Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘doctor’

Offloading info/Work

Why do I write? Why do I sit down and use time that could otherwise be put to use in the gym, or in the office, or even just hanging with the Man Cub? As a long-standing lover of language I am always on the lookout for the best vocabulary to explain concepts I sometimes struggle with. Offloading is a term that is used in this case to describe what it is that humans do with information that they do not need to keep on hand in “useful memory” space.

This is what I do with ideas when my “wetware” memory is full.

This is hardly new. Indeed, the sturm und drang associated with the mega-trends in education, etc. associated with our massive information/recall apparatus that is the internet actually has its origin in the Greek era of Socrates and the transition from an oral tradition to one in which teachings were written. (HT to Frank Wilczek). Prominent adherents to the oral tradition such as Socrates and Simonides argued forcefully that the advent of the written transfer of information would weaken the mind and produce an inferior type of intelligence. In a fascinating and delicious ironic twist, all we know of either of these men we know because someone else wrote down what they recalled hearing.

In my day job we are still encased in a paradigm in which information is transferred from teacher to student and then tested to see if that information has been committed to memory. Imagine, with the explosion of data now available in the world of medicine we test (and test, and test…) both new doctors and established ones to see if they remember a certain percentage of facts, regardless of how often those facts come into play in the act of practicing medicine. The CrossFit analogy is to test a trainer on the precise moment that the obturator engages in the deadlift. One neither needs to know this to teach the deadlift, nor does one need to have memorized this in order to have it on hand in the gym. So, too, in medicine.

Please don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy knowing a bunch of stuff and being able to call up that stuff without needing to use my Google-Fu. The reality is that we have made a move from memory in written form to memory in digital form that is just as profound and disruptive as that from oral to written. We have only to remember where it is we have stored our memories, our books and our music and our musings.

And our passwords. We still need to remember our passwords.

Adventures in EMR Vol 2 Epilogue: May We Please Have…?

“The essence of Medicine is story—finding the right story….Healthcare, on the other hand, deconstructs story into thousands of tiny pieces…for which no one is responsible.” –Victoria Sweet, M.D.

Being forced out of your comfort zone in any endeavor is always painful. In my experience it is also conducive to learning something new, and at least in my case it is a catalyst for creative thought. What, then, have I learned from our forced-march, point-of-a-bayonet transition from one EMR system to a new one? Are there any lessons to be learned on a broader scale, beyond the walls of SkyVision? Can I take this bowl of lemons and create lemonade that can be passed around the much larger table that encompasses the broad landscape of American medicine?

First off, our collective experience with our transition reinforced my long-held contention that you simply can’t effect change in a system of any type without either being a functional unit in that system, or shadowing those who work in the system you wish to improve. Imagine designing the cockpit of the next generation fighter jet without ever actually either flying one or sitting next to someone while they fly it. Take a look back at my essay “EMR and Underpants”; our information ecosystem was designed by engineers far, far away from the point of care delivery. It’s roughly the same as giving someone the job of choosing what underpants to deliver for your daily wear without ever having seen what you look like or talking with you about how you wear your clothes.

After all of our struggles there does appear to be one, huge 30,000 foot lesson in all of this that should, by rights, become the foundation of the next wave of innovation in EMRs: the spoken word is the goal. What made our traditional scribe process so successful in both efficiency and accuracy was the development of charting based on a spoken narrative. The doctor would dictate exam findings. The scribe would then intuit the various diagnoses from the conversation occurring between the doctor and the patient. While the doctor then went on to outline the plan of action this, too, was transcribed into the medical record. It was a natural and familiar way for all of the players in the room to communicate.

Why can’t I do that with any of the EMRs available on the market? Why is it that I can’t talk to an EMR and have my verbal encounter become what we would all recognize as a progress note? Heck, I’d be thrilled if there was an interim step in which all of the BS clicking we are doing to check all of those boxes could turn into something that looked more like spoken English (although our new EMR is OK and getting a bit better on this). With all of the hundreds of millions of dollars being raked in by EMR behemoths like Epic you mean to tell me they can’t find the resources to make this happen? Please.

You see, the essence of every healthcare interaction is the spoken word. When you have to stop talking or listening you have devalued time. Think for a minute from the patient’s point of view: it doesn’t matter whether it is a doctor of some other kind of worker in the room, once attention is shifted from the patient to the screen quality plummets. Make me a poor man’s AI interface that I can cue verbally to let it know what I’m doing and put it in the right box so that Uncle Sam won’t ding me for being a poor data entry clerk. I’d even be willing to talk to Mrs. Pistolacklioni about her smoking at every 3 month follow-up for her severe glaucoma (a disease that has no increased risk if you smoked, by the way).

While I’m at it, and as long as we are talking about communicating (cue Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke), may we please find a way for the real medical record to be freely available on every platform? Seriously, how did this one escape the cloistered engineers and double-blinded underwear salespeople? Your Samsung cell phone can call your buddies iPhone and vice versa. An airman flying a MIG 22 can communicate with an inverted Tom Cruise in a 3g dive because there is a single standard for radio transmission and reception. Come on. This is basic stuff, the equivalent of declaring the gage of railroad tracks. You mean to tell me that the same people who think they know so much about how things must be that they have an opinion on the shape of operating room hats somehow missed this? Again. please.

I’m not kidding about the OR hats by the way; some DA administrators simply declared that bouffant hats were safer because they think so and won’t come off that even in the face of randomized control studies to the contrary.

Seriously, go all the way back to Dr. Larry Weed at UVM in the 1980′s and return to his beloved premises. There is too much information to be contained in any one doctor’s head, and doctors cannot avoid their biases and frame of reference when making medical decisions. Having true interoperability across all platforms would allow the free movement of information at the direction of the patient, the person who should be in control of that information after all. (Note: Carbon Health is on to something)

As a society we’ve allowed ourselves to remain captives of the trial bar’s defense of the status quo when it comes to malpractice lawsuits. This, in turn, has prevented us from examining repeating errors to determine if there might be a common thread that could be altered and thereby reduce their frequency. Interoperability would allow just the sort of root cause analysis that is needed, and because it would be done using anonymous information no actionable disclosure would be necessary from the doctors involved. As a bonus this would probably allow us to create true, vetted care protocols for the majority of patients with the majority of problems, and this evidence based care would then have to be admissible in court. All that would be necessary would be for doctors to explain in their chart why they decided to deviate in an individual case if that came up. Bingo, a data-driven solution to defensive medicine, all from better communication.

My new vendor is unaware that I am writing this, but interestingly has invited me to consider joining their advisory board and to speak at their annual convention. Who knows if those invitations will continue to be extended once they read this, but if they are I will have two very simple, very basic messages. This whole medical record thing should be about communication, just like it’s always been from the days of Hippocrates. That, and that Larry Weed was right. Before we go any further forward go back and read Larry Weed.

All we need is a little electronic SOAP to clean up this mess.

 

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.

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?

The Outer Edge of Inside: Where Innovation Occurs

“[True] innovators are on the edge of the inside.” Friar Richard Rohr

I once wrote that “if you’re not living on the edge you’re taking up too much space.” This is a bit different. Effective innovators and those who are early extenders of their ideas cannot be so far outside of present orthodoxy that their innovation is ignored, however correct they may (turn out to) be. An innovation or discovery that is too radical to even be examined might be shelved simply for being too far outside the inside, thereby denying countless individuals its benefit. Incrementalism occurs in the middle, but innovation that scales happens just barely inside the border.

Think about my fitness program, CrossFit. What would likely have been the result if step one had been the spectacle of the CrossFit Games, ca. 2017? We all know the answer to that: Constantly varied functional movement at relatively high intensity (CVFMHI)  would have been deemed ludicrous for all but the elite athletes we are seeing perform in the East and South Regionals this weekend, rather than a legitimate option as we seek a public health solution to the well-being of a broader population. The sentinel signal of the innovation was initially ever so slightly inside the outer boundary of the fitness/health orthodoxy: train consistently using irreducible full-body exercises at higher intensity utilizing proper movement patterns. Others have noted the importance and effectiveness of interval training, notably Michael Joyner, M.D, at the Mayo Clinic. While a sense of the importance of the glycolytic energy pathway existed before CrossFit, it took an innovator far enough outside the middle to realize its potential and make it the primary focus of a program.

The world of my day job is also populated by innovators who were just radical enough to nearly become outcasts. I always think of the great Charles Kelman, M.D., the inventor of what we now know as phacoemulsification. When Dr. Kelman began his research on using high frequency ultrasound to dissolve a cataract through an incision roughly 15-20% the size of what was then typical, no one could fathom why that would even matter. Fast forward to our present day ability to remove a cataract through a 2mm incision. Because of that first innovation I can now replace a cataract with an implant that allows someone to see both near and far with no glasses. Imagine!

Once true innovation occurs it moves inward, but a next wave of innovators lurks near the edge. Like so many benign Salieri’s to Mozart they build upon the original innovation within their own, smaller zones. This is no less disruptive than that original innovation; it simply occurs in a different part of the world. Shortly after CrossFit erupted in the general fitness world a second wave was brought by innovators in youth fitness by Jeff and Mikki Martin of Ramona California. Their program is now known as The Brand X Method and they lecture on their evolved programs for youth fitness all over the world. In a similar fashion Brian McKenzie, an ultra runner looking for a way to train more efficiently and with fewer injuries, used the principals of CrossFit as applied to endurance training in what was originally known as “CrossFit Endurance”. B Mack is also continuing to push the envelope in his PowerSpeedEndurance program.* It was only the growing acceptance of the original innovation that prevented these next-wave innovators from being OUTSIDE the edge of their particular parts of the fitness world.

The logical extension of CFVMHI, what we are witnessing each weekend as The CrossFit Games season is upon us, has long since passed me by. It turns out that for me all I’ve needed was an early update to the original inspiration (classic, early vintage CrossFit.com with CrossFit Strength Bias v3.3 layered on); more and more actually brings me less of everything. Others who I am quite fond of have had a different journey. One of my daughters-in-law is doing a modified CrossFit Endurance protocol for example, and is winning her age group in 5K races while pushing my granddaughter “The Nugget” in a race stroller. My grandson “The Man Cub” will doubtless train using the Brand X principles that have evolved from the original CrossFit Kids program. My friend Julie continues to push the limits of human everything as she competes on a CrossFit Games team while developing new medical paradigms, all before graduating from med school here in Cleveland. Unlike yours truly, more and more brings Julie more and more. Innovators in the world of eye care similarly bring us new techniques from the edges of our world, the latest being the once unthinkable ability to treat floaters with a laser.

CrossFit is now firmly established as both a system and a business. Small incision cataract surgery using ultrasound is the standard of care. We would do well to remember that time when this was not at all the case, a time when only one innovator sat just inside the outer edge. What is to come in any number of other areas–medicine, finance, digital, what have you–will come from the same place. Some of us caught on to CrossFit really early. Wouldn’t it be great to be out near the edge and catch something like that right in the beginning again?

*To my knowledge neither the Martins nor Mr. MacKenzie are presently associated with CrossFit, Inc.

 

Nothing Left to Lose

“When he lost his life, it was all he had left to lose.” –Lynard Skynard

Catching up on newspapers piled up while I was away last night I happened upon an article written by David Gregory, former moderator of “Meet the Press”. Mr. Gregory was on a bit of a spiritual quest, one that coincided with some turmoil in his professional life. As part of this journey he spent some time with an Erica Brown, a Jewish educator. After listening to his professional laments she offered this stunner: who would you be if you lost it all?

Stopped me right in my tracks, that one did.

Think about that for a minute. How the question was phrased and what she was asking. Not “what would you do?” or “how would you handle it?” but “who would you be?” The implication is that who you are at any given moment is only one version of who you might be capable of being given different circumstances, however wonderful or unpleasant. It dovetails very nicely, indeed, with my recent fascination with the multiverse, the quantum physics derived concept that there is an infinite number of versions of our universe in existence at any given moment.

Spend a few more minutes thinking about what it means to lose it all. For Mr. Gregory it meant losing his dream job, a job in which who he was became inextricably linked to what he did. I get that, but Mr. Gregory is still able to seek employment as a journalist, still able to work in his field. What if you could no longer do that? Say you’re a doctor and you lose either the ability or the right to practice medicine? Think “The Fugitive”. Trust me, doctors are way more wrapped up in the “what I do is who I am” thing than journalists. Just thinking about that–being prevented from being a doctor– makes me sick to my stomach. Imagine if you couldn’t work at all. Couldn’t support yourself or your loved ones and had to depend on others. That’s starting to close in a little bit more on “losing it all” I think. Who would you be then?

There’s no way of knowing if Ms. Brown meant to go this deeply, but in the developed world we live pretty well;  there’s actually a boatload of stuff we take for granted that could be lost. What if you lost your freedom? You are incarcerated, or in some way someone gains so much leverage over you that you must do their every biding. Who would you be, what part of who you have the capability of being would come to the fore if you were no longer free? Joe Coughlin, the central character in a Dennis Lehane novel I just finished compromised his father’s position as a police captain in order to buy favor and therefore survive in prison. In so doing he lost his freedom forever, even after leaving prison. He became a man without a moral compass, ruining and even taking lives in pursuit of other men’s goals.

But even at that, Coughlin hadn’t yet lost everything. What brought him to that precipice was the loss of his people. You’ve watched “Law and Order” I’m sure. I don’t remember many individual episodes of any series I ever watch, but one “Law and Order” dealing with loss comes to mind. The detectives discover a man in an institution who is mute, nearly catatonic. They need his testimony; he is the only witness to a heinous crime. In order to gain access to his memory they obtain a court order to treat him for his depression. His recovery is miraculous, and initially he is grateful for his awakening, grateful to meet distant relatives who are delighted for the return of an uncle they’d lost. All well and good until it is time to testify and we learn that he lost his job, his ability to work, and his entire immediate family in that heinous crime. Awakening means remembering that he has truly lost it all.

Who would you be if you lost it all? This poor man had nothing, and he discovered that without his people he was no one. Who would you be? His answer was “no one at all”. He refused treatment and slid back inward to nothing.

There’s a point here. A couple of them, actually. The first is that each one of us has much, much more of pretty much everything than we realize. Most of what we might lose is not really all that close to any type of “everything”, and that should inform how we view what we do have and what we are willing to do to keep it. Who would you be BEFORE losing something in order to not actually lose it? To know this is to know what we are willing to do if we need to fight not to lose everything. It’s a little closer to knowing who we really are, now.

Read this backwards from here. It hurts to lose stuff. It’s hard to get by with less money if you’ve tasted more, especially if you think you’ve become someone else because of that stuff. It’s worse if you kinda like that someone; losing the kind of job Mr. Gregory had stings. Time and again, though, we see that true loss is less easily quantified than a spreadsheet or income statement or title. To lose your people is to truly lose everything. No amount of fight is too great to not have to learn who you would be after this type of loss. Losing your freedom makes it easier to lose your people. Someone else plots your every course. Who you are needs to be someone who does as much as humanly possible to remain free.

Mr. Gregory seems to have made this leap. In the end his job was simply what he did at the time for work. Losing it actually brought his spiritual quest home, to his people. That’s the other point, right? It’s your people. You’ve not lost everything if you’ve not lost your people. Know who your people are and hold them close. Cherish and nurture them. Do it out loud and without either fear or shame.

Do whatever it takes to never have to learn who you would be if you did, truly, lose everything.

Why Private Practice Survives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Customer Service: The Ohio DMV vs. Your Eye Doctor

It was the smile Ms. DMV Lady. No question, the smile told me that you chose to ruin my day when you had a lay-up chance to make my whole weekend, that you did it on purpose, and that it made you incredibly happy. In any other circumstances I’m sure I would have smiled back at you; that’s what other human beings tend to do when they see such unbridled joy on someone else’s face.

That trip back was my third one to the DMV, but there was no way for you to know that. You did see me on the second one, though, and you clearly remembered me. I forgot my license at home so I couldn’t do what I needed to do to transfer the title for my tiny little beater of a boat. Not only that, but there was nothing you could do to help me at that point, and I totally understood that. It was my fault entirely, so I didn’t ask anything of you on that visit because I knew that there was no way that you could help me, no matter how much you might have wanted to on that particular visit. I was really frustrated for sure, but I didn’t direct any of that at you, or anyone in the DMV.

Nope, it was the return visit where you could have made my day. My wife and I hurried home, got my ID and then hustled back. Did you notice that? Did you notice that we were both there? It’s really hard to free up two people who work full-time during your hours of operation. Definitely not your fault, that. We’d already tried to pull this off the week before and been thwarted, and here we were back for a second time with you, third time total. Now was your chance. We approached the desk with obvious relief on our faces. If we were successful this time we would still have to visit the DMV one more time (you only do titles; another location would do the license), but at least only one of us would need to take off work. You took the title transfer again–you looked at it in detail the first time and couldn’t possibly have missed this–and told us that the previous owner had filled it out incorrectly. He signed it in his name alone, instead of his name as “trustee”. That’s it; he forgot to put “trustee”.  You could have tipped us off before we went home for the license. You could have just noted it and let it pass. Nope. You said that we would have to bring it to him to fix before you could transfer the title.

We were equal parts dumbfounded and devastated, and it showed clearly on our faces. Here it was again, your chance to make our day. There was nothing nefarious about the prior owner’s mistake; it was a simple oversight in how he described the ownership. God, it was such an easy fix. It was right there, right in front of you for the taking. I held out my hands and pleaded softly and quietly for mercy. No disrespect toward you or your staff or your department, and no sense of entitlement or demand for action. A very simple request and a very quiet plea that we had acted in good faith. Your response? “You forgot your ID the first time, Sir.” I simply held out my ID and very softly said “but I went home and got it without saying anything, and here I am. Please, we’re really trying hard here and really could’t know.”

It’s a legal document was all you said. You had a duty to protect the State of Ohio, you said. It was then that I responded, still quite quietly mind you. I shared that the couple you had just chosen not to help were a doctor and a nurse. That we routinely put our family second as we care for patients in need. Nights, weekends…no matter. I asked if I could fill out your customer service survey, either on paper or online, explaining that I am evaluated on the care I provide and the experience that my patients have under my care. Oh my…the look on your face was priceless. Utter shock. Not once in your life, it seemed, had it ever occurred to you that it would be possible that you would be accountable to your customers. “We don’t have anything like that, Sir.”

Then came the smile.

Seldom have I witnessed such a pure, unadulterated expression of joy. You had chosen to ruin my day, and having succeeded you were not just pleased, you were infused with a visceral joy. It started in your eyes as realization crept in, and then it spread to every muscle in your face. Like I said above, it was the kind of smile that is almost always returned by another human being; we are wired to share such joy, after all. Alas, ’twas not to be for you and me. It was all I could do not to vomit on your threshold when you somehow found the strength to break through the grip of your ecstasy to wish me a nice day.

You will see me again, Ms. DMV Lady. Three times we’ve tried to get our little 1971 boat licensed, and it looks like we will need to make two more stops to accomplish that. It most certainly won’t be at your particular DMV location, though. Just thinking about that makes me nauseous all over again. No, you will see me again on my turf, as a patient. Karma, if nothing else, is imbued with a keen understanding of irony, a truly wicked sense of humor. In all likelihood it won’t really be me, personally. Even karma would find that too outlandish, an irony simply too delicious to believe. In reality you will need someone who does what I do, and you will need them in a manner and a sense that is identical to how I needed you.

I noticed that you are very nearsighted, and you have an inflammatory disease of your eyelids called blepharitis that often causes an acute type of particularly unsightly pinkeye (you are not my patient; this is not a HIPPA violation). Perhaps your son is getting married this weekend like mine. You didn’t know that, did you?  No, of course not. You broke your 3 year old glasses. Your prescription is out of date and you can’t just walk in to Lenscrafters and get a new pair, and your vision insurance only covers me. It would be a shame to have to wear broken glasses to enjoy this wonderful day. Or maybe that ugly, uncomfortable pinkeye bubbled up and there you are all red and gooey, two days before the whole fam damly shows up for the wedding. Nether one is truly an emergency, and failing to take care of either one right away will not cause you any harm whatsoever.

Let’s make it even more realistic. You know, like my return trip to your office. Let’s say it’s just before closing time, and the only way to get your glasses or your medicine is if a doctor gives the OK to see you right away. No matter what you see on the billboard, you won’t get an appointment at the Cleveland Clinic or UH. No, it will be a private doc like me. We always try to help. The Doc will know your story. How? Well, through our staff we always know the story because it always makes a difference. Would it have mattered to you that the reason I so desperately wanted that boat licensed was so that my son–the one getting married–could take his cousins and his friends out on his wedding weekend? We’ll never know; you didn’t ask.

There you will sit with your non-emergent problem that is only barely even urgent except for how much it means to you personally. Do you have any idea how easily the doctor and staff can slow-roll this even now, after you are in the office? They can follow protocols to the letter, check every preferred practice pattern box and follow every single insurance billing protocol, your chart and super bill as clean and proper as the illustration of a perfect boat title as you wait for your insurance to authorize your vision care visit, or pre-approve your expensive branded medication, and ruin your weekend.

In short, they could be you, ignoring the very real person with the very real need who stands before them asking for help. Or they can see you, hear you, and so easily choose to help you. Which, of course, is exactly what they would do. They will call the insurance company to get your Rx authorized, or they will give you samples of the medicine to carry you until you get pre-approval. Because you see, Ms. DMV Lady, that’s what every single one of us is supposed to do when we are on the other side of the desk from someone who needs our help and we are truly, safely, and easily in the position to choose to help them. It’s the decent thing that decent people do for others. When they can either make your day or ruin your day, it never crosses their mind that they even have a choice. It’s funny, when they know a little more about how meaningful it is to you that they helped, they really feel good about that.

Which is why after you have been helped, after you get what not only what you need but what you really want, you will be surrounded by people with the huge smiles of joy that come from doing the right thing. You’ll undoubtedly smile back.

Will you know why?