Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘medicare’

Adventures in EMR Vol. 2 Chapter 3: Jogging in Quicksand

Being an eye doctor in 2018 means that you will take care of patients whose care is covered by a government program of some sort. In order to be able to get paid for your labors you need to record your work in an electronic medical or health record (EMR), and that EMR must be able to comply with  certain diagnosis and quality reporting standards. Failure to comply with these requirements does not mean you can’t take care of these patients, nor does it mean that you won’t get paid for doing so. It just means you will eventually get paid roughly 22% less for that work than someone who has an EMR that does comply.

15 months of effort to get our legacy system into compliance led to 3 months of research culminating in the purchase of a new EMR with a very sophisticated, dedicated ophthalmology/eye care format. With our purchase came on site training (with overtime pay for staff) and literally hundreds of man-hours of preparation work (on the clock) performed by both staff and doctors before we went “live”. The entire adventure was nothing less than a series of “OMG, you have GOT to be kidding” surprises for each one of us, starting with this killer: I would have to pay to retain access to the information SkyVision had gathered on our patients over 13 years. Yup. You heard that right. Even though we would never enter another electron of information into our old system, in one way or another I was going to have to ransom my own medical records.

As embarrassing as it is to admit it, I probably own that particular surprise. Really shoulda seen that coming.

What I also didn’t see coming, indeed what none of us saw coming, was just how different it is to practice medicine in the age of EMR. From Hippocrates through Osler and on to Marcus Welby and whatever the name of the doc played by George Clooney in “ER” was, medical care proceeded in the same orderly fashion. Once again we have Dr. Larry Weed to thank for codifying this process in the form of the SOAP note. Subjective -> Objective -> Assessment -> Plan. You listen to your patient’s story, cataloguing her symptoms and their salient characteristics (onset, severity, duration, etc.). Next comes the collection of data including your exam findings and any test results you may have. From this accumulated knowledge you make a diagnosis, or at least assemble a differential diagnosis, either of which launches a plan of action. The flow is so obvious that it’s somewhat astonishing that it took Dr. Weed to publish this as a process breakthrough.

From the minute we sat down with our laptops and tablets in front of us to learn how to use our new EMR, every single SkyVision staff member fell through the looking glass into a world gone, at best, sideways. Charting to billing, documenting everything that goes into taking care of a patient from the primary point of view of the payers, renders the SOAP model moot. Everything begins and ends with the diagnosis, the Assessment in SOAP-speak. What you plan to do comes next, and you now have to justify what that will be by demonstrating that the diagnosis can be found in the data. Your patient’s complaints have to be explained by your findings. Our tidy little straight line progression handed down from Hippocrates has been scrabbled. SOAP has become APOS.

How perfect is that?

Everyone is aware of how time consuming it is to enter data into a compliant EMR. There is just an endless number of boxes to click, even if you ignore the nonsensical sections that apply to worthless quality measures (childhood vaccine history review at the dermatologist? Smoking cessation at every eye doctor visit?). Even with the pre-loading and on-the-fly development of protocols that “pre-fill” all of the boxes for very common evaluations (e.g. cataract surgery in my world), it just takes a boatload of time to enter all of the information that is demanded. I hear those clicks in my sleep.

Remember, I already used scribes to enter information; if they are slowed down patient flow slows down, too. If I stay and enter information myself my schedule backs up downstream. If the scribe stays with the patient in the room after I’ve gone on to another patient there is no place to put the next patient in line. Leaving the charts “open” so that they can be “finalized” later is an option, of course, but one with three penalties. The practice gets socked with overtime expenses, the staff is overworked and can’t be home, and believe it or not that open chart is “timed” as a quality measure as if the patient was there waiting all that time. Doing a better job ends up dinging your quality score. Merde.

So what did we do and how did it go? We started 5 months ago with 3 charts in the new system per doctor per 1/2 day session. Sounds pretty reasonable, huh? Ease your way into it. Try not to upset the whole apple cart. Maybe just bruise an apple or two. The plan was to slowly increase the number of charts filled in the new system each week by slowly expanding the type of visits we recorded. You know, post-ops before massive, complex pre-op evaluations. New patients who didn’t have any data in the old system. It sounded pretty good when our trainer suggested it. Naturally, as soon as we expanded our universe of new EMR patients we crashed the entire office flow. What had been a finely tuned machine that seldom ran even five minutes behind on a single patient became a battlefield filled with folks waiting 30, 40, even 60 minutes for their exams within an hour of the opening bell.

It was like jogging in quicksand.

I’d really love to tell you that 5+ months in it’s all unicorns and rainbows. That we are now up and humming along, seeing the same number of patients we always have and running on time like we used to.  I’ll admit to occasionally coming across a random footprint that might have been left by a unicorn, and every now and again we catch flashes of color, a rainbow seemingly just out view. We had to hire a part-time tech to assume the task of “pre-populating” the new EMR charts with information from the old system. Every staff member has had to drop parts of their duties to take on the tasks of entering patient information on the front side or finalizing the chart entry so that it is consistent with our billing on the back. I will have to buy access to my old records in the old format, at least temporarily, so that we don’t get slowed down learning a new way to look at old data.

The best way to describe where we are after 5+ months is that we are now running rather than jogging in that quicksand. Exams that once kept a patient in our office for a maximum of 67 minutes now take closer to 90 (we really do track that kind of stuff). Where we rarely had a single patient more than 15 minutes behind schedule we now routinely have  5 or 6 who run an hour late every single day. A couple of week ago I was worried that this one change was going to drive us out of business because of the increased costs, and what I assumed would be mounting ill will from patients who were disappointed in their wait times and stopped coming to see us. Not gonna lie, it didn’t look very good.

A funny thing happened on that road to ruin paved in quicksand: my staff and my patients collectively said “no way.” Crazy as it sounds, two groups of folks who were suffering alongside me looked at the alternative and said “no”. Oh sure, there were certainly patients who trashed us on rating sites because we ran late on a single visit, including some who’d given us straight 5 out of 5 stars for years. But most of them read our “Under Construction, Pardon Our Dust” signs, gritted their teeth, and basically said that we’d earned their patience. Staff is coming in early and staying late. They are huddling and brainstorming ways to restore our flow. Our charting is no better than before but we do send out better letters. Some day we may even be able to do some of those things that Larry Weed talked about when it comes to managing large amounts of information and making complex decisions.

But for now it’s still nothing but pain. It’s hard and the hardship is slow to abate. We all feel the sense of unfairness, that we were forced into this position, and that what we have now does not make our patients any better off than they were before. I would not have chosen this path, not for any reason, had I not been forced to do so. I have no idea, and I will never know if it would have been easier had I picked the other option. Beware all ye who travel here. You are about to embark on a journey where each step is taken in quicksand. It will be a long, long time before you are cleansed of the residue.

Remember, your SOAP has been replace by APOS.

 

Adventures in EMR* Vol 2 Chapter 1: Government Forces a Divorce

It’s hard for me to empathize with docs and medical organizations who as late as 2015 0r 2016 lamented the U.S. government’s irresistible demands to electrify the medical record and had not yet done so. Along with the other follies imposed on all quarters in healthcare, the Accountable Care Act (ACA) spawned in the early days of the Obama administration decreed that all care provided to patients covered (paid) in any way, shape, or form by the federal government must be recorded in electronic (computerized or digital) form. More than that, this digital health record (EMR) must conform to the nebulous and ever shape-shifting requirements known as “Meaningful Use” (MU). Armed with 30 pieces of silver on the front side and the promise of slow, withering financial ruin on the back, CMS went about the business of coercing organizations large and small to move from paper to electrons.

Why, you ask, if I am so obviously disdainful of this occurrence, do I find it hard to empathize with folks who’ve been harmed by this process? Well, our group SkyVision Centers (SVC) saw the value of using an EMR at the time of our founding in 2004, back when Mr. Obama was a very junior Senator from Illinois and about to be “discovered”. The concept of an EMR, with the medical record warehoused in a server rather than in a folder, was so obvious to us at the time that we never considered the use of a traditional chart as we developed our bleeding edge business plan. As a University of Vermont grad I had learned about medical information processing at the knee of the great Larry Weed. Indeed, my biggest frustration with the EMR’s available in 2004 (and still to a degree in 2018) was that they did not allow me to do the kind of information processing that I learned from Dr. Weed’s associate Dennis Plante, who taught me about computerized medical decision making in 1984.

Those doctors and those medical groups that were still using a traditional paper chart in 2015, 16, or 17 missed the boat by 10 years; their enhanced pain brought on by their inertia was self-inflicted. More than that, the larger among these groups (I’m looking at you, UPenn) essentially recused themselves from leadership positions that they could/should have taken. As an aside which I will explore in an epilogue to this series, very large early adopters (think Cleveland Clinic, The Mayo Clinic, and Harvard Pilgrim Health among others) bear a significant responsibility for the mess we now find ourselves in by abdicating their leadership role as medical institutions in favor of maximizing their return as business entities in the earliest days of EMR.

Back in those UVM days Dr. Weed built his case from two very specific premises: there is simply too much medical information for any doctor to be able to house it in his/her brain, and decision making based on the data available for any one patient is too easily influenced by a doctor’s frame of reference and biases. Sounds familiar, especially if you spend any time on Twitter and follow folks like Vinay Prasad, Saurabh Jha, and Amitabh Chandra. Dr. Weed clearly envisioned a universe of connected records (mind you, this was well before anyone outside of the government  had heard of the internet) that would allow the free interaction of multiple doctors with all of the information available on any patient. Without using the word Dr. Weed described “interoperability” perfectly. (Note that UVM had all testing results–radiology, lab, etc–available on computers in the 80′s. Sister hospital Maine Medical Center one-upped them with computerized order entry in 1983.)

Mind you, most of this was not really available in 2004 when SVC was looking for its EMR. We just assumed that it would eventually be programmed into a larger system as more doctors and practices saw the light. Our rationale for implementing an EMR at this early time in history was driven by the obvious advantages that it would give us when it came to providing the best possible patient experience when we were taking care of patients with eye problems. Utilizing an EMR allowed us to maximize our efficiency so as to minimize the amount of minutes wasted over the course of a care visit to SVC, fulfilling with our pocket book our mission statement to provide “The Best Experience in Eye Care”. Our specific EMR choice fit seamlessly into our Toyota manufacturing-derived system of workflow and enabled us to vastly exceed our patient’s expectations when it came to the office experience.

We were on the cutting edge. So what happened? Well, in short, Obamacare with all of its regulatory burdens happened. Onerous “quality” measures came and went in the early days of the ACA. My professional organizations as well as the owners of the EMR we’d chosen lobbied vociferously against the implementation of what would have been disastrous burdens on the field of eye care (among other specialties). Back at home we doubled down on our market advantage as the best office experience for our patients and slow-rolled along with our EMR provider as it did the minimum necessary to remain compliant. In hindsight I was clearly choosing efficiency and the maximization of the patient interface with the practice over Larry Weed and the information interface.

We probably could have continued this way if not for ICD-10, the coding change that increased the number and complexity of mandatory diagnosis reporting when billing. For reasons that remain unclear to me our EMR provider could not accommodate the change to ICD-10 in a way that allowed us to properly document our charges for very specific, common eye problems. This is a problem, you see, for eye doctors of any stripe take care of patients who are covered by government-funded programs. Failure to comply now meant penalties that would ramp up to 22% of payments in an industry that routinely runs a profit margin of 25-30%. Each slow step in the right direction was followed by multiple steps backwards and sideways.

We as a group never felt that our concerns and clear business needs were being adequately addressed. Have you ever owned a car that had a serious problem? One that seemed as though it was fixable, at least at the onset? Maybe it was a car that you loved, or maybe it was just a car that was paid for and did the job for you. You put money into the car to fix it and it’s not better, so you spend some more, and then you spend some more. At a certain point you realize that no matter how much money you put into fixing that car you just can’t lose the thought that it’s not going to be enough. You just can’t shake the worry that despite all of that money you are still going to end up on the side of the road at midnight in the middle of nowhere. After months of expensive upgrades that were late in coming it became clear that we could not be guaranteed that the EMR we’d been using since our creation would be able to carry us forward in a financially safe manner by meeting the government’s regulatory demand.

In effect, the U.S. government, through the regulatory demands of the ACA, forced us to initiate divorce proceedings with our EMR. To survive it became clear that SVC would need to buy and implement an entirely new EMR.

Again, you might ask, why can I not empathize with those who are late to the EMR game and suffering the pains of implementing a new EMR into their organizations if we are now in those same, exact shoes? I think it’s a fairness thing, and I fully acknowledge the irony that I am a guy who routinely quotes Scar’s great line “Life’s not faaaiiirrr.” You see, in my mind, we did the right thing way before we had to by spending money we really didn’t have in 2004 on an EMR way before it was mandatory. And we spent. And we spent. As anyone who has ever worked with mandatory software knows, your key critical programs are the gifts that keep giving…to your vendor. For our commitment to providing a better experience for our patients (and admittedly more business for the practice) we would now be rewarded by having the privilege of paying for a whole new system.

And as I will discuss next, paying for the “right” to see all of the information we’d already paid for.

Next Chapter 2: The War of the Roses

 

*Like all good reporting where one hopes to discuss global issues rather than very granular, product-specific issues, this series will not name any products that we have previously or are now using.

Tone Across the Service Line

Ever listen to how people address folks on the providing side of the customer service continuum? Do you ever stop to listen to yourself, or think about how you will sound before you speak? Fascinating. In North America we are moving ever more swiftly to an economy that is majority a service economy; we don’t really make stuff so much anymore, we help people use stuff someone else made, or provide assistance based on a knowledge base or skill set. Listening to people on the receive side of the equation is fascinating.

We have been forced to change our EMR at SkyVision. Our office is running behind schedule because of this. My ears are on high alert for how our patients are reacting. I’m prompted to this line of thought by three interactions in the office that happened while I was loitering at the reception desk. Three individuals not so much requesting a service but demanding it, doing so with a tone that implies not only a deep sense of entitlement but also a deeper lack of regard for the individual who will provide that service. Both in tone and content the to-be-served make it clear to the service provider that he or she is there to serve only them. In fact, the servers only reason to exist is to serve, as if the to-be-served were some kind of different, superior version of the species. It’s loathsome, actually.

I spend every waking moment of each working day on the “serve” side of the equation, whether I am a SkyVision plying my profession or CFB coaching. Having achieved some measure of expertise in both it’s very rare that I am on the receiving end of this type of behavior, but it does happen. More often is the case that it is someone lower on the org chart who gets this. The receptionist, phone operator, or check-out person who gets this “lower life-form” treatment, not the doctor or business owner.

Life can be hard for these front line people in a service business. There’s not only a “customer is always right” mentality on the other side of the interaction but also a sense that being a customer who will get what they want is as much as human right as Life or Liberty. That’s what it sounds like, anyway, if you are off to the side listening. No matter how frustrated one might become from a service situation gone wrong it’s important to remember that there is no continuum in the relationship when it comes to the inalienable rights, nor is there any evolutionary hierarchy across that desk or over that phone line.

Danny Meyer, the great NYC restauranteur, is probably closest to correct when he says “the customer is not right all of the time, but mostly right most of the time. A customer [only] has the right to be heard.” How you express yourself when you are on the “receive” side of the customer service experience is not only an important measurement of how you value the person across from you providing the service, but frankly is probably also a predictor for how likely you are to be successful in being heard. It’s instructive that none of the three SkyVision clients who made difficult (bordering on unreasonable) requests in an unpleasant manner were accommodated because doing so would have required an extraordinary effort which may not have been successful in any event.

Sorry, no pithy statement to wrap it up this week. In the end we all want what we want, and we all need to be heard. It helps to look at the person on the other end of the service divide as if you were looking in a mirror. Would you say that, like that, to the person in the reflection?

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.

Equal Pay for Equal Work: Medicine is the Perfect Laboratory

The endless debates about the “Pay Gap” between men and women in the United States drones on. Today is “Equal Pay Day”, kinda like “Tax Day”, the day when you stop paying the government and instead start paying yourself, only it’s the day when the “average” woman supposedly has to wait for before she starts to make what a man makes. It all makes for great spectacle and epic barstool arguments for the same reason that people argue about who’s greater, Michael or Elgin, Kareem or Russell, The Babe or Barry: there is no proper, standard way to measure the issue at hand. On a barstool arguing “greatest ever” you never agree on either the definition of “greatest”, nor can you account for the vast differences in historical eras.

So it is with the pay gap. No one agrees on what constitutes work, let alone equal work.

This creates the maddening situation in which we find ourselves now whenever this comes up for discussion. Absent a meaningful definition of either “work” or “equal” we are left with folks on all possible sides of the issue simply choosing whatever statistic will support their deeply held beliefs about the issue. It’s crazy, actually. I read a dozen citations today and each one was so deeply flawed that it couldn’t stand the scrutiny of the middle if you velcroed it to the  50 yard line. Work is invariably conflated with “hours worked” with no discernible effort made to investigate something like intensity, or the measurable work performed per unit of time. “Equal” work is just a quagmire of competing opinions with, again, no effort whatsoever at objective measurement. How can you have a discussion that is meant to conclude with some sort of actionable agreement when all you do is pull numbers out of the ether and throw them at each other?

While engaging in a sorta, kinda conversation about this on Twitter it struck me that I actually live and work in the perfect laboratory to investigate the issue of the Pay Gap between men and women. You see, we have reams of objective data that can be evaluated. We all, men and women, do exactly the same things if we have the same jobs. Not only that but we have a unit of measurement for that work, the RVU. If Dr. Darrell does a cataract surgery and Dr. Dora does a cataract surgery, we have both done the same job. We can even determine the “intensity” of our work, our output if you will. A simple survey of hours worked per day can generate the metric: RVU/hour. Better yet, don’t take my word for it in a survey, just look at that heretofore meaningless and useless EMR and look at the measured time Darrell and Dora took to do their work. The OR record is a precise measurement of how much work we did per unit of time.

This is powerful stuff. Work is defined. An appendectomy is an appendectomy. A Level 4 New Patient Office Encounter is a Level 4…you get the idea. You get to compare apples to apples, heck, you get to compare Honeycrisp apples to Honeycrisp apples. It doesn’t matter if you are a man or woman or transgender. White, Black, Brown, Yellow, Red (did I miss anyone?), Millennial, Boomer and everything in between, work is work and an RVU is an RVU. Heck, you could gather all of the information about the work without anyone knowing who did it until after it’s all together. We could have a big unveiling when we lift the blinders and see who did what and how much they did. Seriously, how cool is this? It would almost be like science.

Let’s do be a bit serious for a moment. Imagine what kind of information we could acquire and what kinds of questions we could ask and answer. For sure there will be very reasonable concerns about how much we will be able to extrapolate from medicine to other areas of employment (advertising, investment banking, etc.), but it’s a great place to start. The question of the Gender Gap is primary, but how about looking at work across the generations. There is a “feeling” in medicine, certainly among crusty old folks in my generation, that younger physicians of both genders work fewer hours and do less work per hour when they do work. Is that true? It sure looks like it would be easy to answer that one, too.

There are actually a number of other issues in medicine that would be clarified if we had this kind of data, at least insofar as the work done is concerned. For example, how do private practitioners stack up against salaried physicians in large groups? Is there a correlation between how those salaries are determined and the intensity of work done? We can also look at value, work done per dollar paid (again, assuming equal outcomes). Where are we getting the best bang for our buck? For that matter, with the EMR’s that never sleep we can actually look at the responsiveness of doctors to their patients in urgent or emergent circumstances. Is there one group (men vs. women, private practice vs. employed) who are more responsive?

Having a discussion that is based on hard definitions of terms and data-driven rather than belief-driven opens up a whole world of meaningful inquiry.

Once upon a time I was among the highest paid physicians in the U.S. I worked insane hours, and the intensity of my hourly output was off the charts. In a word, I earned every penny I made, and the fact that I made more than another ophthalmologist had nothing to do with the fact that I was a man. Funny thing though–I now make a fraction of what I once made because I don’t work as much as I once did. The intensity of my work is similar; I still do as much work per unit of time, and my ability to perform at this high level of intensity is still greater than 95% of my peers, I just work fewer hours. What are we to say about women who do what I do, work more hours than I do, and yet do less work? Is there a gender gap in pay if I make more money than they do? What are we to say about my ambitious female colleagues who work more hours than I and work at the same intensity? I’m firmly stating that they should make more than I do. Is that the reality on the ground?

In medicine we have the ability to answer this question in a very objective, non-ideological way. I don’t know if what we find will be something we can extrapolate to other jobs, especially if we find that pay is directly related to actual work done in a domain where work can be both defined and measured. But hey, it’s a start. And it’s way better than just playing emotional whack-a-mole with how we value what we all do.

 

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.

 

 

 

Evidence Based Medicine? Preferred Practice Patterns? You Are Behind the Times

If you practice Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM), or religiously follow a Preferred Practice Pattern (PPF) such as one published in a white paper by a specialty society or organization, you and your patients can be assured of one very important fact: you are providing care that is neither up to date nor care that can be described as “Best Practices”.

You might be increasing the likelihood that your patient’s medical insurance will pay for their care, in part because insurance companies have already figured out how to make money on older treatments and protocols. I guess you can feel good about that, or at least feel good that your staff won’t be forced to fill out all of those appeals forms when state of the art care is denied. So you’ve got that going for you. What used to be considered good enough care might feel better to you if your patient isn’t avoiding the older treatment because of payment issues like they do with the newer. Adherence to some care is better than non-adherence to “Best Practices”, right?

There are certainly some of you out there in doctor land who think that citing EBM or fidelity to a PPP will inoculate you from medical malpractice tort. Sadly, nothing is further from the truth. Not only will your adversary nullify a PPP by citing a “Standard of Care” that is up to the minute when it comes to how to treat literally anything (though as we know “Standard of Care” is neither Best Practices nor EBM), but there are so many instances of EBM not allowed as evidence at trial that it’s nearly useless to try. Even the strongest body of research can be nullified at trial by introducing a single non-peer reviewed study with opposite findings to a naive jury of lay people.

EBM and PPP are the result of years of studies that were launched based on prevailing thoughts at that time. They are subject not only to what is fashionable among the medical intelligentsia, but also what is fundable. The potential ROI from the industry side of the medical pie has a direct impact on not only what is studied but what treatments are available at all. A company with a blockbuster drug that has years of patent protection remaining will be unlikely to support the study and use of its own competitor or successor until under the gun of generic competition. Governmental funding of maladies without either a popular champion or sympathetic victim is slow in coming, if it arrives at all. Both EBM and PPP enter the public arena only after months or years of time spent “in committee” with old data.

At the end of the clinic day both EBM and various PPP’s suffer from being out of date on the day they are published. Because of this they create at least as many problems as they attempt to solve. In addition to providing ammunition to insurers all too happy to avoid paying for newer, more effective care that might be more expensive, the wide dissemination of various articles on EBM or PPP’s can sow confusion and doubt in the minds of those patients most in need of Best Practices, particularly those with severe or complex problems.

Any specialty in medicine could provide examples, but since I’m an eye doc let me offer one that illustrates most of the nuances involved. We’ve long known that elevated tear osmolarity (salt content) is a component of dry eye (DES). Prior to 2009 testing the osmolarity of human tears required a complex, time-consuming process that also suffered from the twin-blade cut of being both expensive and not covered by any insurance plans. Consequently the use of tear osmolarity as a core diagnostic test in the care of DES was pretty much a non-starter.

In 2009 TearLab introduced a much simpler, much less expensive test that could be done in the course of a regular office visit, and in 2010 the company received a waiver from the FDA which allowed doctors to use the test in an office setting without being certified as a clinical laboratory. Approval for payment by insurance companies, including Medicare, came shortly thereafter. As with any new test that becomes widely available it took a couple of years for clinicians to figure out the full extent of the meaning and application of the results. The short version of this part of the story is that tear osmolarity testing has become an integral part in both the diagnostic work-up and ongoing follow-up of DES patients in any advanced DES clinic due to its clear therapeutic value. It also fits into the prevailing financial model and patient mindset in which diagnostic testing is an insurance covered benefit.

What’s the problem then? Our largest professional organization, the American Association of Ophthalmology (AAO) publishes a series of PPP’s addressing many common entities in eye care, and DES is one of them. The latest version was published in 2013 after more than a year of discussion in committee based on practice patterns  and publications from 2011 when Tear Osmolarity was not yet in widespread use. The PPP made much of the fact that this at the time new test had not yet been widely adopted and that there was still some discussion about its true clinical worth. BOOM! In rushed a Medicare administrator in January 2015 with a proposal to withdraw payment for this “non-essential” test of “unproven” value.

The problem, of course, is that Tear Osmolarity is now widely and quite rightly accepted as a part of today’s “Best Practices” of DES care. Ironically, the use of Tear Osmolarity is actually an example of EBM, but that evidence has emerged subsequent to the initiation of the PPP process. Removing insurance payments will erect a barrier between patients and their best chance at treating their disease.

Thought leaders in my field as well as other, more nimble professional organizations than the AAO have offered assistance to TearLab to prevent a change in the insurance payment for tear osmolarity testing. Both eye doctors and their patients will likely survive this misguided attack on an extremely useful technology. It does make one wonder how many other instances exist where a seemingly good idea (PPP, EBM) is misused in the eternal battle between those who provide medical care and those who are charged with allocating the monies used to pay for that care. Funny, isn’t it, how the medical powers that be, professional organizations like the AAO, are always a bit behind the times, and the payment powers that be (and often plaintiff’s attorneys) use that to their advantage?

Preferred Practice Patterns and many examples of Evidence Based Medicine need to come with an expiration date, or at least a warning that using them cannot be construed as either “Best Practices” or cutting edge. Even at the time they are first published.

 

 

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.

Another Epic Misadventure: Interlude

It’s really quite flattering, all the attention. The cynic would say that it’s all really just an attempt to keep my business, and I’m sure there’s a bit of that going on. After all, even though my surgical volume is down since my I left my original practice to start SkyVision, I still do a rather high volume of surgery at a very low cost/case. Still, the sheer number of folks, not to mention who they are, who have gone out of their way to try to make my CPOE transition go smoothly is impossible to ignore. Folks really do seem to be sincerely concerned about me as a person, someone they know and have come to like enough over many years, not just a surgeon bringing business. If only it wasn’t all so…so…useless.

I know, I know, I sound a bit petulant, but I’ve watched this movie before. I know how it ends. It may sound somewhat ungrateful, what with the head of physician training, Chief of Surgery, and Head of Outpatient Surgery and local administrator among those taking an open interest in my journey. It’s just that the story only ends one way, with a great big time suck that undoes a decade and a half of ever increasing efficiency (and with it patient satisfaction) and the associated assault on my emotional well-being.

All these people walking around with lipstick thinking…hoping…maybe just one more coat and he’ll smile when the pig kisses him.