Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘eyecare’

Medicine is a Harsh Mistress

“You can have anything. You can’t have everything.”

A rather unlikely combination of players got me to thinking about “having it all”. You know, the perfect job, marriage, home, life. Like Streisand when she sings “Everything”, the life of “I don’t want much, I just want more”. Friday night and Saturday morning were spent in the company of 5 or 6 physicians who  can only be described as “Alpha Females”; this morning’s reading included a piece on Michigan’s football coach, Jim Harbaugh.

What do Harbaugh and my young professional colleagues have in common? Well, they are in the midst of trying to have it all. While these ridiculously successful eye surgeons are more aware of the costs of their quest than Harbaugh, when pushed they are no less apologetic, no less committed to seeing it through to its logical conclusions.

On the surface it would seem that Harbaugh is poised to live a comically outlandish exmple of a successful coaching life. A winning record at a traditionally over-run college program (Stanford) followed by a Super Bowl game in the NFL (losing to his brother’s Ravens), and now head coach at his Alma mater. It’s all so very believable if you read the article quickly, but there it is in the fine print: “…his 14 year old daughter remains in California with her mother, Harbaugh’s first wife.”

Rut roh. A little bit of Heinlein creeping in here.

Much has been written about the plight of the “successful woman”. Indeed, I’ve written on women in medicine and the fallacy of “having it all” (and been quite enthusiastically eviscerated for having done so). My female colleagues sat with me around a table and over wine we talked at length about their lives. How busy they are in their day jobs. How the added time requirements of being acknowledged super-experts in parts of our shared field add to the challenges of being mothers and wives in nearly direct proportion to the gravitas it adds to their professional stature. We were all away from home on a Friday night for a meeting Saturday morning and the privilege of flying home that afternoon.

“N”, a colleague nearly 15 years younger who is also (I hope) becoming a friend, opined that she felt like she was “half-assing” everything except our shared endeavors as subject experts. That she only felt fully successful, comfortable, and in some way validated, in the company of her expert consultant peers. The moment, shared with knowing nods by each woman present, was brief.

Personally, I am late to this consulting game, roughly at the same “level” as colleagues in their mid- to late-30′s (I am 55). Barring some unlikely stroke of good fortune (e.g. I might actually be as smart as I think I am, and someone might actually agree), I will end my career rising no higher than the middle of the pack. Why is that? Well, let’s spend a moment with Heinlein, as my wife Beth and I did when I was ~34.

Just like my very impressive young colleagues, when I was in my early 30′s I was approached to offer insight into the needs and desires of my generation of physicians. Being a male physician I acknowledged the advantage of fewer societal expectations regarding responsibilities outside my career, and the massive leg up from a spouse who left her career behind to run the domestic side of the team. Good, bad, or indifferent, what my wife and I did then was explicitly calculate the cost of that success.

In “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” Heinlein’s lunar society is run as a nearly pure libertarian experiment, fueled by a single philosophy: There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Your mother told you the same thing: there is a consequence to everything you do (or don’t do). What Beth and I did, what Harbaugh didn’t do and what my colleagues only later have done, is prospectively calculate the costs of success in one domain paid out from the accounts of the rest of a life’s domains. Gains in one almost always come at a cost or loss in others. Certain of the effect on our family (despite my gender-driven advantages), the costs to be paid at home, Beth and I opted to forgo the opportunity. For 10+ years the only place I went was home for dinner.

What was the cost to me for having taken myself off the consulting carousel? Who knows? I might have been a certifiable big deal in the world of my day job. For sure, the White family left a lot of money on the table. Harbaugh chose differently and left a 14 year old daughter, and all that represents, in California. My young colleagues, the Alpha Females who are quite rightfully sitting at the table of experts despite their tender years? What will be gained, and at what cost? We shall see…they shall see.

In the end, Heinlein (and your mother) continues to be right, no matter what currency we use to calculate cost: TANSTAAFL.

 

Who Talks to People Like That?

“I suppose I’m sorry I missed my appointment on Thursday. So, anyway, here are the ground rules for how this phone call is going to go and how you’re going to give me the appointment I want.”

“I know it’s been two years and the doctor said my son would need glasses for school and that it’s really busy during back to school time. Yah Yah…I get it. I don’t care that everyone with after school appointments called weeks ago. School has started and he needs an appointment RIGHT NOW. I demand to talk to the doctor.”

“What do you MEAN the doctor’s 5:00PM appointments are all filled? I told you she wants new contact lenses RIGHT NOW! 10 AM tomorrow is totally unacceptable. You tell the doctor I’ll be coming in with her in 2 weeks and you can be SURE I’m going to tell the doctor how unacceptable this is.” CLICK

Seriously, who talks to people like this? These are all near exact quotes from established patients calling to make appointments for routine, non-emergent visits. All three had received explicit instructions at the conclusion of their previous visits, and all had been sent recall reminders that it was time to make their next appointment. Remember, we are a very busy eyecare practice with 3 doctors that sees emergency patients on a same-day basis, including nights and weekends. We are not averse to working hard or seeing extra patients, and we counsel our patients that we will sometimes run a bit behind because of this ER visit policy. Philosophically it doesn’t seem right to over-book our schedule, making the conscientious have to wait longer in the office during their visit, in order to accommodate those who make little or no effort to respond to our instructions and reminders.

Let alone those who talk to my staff like these three. Sheesh. Trust me, the tone in their voices was exactly as you’d imagine it as you read it, equal parts incredulous and offended that anyone could possibly not understand how much more important THEY are than everyone else on the schedule. It got me to thinking, though. What would it be like if people talked like this in other walks of life?

For instance, you are the Registrar at, oh, how about Harvard. You pick up the phone and somebody’s Daddy is calling about Econ 101 taught by N. Gregory Mankiw. The class is full. Actually, it’s oversubscribed and there’s a waiting list with 125 kids already on it. The registration deadline was 2 weeks ago, a deadline that the young scholar just blew off and a deadline that Daddy doesn’t even acknowledge. ” You’re not listening to me. I told you that my son will be in that class. He has a spot waiting for him at Goldman Sachs and no one is going to  keep him from getting what he deserves. I demand to speak with Mankiw.” How do you think that turns out for Sonny?

Or how about this? The flight to Chicago is full, and since it’s about an hour before takeoff no more folks are coming off the standby list. Standing at the United desk is a very well-dressed professional addressing the agent. “I suppose I’m sorry that I didn’t make it to the earlier flight I was booked on. Here are the ground rules for how this discussion is going to go, and how you are going to escort me onto this flight.” I can definitely see some sort of escort coming, can’t you?

Imagine what it would be like if you could listen to a call coming to a judge’s bailiff from someone who talked to everyone like my three patients. “Really? I said I needed to get this ticket taken care of right away but I’m only available late in the afternoon. 2 weeks from now is too long to wait. 10 AM tomorrow for court? That’s just unacceptable. Why aren’t there more times at the end of the day? I will be there at 5:00 in two weeks and you can be SURE I will tell the judge what I think of this.” What would you give to see that one play out?

When I hear the way people talk to folks who work in health care it makes me wonder how far they take it. Does it go so far as to extend to Church? “Listen Father, it’s football season. The Buckeyes on Saturday and the Browns on Sunday, ya know? This whole Saturday and Sunday mass schedule doesn’t line up with the season at all. I can’t believe you don’t get that! Why can’t we just move mass to Monday until after the Bowl Games and the Super Bowl. Tell you what…just forget about it. I’ll be here on Sunday and I’m going right to God on this one. You just make sure he’s in Church this weekend so I can tell him directly.” Well, we know that God is always in Church, and that He does, indeed, hear every petition a member of His flock makes. Like Danny Meyer, the great restauranteur in NYC who holds that the customer is NOT always right, but does have a right to be heard. Actually, this example gives me some comfort, some direction in how we might deal with patients who talk to our staff in such a brassy, entitled manner. We are definitely not God, or even the least bit God-like, but like Danny Meyer and God, we can always listen, as we know they do, and we will always politely offer them an answer.

Sometimes, the answer is “no”.

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.

Perverse Economic Incentives I: Ignoring Evidence-Based Medicine

Incontrovertible data does not always lead to the expected outcome. Take for example the much-trumpeted call for “evidence-based medicine”, choosing courses of action or care patterns that have been shown to be beneficial with regards to outcomes, reduced complications, or reduced cost when no benefit has been proven. The recent movement in which several national physician organizations have been asked to identify procedures or tests that should be eliminated for lack of proven efficacy is a presumed “no-brainer” way to reduce the cost of healthcare. In my eyecare world routine pre-admission testing for cataract surgery has been singled out as unnecessary, a waste of time and money for almost everyone involved. A New England Journal of Medicine article from 1990 is cited which unequivocally  shows no benefit to the patient or the cataract surgeon. The data comes from the NEJM. From 1990. This is only a tiny bit removed in both historical context and gravitas from a couple of stones and a guy named Moses. Why are we even talking about this in 2013? Why isn’t this already a done deal?

Ah…there it is…”a waste of time and money for ALMOST everyone involved.” Some very powerful someone has an economic incentive that does not rest on either an outcome or on safety. Someone is getting paid for all of those EKG’s and blood tests for pre-admission testing prior to cataract surgery (I am a cataract surgeon; it isn’t us),  and they have found a way to interpret various and sundry Medicare and OR accreditation documents in such a way that pre-op testing is mandatory. This blatantly ignores the evidence because the evidence ignores the economic incentives: a hospital is getting paid for pre-admission testing. All those patients are being robbed of their time, and every one of them who has an “abnormal” test result is then directed down the rabbit hole to chase a “cause”.

I know, I know…you’re shocked. SHOCKED! As bad as that example may be, and as perverse as it is that the champions of evidence-based medicine ignore the evidence when money is on the line, a story of a hospital doing something extra to get paid more is kinda boring; it just seems to happen all the time. In the private world of free-standing surgery centers that are not associated with a hospital pretty much everyone gets the joke about pre-admission testing and would do pretty much anything to be able to quit. You see, the private surgery centers don’t get paid the same way and pretty much lose money on pre-op testing. If they could get away with it they would all drop pre-admission testing for cataract surgery. The barrier is the economic incentive for the hospitals that own surgery centers and their influence on how regulations are interpreted.

In the face of data that provides a pathway to cost savings in healthcare, evidence-based medicine will only be utilized if the incentives are such that the invested players stand to gain, or if lights bright enough and cries loud enough arise to point out the perversity of the economics at hand.

 

 

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.

 

Attitude (Adopted from Sunday musings 11/4/12)

It’s funny how stressful situations remind one of the truisms of life. We are now Day 7 without power in the White house, our own “Little House on the Prairie” complete with fireplace and communal bed (shared by 3 dogs). The tiny generator we were able to score powers the fridge and the sump pump (we had 6 flooded basement episodes in 2011) but not the furnace. The temp just went UP to 52 in the house.

And yet, it’s OK. We have food and we can cook. We have wood and offers of more if we need it. Randy has become a wizard at building and stoking a fire. Me? Grunt work like foraging for wood and fuel, and starting an epically awful beard. The extent of my pique, such as it is, is refusing to wear a tie to work until the power is back on.

We’re OK largely because we have CHOSEN to be OK. It’s a bummer, and it’s a nuisance, but it’s the hand we’ve been dealt, one that is not nearly as bad as others in Sandy’s aftermath. Our attitude is in stark contrast with others on display. One neighbor, a city councilwoman no less, de-camped to a hotel after bitterly complaining about the noise of the generators, our “little engine that could” especially. “We just couldn’t take it anymore.” Really?

My staff and most of our patients handled stuff with an equally sanguine attitude, re-scheduling when necessary, coming in early or staying late, whatever. The few folks who copped a bad attitude stuck out so painfully it was comical. The gal who hung up on me when I told her I couldn’t examine her pinkeye without power (M’am, all I have is a flashlight and a toothpick). The patient coming for a surgical consult, appointment confirmed by automatic email Monday night by a computer that was as dark and dead as the rest of the office when she arrived on Tuesday, who screamed at us for 10 minutes on the phone on Wednesday. Really?

Our circumstances often arrive unchosen and uncontrollable, and most often we are left with no choice but to react to them as well as we possibly can. While the circumstances are beyond our control we certainly can control our attitude, our outlook. We are in control of how we will approach the task at hand. We are in control of how we will approach the person at hand.

Frankly, I don’t know if a positive attitude makes the tasks any easier, or makes it more palatable to get through something tough like this Sandy thing What I DO know is that it is always easier if I come across someone in similar straits, or someone I’ll need for help, if they are at least trying to “put a good face on.” I think this goes for everyday life, too, and making this your baseline choice (a good attitude) might make it easier to keep your chin up when the chips are down.

Attitude is a choice. Your attitude says more about you than it does about your circumstances.

 

 

An EPIC Adventure II: Training

As I posted a few weeks ago, in order to continue to use an outpatient surgery center where I have performed surgeries for 15 years or so, I am now required to use the electronic medical record EPIC. My hope had been that I would be able to continue to run “under the radar” by utilizing my pre-–dictated notes and standard orders, signing the papers as I have done lo these many years. Tragically, this was not to be. Having come to this realization about a month ago I reached out to the IT department and asked for training on the system. Being the somewhat self–involved surgeon that I am, I naturally assumed that a single phone call or e-mail would see multiple individuals leaping into action in order to help me so that I might continue to use that surgery center and generate revenue for the hospital. Silly me.

Four weeks, a dozen conversations, several e-mails, and I am assured more than several telephone calls later, I finally received a call from IT and one of the physician–advocates/trainers. I explained that I had a back log of signatures (little did I know!), and that I would be taking ER call soon, and did he perhaps have some time available to show me how to use the EMR? In the first of several remarkably positive little things in this process, Andrew did, indeed, have some time available the very next morning when I, too, could sit with him for a little bit.

Andrew himself was one of those little surprises. And ex–cop who had put himself through nursing school with the intention of using his nursing degree as a springboard to management, he informed me that he was one semester away from an MBA. It was clear he was anticipating a hostile interaction; this had been his typical experience when teaching physicians the system, especially private practice physicians. I liked him instantly, we connected, which probably contributed to the speed with which we flew through phase 1 of my indoctrination.

This can’t be all good, of course, otherwise there would be no reason to do this series! After learning how to get into the system (no, you cannot change your username), we looked at my chart deficiencies, specifically op notes that needed to be signed tracing back to November. I cleaned up all the old stuff, and then we got stuck with all of the charts that were sitting there from last week. Apparently part of the efficiency of the system allows the medical records department to put you on the “bad boy” list as soon as the case is done! We agreed to ignore these deficiencies since these would still be paper charts needing to be signed and moved on to pharmacy orders.

This was rich. I looked at about 200 orders with a “signature required” tag. Things like IV orders, and medicine injected to into the IV. Some were anesthesia orders which have no business on my list, and essentially all of the rest had already been signed. Andrew told me he’d taken a look at my in basket before we met and deleted three or four months of the pharmacy orders. I think the number he used was 800,000 orders! Whoa, maybe this isn’t going to go as well as it looks like it might. There is no connection between the electronically entered pharmacy orders and the signatures on the order sheets! 30 some odd orders per patient, each one individually entered and requiring a signature. I did 22 cases yesterday! Are you kidding me? This is what my colleagues were talking about when they mentioned the four minute per chart rule.

Like I said, though, this was a surprisingly positive interaction. Andrew took a couple of screenshots and said that he was going to sit with the IT magicians and see if we might be able to figure this particular one out. Man, that’s gotta work. I mean, the whole exercise took me about 45 minutes, and I didn’t even learn how to ENTER an order.

I can sign one, though. I’ve got some ER call coming up, and I’ll have to do some–patient consultations as part of my responsibilities. I’d better polish up my “helpless look” and rehearse my supplications. Getting someone to take verbal orders is gonna be the key to salvation.

More to come…

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.

An Epic Adventure: Introduction

I am about to be forced to use the EMR abomination know as “Epic” in order to continue to perform surgery at a particular institution, one where I spend ~10% of my clinical time. My work there is very profitable for the institution; I am not paid by the institution. At present my administrative load is 2X what it was 5 years ago, but the majority is borne by my staff. Once I am required to use their EHR my administrative load will increase at least 20X and I will bear all of it.

Why? My forms are standardized and fulfilling my part of the administrative load presently requires approximately 8 signatures for each case. 8 swipes with a pen on 8 pages layed out before me and marked “sign here”. Time = 0:10/case. Soon I will have to sign into the system for each case and move through a series of ~5 steps to reach the point where I will perform the digital version of my sweeping pen. Time, I am told by colleagues using the system to achieve this, = ~4:00/case. Let’s be generous and assume that they can’t possibly be correct, that it can’t possibly take 4:00 to do digitally what I now do with a pen (Heaven help if I have to enter pre- and post-op orders w/out standard forms!), and that it’s only 2:00. A typical OR day includes 20+ patients. 40 minutes added minimum. Did I mention that I have to do it TWICE because you can’t sign an op note right after surgery?

Lest you think this 52 yo doc is a Luddite and has avoided any and all such technology let me assure you that quite the opposite is the case. We have had an extremely efficient EMR in our office for 7 years; our management and scheduling has been done by computer for 16. My home is littered with Apple products. I’m a buyer of tech WHEN IT MAKES SENSE.

Unfortunately, it appears that I’m about to be forced to be a buyer of this “meaningless use” very soon. I thought I’d share the experience with you here. I’ll keep a log under “The Epic Adventure” and I’ll record not only my experiences but also the time I will be forced to “invest” in learning how to use the system and the time it takes me to comply with its requirements.

It promises to be quite a ride, albeit a rather slow one

Fantasy Response

8:00 p.m. on a Friday night. An urgent page from Express Scripts. “Approval needed for sleeping medicine, Agnes Jones*. 800–333–4444.” Agnes Jones is a nursing home patient with a brain tumor.

4:59 PM, Friday afternoon. Telephone call from CVS pharmacy. “The nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory eyedrop that you prescribed is not covered by Mrs. Jones’ insurance company. We need your authorization to change to the generic version.” We told Mrs. Jones in writing that the generic version was inferior, caused pain, and had 10 times the complication rate. On Monday.

7:30 AM, Sunday morning. Telephone call from answering service. “Doctor, the prescription that you sent electronically on Tuesday for Mrs. Jones was written incorrectly. Please correct this and refile it immediately. Please remember that your status as a provider is contingent upon meeting our customer service standards.” Confirmation of receipt/prescription filled was received on Wednesday.

And, my very favorite, most recent telephone call, this one from the daughter of one of my patients. “Dr. White, NALC needs you to send them a letter proving that my father’s eye drops are not prescribed for cosmetic purposes.”

Welcome to the world of the American physician in the modern era. There are, of course, a host of entirely appropriate responses to all of these pages, beeps, and phone calls. However, this last one put me over the edge. I sat at my desk with the message in front of me, closed my eyes, and thought about how I’d REALLY like to respond. The totally, truly amazing part about this request to justify the eyedrop prescription was that, not only was all the information necessary to cover this already on file at NALC, and not only did a real, live human being actually look at this file, but she admitted that and gave me her name! Ya can’t make this stuff up.

 

“Dear Alex:

Thank you for this opportunity to express my thoughts about some of the pitfalls associated with the pending ‘meaningful use’ regulations for computerized health records. After you personally reviewing the record you requested information about eyedrops that I prescribed for one of my patients. There is apparently a concern about whether or not this patient is using said medication for cosmetic rather than medicinal purposes. As you know, among the more significant ‘meaningful uses’ of electronic medical records are to make sure that everyone has the same exact information about a particular patient, to utilize this information in such a way that proper care is ensured, and to be more time-efficient for the patient, doctor, and everyone else involved in the care process.

If you will open up your file again regarding the patient in question, JOSEPH Smith, you’ll see that, had meaningful use activity actually been applied, this entire communication could have been avoided. Had you actually read the file you would have seen that MISTER  Smith is an 87 YEAR OLD MALE with a long-standing diagnosis of GLAUCOMA. As your software no doubt shows, the eyedrop Lumigan  is a first line medical treatment for glaucoma. All of this information is contained in your database since Mr. Smith has been taking this medication for no fewer than five years, and the bill for his office visit was paid in full by NALC, diagnosis: glaucoma.

A copy of this letter will be forwarded to my US Rep. and two senators, the FDA, and CMS along with a note asking how they propose that all of their fancy new laws about EMR and ‘meaningful use’ will prevent lazy and incompetent file clerks from blinding my patients.

I trust that the information in this ‘old–school’ letter is meaningful enough to prove that Mr. Smith’s use of Lumigan is not for cosmetic purposes.

Sincerely,”

——————————————————–

 

“Dear Alex,

Attachment: Pic.JSmith.jpg

Seriously? Really? You would like me to prove that my toothless, 87-year-old patient named JOSEPH is not using his glaucoma drops for cosmetic purposes?! The guy with the electronic bill in your system with a diagnosis for glaucoma, taking three other glaucoma medicines, all for 20 years? The Joseph Smith who can’t be bothered to remove the 11 skin cancers growing out of his face like barnacles on a sun-scorched barge? COSMETIC?

This is a joke, right?

Sincerely,”

——————————————————————-

 

” Dear Alex,

You caught me! But please, don’t tell anyone else. We have the largest population of semi retired 87-year-old drag queens in America in our practice. They just can’t let it go! We have been prescribing medicines so that they could maintain their long, luxurious eyelashes forEVER. I mean, who WOULDN’T rather have long, thick, natural lashes, especially after a lifetime fussing with those falsies and all that icky, sticky glue. Joe has been SO happy!

It’s amazing how important it is for him and all the ‘girls’ to be able to bat their eyelashes at those cute boy orderlies in the nursing home.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

Sincerely,”

 

Sigh…

 

*All names are fictitious, of course. The examples are not.