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Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Why Private Practice Survives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Measuring Health Part 2:The Traditional Metric ‘M’

Any measurement of health must provide some sort of predictive value with regard to the likelihood that one will remain healthy. While the entire idea of screening tests is fraught with controversy–both false positives and false negatives bring with them real risks–there are still a number of health measurements in the realm of traditional medical care that have a proven value when trying to predict downstream adverse health events. The trick, of course, is to decide which ones matter, filter that group to come up with tests that are as close to universally available as possible, and then decide how much weight each particular test in the group of survivors should receive in the single cumulative metric that is then created. This measurement, call it “M”, will be one of the variables in our calculated health measurement.

Let’s start with the simplest of all medical inquiries, a medical history. More specifically, let’s include a brief family history in our calculation of M. While it is becoming increasingly easy to obtain a very accurate genetic profile that identifies very specific health risks, these genetic tests are both controversial and expensive. Until the very real societal issues of knowing your exact genome and the risks it includes have been worked out by both ethicists and elected government, we should take a simpler and more narrow approach and ask two very simple questions: Has anyone in your family died from heart disease? Has anyone in your family died from cancer? Equally simple follow-up questions (How young were they? What kind of cancer) would allow us to add risk (reduce M) or ignore the historical note since the disease is not hereditary.

From here we move to an equally spartan individual medical history. Again, just two questions in this part: Do you smoke? Do you drink alcohol? The negative effect of smoking on an individual’s health, both in the present and future tense, must be accounted for in any measurement of health. It weighs so heavily on what we know about future risks that we will see it as a negative integer in M. Too many studies to count exist pointing out the deleterious effect of excess alcohol consumption to count. One compelling study, The Eight Americas Study in PloS One, found alcoholism to be the single most powerful lifestyle variant after smoking when predicting the life expectancy of groups studied. A recently published study of Harvard men found that alcoholism was the greatest second greatest influence on the happiness of the men studied, just behind the presence of loving friendships. Unlike smoking, however, there is a volume component to alcohol consumption. Indeed, a modest intake actually INCREASES longevity, while no intake DECREASES longevity. So M will see a small bump from moderated alcohol intake, an equally small decrease for teetotalers, and a dramatic negative effect from heavy alcohol intake.

So far we’ve managed to obtain some variables underlying M through the use of simple inquiry, costing only the time it takes a subject to fill out a questionnaire. At least two other variables are as accessible and inexpensive: blood pressure (BP) and a measurement of body habits. Once upon a time you had to visit a doctor or hospital to get your blood pressure checked. Now? Heck, for $20 you can buy a reasonable accurate BP monitor and take your BP at home! Minute Clinics in pharmacies, health clinics in the workplace, and coin-operated machines in the local Mall now make it easy to get a BP without visiting a doctor. While there is ongoing controversy in the medical world about what constitutes Hypertension it is safe to say that health risks are higher with a systolic pressure >140 and a diastolic >90. Above or below these levels is our toggle for M, positive or more healthy for lower and the opposite for higher BP.

Using body habitus is controversial, mostly because the measurement that is routinely utilized is so inadequate. The Body Mass Index, or BMI, is wildly inaccurate when it is applied to the fit. 4-time winner of the CrossFit Games Rich Froning, arguably the fittest man on the planet, would be deemed obese at 5′ 10″ and roughly 195 pounds with a % body weight fat of around 4%. Ridiculous, huh? The temptation, of course, is to use % BW fat as the preferred method of measuring body composition risk, but measurements that are accurate enough to be useful tend to be very expensive and difficult to access. On the other hand, all you need to determine the waist/hip ratio is an 89 cent paper tape measure and a calculator. A waist/hip ratio of >1.0 is associated with an increased risk to health from myriad metabolic illnesses including diabetes and heart disease, especially in men. Greater health in M for measurements under 1.0, and progressively less as that number increases.

It is impossible to utilize all that modern medicine has to offer when it comes to measuring health without spending a little bit of money. Several simple blood tests can be obtained with or without the input of a physician. The presence or control of diabetes can be ascertained with a HbA1c and a fasting glucose level. In the presence of a normal HbA1c an elevated fasting glucose may indicate a problem with insulin sensitivity, so it is important to include both. While it is far from settled whether or not it is cholesterol itself which is responsible for heart disease there is simply too much evidence that serum lipids can help predict cardiac events to leave them out of any health measurement. Our basic health index should therefore include the basic measurement of total cholesterol, HDL, LDL, and triglycerides, and M should reflect the negative effect of elevated Total Cholesterol, LDL and triglycerides and the positive effect of a high HDL.

How should we put all of these together to come up with our traditional health variable, M? This one is fairly simple; there are a number of “risk factor” measurements online that are good models. I envision a rather simple form on which one would add up weighted values for the measurements above, arriving at a straight forward mathematical sum. The final formula is being developed with the assistance of cardiologists at my medical school alma mater, the University of Vermont.

 

CPOE: Another Epic Misadventure III Post-Mortem

With the launch of SkyVision Centers 10 years ago I entered the era of EMR. Our group was certainly an early adopter, but since we had chosen this path so early we were able to make our own determinations about what we valued in the technology, and what we would not be willing to give up or compromise in order to have EMR. Our choice of platforms was one that expressly sought to enhance the efficiency of a busy specialist, while at the same time allowing us to hold on to a very personal approach to the doctor/patient interaction. That experience has informed my reaction to all subsequent encounters I have had with other EMR’s, government regulations, and the like. The launch of  Epic CPOE at my World Class Hospital ASC was just the latest example.

A tip of the hat and heartfelt thanks to the folks at the ASC who took such a personal interest in my experience. To my surprise and near delight, the CPOE intrusion in the OR during cataract surgery (in a single room) was negligible. There’s a lesson here for implementing EMR changes: do your homework. The reason my day went so smoothly in the OR is that the people who were thinking about me spent the time necessary to head off problems BEFORE I showed up that day. Two sessions with me, both of which occurred AFTER examining my pre-CPOE processes and paperwork, helped to head off predictable and preventable frustrations.

Having said that, a pox on the houses of all who created the tragedy that is the post 2008 EMR. That means both the government “know-betters” who shower all of us in the trenches with dictums on how it’s supposed to be, as well as the EMR software engineers and execs. Never mind that not a one of them could possibly have ever manned a bedpan, let alone a needle-driver, the arrogance of simply declaring what should be without looking at what is continues to be appalling. To a person every single one of my patients complained about being ignored by the ASC staff on CPOE Day One. Heck, there was literally no way for me to position my Pig, “Babe”, so that I could have eye contact with my patients when they entered the laser room; I was just like every other physician lemming with his eyes glued to a screen when they walked in. I at least have 10 years of goodwill built up with my patients so that I might be forgiven for the insult delivered by Epic.

While I’m at it, can we talk about the arrogance of the programming…ahem…experts, the Cave Dwellers at World Class Hospital? Do they work for Epic, World Class Hospital, or some outside agency? I asked for an order set for a particular type of procedure, one that would more exactly represent what and how we do it at our ASC. I was told in no uncertain terms that the Cave Dwellers had already declared that they had done more than enough for me and us, and that I should feel very lucky that they did as much as they had. Seriously. Never mind that my request would have saved me time, saved the staff time, and made for a better experience for the patient. The Cave Dwellers had spoken. These people have as much power to inflict unnecessary pain on productive folks like doctors and nurses as the pharmacists at World Class Hospital (remember a brand new bottle of eyedrops for every patient for every laser to avoid infections that had never happened in the history of laser surgery?). Here’s hoping one of the Cave Dwellers doesn’t recognize some very important name and drops that same load of attitude on that Very Important Person. Kinda makes a lie of the whole “support” part of “tech support”. This is fixable, by the way, if anyone’s listening, especially if they work for World Class Hospital.

In the end there remain two very critical problems with CPOE in general, and EMRs of the Epic ilk in particular. The first and most problematic is that at their heart they are not medical records at all, they are billing and compliance systems. The primary customer is not the physician or the patient but an accountant, and the outcome that is maximized is not a medical outcome but a financial one. These systems will always be a time suck for both doctor and patient (and nurse, and receptionist, and…), and with that will come an inevitable happiness suck. I had a full hour stolen from my day; this isn’t going to get any better. Every one of my patients had an unsatisfactory experience as ASC staff paid more attention to their Pigs than to my patients; this isn’t going to get any better, either.

The second issue reflects the end of my first day with “Babe” and it is the only issue that could possibly get better: computers and software of any sort are only as good as the people using them. Despite all of our planning, all of the preparation that happened before I arrived at the ASC, everything came to a screeching halt when I tried to plug in my orders for next week. The poor woman whose job it was to enter the patients into the system was simply overwhelmed with work. On top of her regular job and her regular duties she was now not only responsible for the additional task of putting patients into the Pig Pen, but she also had a very hard deadline to beat. At the moment of truth it was her failure, but just as it isn’t the waitress who is at fault when she delivers the overcooked steak, neither was it the poor clerk’s fault that I sat and stewed while she completed her task under the baleful glare of her boss. Just as it is the chef who is at fault for the burnt steak, so too is it the fault of management upstream for failing to give a frontline worker the time necessary to feed the Pigs.

Here, at last, is hope. Faint hope, but hope nonetheless. Someone, somewhere in the chain of command at World Class Hospital may realize that they can make this whole CPOE mess a little bit better for at least some of the folks who are affected by it. It won’t be me, or anyone like me; it’s clear that physicians are just interchangeable cogs in this machine–the noisy ones will be replaced. It surely won’t be patients; that ship left port way before Epic arrived, no matter how many ads World Class Hospital takes out declaring fealty to “patient-centered care”. My hope, and my new crusade, is that the non-physicians on the front line who are taking a beating from this will be acknowledged and given the resources necessary to NOT be the fly in the oink-ment (couldn’t resist). They don’t deserve to end up in the crosshairs of a doc looking for a place to put his unhappiness.

Now, the Cave Dwellers on the other hand…

 

Another Epic Misadventure II: CPOE Goes Live

Boy oh boy, was it crowded in the Ambulatory Surgery Center on Tuesday. The place was crawling with techie types in outfits that looked an awful lot like Walmart uniforms, bumping into a cadre of Suits who were there doing…well…I’m not sure what the Suits were doing. They were mostly in the way of productive people doing useful stuff. My day started off with an almost immediate case of miss met expectations as the tech support person who’d promised she would be there to guide me on Day One, since she’d spent so much time personally preparing both me and Epic for our first CPOE date, was nowhere to be found. Sadly, it was apparent that the otherwise quite lovely and very talented woman who was there instead, let’s call her my “Doc Minder”, was going to need some catching up on what had gone before, despite her assurances that she’d been fully prepared by Top Tech, the Doctor Whisperer.

“Dr. White, I was led to believe that all of your pre-op orders have already been entered into the system.” Uh oh. I spent 2 hours the prior Thursday afternoon with the head honcho “Doctor Whisperer” entering all of those orders. My first thought was “why don’t you know this already, since you have access to all of my charts today and could have looked?”, followed by “How is it possible that you didn’t look so that you could head off any problems before I got here?” What I said was: “they’d better be.” Ugh. Was this a sign? Given my state of mind heading into this day you can imagine the kinds of thoughts going through my head when the first mobile computer brought to the OR for my use didn’t work. Like, not at all. Rough start.

Turns out that I have some history with these mobile computers and World Class Hospital. They were originally called “Computers on Wheels”, which I instantly renamed “COWs”. Makes sense, right? Easy. Cute. Man, did that get shot down fast. Something about cultural sensitivity, or, really, I have no idea, but calling them a “COW” was verboten. I’ve been using that “Lipstick on a Pig” analogy when discussing everyone’s sensitivity to my unhappiness about Epic in general and CPOE in particular. My new four-wheeled “Pig” arrived and to my surprise things actually started to look up. The computer worked so well that I found myself calling it “Babe”.

Having all of my pre-op orders already in the system turned out to be a critical step in giving the day a fighting chance to succeed. All of the orders had, indeed, successfully made their way from the chart to the nurses in pre-op, and from there to what seemed to be a fairly regular implementation for my surgical patients. This is important because patient preparation starts well before I arrive in the morning for surgical patients, and begins for lasers while I am toiling away in the OR. The fact that it took some 2 hours to get these orders entered last week (total of 19 cases), a process that had heretofore occurred entirely without needing me to engage, was momentarily lost in the euphoria that I didn’t need to put out any pre-op order fires (hmmm…would that be a Pig roast? Sorry.).

Although this was day one for implementing CPOE in this particular ASC, the fact that the main campus of World Class Hospital, as well as several other WCH ASC’s had already made the transition, meant I really wasn’t truly a guinea pig (too much?). Standard order sets already existed for eye surgery, and it was relatively simple for the behind-the-scenes cave-dwellers to create both order sets specific for our ASC as well as templates for my op notes (more on the cave-dwellers in Part III). As I noted in Part I our turnover time in a single OR for cataract surgery is ~7:00. With some gentle and kind prompting from my “Doc Minder” I was easily able to do everything “Babe” asked of me between cases in addition to my usual duties (chat with the family, etc.). My kindly “DM” agreed that “Babe” would probably slow me down on busier days when I hop between two OR’s, but for today at least there was no time suck for cataract surgery. I even did one fewer dictation because the “Doctor Whisperer” had helped me create a template for “Complex Cataract Surgery”.

I may or may not have said “That’s some Pig!” out loud.

Alas, everyone involved knew that the happiness was fated to be short-lived. The efficiency bar is so high when we do ophthalmic lasers that there was simply no way that “Babe” was going to be able to keep up; he was back to being a Pig as soon he moseyed over to the laserium. Because every patient’s chart must be completed before they are allowed to leave the facility–images of armed guards wearing Google Glass running Epic and manning the exits filled my head–I had to attend to all of “Babe’s” needs before starting with the next patient. This process took 1.5-2X as long as usual, increasing the time it took me to do my lasers and making it a bit less convenient for my patients.

Then everything went off the rails.

Computers are computers, and software is software. They are both heroes or goats depending on how well they fulfill whatever task they are assigned, but they are prisoners of the people who operate them. The plan that all stakeholders had agreed on was for ASC staff to schedule all surgeries booked by SkyVision as of Monday by the time I finished lasers on Tuesday. I would then do all of the pre-op ordering for the following week before leaving for the day. Under the best of circumstances every minute I spend doing this is both a time and a happiness suck for me because, as I noted above, prior to CPOE I didn’t have to do ANY of it. Naturally, more than half of next week’s patients had not yet been entered into the system making it necessary to not only stick around to pet my Pig (I know) but also wait for the overworked WCH staff to complete their tasks. All in all it cost me about an hour, stealing my workout and rushing my lunch so that I could be in the office and start clinic without making my patients wait.

What’s the take-home? Tune in for Part III. For the moment let me just say…that’ll do Pig, that’ll do.

Sunday musings 7/20/14: The Risk of Unshakeable Belief

Sunday musings…

1) Fonzie. Henry Winkler is 68 years old. Ayyyyy…

2) Open. Oldest golf tournament in the world coming to a close as I type. Sergio comes up jusssst a bit short. Again.

Dude’ consistent. Gotta give him that.

3) Aviary. Mrs. bingo is the “Bird Whisperer.” Who knew there were so many types of birds in suburbia?

I remember when a robin was an exotic creature.

4) Change. The only thing that is constant is change. This applies everywhere to everything. Next weekend will bring the latest edition of the CrossFit Games. There will be change. Count on it. I have absolutely no inside information whatsoever, but you can make bank on this. There will be change.

How could I possibly know this? Well, a part of it is just a basic fact of life. Stuff changes. The other part is simply history. If you’ve been paying the least bit of attention the last, oh, 10 years or so, you’ve notice that the folks who run things in our little CrossFit world are ever and always changing things up. I’m not really sure if the Black Box is outwardly (or inwardly) any different, but the leadership team is constantly changing up the left side input to see what comes out of the right side. From where I sit each change has brought a net improvement. The only thing we know for sure is that there will be change next week at The CrossFit Games.

Now in reality, unless you make your living from The Games of from CrossFit, this particular change is more interesting than integral in your life. It’s the fact of change, the constancy of change, and more so how you handle it both tactically and emotionally, that determines your destiny. Prepare for change and plan for change, because change is what you’re gonna get.

5) Unshakeable. This week I spent some time talking to a couple of folks who, unbeknownst to them, were talking about each other. Well, talking to them is not really accurate–they were having a discussion and I was having a listen. Both were talking about the effects of a particular happening on a particular person, effects that both could surely see if only they cared to remove their blinders and look. They told wildly different stories. Their belief sets were so unshakeable, so impervious to penetration by petty inconveniences like facts and reality, it was as if they wore not lenses to clarify but masks to obscure.

The blind running from the blind, if you will.

I’m fascinated when I see this, and I do see this almost every day when I am plying my trade. So much of what is “known” about medicine isn’t really known at all but “felt”. I constantly run up against an unshakeable belief that is often expressed in a statement that begins “well, I would think that [you] would…” Indeed, I heard this from both folks telling me what was transpiring. I’m fascinated and exasperated in equal parts when I am on the listening end of this equation because of how completely this unshakeable belief nullifies the otherwise logical power of observable, measurable fact.

If I step back and think a little more deeply about this phenomenon I am also terrified that I, too, may harbor similarly unshakeable beliefs that blind me to the truths of a fact-based reality. This weekend brought a gathering of true experts in a particular field of my day job, one I was quite flattered to attend. There were a couple of points that I’m just convinced my colleagues got wrong, points of view it looks like I shared only with myself. Am I right? Is my insight so keen, my ability to analyze the data presented so much better, my advice so advanced that I am just a full step ahead of the rest of the group? Or is it rather that I am clinging to a point of view supported only by the virtual facts created by beliefs I am unable or unwilling to walk away from? The simple awareness that this may, indeed, be the case does place me in a better position than either of my conversational partners as far as ultimately being right, but is that enough?

Blinders of not, I guess we’ll see, eh?

I’ll see you next week…

Posted by bingo at July 20, 2014 11:06 AM

Tales from Bellevue Hospital: On Call 4th of July

I am on call this month for the largest community hospital on the West Side of Cleveland. Covering a semi-suburban ER is quite different from covering a true big city ER, especially when the semi-suburban hospital has gutted both its trauma and eye services. My on-call role now is little more than that of foot servant, covering the loose ends of other people’s arses in the pursuit of a perfect chart. Bellevue, at least the Bellevue I knew in the 80′s, was quite a different story. Although it was July it was July in New York, pre-Guliani New York, and it was Bellevue Hospital.

There are only two kinds of people in New York City: Targets, and people who hit Targets. At Bellevue we took care of the Targets.

It’s the first weekend in July. For most people in America that means the 4th of July and everything that goes along with that. Barbecues. Fireworks. Festivals and ballgames of all sorts. And beer. Lots and lots of beer. But in that curious sub-culture of medical education the first weekend in July means the first time on call for newly minted interns, newly promoted residents and fellows of all sorts. Everyone and everything is new, just in time for July 4th and its aftermath.

Funny, but I ended up on call for every 4th of July in my four years of post-med school training. I’m not sure which, or how many, of the residency gods I offended, but whatever I did I apparently did in spades ’cause I hit the first weekend jackpot every year. I have no memory of my first on call as an intern, but the “Target Range” was open for business those first couple of years at Bellevue, for sure! In fact, if memory serves, the phrase “Target” was coined by yours truly that very first weekend of that very first year as an ophthalmology resident.

“Hey Eye Guy! We got a John Q. Nobody who got shot in the temple just standing on the subway platform. Says he can’t see. Whaddaya want us to do with him? By the way…welcome to Bellevue.”

Crowds and beer and heat and stuff that explodes. Welcome to Bellevue, indeed. Some poor schlub survives the bar scene after the parade, makes it through pickpocket alley intact, gingerly stepping over detritus living and otherwise, only to get shot in the head as the A Train approached the station in a random act of anonymous violence. The bullet entered through the right temple, destroyed the right eye, and wreaked havoc in the left eye socket before coming to rest against the left temple. Right eye gone and malignant glaucoma in the only remaining left eye. And there I was, all of 3 days into my opthalmology residency, backed up by a chief resident of similar vintage. Whoa…

There’s no way to avoid it. After all, med students have to graduate and residencies have to start some time. There’s just this unholy confluence of weak links in the system all coming together in time for the second (after New Year’s Eve) most difficult ER day in our big, academic hospitals. Get sick or injured on June 4th? Everyone’s on top of their game and everyone’s in town. July 4th? The fix is in, and the game is as rigged against you as any carnival game attended by a dentally challenged carnie.

As I sit here, an Attending on call for yet another 4th of July weekend, covering the ER and cowering each time the phone rings, the Tweets and Facebook posts heralding the arrival of a new crop of interns and residents send me back to Bellevue. Year 2, cursed again, covering the spanking new 1st year ophthalmology resident (was it Dave?) as he got his welcome “gift” from the ER. “Hey Eye Guy. We got a Target down here for ya. 10 year old girl. Some dumbass tossed a lit M80 to her and she caught it. Went off before she could get rid of it;  blew off her right hand and looks like her right eye is gone. You from NY? No? Welcome to Bellevue, pal.” Yup…there’s something about the 4th of July in every teaching hospital in the U.S., and just like everything else, whatever it is, there was more of it at Bellevue.

Only two kinds of people in New York, Targets and people who hit Targets. At Bellevue we took care of the Targets.

 

The Ultimate Consumer Service Business

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 49, 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 5 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 recent 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’ll tell the story of how this turned into Skyvision Centers another time; 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 Norstrom’s. Or a year of Sunday mornings slinging hash at a local diner. Better yet, let’s get all of those pasty white 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 (for the record, even people of color end up “washed-out” after a year of internship). 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.