Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘alcon’

Tarnishing a New Technology

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

Why, then, my obvious angst?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Folly of Trendy Physician/Industry Regulation

I want Dick Lindsrom’s old job. Hell, DICK LINDSTROM  wants Dick Lindstrom’s old job! I mean, seriously, who WOULDN’T  want Dick Lindstrom’s old job? The  guy was the highest paid consultant for not one, not two, not even three, but something like FIVE ophthalmic manufacturing companies AT THE SAME TIME. Oh yeah…he was also the most famous ophthalmologist on the planet, and just happened to be a fantastic surgeon, too. He’s still got those last two things going on as far as I can tell.

Eventually someone is going to have to take up the mantle. Dick has been 59 years old for 10 or 11 years now, and he’s sure to turn the big 6-O at some point and decide to “retire early”. When he  does choose to do that, or if he is driven out of the consulting business by all of the petty new restrictions on physician relationships with industry (and vice versa) it will be a sad day, indeed. Not only for  the entrie ophthalmic community mind you, but also for the legions of patients-to-be who will NOT benefit from his influence and guidance.

Allow me to explain. Several years ago some folks in government and some consumer goody-twoshoey types all of a sudden “discovered” that doctors were consulting for companies that made medicines and things like implants and the like. They also “discovered” to their collective horror that these same companies not only paid these consulting doctors, but they also sometimes did “gifty” stuff for doctors and their staff members. Terrible stuff like, I dunno, buy lunch for the office or leave a bunch of logo pens or sticky notes around the nursing stations. Even more recently the startling discovery was made that these same pharmaceutical and medical device companies have been supporting post-graduate medical education.

The horror…the horror… (apologies to Conrad).

Dick Lindstrom has been one of the most influential clinical investigators in all of medicine for more than 25 years. By this I mean that he has suggested, launched, led, participated in, and reported on to his colleagues so many studies that led to ground-breaking clinical breakthroughs that his legacy must be considered not only in eyecare but in ALL of medicine. If you had a better medicine, or if you made a better cataract machine, chances are Dick not only had a hand in its development, but he also jumped to your better widget even if your competitors were paying him to consult on theirs. Patient first.

The guy just couldn’t be bought, in my opinion. Not only did he always choose whatever medicine or instrument was best at any given time, but his widespread, almost omnipresent involvement across the industry gave him a platform to push each competing company to outdo its competition. A continuous daisy-chain of technological advancement with Dick Lindstrom as ringleader. And now this small-minded, short-sighted movement would have Dick give up either his consulting or his clinical practice. Did I mention that he’s been among the most talented practicing eye surgeons for 25 years, too?

The food and goodies part of this stuff is inconvenient (I bought pens for the first time in my adult life this year), but really not much more. It does make the jobs of the industry reps more difficult, and frankly just seems to be mean-spirited and  petty. I mean…come on…if Dick Lindstrom hasn’t been swayed by the massive sums he’s been paid by companies for whom he has consulted, how insulting is it that the prevailing opinion in Washington and elsewhere is that MY choices can be bought for a Subway foot-long?! Seriously?

The development of new technologies and new medicines is expensive. So, too, is the post-graduate continuing education of our nation’s physicians. They can’t occur in the vacuum of the laboratory, nor can they occur in the vacuum of the boardroom. The people who do this work need the assistance of doctors who not only take care of patients but who also understand both research and business. To prevent pharmaceutical and medical device companies from supporting programs for continuing education, while at the same time allowing these same companies to market directlty to patients, is simultaneously the most cynical and naive hypocracy imaginable.

To erect arbitrary and artificial barriers that prevent people like Dick Lindstrom from making the kinds of contributions for which he is justly famous (and for which he has been appropriately compensated) is pure folly. Folly which approaches madness.

Here’s the rub…I don’t think any doctors are going to quit what they’re doing because we have to buy our own pens, and I doubt that any of us will hang up our spurs just because we now have to make our own sandwiches for lunch. I AM concerned that participation in major medical meetings will decrease if it becomes more expensive because industry support is legislated away. I AM concerned that doctors of all types will do only the minimum continuing education necessary to mantain their licensure. I AM concerned that these foolish proposals that seek to prohibit clinical educators from also receiving compensation for consulting will dramatically reduce the quality of whatever education we might be receiving.

To do ANYTHING that might prevent Dick Lindstrom from being Dick Lindstrom is pure folly, and I AM concerned about that.

Wait…wait a minute. Could that be it? Could the whole problem simply be Dick? That it’s really just a Dick Lindstrom problem? Is it possible that all of these regulations, the no-pen/no-lunch rules, all of the nonsense about educators and leaders being prohibited from simultaneously having consulting agreements is all just a huge anti-Dick Lindstrom thing?

Well…why didn’t you say so? We can fix this thing right tidy-like. I want to make contributions to my field that will stand the test of time. I want to be known as a clinician/investigator/consultant who always put his patients first before any and all other considerations. I want colleagues to look at a new technology and have the first words out of their mouths be: “What do you think Darrell White thinks about this?” And not for nothing, I wouldn’t mind having those vintage consulting contracts. In a word, I want Dick Lindstrom’s old job. Who wouldn’t?

Because we all need SOMEONE who’s willing and capable of being Dick Lindstrom when he finally turns 60…