Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘physician’

Thoughts About Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain at 28,000 Feet

As is often the case when flying I was rewarded for offering a greeting to my row mate on the plane with a bit of insight and knowledge I’d have missed had I not simply reached out a hand and said “Hi, I’m Darrell.” My momentary companion (we each moved to more spacious seats) had been a schoolmate of the recently deceased Kate Spade. He confirmed her years-long struggle with a depression that defied logic and was thus a depression that was as pathological as diabetes or heart disease or cancer. Opening my Sunday papers brings stories from the friends of Anthony Bourdain, also deceased, and his decades long struggles with the same demon disease.

Like so many others, both Mrs. Spade and Mr. Bourdain were killed by illness, cause of death: suicide.

First, a couple of statistics. Suicide is presently the 10th most frequent cause of death in the U.S. currently responsible for taking roughly 45,000 lives each year. I am a physician. Doctors die from suicide at a rate 0f 40 per 100,000, the highest rate of any profession and twice the rate of Americans in general. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers (behind accidents), having surpassed homicide for the first time in 2017. [As an aside, the U.S. loses more young lives from all causes than any other developed country. This drag on life-expectancy should always be considered when you compare the health outcomes of various countries] A very large percentage of these deaths occur in those who suffer from some kind of mental illness, of which depression is far and away the most common.

It is time for us in America to reframe our conversation about suicide for the good of those who are at risk as well as those who have lost a loved one for whom the cause of death was suicide. Let us start, as we should in all serious discussions, with the language we use. For decades at least we have used the phrase “committed suicide” when describing such deaths. It is well past time for us to retire this phrase, at least for people like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. To commit is to perform a willful act while under the full control of all of your faculties. Commitment implies the performance of an action that is the culmination of rational thought. Outside of war, the act of taking a life after rational thought is the purview of the psychopath; it bespeaks the presence of evil.

People like Spade and Bourdain who are killed by suicide are not evil.

We will all come upon well-meaning entreaties from those around us offering help should one be considering suicide. We will see headlines and the like proclaiming that “Suicide can be prevented”. Can it? Can suicide be prevented by addressing suicide and the thought of suicide itself? By and large suicide is an effect, not a cause. Some suicides do, indeed, follow the rapid appearance of dismay and despair, and these may very well respond to the well-meaning aid of those who offer a phone number, an ear, or a ride to a doctor or therapist. For some, especially the young, suicide is an impulsive reaction to an overwhelming emotion. For those left behind these are the hardest for we all surely ask “what if”, and we all as surely respond “if only.”

There is suicide that kills as the consequence of illness too long in development, even with the best of care possible. Depression, Bi-polar Disease, Schizophrenia and their ilk sometimes prove untreatable in the exact same manner as cancer or heart disease. Suicide is the cause of death in the same way that liver failure might take someone with widespread cancer that began in another organ; the ultimate cause was neither the failed liver nor the suicide but the underlying disease. It is so very, very important for the family and friends and acquaintances of those who ultimately pass by suicide to understand and accept this, especially if their loved one was being actively treated. Here, in these circumstances, we the living must guard against “what if” and “if only” as if our own lives depended on it.

Because they do.

I have known you all, you who have lost and who are still here to remember. I am one of you. Friends and acquaintances, friends and family members of acquaintances–I, too, have losses. “What if” and “If only” haunt us all. For us, as it so often is, the solution lies in love and kindness extended not only to those who are suffering, but to those we have lost and most especially to ourselves. No one who loved us as we loved them would have chosen to hurt us in life; how they ultimately died was not a choice to hurt us in the passing. We will surely hurt but we must not allow ourselves to feel that we have been hurt on purpose. More so, in time we must forgive ourselves for that which we could not change as surely as we could not have saved the parent or the sibling or the friend who died from cancer. We must forgive ourselves, be kind and loving to ourselves and all of the others who share our loss, for the alternative for us is despair and dismay.

We can begin this cycle of kindness and love by choosing a different way to discuss suicide and calling it what it is: the cause of death. Do reach out to those you know who have been buried by despair and are drowning in dismay, for they might be saved. Fight for the right to do so. Do champion the recognition that mental health diseases that have no outward signs such as true depression are as real as an open fracture at the scene of an accident; they should be treated as seriously and with the same sense of urgency. Fight for the right to have these diseases treated the same way. Doing so will save lives. Love those you love as much as they will let you for as long as they are alive for the loving, and let them do the same for you.

Peace and grace be upon those who have lost loved ones who were killed by suicide. Joy and love to all who have stood with toes across the precipice and stepped back, and to those who were there to embrace them when they did.

 

When “Team Player” Means It’s All You

“It’s better to full-ass one something than to half-ass a bunch of things.” Anonymous

Soon enough I will be living another week of on-call coverage for one of the largest hospitals in Ohio. When asked recently by colleagues why I still do hospital coverage I had to admit that I really didn’t have an answer. I don’t really have to do it, and yet it doesn’t really seem like it feels right not to. There’s a kind of “pay it forward” debt to the giants who came before me that still lingers, I suppose. That debt’s been paid, with a bundle of interest, many times over, and it may be time to close the ledger.

Why now? Well, it has very little to do with the work itself because that hasn’t really changed all that too very much over the years. No, it’s more about the work that’s NOT being done by others, work that they own and are responsible for and don’t do, that will ultimately drive me away from this part of my day job. It’s really no different than any other job or workplace anywhere. The lazy and the shiftless, the incompetent and the entitled all see it as just fine to kick the can downstream to whomever they can get away with kicking it to.

I’ll bet you just had a dozen images of this from your own life flash by, right?

Boy, there are a thousand reasons you will hear to explain and rationalize why they feel it’s perfectly reasonable to get you to do their work. After awhile it gets really old. The first thing you should do when you encounter this is to look within and make sure that YOU aren’t doing this anywhere to anyone else. Gotta make sure that your virtue is intact before you saddle up the high horse! Once you’ve ascertained that all is right and proper with your own work ethic you then have a bit of a choice to make: rock the boat or sail along. Sadly, though you know the consequences of the latter (you continue to do that slacker’s work), be prepared for the possibility of not being thanked for pointing out reality to bosses and co-workers. It’s entirely possible that you will be the one criticized. Totally fair, right?

In the end there is no best answer to this dilemma. All you can do is use the feelings generated in you by being on the receiving end of this work-shifting to make yourself a better worker, no matter who it is you do that work for. If you do, indeed, reach that point where you just can’t look at yourself in the mirror any more because the injustice is simply too much to accept, it’s OK to call it as you see it. That’s where I am today, and that’s what I’ll be doing while on call. To be sure, all of that “pay it forward” I’ve done will get me an audience, though it may not mean I will be able to effect change. Other than workload, that is. In this tiny part of my day job, I will continue doing the very best job I possibly can, as I always do, for each of my patients each time I see them.

What I won’t be doing is picking up the other half an ass that someone else missed before I full-ass my part of the job.

Adventures in EMR Vol 2 Epilogue: May We Please Have…?

“The essence of Medicine is story—finding the right story….Healthcare, on the other hand, deconstructs story into thousands of tiny pieces…for which no one is responsible.” –Victoria Sweet, M.D.

Being forced out of your comfort zone in any endeavor is always painful. In my experience it is also conducive to learning something new, and at least in my case it is a catalyst for creative thought. What, then, have I learned from our forced-march, point-of-a-bayonet transition from one EMR system to a new one? Are there any lessons to be learned on a broader scale, beyond the walls of SkyVision? Can I take this bowl of lemons and create lemonade that can be passed around the much larger table that encompasses the broad landscape of American medicine?

First off, our collective experience with our transition reinforced my long-held contention that you simply can’t effect change in a system of any type without either being a functional unit in that system, or shadowing those who work in the system you wish to improve. Imagine designing the cockpit of the next generation fighter jet without ever actually either flying one or sitting next to someone while they fly it. Take a look back at my essay “EMR and Underpants”; our information ecosystem was designed by engineers far, far away from the point of care delivery. It’s roughly the same as giving someone the job of choosing what underpants to deliver for your daily wear without ever having seen what you look like or talking with you about how you wear your clothes.

After all of our struggles there does appear to be one, huge 30,000 foot lesson in all of this that should, by rights, become the foundation of the next wave of innovation in EMRs: the spoken word is the goal. What made our traditional scribe process so successful in both efficiency and accuracy was the development of charting based on a spoken narrative. The doctor would dictate exam findings. The scribe would then intuit the various diagnoses from the conversation occurring between the doctor and the patient. While the doctor then went on to outline the plan of action this, too, was transcribed into the medical record. It was a natural and familiar way for all of the players in the room to communicate.

Why can’t I do that with any of the EMRs available on the market? Why is it that I can’t talk to an EMR and have my verbal encounter become what we would all recognize as a progress note? Heck, I’d be thrilled if there was an interim step in which all of the BS clicking we are doing to check all of those boxes could turn into something that looked more like spoken English (although our new EMR is OK and getting a bit better on this). With all of the hundreds of millions of dollars being raked in by EMR behemoths like Epic you mean to tell me they can’t find the resources to make this happen? Please.

You see, the essence of every healthcare interaction is the spoken word. When you have to stop talking or listening you have devalued time. Think for a minute from the patient’s point of view: it doesn’t matter whether it is a doctor of some other kind of worker in the room, once attention is shifted from the patient to the screen quality plummets. Make me a poor man’s AI interface that I can cue verbally to let it know what I’m doing and put it in the right box so that Uncle Sam won’t ding me for being a poor data entry clerk. I’d even be willing to talk to Mrs. Pistolacklioni about her smoking at every 3 month follow-up for her severe glaucoma (a disease that has no increased risk if you smoked, by the way).

While I’m at it, and as long as we are talking about communicating (cue Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke), may we please find a way for the real medical record to be freely available on every platform? Seriously, how did this one escape the cloistered engineers and double-blinded underwear salespeople? Your Samsung cell phone can call your buddies iPhone and vice versa. An airman flying a MIG 22 can communicate with an inverted Tom Cruise in a 3g dive because there is a single standard for radio transmission and reception. Come on. This is basic stuff, the equivalent of declaring the gage of railroad tracks. You mean to tell me that the same people who think they know so much about how things must be that they have an opinion on the shape of operating room hats somehow missed this? Again. please.

I’m not kidding about the OR hats by the way; some DA administrators simply declared that bouffant hats were safer because they think so and won’t come off that even in the face of randomized control studies to the contrary.

Seriously, go all the way back to Dr. Larry Weed at UVM in the 1980′s and return to his beloved premises. There is too much information to be contained in any one doctor’s head, and doctors cannot avoid their biases and frame of reference when making medical decisions. Having true interoperability across all platforms would allow the free movement of information at the direction of the patient, the person who should be in control of that information after all. (Note: Carbon Health is on to something)

As a society we’ve allowed ourselves to remain captives of the trial bar’s defense of the status quo when it comes to malpractice lawsuits. This, in turn, has prevented us from examining repeating errors to determine if there might be a common thread that could be altered and thereby reduce their frequency. Interoperability would allow just the sort of root cause analysis that is needed, and because it would be done using anonymous information no actionable disclosure would be necessary from the doctors involved. As a bonus this would probably allow us to create true, vetted care protocols for the majority of patients with the majority of problems, and this evidence based care would then have to be admissible in court. All that would be necessary would be for doctors to explain in their chart why they decided to deviate in an individual case if that came up. Bingo, a data-driven solution to defensive medicine, all from better communication.

My new vendor is unaware that I am writing this, but interestingly has invited me to consider joining their advisory board and to speak at their annual convention. Who knows if those invitations will continue to be extended once they read this, but if they are I will have two very simple, very basic messages. This whole medical record thing should be about communication, just like it’s always been from the days of Hippocrates. That, and that Larry Weed was right. Before we go any further forward go back and read Larry Weed.

All we need is a little electronic SOAP to clean up this mess.

 

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?

Why Private Practice Survives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Customer Service: The Ohio DMV vs. Your Eye Doctor

It was the smile Ms. DMV Lady. No question, the smile told me that you chose to ruin my day when you had a lay-up chance to make my whole weekend, that you did it on purpose, and that it made you incredibly happy. In any other circumstances I’m sure I would have smiled back at you; that’s what other human beings tend to do when they see such unbridled joy on someone else’s face.

That trip back was my third one to the DMV, but there was no way for you to know that. You did see me on the second one, though, and you clearly remembered me. I forgot my license at home so I couldn’t do what I needed to do to transfer the title for my tiny little beater of a boat. Not only that, but there was nothing you could do to help me at that point, and I totally understood that. It was my fault entirely, so I didn’t ask anything of you on that visit because I knew that there was no way that you could help me, no matter how much you might have wanted to on that particular visit. I was really frustrated for sure, but I didn’t direct any of that at you, or anyone in the DMV.

Nope, it was the return visit where you could have made my day. My wife and I hurried home, got my ID and then hustled back. Did you notice that? Did you notice that we were both there? It’s really hard to free up two people who work full-time during your hours of operation. Definitely not your fault, that. We’d already tried to pull this off the week before and been thwarted, and here we were back for a second time with you, third time total. Now was your chance. We approached the desk with obvious relief on our faces. If we were successful this time we would still have to visit the DMV one more time (you only do titles; another location would do the license), but at least only one of us would need to take off work. You took the title transfer again–you looked at it in detail the first time and couldn’t possibly have missed this–and told us that the previous owner had filled it out incorrectly. He signed it in his name alone, instead of his name as “trustee”. That’s it; he forgot to put “trustee”.  You could have tipped us off before we went home for the license. You could have just noted it and let it pass. Nope. You said that we would have to bring it to him to fix before you could transfer the title.

We were equal parts dumbfounded and devastated, and it showed clearly on our faces. Here it was again, your chance to make our day. There was nothing nefarious about the prior owner’s mistake; it was a simple oversight in how he described the ownership. God, it was such an easy fix. It was right there, right in front of you for the taking. I held out my hands and pleaded softly and quietly for mercy. No disrespect toward you or your staff or your department, and no sense of entitlement or demand for action. A very simple request and a very quiet plea that we had acted in good faith. Your response? “You forgot your ID the first time, Sir.” I simply held out my ID and very softly said “but I went home and got it without saying anything, and here I am. Please, we’re really trying hard here and really could’t know.”

It’s a legal document was all you said. You had a duty to protect the State of Ohio, you said. It was then that I responded, still quite quietly mind you. I shared that the couple you had just chosen not to help were a doctor and a nurse. That we routinely put our family second as we care for patients in need. Nights, weekends…no matter. I asked if I could fill out your customer service survey, either on paper or online, explaining that I am evaluated on the care I provide and the experience that my patients have under my care. Oh my…the look on your face was priceless. Utter shock. Not once in your life, it seemed, had it ever occurred to you that it would be possible that you would be accountable to your customers. “We don’t have anything like that, Sir.”

Then came the smile.

Seldom have I witnessed such a pure, unadulterated expression of joy. You had chosen to ruin my day, and having succeeded you were not just pleased, you were infused with a visceral joy. It started in your eyes as realization crept in, and then it spread to every muscle in your face. Like I said above, it was the kind of smile that is almost always returned by another human being; we are wired to share such joy, after all. Alas, ’twas not to be for you and me. It was all I could do not to vomit on your threshold when you somehow found the strength to break through the grip of your ecstasy to wish me a nice day.

You will see me again, Ms. DMV Lady. Three times we’ve tried to get our little 1971 boat licensed, and it looks like we will need to make two more stops to accomplish that. It most certainly won’t be at your particular DMV location, though. Just thinking about that makes me nauseous all over again. No, you will see me again on my turf, as a patient. Karma, if nothing else, is imbued with a keen understanding of irony, a truly wicked sense of humor. In all likelihood it won’t really be me, personally. Even karma would find that too outlandish, an irony simply too delicious to believe. In reality you will need someone who does what I do, and you will need them in a manner and a sense that is identical to how I needed you.

I noticed that you are very nearsighted, and you have an inflammatory disease of your eyelids called blepharitis that often causes an acute type of particularly unsightly pinkeye (you are not my patient; this is not a HIPPA violation). Perhaps your son is getting married this weekend like mine. You didn’t know that, did you?  No, of course not. You broke your 3 year old glasses. Your prescription is out of date and you can’t just walk in to Lenscrafters and get a new pair, and your vision insurance only covers me. It would be a shame to have to wear broken glasses to enjoy this wonderful day. Or maybe that ugly, uncomfortable pinkeye bubbled up and there you are all red and gooey, two days before the whole fam damly shows up for the wedding. Nether one is truly an emergency, and failing to take care of either one right away will not cause you any harm whatsoever.

Let’s make it even more realistic. You know, like my return trip to your office. Let’s say it’s just before closing time, and the only way to get your glasses or your medicine is if a doctor gives the OK to see you right away. No matter what you see on the billboard, you won’t get an appointment at the Cleveland Clinic or UH. No, it will be a private doc like me. We always try to help. The Doc will know your story. How? Well, through our staff we always know the story because it always makes a difference. Would it have mattered to you that the reason I so desperately wanted that boat licensed was so that my son–the one getting married–could take his cousins and his friends out on his wedding weekend? We’ll never know; you didn’t ask.

There you will sit with your non-emergent problem that is only barely even urgent except for how much it means to you personally. Do you have any idea how easily the doctor and staff can slow-roll this even now, after you are in the office? They can follow protocols to the letter, check every preferred practice pattern box and follow every single insurance billing protocol, your chart and super bill as clean and proper as the illustration of a perfect boat title as you wait for your insurance to authorize your vision care visit, or pre-approve your expensive branded medication, and ruin your weekend.

In short, they could be you, ignoring the very real person with the very real need who stands before them asking for help. Or they can see you, hear you, and so easily choose to help you. Which, of course, is exactly what they would do. They will call the insurance company to get your Rx authorized, or they will give you samples of the medicine to carry you until you get pre-approval. Because you see, Ms. DMV Lady, that’s what every single one of us is supposed to do when we are on the other side of the desk from someone who needs our help and we are truly, safely, and easily in the position to choose to help them. It’s the decent thing that decent people do for others. When they can either make your day or ruin your day, it never crosses their mind that they even have a choice. It’s funny, when they know a little more about how meaningful it is to you that they helped, they really feel good about that.

Which is why after you have been helped, after you get what not only what you need but what you really want, you will be surrounded by people with the huge smiles of joy that come from doing the right thing. You’ll undoubtedly smile back.

Will you know why?

 

 

 

 

Measuring Health Part 2:The Traditional Metric ‘M’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.