Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘medicaid’

Cost + Quality + Convenience = Value

My wife Beth and I had a rather spirited discussion about how we in the U.S. might be able to pay for the healthcare of our citizens. Being ever practical, and also owning the job of writing the checks that pay for the “health insurance” our company offers its associates (including us), Beth in effect is arguing for a national consensus on something we might describe as a baseline ‘value’ for healthcare. Others would label her concept a ‘floor’, but you get the idea.

What Beth intuitively understands is the tension between cost, quality, and convenience. You pick a baseline or a floor level of value and offer that to everyone. With training as a nurse and 15 years in healthcare administration, her idea of what constitutes the sum of cost, quality, and convenience naturally overweights the integers for cost and quality: outcomes should be essentially equal across the board at the baseline or floor level, and the costs of achieving that should be in some way equitably shouldered by something we could describe as “society”. Very practical. A strategy that lends itself to being observable and measurable.

What’s the rub? Well, only two of the three elements that make up value are covered. To obtain an agreed upon level of medical outcomes (mortality, morbidity, longevity, etc.) the cost is covered. Ah, but HOW you obtain those outcomes is still a variable. It is the FLOOR of value that is guaranteed. Our family is experienced a bit of this recently with Beth’s Mom. After a hospitalization she was living in a setting that ws providing excellent care at a reasonable cost, but it was a setting that did not provide any extras; it was old, not very pretty, and she could  have had a roommate. Her (and her daughters’) experience, what we might call “convenience” or  in our formula, was found to be lacking. The girls opted to move her to a nicer setting, one that will eventually involve a higher cost because of the enhancements to the experience, with no change in the already best possible outcome, or quality.

Therein lies the problem with any discussion about literally anything that we might discuss as a “right”. Is everyone entitled to anything other than the minimal amount of convenience/experience necessary to obtain the best outcome at an affordable cost?

If we examine food, we find something quite similar. No one among us would say that X Million people should go without food. Indeed, we don’t even really talk about true hunger in the U.S. anymore, we talk about “food insecurity”, the concern that we may become hungry. By the same token, though, no one asserts that everyone is entitled to the same quality of food. Not even a little bit. No, quite the contrary, all that is discussed is cost and convenience (access).

Now, of course, we in the CrossFit world (and to a degree in the medical world) argue that quality is an ineluctable part of nutrition, that one must extend the equation outside of food alone so that an explicit choice is made that prioritizes quality calories over other purchases (cell phone, cable, fancy car, etc.). While this is accurate and proper I believe that we can reasonably quarantine nutrition and keep it separate from other needs, at least for the purpose of our discussion. The universal concept of the interplay between cost, quality, and convenience holds true in nutrition/food on a global, grand policy making level:

You can pick any two, but only two, when you are declaring what is the minimally acceptable level.

My formulaic approach to the coverage of needs has a little wrinkle that should be mentioned: quality cannot be increased ad infinitum. In all examples we might evaluate there is a practical limit to the ability to improve quality or outcomes. The law of diminishing returns arrives in the form of the asymptote as quality rises. On the other hand, cost and convenience are unbound and can rise almost infinitely. It is the alcohol in a drink that confers the health benefit; the same outcome occurs no matter what you drink. One person’s jug wine from Costco is another person’s Chateau Lafite served in the Gulfstream V. You get the picture.

What will become of our conversations about issues such as healthcare? Will we arrive at a similar juncture to the one we have now in food, clothing, and shelter? Where quality (outcomes) and cost issues are addressed and everyone is left to make their own call on convenience/experience? Beth can’t see how it can be any other way. Me? I’m much less optimistic. That old “want vs. need” thing just keeps popping up. Confusion arises when a truly generous people confuse what people want with what they need. Need is measurable and therefore finite, whereas want is neither. We can, and should, all work to pick up the check for the needs of each. “Want”, on the other hand, is the proverbial “free lunch”, and we as a society will need to agree on that before we can even begin to discuss begin to talk about the mechanics of paying the bill.

TANSTAAFL. Heinlein was right.


Sunday musings: Opiate Overdoses and American Health

To the victors go the spoils. History is written by the victors. Truer words, eh?

I find myself turning off all manner of information outlets of late because they are all just so many repeats. The other side of that victor coin is that the vanquished simply repeat the lines of the victor when s/he was losing. Look no further than the kerfuffle about the Accountable Care Act. If you remove time stamps and the naming of characters what one hears or reads is essentially unchanged today from what was said or written some 7 years ago.

Try it.

My sense of ennui is so strong that it is fairly paralyzing. Is there no one out there who is willing or able to propose something that is truly new? Can we not even even come up with new or original complaints and criticisms? Must we be doomed to this endless cycle of sameness about seemingly everything?

It’s almost as if the vanquished do not so much fail to learn from history but that they work very hard to faithfully replay history in exquisite detail, dooming us all.

We are looking at a true health crisis in the U.S. In 2016 some 40,000 Americans died from opiate overdoses. This is more than the number of deaths by firearms by a factor of 4, and is similar to the number of deaths in automobile accidents. This morning I read a startling statistic: 7 million working age men are out of the employment market, and 1/2 of them take painkillers on a daily basis. Crazy, huh?

On CrossFit.com we agree that there is a general crisis of health in the American populace stemming from over-consumption of calories (most of which are high glycemic index carbs) and under-consumption of physical activity. Another equally startling story in this week’s news is the growing acceptance of excess body weight fat as some kind of new normal, a normal that should somehow be institutionalized.Total capitulation, that.  In this discussion one must add the over-consumption of alcohol, because countless studies have shown that this legal substance is responsible for all kinds of negative health effects, both direct and indirect. (As an aside, it does give one pause when one considers the possibility of legalizing another neuro-depressant, marijuana). As if this isn’t enough, we now must add to this toxic recipe the ingestion by any route of opiates.

The U.S. is regularly taken to task for its failure to sit at the top of the world’s life expectancy leader board despite spending the largest amount per capita on healthcare in the world. This criticism becomes more and more unreasonable as we dive further into what it is that actually drives statistics such as life expectancy. Deaths from overdoses are illustrative of the folly of conflating health and healthcare: there is nothing in the healthcare system of treatment that drives this statistic, and the death of these primarily young people has a disproportionate effect on the life expectancy statistic in which it is years lived that we are counting (and losing).

What, then, is to be done, especially in the setting here of health-conscious individuals? It behooves each of us to take a bit of personal responsibility in the discussion and pledge that we will utilize accurate nomenclature, and in turn demand that everyone else in the conversation do likewise. Health and healthcare are not synonyms. Likewise, healthcare and health insurance (itself somewhat of a misnomer) are not the same; one does not lose healthcare when one does not have health insurance, and for certain the ownership of a health insurance policy does not guarantee one access to healthcare. Indeed, because the outcome was inconvenient to the majority of entrenched healthcare interests, the landmark study of Oregon Medicaid recipients that showed no improvement in health outcomes in those with Medicaid compared with those without has been mostly ignored and purposely forgotten. We need to engage in this conversation, but do so with strict fidelity to meaningful terms.

From there we should lead in whatever way we can. This effort is not at all about the treatment of disease, at least not as far as we here are concerned, but rather one of Public Health. There are quite specific areas to be addressed if we wish to effect change. Each area must be subjected to a root cause analysis. Over-consumption of low-quality carbs is near and dear to CrossFit, Inc., and the battle against “Big Soda’s” influence has been engaged. Other influences such as agricultural subsidies should have a similar bright light shined in their direction. How is it that the dramatic reduction of drinking and driving has failed to render deaths from drunken driving a statistical anomaly? Perhaps someone can convince one of those know-better do-gooder billionaires globe-trotting in search of a trendy problem to throw money at to look a bit closer to home when they apply their famous intellect to new thinking about old problems.

As to the tragedy that is opiate overdose deaths, can we please have someone with no skin in the game be given no-risk access to any and all applicable data and just turn them loose? Some guy did a deep dive into the issue of scrubbing the internet of all vestiges of child pornography using a combination of massive computing power and an outsider’s view. Give someone like that the ability to examine the entire opiate ecosystem to uncover some of the hows and whys so that we can make some decisions of the whats of our response with more than just our typical SOP of some self-designated, conflict-of-interest-infected expert who declares that his/her solution should work because of what they are sure must be going on. This seems to be a new thing, after all, and rather young, too. Prior opiate societal infestations surely share some aspects with our present crisis, but I don’t recall the opium dens in the days of the Crusades so routinely offing their customers.

Anything that can be measured can be analyzed. Anything that can be analyzed can be altered utilizing the results of that analysis. What is needed is the double-edged sword of courage to uncover an unpleasant truth, and strength to set aside all manner of short-term personal gain in favor of a long-term solution for societal benefit.

We ought not let 40,000 lives representing hundreds of thousands of years not lived to be lost in vain.

Measuring Health Part 1: Rationale, Definitions and Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




CPOE: Another Epic Misadventure Begins I

It’s my own fault, really. I admit that I had allowed myself to believe that the uneasy peace I’d made with Epic, the EMR utilized at World Class Hospital, would be a lasting one. A peace for all time. I would interact with the beast on a quarterly basis, signing verbal orders that kindly nurses had accepted and op notes for surgeries that deviated just enough from the routine that they needed to be dictated fresh. In return I would be allowed to simply sign orders, op notes, and other sundry paperwork as I had been doing for the last 24 years. Simple. Everyone wins. My OR days run efficiently saving me, my patients, and the institution countless hours of wasted time, and I continue to bring the majority of my cases to one of the outpatient surgery centers owned by World Class Hospital. (It should be noted that I am the lowest cost eye surgeon in the entire system, thereby generating the greatest per/case profit for WCH). I truly believed that I would still find sanctuary in the OR from the thousands of chickens pecking away at my professional satisfaction and by extension my general degree of happiness.

BzzzzzzPfffffTttttt…sorry Doc, that’s the wrong answer. Johnny, tell our contestant about his lovely parting gifts.

For the first 16 or so years of my post-residency career literally every process change in which I’ve been involved has had a direct, positive effect on outcomes or safety, patient experience, or my efficiency. About 8 years ago tiny little negative things started to creep in, some of which chipped away at that efficiency. A few more forms to sign. More pre-op checkpoints for my patients to pass on their way to the OR. Along with this came the madness that arises when a huge organization plays defense against an unregulated regulator like CMS (medicare) or JCHO (the hospital regulator). Not one, not two, but three personal checks by the surgeon to confirm the surgical site. A pharmacy either running scared or run amok that demanded a brand new bottle of eye drops for every laser patient despite an industry-wide infection rate on lasers of 0.00000001%. It was mostly piddly-diddly stuff, and the OR staff did their very best to run interference and preserve our efficiency.

Now? Oh man. The introduction of the Epic EMR into the OR has turned our 2-nurse room into a 2.5-3 nurse set-up. There is so much dropping down and clicking necessary to fulfill the beast’s demands (man, would this analogy be perfect if they still let us call them Computers On Wheels?! Feed the COW!). Previously, one circulator could do all of the paperwork, prep the patient, and have time to spare to facilitate room turnover. Admittedly I move pretty quickly as I do cataract surgery, but it’s impossible for just one person to do all of these tasks now that Epic must be served, without all of the rest of us sitting on our hands and waiting. The local administration and the staff have rallied around me and my patients and for most cases an extra pair of hands is there to keep things moving. Heck, I do my part as well by taking the trash out of the room and bringing the used instruments back to the sterilization room.

With the introduction and implementation of CPOE (Computerized Physician Order Entry) all of our efforts to improve efficiency, with all of the wonderful things efficiency brings, will be for naught.

How can I possibly know this before experiencing it even once? People talk, and doctors are people. I’ve chatted with a score of surgeons about how long it takes for them to do what Epic and World Class Hospital requires of them, and I’ve got a bit of experience just signing stuff after the fact. It just simply takes a lot of time. Add to that an institutional indifference to the psychological effect of hoovering  time out of a surgeon’s day and you’ve created the world’s biggest, most frightening chicken peck.

Tell you what, let me share a few numbers with you before we make the switch, memorializing them here, dated, before the transition, so that there’s no possibility that I made stuff up after the fact. The baseline numbers I am about to share admittedly are rosy in part because everything that can be done to/with the paperwork by someone NOT me happens as part of well-established routine. Details such as start/stop times, IOL serial numbers, etc. are filled in by support staff; there is little to no chance that this will be the case when everything moves from paper to screen judging by other surgeon’s experiences.

95+% of my cases are either cataract surgeries, post-cataract lasers, or lasers to treat dangerously narrow anterior chamber angles. Through a combination of fortunate genetics and hard work I have become very good, and very fast, at all of these procedures. My team and I achieve enviable outcomes and microscopic complication rates despite the fact that we move very, very quickly. A patient having cataract surgery spends approximately 15 minutes in the OR. For comparison sake, a study from a prestigious eye hospital recently posted an average time in room of ~33 minutes for its top three cataract surgeons. Turn-over time (patient out/next patient in) is 6-7 minutes. On average it takes me 26 seconds to complete ALL of the paperwork that must be done in the OR. It takes another 9 seconds to sign the op note when it is returned from transcription; this is important because Epic will require either finding, editing, and signing an op note in the OR, or dictating one on the spot.

Our team of nurses and doctor has achieved an even more enviable efficiency when doing lasers. The average time it takes for a patient to have the entire laser experience–enter the laserium, be seated at the laser, have the laser successfully performed, and leave the room–is 3 minutes. That is not a typo. The average set-up in the United States is closer to 15 minutes or more for this procedure. At the conclusion of the laser it takes me on average of 17 seconds to complete all of the paperwork that is required, and again 9 seconds on average to sign the op note when it becomes available.

You’re probably thinking why this is a big deal, aren’t you? That I should stop whining and just get on with it. Here’s the rub: I do lots of these procedures each time I go to the OR. Any additional clerical time must be multiplied by the number of cases done that day, and all of that time will be stolen from my day. When I finish in the OR I then do other stuff that’s pretty important. Sometimes I go back to the office and see patients, patients who may have had to wait a long time for their appointment. On really good days I get to go to my beloved CrossFit gym to get a workout in. An even better day is one on which I get my WOD in and then sit down in front of the computer to write. These latter things, especially, make me happy. They make it worthwhile to work as hard as I do. Every extra minute it takes me to do something I already have to do not only brings frustration in the OR itself but also keeps me from parts of my life that bring me happiness. A happier doctor is generally a more effective doctor.

We are establishing a baseline today, and that baseline includes a certain degree of happiness. What do you think the chances are that CPOE will increase my happiness? Stay tuned for Part II.


EMR and Underpants, Still

Skyvision Centers has a subsidiary company called the Skyvision Business Lab. We do business process research for pharmaceutical companies, medical device companies, and other medical businesses in the eye care arena. One of the companies we have worked for is a very cool company that produces animated educational videos for  ophthalmologists and optometrists. I had an interesting experience while talking to their chief technology officer. It was interesting because the conversation proved our basic reason for existence at the Business Lab, that it is impossible for any company to develop, sell, and install any kind of product in our world without understanding the ins and outs of every day activities in an eye care practice.

Of course, I always find it extremely interesting when I’m right!

It was a tiny little point, really, but how could you know something as small and seemingly insignificant as our discovery unless you had spent time on the “frontline” of medical practice? The chief technology officer for the video company was frustrated because doctors and their staff were not using this really cool product that they had purchased. Furthermore, because they weren’t using it, they were failing to buy downstream products from the video company. As it turns out the salespeople for this company were telling the doctors that this particular product should be “turned on” by the staff at the front desk of the office. This is exactly the wrong place because the front staff personnel simply have neither the time, nor the understanding, nor any incentive whatsoever to do this. The product actually works beautifully if it is “turned on” by the back-office staff. Bingo! Problem solved.

So what does this have to do with Electronic Medical Records (EMR), and for heaven’s sake what does this have to do with underpants? It’s simple, really. When was the last time you bought a totally new type of underpants, underpants that you had never seen before, and underpants that you had certainly never worn before, without trying them on? Furthermore, what’s the likelihood that you would allow someone else to design, fit, and choose a style  of underpants for you if that someone has not only never met you but has never even seen a picture of you?!  That’s the image I get every time I read an article about EMR.

In theory the concept of an electronic medical record that would allow permanent storage of every bit of medical information, with the ability to share that information between and among doctors and hospitals involved in the patient’s care, is so logical and obvious that debating the point seems silly. If you have ever seen my handwriting, for example, you’d realize that the entire field of EMR was worth developing just to make doctors stop using pens and pencils! Trust me on this… the doctor hasn’t yet been trained who is also a specialist in penmanship.

I actually trained at  two of the pioneering hospitals in the use of electronic medical records, and indeed in the use of computers in medicine in general. Dr. Larry Weed and Dr. Dennis Plante at the University of Vermont were pioneers in the concept of using computing power to make more accurate medical diagnoses. Both the University of Vermont Medical Center and the Maine Medical Center were among the very first institutions to develop and implement digital medical records for the storage and use of clinical data like lab reports and radiology reports. In theory both of these areas make sense, but in practice the storage and display of clinical data is all that’s actually helpful in day-to-day practice.

If this is the case, if the acquisition, storage, and retrieval of critical data is helpful, the next logical step must be to do the same thing with the information obtained in doctor’s offices, right? Well, in theory this makes a ton of sense. The problem is that nearly none of the EMR systems now in place have been designed from the doctor/patient experience outward; they’ve all been designed from the outside in, kind of like someone imagining what kind of underpants you might need or might like to wear, and making a guess about what size would fit you. With a few exceptions, tiny companies that are likely to be steamrolled in the process, every single EMR on the market is the wrong fit for a doctor and a patient.

Why is this? How could this possibly be with all the lip service that is being paid to the doctor /patient relationship and the importance of getting better care to patients? It goes back to that same tiny little problem that the medical video company tripped over: it’s really hard to know how something should work unless you spend some time where the work is going to be done. Electronic medical records in today’s market are responsive to INSTITUTIONS, insurance companies and governments and large hospital systems. System before doctor, doctor before staff, staff before patient. Today’s EMR’s have been designed with two spoken goals in mind: saving money and reducing medical errors. Should be a slamdunk at that, right? But even here the systems bat only .500, producing reams of data that will eventually allow distant institutions to pare medical spending, but neither capturing nor analyzing the correct data to improve both medical outcomes and medical safety. Fail here, too, but that’s another story entirely.

So what’s the solution? Well for me the answer is really pretty easy and pretty obvious. Send the underwear designer into the dressing room! Program design, programs of any type, are one part “knowledge of need” and one part plumbing. How can you know what type of plumbing is necessary unless you go and look at the exact place where the plumbing is needed? How can you know what size and what shape and what style of underwear will fit unless you actually go and look at the person who will be wearing the underwear? It’s so simple and so obvious that it sometimes makes me want to scream. Put the program designers in the offices of doctors who are actually seeing patients. Set them side-by-each. Make them sit next to the patients and experience what it’s like to receive care.

THEN design the program.

I’m available.The  Skyvision Business Lab is available. I have a hunch that the solution will hinge on something as simple and fundamental as my example above — front desk versus back office.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be me, and doesn’t necessarily have to be us, but it absolutely is necessary for it to be doctors and practices like Skyvision Centers, places where doctors and nurses and staff members actually take care of patients. Places where patients go to stay healthy or return to health. Places where it’s patient before staff, staff before doctor, doctor before system.

For whatever it’s worth I’m 5’8″ tall, I weigh 150 pounds, and I’m relatively lean for an old guy. I guess it’s a little embarrassing to admit this… I still wear “TightyWhiteys”, but I’m open-minded. I’m willing to change.

Just take a look at me first before you choose my underpants for me.

Slip-Sliding Away

The announcement came in the mail, by email, and proclamation at a dinner. My good friend (and personal physician) would be retiring from the practice of medicine at age 55 to take a position as a very senior hospital administrator. This news was delivered by another physician friend, a 55 year old orthopedic surgeon who put my wife back together after a Humpty Dumpty fall off a horse, during a dinner at which he described his intent to drastically reduce his call schedule and ER coverage. That morning in the OR I was chatting with an industry rep who was telling the story of an extraordinarily talented 45ish year old cataract surgeon who has limited his daily volume to 6 cases (that’s what he’s contracted for with Kaiser) despite the fact that he is able to complete this schedule by 9:30 AM. I thought of all of this while I, a 52 year old eye surgeon somewhat famous for my ability to handle a crushing workload without sacrificing either outcomes or a pleasant patient experience, was mapping out my 2014 office and OR schedule with a reduced work week and additional vacation days.

Have you noticed? There are fewer of us out there doing our jobs. Fewer doctors, that is. We’re slipping away, young and old. The last vestiges of the physicians who lived through the Golden Age of medicine are hanging up their spurs, taking down their shingles, and riding off into the sunset. They are being replaced by an almost equal number of youngsters just out of training, young bucks saddling up yearlings and slowly joining the rodeo. Those of us in the middle, mid-career docs of all sorts, we’re still there. Sorta.

The stands are full. All sorts of spectators and commentators are there to see the healthcare rodeo. The reporters and the pundits, the bloggers, those who dwell in the halls of academe and the basements of the bureaucracy fill the bleachers, prepared for much back-slapping and self-congratulation as the fruits of their intellectual labors, the young buck docs, take over for the much-maligned Marcus Welby generation. The kids’ll be OK, better than OK, because the audience has successfully changed everything about how doctors are trained and made it the way they, the audience, think it SHOULD be. No need to worry about the newbies and all of the non-doctor “healthcare providers” and how slow they are in general, or how they work fewer hours, or take more time to handle a visit–those docs in the “sweet-spot” in mid-career are there to take up the slack until the audience’s brilliance is born out. Sorta.

Everything seems to be a bit chaotic at the healthcare rodeo. There are so many more things that need to get done. It’s not enough to rope and tie that diabetic, there seem to be too many diabetics now. Those young docs spend an awful lot of time just outside the ring doing non-doctor stuff. Where are the grooms, the seconds, the helpers? Why aren’t they doing all that stuff outside the ring so the doctors can get in there and ride? It looks like there are a bunch of those mid-career guys and gals over there outside the ring too, doing non-doctor stuff. It sure seems to take a lot of time. The young bucks seem to take that all in stride. Maybe a stray shrug of a shoulder, but not much more. It’s all they’ve ever known. The mid-career docs seem to be making do. Sorta.

Something’s just not quite right, though. The numbers just aren’t quite working. Matching the number of docs retiring with the number of newly-trained docs seems to be coming up short. All of those newly empowered other “healthcare providers” don’t seem to be making much of a difference, either. There seem to be too many patients, too many people who need both sick and well-care, and too few doctors to provide it. The pundits and the professors say the solution is not more doctors but more other “healthcare providers” and new technology. Help is on the way they say. Preparing the path to this end seems to involve a PR campaign that not only minimizes the contribution of doctors in general, it denigrates the efforts of the one group of docs that is keeping it all afloat: the mid-career physicians who are neither old enough to retire nor young enough to not know any better.

The whole house of cards depends on these men and women going to work and doing just what they’ve been doing for 20+ years. Seeing lots of patients in any given time slot. Performing lots of surgeries efficiently and well. Showing up in the ER for a consult or answering the phone at 3 AM. All for lower pay and less respect. The whole thing rests upon the presumption that they will continue to do this regardless of the non-medical impositions of the new “way it should be”, regardless of the continual battering of their self-worth. Thus far that’s how it’s playing out. Sorta.

There’s something afoot, though. Quietly and without much fanfare, the mid-career doc is slipping away. She’s sliding out the side door and taking a job in administration. He’s slipping in a 4-day weekend every month, on top of the 4-day week he started working a couple years ago. While nobody noticed she started to limit the number of surgeries she would do in a day, ducking out at noon on OR day instead of 2 or 3, the backlog of cases now building up to months rather than weeks. Oh sure, they are still counted as a full-time doc on everyone’s ledger, it’s just that they aren’t as full-time as they used to be, as full time as the system is counting on them to be. The net effect is that with the same number of doctors counted we actually have FEWER docs available to see more patients.

You see, the mid-career physician is also listening to what the editorialists and the bloggers and the academics and the bureaucratic minions are saying, about the “way it should be” and how they really feel about worth of doctor work, and in response they are slip sliding away.

Told to do more for less some of those mid-career warhorses are just doing less. All those men and women who are the equivalent of “innings eaters” on a Major League pitching staff are no longer as available, effectively reducing the number of physicians available to take care of patients. If the new “way it should be” is correct this should pose no problem, right? Just have all those folks who used to be seen by a physician seen by a “healthcare provider.” Got a sore throat? CVS or Walmart is just around the corner and they do the same quicky Strep test your doctor would have done. Surely the AP nurse will notice that tender spleen, or that especially swollen tonsil encroaching on the midline like your 55 year old doc with 25 years of experience would have. No worries. You can follow up with that nice new doctor in the big clinic, that ACO thing you’ve read about. There’s an opening in 12 weeks. Your old doctor who would have stayed late in the office to see you in follow-up in a day or two is no longer available.

He started a new career selling veterinary supplements at rodeos. Slip sliding away…



Panera Bread Cares (A Random Thoughtlet)

While driving to work this morning I had NPR on the radio as usual. The Business News segment was featuring the Panera Bread company and its “Panera Bread Cares” program. Briefly, Panera has converted about a dozen of its formerly for-profit stores into non-profits owned by the Panera Foundation. There are no prices in these stores, only “suggested donations.” Approximately 20% of patrons donate more than the suggested amount, 60% pay as if it is regular price, and the rest pay little or nothing.

Needless to say, the folks from Panera were more than a little self-congratulatory about this enterprise, and I think they have some reason to be so. Their stated goal is to raise awareness of “middle-class food anxiety”, not so much to provide food to the poor or the homeless. I imagine that the paying customers might be a little less prone to continue patronizing a store which all of a sudden started to be populated by the various and sundry homeless, especially those who look the part. Still, I do think this is an interesting experiment along the lines of Radiohead and music but for charity rather than as a business model.

Here’s the rub: a Professor Somebody from someplace opined that it is “exceedingly rare” that a business has a charitable venture that is indistinguishable from its for-profit core business. I wish I remembered the guys name. He intimated that it might actually be unique, not seen in any other business. Right. About that. This is the self-congratulatory part that rankles. Unique, as in only one, like never before seen?


How about the countless private doctors’ offices and clinics that have been seeing and treating patients for little or no payment, a phenomenon that began decades ago and continues today? Have we become so jaded about doctors and healthcare that an economics or business professor can state, presumably with a straight face, that a company offering to give away its core product in its usual setting is unique and almost unprecedented?

Come on now.

I’m reminded of a story one of my older partners used to tell. Dr. Scheie, namesake of the Scheie Eye Institute at Penn in Philadelphia, was a pioneer in cataract surgery. Every one of his patients had the same experience in the operating room itself, and Dr. Scheie personally did every single surgery; no one was denied surgery by the great Scheie, regardless of their ability to pay. Where they spent the next several nights (this was in the days of sand bags and immobilization) was determined by what, if anything, they did pay. Regular patients, those who paid the “recommended donation”, were the majority of the patients and they stayed in semi-private or double rooms. Those less well off who paid little or nothing were tended to in a dormitory like ward. There were two private rooms reserved for those who were of more substantial means. When asked what surgery would cost if one were to spend the night in a private room Dr. Scheie would reply: “you should pay what you feel you should.” The eye clinic never lost money.

I think the idea and philosophy behind the “Panera Bread Cares” is pretty cool, but let’s be real about both the phenomenon and the real rationale underlying these “pay what you can/want” stores. Panera is getting enormous publicity and goodwill from a trivial number of store conversions. It is getting great feedback and outsized credit for something that is so common in medicine that business professors seemingly forget that and get on NPR and say stuff like Panera Bread Cares is so rare that it might be a one-off. They are giving away bread bowls, for Heaven’s sake.

Doctors have been giving away something much more valuable to those who can’t pay every day for decades.


Does “MD” = Manic Depression?

“Manic depression is touching my soul.”

You’re up;  you’re down. You’re happy; you’re sad. You have the best job in the world; thinking about going to work makes you sick to your stomach. You’re so good at what you do, everybody loves you; everyone is out to get you.

You are an American physician.

Recently I’ve been asked at least a dozen times why I became a doctor, or why I became an eye doctor. I’m not really sure why this has come up now, because most of the people who are asking have known me in some way for many years. Why I became an eye doctor is really rather simple, and I have written about it HERE. The question “why did you become a doctor” is much more complex, much more involved, and frankly I’m beginning to wonder about that myself.

“Why do you want to be a doctor” was at the same time the easiest and most difficult question for me to answer, especially during medical school interviews. I grew up in a small, dying mill town in Massachusetts. The happiest, most fulfilled, most IMPORTANT people in that town were the doctors, of which there were very few. The busiest surgeon in town, Dr. L., could possibly have been the happiest person in the entire town. Beautiful wife, attractive, intelligent, athletic children, really big house. He was even a decent golfer! I don’t think I ever saw him without a smile on his face.

It was Dr. Roy, though, my pediatrician, who really clinched it for me. There must have been another pediatrician in town–heck, there were 24,000 people there. For the life of me, though, I can’t ever recall any of my friends seeing any doctor other than Dr. Roy. He was confident. Secure. Always with a gentle smile whether in the office or on Main Street. My mom later told me that he was perhaps the most influential politician in town as well. Everybody looked up to Dr. Roy, no matter how young or old they might be. His was a happy, contented, full life, largely because he was a respected physician.

Can you name a single pediatrician now living and practicing in the United States whom you would describe like that?

Nevertheless, that’s mostly why I wanted to be a doctor. I want to be Dr. Roy. I wanted people to look up to me because I was good at doing something that was important, something that was meaningful to their lives. All of the doctors in town were like that.

Now? Well, I’m a 51-year-old eye surgeon and I am just like every other physician in the United States. I swing between the euphoria associated with a good outcome or a happy patient, and the bitter black hole that appears when a disease wins. My world is actually pretty good in this regard: for every defeat there are literally hundreds of victories. For every patient who is dissatisfied or unfulfilled there are hundreds who can’t wait to tell everyone in their lives how good their experience was. It’s just that there seems to be a couple more people who are less satisfied. A couple more each year.

Again, the success rate in my particular specialty is incredibly high, and these people who are less than satisfied have actually had an extraordinary good outcome if you look objectively. I think it all tracks back to the creeping consumerism in health care. It’s not good enough to have an outstanding outcome, it’s only truly even good enough if it meets the expectations of the consumer, the patient, no matter how outlandish or inappropriate those expectations might be.

I’m up. I’m down. The downs seem to hurt more because they are so much more, I don’t know, personal now.

I always got the idea that there was pretty much nothing to the business of being a doctor. All the docs seemed to have enough money, although none of them seemed wealthy. There was only one “girl” in the office and she made the appointments, gave you your bill, and took your payment. No back office or billing department. No special personnel responsible for charting, compliance, insurance communications. My “chart” was a couple of 5×7 cards stapled together.

Now? Oh man…the squeeze is coming from all directions. Private practice or big group practice, it doesn’t matter. You either deal with the external forces conspiring to make it more unpleasant to make a living as a doctor (insurance companies, the government, malpractice attorneys) or you deal with your boss (or more likely your boss’ secretary since you’re just another employee, after all). Your chart is now a legal document littered with land mines meant to ensnare even the most pious and dedicated among us.  Most docs do OK financially, maybe not 1%’ers but pretty well. It just seems like so many folks go so far out of their way to make us feel like we don’t deserve our pay. Any of us. Any of it.

I’m comfortable; you don’t deserve it.

Now, if you are not a doc you could sit back and rightly say “quit yer whinin”. I’d get it. I just can’t shake the feeling that Dr. Roy, and all of the Dr. Roy’s of the day, got and gave more out of what medicine could offer than any of us do now, despite the fact that those of us who practice now have so much more at our disposal on the medical side of the equation. It just doesn’t feel as good. There’s just too much that comes between doctors and that sense of service, of satisfaction in those bygone days. It just seems so much like work now. I don’t think Dr. Roy ever went to work. I believe he would have practiced pretty much the same way if he’d inherited a million dollars.

You’re up; you’re down. You have the best job in the world; you can barely make yourself open the office door. Everybody loves you;  you don’t deserve it.

“Manic depression is a frustrating mess.”