Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

Cape Cod

Posts Tagged ‘reform’

CPOE: Another Epic Misadventure III Post-Mortem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, the Cave Dwellers on the other hand…

 

Another Epic Misadventure II: CPOE Goes Live

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then everything went off the rails.

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

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

Another Epic Misadventure: Interlude

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

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

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

 

CPOE: Another Epic Misadventure Begins I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Agreeable?

When did a difference of opinion become a de facto conflict? When did the evaluation of another come down to whether or not they hue to a fine line of agreement on a single, or a few, or G0d forbid, every issue? When did this phenomenon morph into one in which a difference of opinion then becomes the basis for labeling another as ‘good’ or bad’?

Am I the only one who’s noticed this?

I’m not talking about a difference of opinion which is then followed by a concerted attack, one that forces you to identify the holder of the other opinion as ‘bad’ and enemy. There’s nothing new to see there. One only has so many cheeks to turn. Eventually you need to fight or flee an attack, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

On a personal, local, and national level we could once identify broad stroke issues on which we could generally base a level of agreement or disagreement, very few of which would be a ‘deal-breaker’ when it came to civil discourse. The first part of this, the existence of broad stroke issues, remains true. What is fundamentally different in my mind is how un-moveable many of us have become on ever more minute details as we drill down from the 30,000 foot view. All well and good, I suppose, to seek fidelity to an ever more granular level of agreement on whatever issue is at hand, especially in this age when we have ever greater ways in which to find and connect with people of a like mind.

What I don’t get is the subsequent labeling of any and all others as “bad”. Unworthy. Lesser in some way because they do not agree at every level with a particular–very particular–point of view. As I remember it the “80-20″ Rule pretty much applied to belief systems as well as business: if you shared 80% of your beliefs with another that was plenty good enough to allow a friendship, and certainly enough to inoculate against a conflict. Now? Seems like something more like the “980-20″ rule: only the smallest amount of the most trivial difference of opinion is permissible. Anything more than nuance between people and they’re going to the mattresses. Anything more than nuance and we’ve identified something other, something lesser, something to destroy.

What’s up with that?

You could say that anything other than full devotion to a cause , concept or worldview is not pragmatism but something more akin to weakness. An inferiority of spirit, perhaps. You could say that nothing other than total fidelity to some grand theme or concept is acceptable and brook no deviation from a one, true path. I would say that the world is infinitely too complex to approach life in this manner. I would further say that to do so needlessly isolates you from people who might very well bring infinite joy to your life despite differential nuance or even a fundamental disagreement on any one issue. Living and letting live rather than seeing a difference of opinion as identifying the other as an enemy might just mean a more pleasant life filled with more people who might be better described as friends, or at least friendly.

At the very least perhaps we could just agree to disagree and be on our way.

 

Pursuit Is Just Another Word For Work

It’s all about jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs. Jobs and work. There aren’t enough jobs out there. People have stopped looking for jobs. Unemployment is going up and up, and even those numbers don’t tell the story because hundreds of thousands of people have just given up the search.

But wait, there’s another side to the coin. It seems that there are hundreds of thousands of jobs out there, but businesses can’t find people with the skills, or even the desire to learn the skills necessary to fill those jobs. Gone is the willingness to take an entry-level job of whatever sort at whatever pay in order to start the journey to “get ahead”. Some would go so far as to say that NOT taking that low-pay starter job is a rational decision. The cumulative value of various and sundry government programs add up to a “salary” that far exceeds most entry level jobs, benefits which would go away if one took such a position.

So which is it? Come on…you can’t have it both ways now. Either there are no jobs, employers are withholding jobs to avoid this or that (Obamacare, yadda yadda), or employable adults are simply unwilling to work. Which is it? Are there no jobs, or has there been a paradigm shift in the collective sense of what it is that must be present in a job before it is worth taking?

I call BS on the no jobs thing. There are jobs out there to be had. Good jobs. Jobs that will add up to $20, $30, $40 or more per hour jobs. The problem with all of those jobs, and the reason that employers are having a tough time filling them is two-fold: you don’t start at $20, $30, or $40 per hour, and in order to have those jobs you have to do actual work. It’s Life, Liberty, and the PURSUIT of Happiness, not Happiness.

Pursuit is another word for work.

Say what you will about government policies that discourage hiring (30 hour work week = full time, mandatory provision of health “insurance” for companies with >50 employees), gnash as many teeth as you please about the inability to house a family on a single minimum wage income (what household has only one worker now, anyhow?), mount as much hew and cry all you wish about income disparity, in the end it all comes down to a very simple, very common denominator: in order to have a job you must be willing to go to work.

All work has value; there is honor is any job. That is not to say that all jobs and all work are equal, or have equal value, or even that there is any justice in the valuation of one job relative to another (why is someone who sells municipal bonds a millionaire while the plumber who drains the basement that was supposed to be kept dry by the pipes purchased with those bonds is not?). No, the point is that having a job, going to work, doing the work has an intrinsic value in and of itself, and that all jobs intersect in society in order that society can function, much like the 11 men on a football team must each do his job in order to move the ball down field.

It’s been offered many times by many people that the best social program for a society is a job. The job you start with, or the job you may have at the moment is not necessarily the job you want to end up with, but each job provides you with a sense of participating, of producing, of contributing, while at the same time perhaps providing a stepping stone to something better. The “Pursuit” in Pursuit of Happiness.

To land and then to keep a job is really not all that difficult. I worked for others as a younger man, and for some 25 years now I have been an employer. Really, as someone who gives people a job I’m here to tell you it’s not that tough to get one. You need three things, only, to get a job. You must WANT a job. Once you have a job must be willing to DO the job, to work hard. You must have integrity–you must be honest.

Seriously, that’s all it takes.

Ideally you would add a fourth component; you would be ambitious. People who have jobs to fill also have businesses to grow, and growing businesses have room for ambitious workers to grow into much larger jobs. Hard workers who are honest, who put in an honest day’s work who have any ambition whatsoever move up, either with the company that gave them that first job or with another company that is competing for the skills they acquired because they took that “entry-level” job. The new managing editor of Time Magazine started there in a sub-minimum wage job as a fact-checker. She is the epitome of the axiom that all you need is a foot in the door and the willingness to work hard.

Sure, sure, I know, it’s not always that cut and dried, and people get rooked, and bad stuff happens. I know. That’s life. Life happens. Life can be hard. In life, though, the reality is that rarely, if ever, is anything handed to you. You earn it. You don’t sit back because something unfortunate might happen because the odds are really stacked in your favor that they won’t, go against you that is, if you simply go out and demonstrate your willingness to get a job, even an entry-level job, work hard, and be honest. The work/life balance thing is all well and good, as long as you remember that work is part of the equation, too.

Indeed, it comes first.

 

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?

 

RFP, Arnold Kling et al

Consider this an official “Request For Proposals” from Arnold Kling to design a health care plan. And just so Dr. Kling doesn’t think I’m picking on him, what the heck, let’s hear from Tyler Cowan and René Herszinger, to0. While I’m at it, I have a certain health care policy rock star brother-in-law, Jim, and I’d love to hear what he has to say about it. Let’s toss in that blogger Maggie Whatever-Her-Name-Is, and why not invite one of the smartest guys I’ve ever actually chatted with, guy named Barry Cooper in Louisville. I’m ready to appoint each and every one of you, and anyone else who’d like to take a shot, as uncontested Health Czar for a large group of people. This is a Request For Proposals to design a health care plan from scratch.

Let’s see who’s got game.

This isn’t something I just made up; this is actually a real group and a real possibility, although it’s highly unlikely that the real players have either the imagination or the balls to really do something new. Nonetheless, it’s very cool to apply imagination and balls to this question. The group consists of 250,000 individuals, 95% men, between the ages of 20 and 60. The average age is 45. Once they become part of this group they essentially remain so for their entire working career. They have a single labor representation, and while they work for a number of different companies there are four major employers. Health insurance has been part of their negotiated contracts for decades.

You have carte blanche to design a health care program for this group. You are not bound by any ERISA regulations, and you will “participate” in any financial savings you might create. Let’s say that it will be a 10 year trial, and in year one you have the average amount of money actually spent on healthcare over the past three years for this group. Each year the funds available to you will increase by only the CPI, inflation in the general economy and no more.  In years one through five any money that you do not spend is yours to keep. Remember, the members of this group do not come in and out, and any investments you make in the early years that reap savings in latter years will come to you and not another provider or payer. In years five through 10 you will share any savings with the employers, the payers.

As part of this proposal you must not only try to save money, to provide health care in a more cost–and efficient manner, but you must also achieve superior health. In years one and two the health outcomes of your 250,000 members must be no worse then the aggregate outcomes across the United States for individuals in a similar demographic. However, in years three through 10 you must demonstrate superior health outcomes for your group, each year better than the last. In other words, you must design a program that will not only save money but will also produce superior health.

That’s it. No other rules. You may use economic incentives with the members, both positive and negative. You may put together what ever type of provider group, physicians and physician extenders, hospitals and clinics that you wish. Pay the healthcare providers any way you’d like (probably ought to be sharing the lion’s share of any savings with this group, if you wish to be successful). You only have to do two, simple things: make these 250,000 men healthier, and spend less money doing so.

Wadda ya think, Dr. Kling? You in?

I don’t want to sound like I’m picking on Dr. Kling because it was actually his short manuscript, “A Crisis of Abuncance” that really got me to thinking about the barriers we have erected in our healthcare system to actually providing healthcare, providing for the creation of health. The best example of what you CAN do, as well as what happens now when you DO do, is the Mayo Clinic program designed to take care of patients with kidney failure. Given free reign to design a program that would accomplish exactly what I am asking for with my 250,000 member group, the Mayo Clinic did just that. By creating a team that was given free reign to utilize best practices, the Mayo Clinic designed a program for kidney care that resulted in fewer mortalities, fewer complications, and greater health, all with a lower price tag.

So why, you might ask, do we not know more about this program? Why is this not the gold standard for ALL medical care, let alone chronic kidney disease care in the United States? The sorry fact is that the Mayo Clinic actually LOST money on this program despite the fact that their patients had BETTER health by doing less and doing it better, thereby resulting in the need for LESS work still, The Mayo Clinic essentially cut off its nose to spite its face. Not willing (and reasonably so) to lose money, and unwilling to practice medicine any way less than what they have shown to be best practices, the Mayo Clinic has now declined to care for Medicare patients in some of its satellite locations.

But you guys don’t have to worry about that. I’ll let you keep the cash! So, what do you say, folks? Ask your friends. Everyone can play. We might even catch the attention of the real, live people who are presently negotiating new labor contracts for this very group. Here’s a chance to start saving the American healthcare system. This is a formal Request For Proposals.

The lines are now open…