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Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘eye doctor’

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.



Lessons In Doctoring Learned On The Golf Course

I’ve been thinking a lot about health care recently. Real health care, not Health Care as in “Health Care Crisis” or “Health Care Reform”, but the kind of health care that is provided by doctors and nurses and all kinds of other health care providers. You know, like making sick people better, and keeping healthy people healthy. The kind of health care that old guys like me (I’m 52, in case you were wondering) got from pediatricians like Dr. Roy in Southbridge, MA in the 60′s, or like my sons get from Dr. Gerace in Westlake, OH today.

I did a lot of thinking about this some 7 or so years ago, too, when I developed the concepts that eventually resulted in Skyvision Centers. My mini-epiphany at that time is that medicine is the ultimate consumer service business. At its core medicine is about one group of people providing a service to another group of people who either want or need that service. It’s the most intimate type of service, too. One to one. Face to face. You and me.

There is a remarkable lack of difference between doctors (and hospitals, for that matter) when you look at the outcomes that arise from that service– how many people get better after receiving medical care for their illnesses. The difference between the top 1 or 2% of doctors and the 50th percentile in terms of real medical outcomes is remarkably small, and much smaller today than it was in the days of my Dr. Roy.

Sure, there are differences in how people arrive at getting better. Some very instructive studies from Dartmouth have shown dramatic regional differences in the U.S. in how much money is spent on treating heart attacks, for instance. By and large, though, the same number of people get the same amount of better no matter where they are treated or from whom they received that treatment, and the quality of those treatments is several orders of magnitude greater and better than it was in my youth.

So what was it about Dr. Roy that people in my generation seem to have so much trouble finding in medical care today? If the treatment of diseases is so much better now why do so many people complain about medical care today? Why is it that Dr. Gerace has people lined up waiting to see him while other doctors don’t? Why do people rave about their experience at Skyvision Centers and complain so bitterly when they need to have a consultation at some of the most famous medical institutions in Cleveland?

I think it’s because Dr. Roy, Dr. Gerace, and I were all, once upon a time, caddies.

Seriously. We spent the earliest part of our working lives on the lowest rung of the service ladder, providing one-on-one service for a single customer. Because of that I think each of us realized that what really sets doctors (and hospitals) apart is what a patient experiences when they visit. The most successful doctors and the most successful medical practices are those who have realized that the central character in the play is the patient. The most successful caddies never forget that the most important person on the course is the golfer. The job of the caddy is to help the golfer perform a well as possible (maximize the health of her game) while at the same time making sure that she has a wonderful experience on the golf course.

Ben Stein wrote a column in the NY Times about his first real job; he was a shoe salesman. Imagine, at 17 years of age, selling shoes. Days filled with all manner of customers and handling the foot of each and every one of them. Customer service and sales is “learning the product you are selling, learning it so well that you can describe it while doing a pirouette of smiles for the customer and talking about the latest football scores” no matter who that customer might be. Tinker, tailor, soldier or spy, junior partner or janitor. Be they humble or haughty, gracious or grating. Totally focused on that one customer in front of you in order to provide them that service. The same can be said for any front line service job. Waitress in a diner, car mechanic, you name it.

My first summer job was caddying, and I caddied for parts of each summer through medical school. As I think about it now after reading Stein’s article it’s amazing how many parallels there are between my first job as a caddy and my career as an eye surgeon. I toted the bags for one or two golfers at a time; I usually have a patient, patient and spouse, or parent and child in the office. I was a better golfer than almost all of the men and women for whom I caddied; I know more about the eye than every patient who visits, google notwithstanding. In both circumstances my success was/is determined by my customer’s (golfer/patient) outcome, their “score”, as well as their view of the experience. Even a career-best round doesn’t feel quite as enjoyable if it took place over 6 hours in the company of a surly caddy!

I’ve told the story of how being a caddy turned into Skyvision Centers; it’s a neat story and I love telling it. For the moment, though, I have a little experiment for anyone who might be listening, and a modest suggestion for the powers that be in medical education (who most assuredly AREN’T listening). The next time you visit a doctor ask him or her what their first couple of jobs were. See if you can predict which of your doctors or dentists (or nurses) had what kind of jobs before their medical career based on the kind of experience you’ve had in their offices or institutions.

Let’s add a little time to the education of the folks who take care of our medical problems, especially our doctors. How about 6 months selling shoes at Nordstrom’s. Or a year of Sunday mornings slinging hash at a local diner. Better yet, let’s get all of those pasty washed-out interns out on the golf course with a bag on their shoulder and a yardage book on their hip, golf hat slightly askew and Oakleys on tight. Let ‘em learn how to take care of a customer without the huge advantage of all that medical knowledge. We’ll take the best of them and turn them loose in offices all across the land. Those who can’t hack it, the ones who can memorize the history of Florsheim but can’t bring themselves to touch a foot, who are scratch golfers but can’t bring themselves to congratulate the hacker who sinks a 30 foot double-breaker, those we’ll hide in the lab, or put them in huge, anonymous medical centers, one more anonymous member of an anonymous team hiding under the brand umbrella of some “World Class Clinic”  where one-on-one customer service never really happens.Because the ultimate consumer service business is medicine.

Just ask a caddy.


It’s Hard To Make It Look Easy

It’s really hard to make something look easy. Think about it. The best knee surgeon takes 1/2 the time and gets twice the good results of the average surgeon. It barely looks likes he’s working at all. The very best LASIK surgeon makes the most difficult case look like a piece of cake, just like the easiest and most straight forward cases done by the average surgeon.

None of this happens without an enormous amount of hard work, practice, study, and yes, a little bit of natural ability doesnt’ hurt either.

Think about double-unders, jumping rope with two passes of the rope under your feet for each jump. A CrossFit legend named Chris Spealer did a Tabata Double-Under set (20 seconds of exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated 8 times) and got a lowest score of 40, or something crazy like that. Looked like a snap, too.  My best is 10. TEN! If you are a CrossFitter and you’ve struggled with Double-Unders (and who hasn’t, eh Jeff Martin?) you watch and you say it’s easy for him. You gotta know, though, after watching all of the Speal videos, that there were countless hours of work behind that. He just makes it look easy. It’s not.

Samuel Beckett had a run of some 10 years or so where everything he published was nothing short of brilliant, and there was a ton of it. If you are a writer and you have stared at a blank piece of paper or a blinking empty screen (and who hasn’t, eh Daigle?), you might think that Beckett was simply gifted, that the words simply poured out onto the page fully formed and prepped for posterity. Reading Beckett’s letters, though, tells a different tale entirely, one of anguish and toil, brutal hard work. He just made it look easy. It wasn’t.

We tend to discount the hard work behind any skill-based endeavor when we only see the “game film”, so to speak. The untrained eye is often unable to discern the subtleties in some performance or job that the best of the best just blow through, making it look like an everyday, ho-hum whatever. In most circumstances we just don’t have an adequate frame of reference that allows us to see how an average or “regular” surgeon, or athlete, or debater struggles with the curveball, the surprise. We don’t even get a chance to compare how the true superstar handles a truly mundane “game” in comparison with the middle-of-the-Bell Curve guy, at least outside the realm of sports.

This lack of perspective, along with a lack of awareness of how hard the best of the best have worked to get there, leads us to minimize the excellence before us. The average cataract surgeon in the United States takes more than 20:00 to complete the surgical aspects of a case. The very best among my peers take 5 or 6:00 to do the same thing. No movement is wasted, and each tiny step is literally a microscopic ballet. The complication rates for average eye surgeons are 5-10X greater than that of the top surgeons, and the best surgeons routinely achieve better outcomes by all measures.

The best surgeons make it look too easy. Our response as a nation to this is criticism that eye surgeons are overpaid for such a “quick and simple” procedure; there is a palpable, barely hidden contempt for the highest achieving physicians among healthcare policy makers. This is just wrong.

It’s really hard to make it look easy, almost everywhere and in almost every endeavor. We should be MORE amazed and have MORE respect when we see something and think: WOW…she really made that look easy!


A Great Job!

For all of the whining, moaning, and kvetching, eye Doctors have really good jobs. Especially eye surgeons. Well, at least the eye doctoring part of our jobs.  Sure, the business part of running any medical practice is hard and getting harder every day; buried under the never–ending avalanche of new and existing regulations, it’s a wonder we ever get to practice any medicine at all. But when we do, we actually have a pretty good job.

Some of the stuff we do and the successes associated with that are really quite obvious. Take an older individual who is about to lose her drivers license because she can’t see, remove her cataract, and all of a sudden you might have a 75-year-old “Mommio Andretti”! I don’t care who you are, that’s pretty cool. Add in some of the extraordinary new advanced lens implants and we have retired people who started wearing glasses in the third grade running around with bare naked faces. Seriously, you could be Genghis Khan and if you take someone’s vision from 20/100 to 20/20, people are going to like you.

It used to be that retinal surgeons celebrated “anatomic success”, the achievement of a normal appearing retina. Nowadays, with the advent of advanced micro surgical techniques and injectable medications, retinal surgeons are not only are preventing vision loss but they are improving vision in everything from retinal detachments to wet macular degeneration. They don’t really have any refractive retinal surgeries yet, but I’m thinking it’s only a matter of time. Think about it–how good is your job if you take someone with a bleeding retina and 20/200 vision, and a few months later they can drive a car? Pretty good job.

Some of the mundane things that we all do, things that are profoundly uninteresting to eye doctors, have an outsized importance to our patients. The surface of the eye has more pain fibers per unit of area than any other part of the body. If you believe in evolution, and I do, this actually makes a lot of sense. We are such visual creatures that our sensory cortex devoted to vision is dramatically bigger then any other mammal. Those pain fibers prompt us to rapidly close our eyes for protection. Ever get anything in your eye? A piece of gravel, perhaps a tiny piece of metal while doing some grinding? How about a scratch? It’s amazing how many people are assaulted by their Christmas trees in December and January. Its bread and butter for us, but making that “jump off a bridge” searing pain go away makes for a pretty happy patient. Happy patients make it a good job.

Whenever I get a little down or blue, overwhelmed by all of the minutia of running a business, or borderline depressed at the thought of ever more government intrusion into the space between me and my patients, I remember just how good my job is when I can get to doing it. I don’t really think about all of the high-tech things, the LASIK, the cataract surgery, the fantastic medicines I have at my disposal to treat things like infections or glaucoma. No, what think about is the oldest, least fancy, most routine part of my job: prescribing that first pair of glasses to a kid who can’t see. Seriously, you should see the look on their face when they realize just how poorly they’ve been seeing. Even better, the “AHA! moment” when you put that prescription in front of their eyes and all of a sudden there’s a 20/20 line on the eye chart. I’ve been at this for 25 years or so, and that moment, that simple, low–tech moment never fails to make me smile. When the simplest, tiniest thing you do can make someone that happy, well, you’ve probably got a great job.

Like me.