement of health. It weighs so heavily on what we know about future risks that we will see it as a negative integer in M. Too many studies to count exist pointing out the deleterious effect of excess alcohol consumption to count. One compelling study, The Eight Americas Study in PloS One, found alcoholism to be the single most powerful lifestyle variant after smoking when predicting the life expectancy of groups studied. A recently published study of Harvard men found that alcoholism was the greatest second greatest influence on the happiness of the men studied, just behind the presence of loving friendships. Unlike smoking, however, there is a volume component to alcohol consumption. Indeed, a modest intake actually INCREASES longevity, while no intake DECREASES longevity. So M will see a small bump from moderated alcohol intake, an equally small decrease for teetotalers, and a dramatic negative effect from heavy alcohol intake.

So far we’ve managed to obtain some variables underlying M through the use of simple inquiry, costing only the time it takes a subject to fill out a questionnaire. At least two other variables are as accessible and inexpensive: blood pressure (BP) and a measurement of body habits. Once upon a time you had to visit a doctor or hospital to get your blood pressure checked. Now? Heck, for $20 you can buy a reasonable accurate BP monitor and take your BP at home! Minute Clinics in pharmacies, health clinics in the workplace, and coin-operated machines in the local Mall now make it easy to get a BP without visiting a doctor. While there is ongoing controversy in the medical world about what constitutes Hypertension it is safe to say that health risks are higher with a systolic pressure >140 and a diastolic >90. Above or below these levels is our toggle for M, positive or more healthy for lower and the opposite for higher BP.

Using body habitus is controversial, mostly because the measurement that is routinely utilized is so inadequate. The Body Mass Index, or BMI, is wildly inaccurate when it is applied to the fit. 4-time winner of the CrossFit Games Rich Froning, arguably the fittest man on the planet, would be deemed obese at 5′ 10″ and roughly 195 pounds with a % body weight fat of around 4%. Ridiculous, huh? The temptation, of course, is to use % BW fat as the preferred method of measuring body composition risk, but measurements that are accurate enough to be useful tend to be very expensive and difficult to access. On the other hand, all you need to determine the waist/hip ratio is an 89 cent paper tape measure and a calculator. A waist/hip ratio of >1.0 is associated with an increased risk to health from myriad metabolic illnesses including diabetes and heart disease, especially in men. Greater health in M for measurements under 1.0, and progressively less as that number increases.

It is impossible to utilize all that modern medicine has to offer when it comes to measuring health without spending a little bit of money. Several simple blood tests can be obtained with or without the input of a physician. The presence or control of diabetes can be ascertained with a HbA1c and a fasting glucose level. In the presence of a normal HbA1c an elevated fasting glucose may indicate a problem with insulin sensitivity, so it is important to include both. While it is far from settled whether or not it is cholesterol itself which is responsible for heart disease there is simply too much evidence that serum lipids can help predict cardiac events to leave them out of any health measurement. Our basic health index should therefore include the basic measurement of total cholesterol, HDL, LDL, and triglycerides, and M should reflect the negative effect of elevated Total Cholesterol, LDL and triglycerides and the positive effect of a high HDL.

How should we put all of these together to come up with our traditional health variable, M? This one is fairly simple; there are a number of “risk factor” measurements online that are good models. I envision a rather simple form on which one would add up weighted values for the measurements above, arriving at a straight forward mathematical sum. The final formula is being developed with the assistance of cardiologists at my medical school alma mater, the University of Vermont.

 

Measuring Health Part 1: Rationale, Definitions and Background

In 2010 I had a bit of an epiphany. At the time I was a bit over 4 years into my CrossFit journey. It became painfully obvious that the genius that Greg Glassman had applied to physical fitness–a definition of fitness that invited measurement, and in turn the critical evaluation of the efficacy of different fitness programs–was nowhere to be seen in the fields of health and medicine. Indeed, an informal survey carried out in person by my friend Dr. Kathy Weesner and I made it clear that the majority of physicians couldn’t come up with an actionable definition for health despite the fact that we are charged as professionals with helping our patients become “healthy”.

At around this time Coach Glassman published a theory that health was precisely defined as “fitness over time”. In CrossFit Fitness is work capacity across broad time and modal domains. Fitness over years could be depicted as a 3-dimensional graph with axes time, work, and years. As I thought about his thesis, that a backward looking view of an individual’s fitness as defined by CrossFit was a proxy for health, I found myself with the feeling that the definition was intriguing but incomplete. In response I took it upon myself to develop a broader definition of health, one in which fitness was a primary, but not the sole marker or metric. That April I submitted a draft of my definition of health along with a new, broader base of proposed tests that would generate the data that could be used to measure an individual’s health. Over the years it has become clear that Greg and I are more in agreement than not, but a key CrossFit employee at the time had a fundamental disagreement with my thesis, and consequently the article was rejected by the CrossFit Journal. I published my draft here on Random Thoughts later that year.

For almost 6 years I have been mulling this over, threatening to return to the problem of defining and then measuring health in much the same way that Coach Glassman defined and then measured fitness. The quest was derailed by all of the usual time sinks of mid-life. In a humorous irony, the majority of my real, true free time was consumed by the task of helping my sons run their CrossFit Affiliate gym. It is time, now, for me to finish what I started in 2010 if for no other reason than to establish the provenance of the theory.

In order to effectively address any issue whatsoever it is first necessary to have a clear understanding of the definition of terms that may be important to the discussion. I made a similar statement in one of my earliest posts on the importance of understanding the difference between health, healthcare delivery (medicine), and healthcare finance. Here again I fall back on the genius of Greg Glassman: just as one cannot evaluate either fitness or fitness programs without first defining what it is that you are discussing when you say “fitness”, one must first have a definition of “health” before one can begin to measure it. What exactly is “health”? What does it mean to be healthy?

Let’s return for a moment to the physician survey that Dr. Weesner and I did in early 2010. During face-to-face meetings we asked groups of physician colleagues to give us their definition of “health” or “healthy”. The majority of the answers couldn’t have been less inspiring or more disappointing. Indeed, the most common answer was “I don’t know”! Not very comforting, that. The second most common answer was as anticipated: health is the absence of disease. In our American medical system of “disease care” this is an understandable response, of course, but as the basis for the development of a true measurement of “health” it is obvious on its face that this definition has never translated into any actionable metric. Why? Well for one it fails entirely to take into account the very real importance of “fitness”, the expression of health. More specifically, like fitness as a proxy for health, “absence of disease” also fails to address a key requirement for any measurement of health: there is no forward-looking predictive value to simply stating that you have no disease today.

A measurable, actionable definition of health is one that takes into account the degree that disease is present or absent at any given time. It must address physical fitness; to be without a named disease but to be unable to walk up a flight of stairs should not ever be construed as “healthy”. Of equal importance to these factors, any definition of “health” that will generate a meaningful metric must have a predictive value. Your Health Value should provide some measurement of your future likelihood of being disease free and fit. Our little survey of our physician peers did produce just such definitions. Given these requirements I propose that the following are actionable definitions that can be used in healthcare to create measurements in precisely the same way that Greg Glassman’s definition of fitness is used in that realm:

HEALTH: The state in which no infirmity of any kind suppresses, or has the possibility of suppressing the ability to express the full extant of an individual’s potential capacities.

HEALTHY: Able to perform in all ways at the farthest limits of one’s potential capabilities.

With these definitions we can move on to developing a “health metric”, one that can not only assess our present degree of health, but can also predict to some degree our ability to remain healthy. I believe this metric has three component parts: physical fitness as defined by CrossFit, well-being or emotional health, and a factor that addresses traditional or standard medical factors such as blood pressure, cholesterol, genetics and the like. Furthermore, I predict that these three variables are as evident and as logical for “health” as Coach Glassman’s definition is for fitness.

One can have an otherworldly degree of fitness as defined by CrossFit, but what good is it to have a 500 pound deadlift and the ability to run a 4:00 mile if your physical achievement is driven by self-loathing? By the same token, in addition to having a normal result in every conceivable medical test your countenance is as sunny as an 8 year old on vacation, your disposition so Zen-like that the Dali Lama himself wishes he were as happy and serene, but you can’t walk a mile. This surely cannot equal healthy. You are a world-champion long-distance runner, and yet you drop dead from a heart attack, unaware that you have a cholesterol of 800. Fit for sure, but hardly healthy. Fitness, well being, and modern health metrics all have a role in an actionable Health Measurement. Vigorous debate will be necessary to parse the relative weight given to each of these factors, but as I first proposed and wrote in April 2010,all three are clearly necessary components.

In short order I will offer follow-up posts that delve more deeply into each of these three components. I will include suggestions for what and how to measure them. I will conclude with a re-statement of my proposal for a single measurement of health with my suggestion as to the relative weight of the three variables, hopefully inciting the above-mentioned vigorous debate. By doing so I wish to document the originality and timeline of my proposal, acknowledge the intellectual debt owed to Greg Glassman for inspiring me, and reassert my contention that healthcare cannot reach its fullest potential without first agreeing on both a definition of health and how to measure it.

 

 

 

Leading Thoughts

Twice a year I travel for my day job as an ophthalmologist to a large trade show dedicated to a combination of continuing education and commerce. Part of what I do when I am attending these meetings is provide services as a “leader” to the companies that sell stuff to people like me. The term that is used to describe me in this setting is a “Key Opinion Leader”, or KOL.

I used to think this was very impressive, to be a KOL. Frankly, I was very impressed with myself having “achieved” such a presumably lofty status. I’m not so sure about that anymore. Oh sure, I’m still plenty impressed with myself–I am my own biggest fan, and for whatever it’s worth you should be your own biggest fan, too–but as I think a bit more about what it really means to be a KOL it becomes something a bit more of, I dunno, less I guess.

To be a KOL one must certainly be seen by some kind of audience that is moved by your opinion; I get that, and I still get that the mere fact that one has reached a stage in career or status where your opinion is sought is a kind of stamp of “OK’ness”. No question about it, that’s flattering. Dig a little deeper, though, and you begin to realize that perhaps the only reason why your opinion is out there at all in its quest to be key is because it aligns with the worldview of someone who is telling folks what you think. With few exceptions, even in our modern day of enhanced access for the everyman to tell you what he or she thinks, your opinion is only pushed out there if it is key to someone else’s commercial well-being.

Looked at through that prism at least, it’s a little less impressive to be called a KOL, isn’t it?

The goal all along for me here, in my day job, and pretty much everywhere, is to somehow be a Key Thought Leader. To trade in a marketplace of ideas, hopefully contributing at least some degree of refinement to another’s true genius if I’m unable to generate any true genius of my own. This realization, too slow in coming to be called an epiphany but rather disruptive to my worldview nonetheless, has forced me to re-think a big part of my place in the world of ophthalmology.

Are you interested in what I think only because it aligns with your established objectives? Well then, you’d like me to be a KOL for you, someone who will knowingly or unwittingly move only your needle and not mine. That’s called commerce, and it’s a perfectly legitimate exchange for which we can negotiate value.

Or rather are you interested in what I think while you are in the process of creating those objectives? Ah, now, that’s quite a different story, isn’t it? In this case you are really and truly interested in what I actually think as something that has stand-alone value because you’ve yet to even determine what the dial looks like on your meter, yet to even know what moving the needle looks like. In effect what you have done is put my thoughts out in front of your product or service. In the end I might not actually have what it takes to be one, but if do I know where a thought leader stands.

Out front.

 

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.

 

 

Another Epic Misadventure II: CPOE Goes Live

Boy oh boy, was it crowded in the Ambulatory Surgery Center on Tuesday. The place was crawling with techie types in outfits that looked an awful lot like Walmart uniforms, bumping into a cadre of Suits who were there doing…well…I’m not sure what the Suits were doing. They were mostly in the way of productive people doing useful stuff. My day started off with an almost immediate case of miss met expectations as the tech support person who’d promised she would be there to guide me on Day One, since she’d spent so much time personally preparing both me and Epic for our first CPOE date, was nowhere to be found. Sadly, it was apparent that the otherwise quite lovely and very talented woman who was there instead, let’s call her my “Doc Minder”, was going to need some catching up on what had gone before, despite her assurances that she’d been fully prepared by Top Tech, the Doctor Whisperer.

“Dr. White, I was led to believe that all of your pre-op orders have already been entered into the system.” Uh oh. I spent 2 hours the prior Thursday afternoon with the head honcho “Doctor Whisperer” entering all of those orders. My first thought was “why don’t you know this already, since you have access to all of my charts today and could have looked?”, followed by “How is it possible that you didn’t look so that you could head off any problems before I got here?” What I said was: “they’d better be.” Ugh. Was this a sign? Given my state of mind heading into this day you can imagine the kinds of thoughts going through my head when the first mobile computer brought to the OR for my use didn’t work. Like, not at all. Rough start.

Turns out that I have some history with these mobile computers and World Class Hospital. They were originally called “Computers on Wheels”, which I instantly renamed “COWs”. Makes sense, right? Easy. Cute. Man, did that get shot down fast. Something about cultural sensitivity, or, really, I have no idea, but calling them a “COW” was verboten. I’ve been using that “Lipstick on a Pig” analogy when discussing everyone’s sensitivity to my unhappiness about Epic in general and CPOE in particular. My new four-wheeled “Pig” arrived and to my surprise things actually started to look up. The computer worked so well that I found myself calling it “Babe”.

Having all of my pre-op orders already in the system turned out to be a critical step in giving the day a fighting chance to succeed. All of the orders had, indeed, successfully made their way from the chart to the nurses in pre-op, and from there to what seemed to be a fairly regular implementation for my surgical patients. This is important because patient preparation starts well before I arrive in the morning for surgical patients, and begins for lasers while I am toiling away in the OR. The fact that it took some 2 hours to get these orders entered last week (total of 19 cases), a process that had heretofore occurred entirely without needing me to engage, was momentarily lost in the euphoria that I didn’t need to put out any pre-op order fires (hmmm…would that be a Pig roast? Sorry.).

Although this was day one for implementing CPOE in this particular ASC, the fact that the main campus of World Class Hospital, as well as several other WCH ASC’s had already made the transition, meant I really wasn’t truly a guinea pig (too much?). Standard order sets already existed for eye surgery, and it was relatively simple for the behind-the-scenes cave-dwellers to create both order sets specific for our ASC as well as templates for my op notes (more on the cave-dwellers in Part III). As I noted in Part I our turnover time in a single OR for cataract surgery is ~7:00. With some gentle and kind prompting from my “Doc Minder” I was easily able to do everything “Babe” asked of me between cases in addition to my usual duties (chat with the family, etc.). My kindly “DM” agreed that “Babe” would probably slow me down on busier days when I hop between two OR’s, but for today at least there was no time suck for cataract surgery. I even did one fewer dictation because the “Doctor Whisperer” had helped me create a template for “Complex Cataract Surgery”.

I may or may not have said “That’s some Pig!” out loud.

Alas, everyone involved knew that the happiness was fated to be short-lived. The efficiency bar is so high when we do ophthalmic lasers that there was simply no way that “Babe” was going to be able to keep up; he was back to being a Pig as soon he moseyed over to the laserium. Because every patient’s chart must be completed before they are allowed to leave the facility–images of armed guards wearing Google Glass running Epic and manning the exits filled my head–I had to attend to all of “Babe’s” needs before starting with the next patient. This process took 1.5-2X as long as usual, increasing the time it took me to do my lasers and making it a bit less convenient for my patients.

Then everything went off the rails.

Computers are computers, and software is software. They are both heroes or goats depending on how well they fulfill whatever task they are assigned, but they are prisoners of the people who operate them. The plan that all stakeholders had agreed on was for ASC staff to schedule all surgeries booked by SkyVision as of Monday by the time I finished lasers on Tuesday. I would then do all of the pre-op ordering for the following week before leaving for the day. Under the best of circumstances every minute I spend doing this is both a time and a happiness suck for me because, as I noted above, prior to CPOE I didn’t have to do ANY of it. Naturally, more than half of next week’s patients had not yet been entered into the system making it necessary to not only stick around to pet my Pig (I know) but also wait for the overworked WCH staff to complete their tasks. All in all it cost me about an hour, stealing my workout and rushing my lunch so that I could be in the office and start clinic without making my patients wait.

What’s the take-home? Tune in for Part III. For the moment let me just say…that’ll do Pig, that’ll do.

Another Epic Misadventure: Interlude

It’s really quite flattering, all the attention. The cynic would say that it’s all really just an attempt to keep my business, and I’m sure there’s a bit of that going on. After all, even though my surgical volume is down since my I left my original practice to start SkyVision, I still do a rather high volume of surgery at a very low cost/case. Still, the sheer number of folks, not to mention who they are, who have gone out of their way to try to make my CPOE transition go smoothly is impossible to ignore. Folks really do seem to be sincerely concerned about me as a person, someone they know and have come to like enough over many years, not just a surgeon bringing business. If only it wasn’t all so…so…useless.

I know, I know, I sound a bit petulant, but I’ve watched this movie before. I know how it ends. It may sound somewhat ungrateful, what with the head of physician training, Chief of Surgery, and Head of Outpatient Surgery and local administrator among those taking an open interest in my journey. It’s just that the story only ends one way, with a great big time suck that undoes a decade and a half of ever increasing efficiency (and with it patient satisfaction) and the associated assault on my emotional well-being.

All these people walking around with lipstick thinking…hoping…maybe just one more coat and he’ll smile when the pig kisses him.

 

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.

 

Epilogue to “Mommy-Track” post on “Equal Pay Day”

In 2011 I wrote an essay in response to an article I read in the WSJ on the coming physician shortage. In short I agreed with a letter that pointed out the effect of physicians working fewer hours than they had traditionally worked. In that letter the effect of the changing demographics in medicine (more women physicians, generational shifts) was pointed out. My essay agreed with the points in the letter. My thesis is that you can’t “have it all”, in medicine or anywhere. Someone, somehow, always pays.

While reading about “Equal Pay Day”, the day on which the “average female wage earner” achieves the same amount of pay as the “average male wage earner” acquired in the previous 12 months, a couple of things strike me. First, the general thesis of my essay continues to be accurate, at least in medicine. Income is determined by the choice of specialty, as always, but beyond that it is driven much more so by the number of hours a physician works and how productive that physician is during those work hours. Work more hours, get paid more money. Perform more of your doctorly duties in each one of those hours, get paid more money. There are fewer and fewer physician jobs in which seniority on its own drives income, thereby negating any lack of seniority which may be caused by a career “pause” to have or care for children. Physician income is largely gender-blind. As an aside, the dirty little secret of physician pay is that production-based compensation is the norm everywhere, even at those institutions that claim otherwise.

The second thing that strikes me is the malignantly erosive effect of ineffectual, unnecessary external regulation on the practice of all medicine on effective physician work hours. In 2014, whether you are a man or a woman, the bureaucratic load associated with practicing medicine is oppressive, and hours that just 5 years ago may have been spent caring for patients is now spent caring for charts, bills, and other paperwork. These hours generate no real health benefits for patients, and do not produce any revenue that pays the doctors for working them. In a particularly cruel example of Murphy’s Law, or at least the Law of Unintended Consequences, the specialties that are hardest hit by this relentless onslaught of the unnecessary are those that tend to pay physicians the least. Fields like Family Practice and Pediatrics. On “Equal Pay Day”  it is particularly ironic to note that those hardest hit specialties tend to be staffed by the highest percentage of female doctors.

A final note as I read this post 3+ years after the initial writing: the choice of “Mommy-Track” to describe those women who graduate from medical school and work fewer hours than their male peers because of their choice to prioritize their families seems needlessly pejorative and provocative. I’ve left it in for this Epilogue because to edit it today seems dishonest in a way. Besides, I’m a little bit better at writing in 2014 than I was in 2011. I can be plenty provocative now without resorting to the pejorative.

Is Truly Better Care Truly Worth It?

A recent study looked at survival statistics for colon cancer. While >90% of patients with early stages of colon cancer survive at least 5 years, the 5 year survival rate for advanced cancer is only 12%. One of the conclusions from that study is that the increased survival rate of cancer detected early justifies wider scale screening for this deadly disease. Makes sense, right? Find the cancer early and you live longer. The problem here, of course, is that the incidence of colon cancer in a broadly chosen group of individuals is actually rather small making both the cost of making the diagnosis as well as the “cost” of any complications from the screening test prohibitive. Whether or not to screen is a very complex question. This is a version of “better care” but it is probably not worth the cost unless we can find some way to identify an at-risk population.

Let’s say there’s a brand new test that allows you to identify another, different, important disease years, perhaps decades earlier than is now feasible. It is possible to narrowly define a population of patients at high risk of having the disease. Utilizing this test will provide physicians the opportunity to treat this disease before it causes irreversible destruction of vital organs, destruction which renders present day care of this disease when it is presently diagnosed little more than palliation.  The effects of this disease in later stages cause dramatic negative changes in the lifestyle of affected patients. There appear to be ways to treat the disease in its earliest stages in order to prevent the ravages of its late stages. Do you initiate testing in the at-risk population?

Let’s think about it.

What if the test is relatively easy, relatively painless, but relatively pricey? Remember, you can identify a population for this test that is at risk to have the disease based on patient history and physical exam criteria, making the percentage of people afflicted (incidence of disease) relatively high in the tested group. The weakness of many screening programs (routine colonoscopy for colon cancer for example) as noted above is that the disease is either relatively uncommon, or it is impossible to identify a truly at-risk group. This is not a problem with our hypothetical test. Let’s make the test very accurate, too, say 95% sensitive and 95% specific in any study group; the number of both false positives and false negatives would be very low. This would make it more useful than serum lipids when screening for cardiac risk, for example. While we’re at it, this test is extremely safe with no real risks. It sounds like a pretty strong case to roll it out, right?

Now would be a really good time to go back to one of the earliest things every medical student is (was?) taught about ordering a test: the result of your test should in some way influence your care of the patient. A positive test result should prompt you to do something differently from a negative result. If your course of action would be identical with each/every possible result it is entirely reasonable to ask why you are doing the test in the first place. Our new test meets this threshold. A negative result means continue with “standard operating procedure”, treating a patient with the constellation of symptoms and signs you have identified as you have been. A positive test, on the other hand, obligates you to enlist the assistance of another specialist, and furthermore to insist that your patient receive treatment that is not yet in any way considered standard. Therein lie the problems.

Many, if not most complex medical problems require the engagement of a specialist in order that the patient receive the most up to date and effective  treatment. Contrary to the popular notion that we only have a shortage of Primary Care doctors in the U.S., every family doc will tell you that it is nearly impossible to find a rheumatologist, dermatologist, neurologist, endocrinologist or various other medical specialists to take care of a new, complex patient. Imagine if you have a new test that identifies 1 million or 2 million or MORE new patients whose disease requires one of these specialists to run the show? What if the effective treatment that will be proposed is off-label (FDA approved for something else) and extremely expensive? What now? Remember, failure to identify these patients early and treat them before irreversible damage occurs dooms them to progressive misery as they age. What’s the call?

This would be truly better care. Is it truly worth it? Who should make the call?

In the abstract it’s a different question, and without the context of knowing what disease is involved also makes it somewhat more difficult to analyze this in any meaningful way. Let’s face it, some diseases simply carry more emotional weight than others, and this would likely increase the amount of money that anyone faced with this question would be willing to spend. The question itself is hardly abstract at all, however. Just today I read about tests for Alzheimer’s Disease and Sjögren’s Syndrome that will allow for extremely accurate diagnoses made dramatically earlier than we are now capable. Unaware of the diagnosis physicians and patients have no opportunity to consider treatment; if you can’t take a temperature you can’t find a fever. Without the ability to make an early diagnosis pharmaceutical companies have no incentive to evaluate treatments that will prevent the scourge of late-stage disease. This is the situation on the ground today.

The challenge will come as these tests are put into routine use and we identify large numbers of patients whose eventual course in the absence of treatment is well-known. Who will care for them if we already face a shortage of specialists in these fields? Uncertain of a return on the investment necessary to prove the efficacy of treatments for these diseases, what pharmaceutical company will do the studies that will show the benefit of treatment? With these new treatments likely to be very expensive, will insurance companies and the government pay the costs of the care? In the abstract these tests and the treatments that will follow certainly constitute better care. Will it be worth the cost?

Who makes that call?

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