Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘medicare’

Slip-Sliding Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Perverse Economic Incentives II: Ignoring Best Practices

You’ve heard this before: the more solutions you have for a single problem, the less likely it is that the true solution has been discovered. Once a real, conclusive solution is discovered it is accepted and implemented by essentially everyone who is presented with that particular problem. This process occurs unfettered in an open market or open system, and the cost of a particular solution depends on a combination of need for the solution and the economic incentives that exist to solve the problem.

Unfortunately, in healthcare in the U.S. this “rule” is not always the case.

Here’s a story about a solution that is NOT being used to the extent it should because private surgery centers are punished financially if they do the right thing. This example is truly a case of perverse economic incentives violating what we think of as a law of nature, that the discovery of a solution for a vexing problem will be adopted by all who suffer the problem if it is shown to be superior to all other solutions. Let’s look at the “Floppy Iris Syndrome” (AFIS) in cataract surgery.

The iris is the colored part of your eye, and the pupil is simply an opening in the iris, much like the shutter of a camera. The pupil is dilated prior to cataract surgery so that the cataract, a clouding of the lens that sits in back of the iris, can be reached and removed. Six or Seven years ago cataract surgeons began to be ambushed by pupils which spontaneously constricted or shrunk like a pursestring closing, or by an iris that started to billow like a parachute placed over a fan. Dubbed the “Floppy Iris Syndrome”, it turned out that it was caused by exposure to a certain class of medicines used for the seemingly unassociated problem of urinary retention in men with enlarged prostate glands; it has since been found to be caused by an increasing number of other medicines. It was a disaster. The complication rate for surgeries with AFIS was 10X or greater than those with a normal iris and pupil.

The search for the cause was important because cataract surgeons could now be forewarned that they might encounter AFIS during surgery if their patient had ever been on one of the medicine culprits. Once the cause and the extent of the problem were known the race was on to find a solution. Unfortunately, all of the intra-operative tactics we’d used in the past to handle small pupils were largely ineffective against AFIS. In fact, some of the standard ways to address a small pupil actually made the surgery MORE difficult because of the floppy, flaccid iris. Every week brought one or two new ideas to add to the dozens already on the table, proving the rule that many solutions means that no true answer has been found.

Enter Dr. Maluygen and his marvelous eponymous ring. The Maluygen Ring essentially solved the entire problem by simultaneously expanding the pupil and stabilizing the iris, and it was both vastly superior to all other solutions available and technically within the capabilities of pretty much every cataract surgeon. Bingo. QED. Kudos, heartfelt thanks, and a bit of profit to Dr. Maluygen and the company that marketed his Ring, right?

Not so fast there, Cowboy. Every week we STILL see articles on how to deal with AFIS in surgery despite the fact that not a single surgeon has stated, on or off the record, that there is anything that is as good as the Maluygen Ring. Here is where the perversity begins. It turns out that only hospital owned surgery centers can bill insurances for additional or special items used during surgery, and the $125 that the Maluygen Ring costs is extra and therefore not reimbursed. The majority of cataract surgeries in the U.S. are performed in private surgery centers, mostly owned by surgeons who operate in them. To begin with, private surgery centers are paid roughly 60% of what hospital-owned surgery centers are paid. $125 represents in most cases 50% or more of the gross profit (before interest, taxes, depreciation, etc)  generated in a case.

That’s right, there is a 50% financial penalty for using the best and safest method to avoid a preventable complication.

It’s no wonder that the owners of surgery centers continue to look for an alternative solution to the problems cause by AFIS. In a misguided attempt to save money, Medicare has led the charge to pay independent surgery centers less than hospital owned centers, and along the way has stripped the independent centers of the ability to pass on the cost of items that represent the “best practices” for certain situations. Rather than use the acknowledged superior solution (the Maluygen Ring) we continue to see inferior techniques utilized despite the fact that they often prolong the surgical case and fail to completely solve the problem. All because policies are created by non-clinical personnel who are only  empowered to save money.

We should be mindful of these perverse economic incentives as our American system of curing disease undergoes an historic upheaval. Do we really want doctors and others considering the economics of utilizing true, proven best practices? Do we really want non-clinicians creating policy that turns medical decisions into economic ones?

 

Why No Real Innovation In EMR?

Apple just released a smaller Tablet, the iPad Mini, and was razzed by the cognoscenti because it broke no new ground. “Reactive.” “The first  time Apple plays defense.” “Nothing to see here, people. We’re walking…we’re walking.” While the Apple Fan Boys (and Girls) were lining up to add to their Apple quivers, the rest of the consumer world reacted with a communal shrug. Why? No real innovation, and that was a surprise in the world of consumer electronics recently dominated by Apple’s serial innovation.

It makes you wonder a bit, doesn’t it, why there’s so little innovation in the world of medicine when it comes to the storage and transfer of information. With all of the cool stuff already available (voice recognition, “pens” that convert script to text, intuitive “next step” software), why do we have such stodgy, clunky software attached to yesterday’s hardware in all of our EMR choices? For heaven’s sake, we don’t even have a universal platform upon which the various and sundry products are built, and so we continue to have interoperability issues more than 10 years after folks started putting this stuff into play. Why is that?

Every computer product I’ve bought and used over the last 10 years has been easier to use than the one it replaced. Each one has allowed me to do more, and usually with a smaller and less expensive gadget. I know it’s a cliche by now, but my phone has more computing power than the first SERVER I bought to run an entire medical business. For $400. I can talk to it, order it to do stuff, and get all kinds of help I never needed faster than I could realize I needed it, and it fits in my pocket. Yet in a medical office state of the art consists of serial drop-downs and mandatory field entries that may or may not include anything germane to my patient. Able to chat with my cell phone through a bluetooth headset, my EMR demands my full, undivided attention, with gaze fixated on screen.

How come?

In the world of consumer electronics the game is all about predicting what the next, big “gotta have it” gadget or service will be. The most exciting and successful products almost invariably carve out new territory and then go on to viral-like growth because they fulfill a need. This kind of technological progress is so powerful that the people who buy this stuff abandon perfectly functional gadgets that do everything one needs or wants in favor of that next, new-better gadget. This phenomenon in turn drives the makers of consumer electronics to create, to innovate. But not in medicine.

Why is this so?

The so-called “market” for EMR is simply non-existent. The power of innovation, either in response to consumers established, stated needs and desires or in anticipation that something new and better will simply take off in the marketplace is non-existent. The kinds of companies that seemingly come out of nowhere were bludgeoned by government mandated requirements that tiny, bootstrap companies just couldn’t fund the effort. Big companies that innovate like a tiny start-up and create whole, new categories, like Apple, simply didn’t. They all just doubled down on old tech and old ideas, an entire industry making iPad mini’s and calling it progress. The perceived danger of innovating and then having a revolutionary product found to lack “meaningful use” stifled the entire industry. Innovation in EMR was DOA.

And now? Now we have the largest medical institutions in the country abandoning their own efforts at software development and marching like lemmings to the Epic sea. The real-world analogy would be the government saying that you could create any type of gadget you could think of to listen to music, but you can only sell record players and vinyl albums on which you must listen to the songs in the exact order in which they appear on the disc to be assured that the check would clear. Oh, and the doc or nurse could only listen through noise-cancelling headphones that would need to be removed in order to talk to a patient.

It doesn’t have to be like this, of course. All it takes is one company with a little vision and some gumption to find a single big-name player with the courage to see that the status quo is sick. Sure, the vast governmental bureaucracy needs to fix a target and then get out of the way so that something that looks like a real consumer electronic product can emerge. That’s all, really. One product that feels like as “0f course” as the iPod, discovered and purchased by one person who folks watch like TechCrunch, a dispassionate and largely uninterested government standing to the side, idle.

A 7″ computer that could power my company 7 years ago hits the market to a collective yawn? Is it really so much to ask for this type of innovation in EMR?

 

Panera Bread Cares (A Random Thoughtlet)

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

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

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

Hardly.

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

Come on now.

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

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

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

 

An Epic Adventure: Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Does “MD” = Manic Depression?

“Manic depression is touching my soul.”

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

You are an American physician.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Manic depression is a frustrating mess.”

 

 

Fantasy Response

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Dear Alex:

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,”

——————————————————–

 

“Dear Alex,

Attachment: Pic.JSmith.jpg

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

This is a joke, right?

Sincerely,”

——————————————————————-

 

” Dear Alex,

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

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

Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

Sincerely,”

 

Sigh…

 

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

A 24/7 Free Lunch?

Former Budget Director Peter Orszag wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times titled “Health Care’s Lost Weekend” in which he offers several reasons why healthcare in general, and doctors in particular, should be open for business 7 days a week. “Doctors, like most people, don’t love to work on the weekends…” is his first shot across the bow. He cites a study in the New England Journal of Medicine (the only medical journal to which God subscribes) which is actually a pretty darned good study, one that shows an increase in cardiac mortality of 0.9% (decimal point is correct) for people admitted to the hospital with a heart attack on the weekend in comparison with those admitted during the week.

I’m willing to buy this conjecture, even willing to say that Mr. Orszag’s conclusion, that medical services should be available 7 days a week with expanded hours of business to boot, is a desirable and necessary goal for American Healthcare. The difference between the two of us is that I will openly state what it will take to make such a thing happen, whereas Mr. Orszag has taken the cowardly politician’s route but simply saying “this isn’t right…this isn’t fair…this must be changed,” without offering anything about how.

Someone, or some someones, will pay something somewhere to make this happen. There, I said it.

There are actually a couple of really good examples of this phenomenon right now in my community,  Cleveland. The vaunted Cleveland Clinic is downgrading the trauma service at one of its hospitals, ostensibly because the city of Cleveland is “oversupplied” with trauma centers,  and because it is becoming increasingly difficult to find trauma surgeons to staff these emergency rooms. All true, but in reality it’s because the Cleveland Clinic has decided that the operating loss associated with keeping this trauma center open is more charity than the institution wishes to give to the city, especially in light of a palpable lack of civic gratitude. Similarly, all of the emergency rooms in town are finding it difficult to provide specialty coverage as specialists are declining to make themselves available. Insufficient compensation for the inconvenience associated with that availability, as well as the significant exposure to a litigious patient population are the culprits.

The funny thing is, once upon a time we actually had the equivalent of a 24/7 medical service economy. Back in the day, when Mr. Orszag and I were children, physicians were held in high esteem because they put their patients and their medical practice first, in front of every other aspect of their lives, 24/7.  They were incentivized to do this in two very specific ways: they were paid, and paid very well to perform their services, and they were afforded out–sized doses of respect, occupying a place of honor in every community. In return for this combination of handsome concrete and social compensation medical care was provided when medical care was needed, 7 days a week.

My first real job was caddying for wealthy golfers at the local country club. Not surprisingly, a significant percentage of the country club members were local physicians. Mind you, this was back in the day when only doctors carried beepers. I can’t begin to count the number of times I had a fantastic loop toting the bag for a doctor in the middle of a career round only to see some easy shot go careening into the woods when his beeper went off at the top of his backswing. I vividly remember seeing the assistant pro speeding down the fairway coming directly toward us in a golf cart to retrieve a doctor who was needed at the hospital. Saturday afternoon, Sunday morning, Wednesday evening… no matter.

What was the cost? Well, certainly the doctors didn’t do this for free. They asked for, and received, handsome compensation for this 24/7 availability. Society readily made this investment, in part because the best technology available was actually the technology available only between the ears of the physician. This is somewhat different today given all of our fantastic technological innovations and advancements, but not so different, really, because the stuff between the doctors ears is still what drives all that new technology.

There were hidden costs back then, too. Hidden costs are the ones that are actually the most expensive when we really drill down to see what the ramifications would be if Mr. Orszag had his way. Countless physician families were roadkill, collateral damage to the single-minded emphasis doctors placed on practicing medicine. Troubled children, troubled marriages, broken marriages, broken people all littered the landscape of the medical community, silent testimony to the cost of 24/7 availability. So, too, the nurses and technicians and orderlies who worked the swing shift and the graveyard shift. The social and physical pathologies of shift work are now quite well known. How does Mr. Orszag intend to handle THIS cost? Surely he’s not willing to ignore the well–documented evidence of the social and psychological harm that befalls workers and their families when they are forced to to work weekends and nights?

Behavioral economics is based on the simple concept that people will act in a manner consistent with rational self–interest. Most of the time this is EXACTLY how people behave. Over the course of the last several decades, as physician incomes have declined and as the doctors’ societal esteem has plummeted, physicians have been notably less willing to put their families in jeopardy by putting their profession first and foremost. By the same token, the vast majority of non-–physician workers in healthcare are loath to do the same, hence the difficulty filling nighttime and weekend shifts in hospitals, clinics, and the like. No one likes to work on the weekend when their family is home, when their friends are not working.

So, a  24 seven medical service economy? Sure. Who wouldn’t want THAT? Even without the data from that NEJM study it would be very convenient to have that colonoscopy I’ve been putting off on a Saturday instead of a workday, maybe even a Sunday with Saturday for the prep (prep…yuck). Heck, I found it pretty inconvenient that I couldn’t get a sandwich at one o’clock in the morning at a big convention hotel in Chicago last weekend. I was even willing to pay a premium, not only for my sandwich, but also to the person who made that sandwich appear. I would have given effusive thanks as well.

Therein lies the beginning of the solution. If you wish to have high technology medical care available seven days a week you must provide a significant incentive to those people who provide the care. Simple. I will offer as well that it probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to bash those very same people you are trying to convince to put aside some part of their self-interest (or the interest of their families) to work weekends; who is going to do something nice for someone when their reward is to have that same someone turn around and show nothing but disdain for not only the service provided, but also for the provider of the service?

So Mr. Herzog if you want me and my colleagues to be available on Sunday afternoon to take care of people exactly the same way we might on a Tuesday morning you  have to be willing to do two things which thus far you and others of your ilk have demonstrated no inclination to do: you must pay us what those services are worth, and you must be thankful that we are willing to provide them. It’s not enough to declare the “what”, you also have to declare the “how”. Isn’t that what REAL economist do, Mr. Orszag?

Heinlein was right. It doesn’t matter what time you serve it, There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.