Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘surgeon’

Unshakable Belief Meets Unmovable Facts

This week I spent some time talking to a couple of folks who, unbeknownst to them, were talking about each other. Well, talking to them is not really accurate–they were having a discussion and I was having a listen. Both were talking about the effects of a particular happening on a particular person they both knew, effects that both could surely see if only they cared to remove their blinders and look.

They told wildly different stories. Their belief sets were so unshakable, so impervious to penetration by petty inconveniences like facts and reality, it was as if they wore not lenses to clarify but masks to obscure. The blind running from the blind, if you will. I’m fascinated when I see this; I see this almost every day when I am plying my trade as an eye surgeon. So much of what is “known” about medicine isn’t really known at all but “felt”. I constantly run up against an unshakable belief that is often expressed in a statement that begins “well, I think…” Indeed, I heard this from both folks telling me what was transpiring.

I’m fascinated and exasperated in equal parts by this because of how completely this unshakable belief nullifies the otherwise logical power of observable, measurable fact. If I step back and think a little more deeply about this phenomenon I am also terrified that I, too, may harbor similarly unshakable beliefs that blind me to the truths of a fact-based reality. This weekend brought me to a gathering of true experts in a particular field of my day job, one I was quite flattered to attend. There were a couple of points that I’m just convinced my colleagues got wrong, points of view it looks like I shared only with myself. Am I right? Is my insight so keen, my ability to analyze the data presented so much better, that I am just a full step ahead? Or is it rather that I am clinging to a point of view supported only by the virtual facts created by personal beliefs I am unable or unwilling to walk away from?

This simple awareness and acknowledgement–that I may suffer from “belief” bias–might be enough to inoculate me.  I certainly owe my patients (and my readers) an effort to investigate that.

Sunday musings 9/11/16

Sunday musings…

It was a Tuesday. For sure. Tuesday is an OR day for me, and I was with my work people on what looked to be a pretty vanilla Tuesday morning. That’s how you like it in the OR: vanilla. A good day is no memory of the operations whatsoever. A great day is one where you remember some interaction with your teammates, something good or funny or nice.

9/11 was definitely a Tuesday. What I remember is being with one group of my people.

Everything about the day was going just like every other Tuesday. Fast cases with great results. Stories flying back and forth between doc, nurses and patients. Just a joy to be doing my job. Until, that is, one of the nurses came into my room and said a plane had hit a tower. To a person our collective response was something like “huh…that’s weird. How tragic,” and then back to work. Back to normal until that very same nurse came back and said a second plane had hit the second tower. We all stopped after that case and headed to the family lounge, a TV and CNN.

I remember being in a similar place when the Challenger blew up, surrounded by colleagues, patients and families. That’s where I was when the first tower collapsed. After that nothing was normal about the day at all. There is literally nothin in my memory banks about the rest of the morning. I know we finished the cases, but then everything came to a full and complete stop. Clinic hours were cancelled, schools let out, and the wheels of American life ground to a halt. The rest of the day was spent in tracking down my brother (traveling now by car from Chicago to Connecticut), and best friend (stranded in Brazil). The skies were empty for days.

Our new normal had just kicked in.

My parents worried about an attack on our soil from Germany to the east (U-Boats off the coast of New England) or Japan from the west (a friend posted the story of a Japanese pilot who actually fire-bomb Oregon!). As a child our politics and our lives were spent worrying about the specter of a communist attack. As an adult, a father and a grandfather, it is now the fear of Jihad unleashed. The post-Reagan/post-Berlin Wall years of relative peace and security seem so very long ago now, don’t they?

The reality, of course, is that we are far safer than we think we are. Yet our own personal realities are driven by the same psychology that led our parents to fear a coastal invasion, for us to fear Russian bombers. We march on each day, as we must. We march on so that each day’s completion becomes one more tiny victory in yet another long war fought for us mostly between the ears, so much like the Cold War before it. We seek victory once again in the daily act of living our normal lives.

We remember, though. Like I remember that it was a Tuesday. We never forget, nor should we try to forget. It is in the remembering and carrying on despite the remembering that we do our tiny part to honor those who were lost. Today is a day to take a moment away from normal to remember.

I remember.

I’ll see you next week…

–bingo

Measuring Health Part 3: Emotional Well-Being “W”

2016 is an Olympic year. We will hear stories, as we do in every Olympic cycle, of the extraordinary physical accomplishments of Olympians in sports which require otherworldly amounts of what we in the CrossFit world would consider “Fitness”. Strength, speed, and agility. Uncanny feats of coordination and accuracy, some performed over distances and times that are so far beyond the reach of the average human as to defy credulity. Many of these athletes, certainly the ones we will meet through the intercession of NBC, will match our expectations of the happiness that must certainly accompany such outsized achievements. Mary Lou Retton, anyone? Indeed, what we will see on our screens will fairly scream “Healthy”.

But there will be others, too. And for all of their physical fitness, expressed so dramatically for our viewing pleasure and patriotic zeal, the lack of emotional health will make it obvious to anyone that they are not healthy. Bruce Jenner, anyone?

Remember our proposed definition of “Healthy”: Able to perform in all ways at the farthest limits of one’s potential capabilities. Health is therefore the state in which no infirmity is, or can in the future, impede this ability to fulfill a potential. It takes but a moment to think of how mental illnesses such as depression, bi-polar disease, and schizophrenia can be hidden from view when examining only physical metrics. There are examples all around us. The woman who partners with a 1400 pound horse in the rigorous, physical tasks required to compete in the three-part test that is eventing, so poised and accomplished in the arena, who retreats to solitude outside the barn because she is incapable of overcoming her anxiety around people. The outdoorsman who in his manic phase performs feats of strength and endurance others can only marvel at, and then plunges into the depths of depression from which he cannot see the noon-day sun. Much more prosaic and much more common is the individual who continually increases his or her fitness by any and all measurements due to a deeply held sense of low self-worth, perhaps even self-loathing, pursuing an unreachable ideal and always falling short.

A truly universal measurement of health must include some element of emotional well-being. Let’s call it “W”. You could certainly call it the “Happiness Factor”, and some undoubtedly will. I imagine criticism directed toward this to take the form of “Happy Face” mockery. No matter. Well-Being is a better term for this part of our equation because it encompasses more than whether or not you are happy, whatever happy may mean to you, when you are measured. Are you content with your circumstances at the moment? Do you have the ability to persevere under duress?  What is the state of your relationships? A recent study of Harvard men carried out over decades found that both happiness and longevity were tied quite closely to the quantity and quality of your relationships with family and friends. Where are you in your pursuit of your goals, your dreams, and how do you feel about that? How much stress do you perceive in your life and how are you managing that? All of these make up what one might think of when we consider Well-Being.

How, then, should we go about measuring ‘W’? Remember, all of our tests should meet the dual imperatives of being accessible to pretty much everyone, and as inexpensive as possible. We could certainly use something like the classic anesthesia “smily face” pain scale, relabeling the figures, but this feels too simplistic and too momentary to be truly applicable. Our measurement should require a bit more thought than that. I have to admit here to countless hours of internet crawling trying to find a validated test of emotional well-being that has a track record in a heterogenous group that mirrors our population; most have been utilized in very specialized populations (e.g. soldiers) with a very specific research interest. Those that might apply must typically be purchased.

John Pinto is a well-regarded consultant in the world of my day job, ophthalmology. He has long had a list of clients that spans the gamut of pretty much every measurement you could think of in a group of doctors. Men and women. Young and old. Fantastically successful doctors and those that could only be described as spectacular (if unexpected) failures. As part of his quest to better understand his clients in order to better serve them, John used a questionnaire that measured emotional well-being. He found that external measurements of success such as volume of surgeries, income, and professional acclaim did not always coincide with his clients sense of success, their emotional valuation of their professional lives. These were certainly variables that mattered, but his happiest clients were not always his wealthiest, and his least happy not always those who had less. The assessment he used is the best one that I’ve been able to find, notwithstanding the fact that it is not free.

(http://psychcorp.pearsonassessments.com/HAIWEB/Cultures/en-us/Productdetail.htm?Pid=PAg511 ).

I am not wedded to the Psychcorp assessment and would happily review any alternatives. Especially if they are free! As is the case with ‘M’, our traditional health metrics like blood pressure and serum lipids, I expect a vigorous debate as to the relative weight of ‘W’ in our final Health Index. My bias is that ‘W’ is a current factor with a greater impact on health, and it should have a correspondingly greater weight in our formula. Let me start the “bidding” with double; however the final formula shakes out ‘W’ should have twice the value of ‘M’.

Mental health is an inextricable part of health. It must be included in any serious definition and measurement of health. Our variable is “Well-Being” or ‘W’.

 

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.

 

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…

 

 

Evaluating A Surgeon: Basic Theory

Transparency is the new buzzword in medicine. Systems should be transparent with regard to prices, if not costs. Doctors and other providers of healthcare services should publish their costs and fees, too. Various ratings and measurements have been developed in an attempt to measure that nebulous and elusive entity “Quality”. Calls have been made for transparency here as well; hospitals, doctors, and others are browbeaten to release any and all manner of quality measurements so that we might create something one could call an “informed patient”.

The first, and therefore most important challenge in the quest to measure quality is to agree on a definition of just what quality is. Like all rational discussions the first order of business is to agree on terms and the terms of engagement.

Let’s take the question of evaluating the quality of an individual surgeon. What are the salient metrics? Are we concerned with only outcomes? You know, success rates, complication rates, stuff like that. Is there more to the measurement? Should we be concerned with EFFICIENCY, the ability to obtain high quality outcomes in a more timely manner? How about VALUE, the soft and difficult to measure combination of quality and COST? In this day and age of “economic credentialing” in which doctors, hospitals, and other providers are held responsible for the cost of care, not only on an individual basis but also a societal one, it seems as if value is an inescapable aspect of quality, at least in the eyes of our government and the people who actually pay for healthcare.

Quality measures will be different for surgeons of different stripes; we will want to evaluate different complications and their rate of occurrence for an ophthalmologist versus, say, a cardiothoracic surgeon. Even similar adverse events like infection rates will have a different meaning across specialties. One classic example of a surgical complication is post-op infections. From my limited reading about heart and chest surgery it appears that the post-op infection rate is around 1-2%. This would be scandalous in eye surgery where the post-op infection rate is 100X lower, closer to .01-.02%. Stuff like this should be fairly easy to uncover, or at least you’d like to think so. It turns out that even this metric is rather hard to come by since multiple doctors will participate in the treatment of post-op infections, and literally no one offers up these stats uncompelled. Similar issues apply to specialty-specific complications (vitreous loss, graft leak) for similar reasons.

Right away the difficulty of measuring quality is obvious: even the simple quality measures appear to be something other than simple to discover right now.

Outcome measures are even trickier. Since I know eye surgery best let me stay in that arena and use cataract surgery as my example. For our discussion let’s assume that we have magically been granted unfettered access to every eye surgeon’s charts (and that they are all legible, and that they all contain the same basic information). It should be a rather simple proposition to draft meaningful criteria–let’s say “how well do the patients see after cataract surgery.?”  Would that it were so. The answer to that very simple question–how well do you see after surgery–depends on several variables, and further varies if you ask the question slightly differently. How much improvement did the patient achieve compared with pre-op? How fast did the improvement come? How well does the patient see without eyeglasses?  Is the patient more or less dependent on eyeglasses following surgery? What level of vision constitutes a success? Does the surgeon get the same results with complex cases?

I imagine these issues are not specific to ophthalmology. I can see the same types of questions and complexities in orthopedic surgery, for example. Think about hip replacement–along with cataract surgery and cardiac bypass surgery, hip replacement is arguably one of the most significant medical developments when we think about the quality of life enjoyed by an older person. What defines success in hip replacement? How long do you allow for success to occur for it to be deemed one for the  ”win” column? Do we give bonus points for speed in the OR, both from a patient’s standpoint and an economic one? How about a surgeon’s ability to achieve the same level of success in a thin 70 year old tennis player and an obese, cart-riding smoker?

Seriously, if docs can’t come to an agreement about what constitutes “quality”, how can we in good faith measure it? Furthermore, if we WON’T define it we have no one but ourselves to blame when some nameless, faceless 30 year old sociology major in D.C. does it for us.

Nobody asked me (again), but as long as I’m here let me offer up a 3-part proposal to measure and promote quality using surgeons as a theoretical template. Let’s start with a thought exercise borrowed from CrossFit. Fitness training using the CrossFit methodology involves high intensity exercise while trying to maintain near-perfect movement and form. One is shown three targets from a shooting range. The first has random bullet holes all around the bullseye, the second has every shot dead-on perfect, and the third has 95% of the shots within the center bullseye and 5% on-target but not perfect. Which one represents the most desirable CrossFit training strategy?

In CrossFit the answer is “C”, 95% accuracy with the misses still close because this represents the optimal combination of form (accuracy) and intensity (speed). Is this directly applicable to surgery? Well, that depends on how far outside the bullseye the misses land, doesn’t it? And in surgery I think we also need a more accurate measurement of intensity; we need a clock. Speed matters, from both a medical standpoint and a financial one. The shorter a surgery lasts while still hitting the target, the less physically and mentally taxing it is for the patient, and the fewer costly resources (OR time, staff time, doctor time, supplies, etc.)  you are consuming during surgery. All things being equal, the surgeon who achieves the desired outcome faster without increasing her complication rate is the better surgeon.

Put surgeons on the clock.

A successful outcome must be explicitly defined for each common surgical procedure. Pre-operative factors that reduce the likelihood of success should certainly be taken into account (e.g. a morbidly obese cart-riding smoker and hip replacement), but care needs to be taken so that a measurement can’t be gamed (two guttata do not constitute a corneal dystrophy and increased likelihood of swelling) in order to work with a lower standard. Surgical societies should show some spine and make a call, define what constitutes a high-quality outcome, regardless of the howling that will emanate from the mediocre and the incompetent. It’s gonna happen anyway, and physicians making the call would be orders of magnitude better than MBA’s and philosophy majors.

Lastly, quality should be measured, publicized and praised, and those surgeons (and other doctors) should be explicitly rewarded with as many cases as they can (or wish to) handle. They should also be paid more. Once we decide what constitutes quality we can measure it and publish the data. People will understand this, just like they understand the data in a box score. Why is it so OK for the baseball player with the highest batting average or lowest ERA to be paid more based on his success, yet somehow the most efficient surgeon who has the best outcomes is labeled a “money grubber” who must somehow be doing something wrong if he is also very busy? We want that high batting average guy at the plate in the 9th inning of a tight ballgame, and we pay him more because of his higher quality outcomes. Why aren’t we doing the same thing with surgeons? The very least we can do is stop accusing surgeons of being successful!

It’s time that we apply basic theories about quality to medicine in general and surgery in particular. Indeed, it should be easier to do it with surgeons. Make a call–define a successful outcome. Pull out a stopwatch. Faster, more efficient surgery is less expensive and generally less taxing physically for patients. Once the data is available be transparent and publish the results. I know what Miguel Cabrera is batting this year; my patients (and potential patients) should know my “batting average” in the OR. While I hold out little hope of being heard on this last point, uncountable articles support the benefit of the carrot at the expense of the stick when it comes to promoting excellence. Higher quality should beget higher pay. At the very least we should stop with the assumption that the busy surgeon is somehow “getting over”, guilty of somehow gaming the system (eg. doing unnecessary surgery) until and unless proven innocent.

She may just be better.

 

The Answer Is…

Alex, the question is: What is the one thing that ASCRS, the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery, can do for its members that it isn’t already doing?

ASCRS, AAO (American Academy of Ophthalmology), AMA (American Medical Association), and the various and sundry other organizations of letters are all of the same ilk. Each one was founded with the idea that physicians as a general group, and more tightly defined specialist groups, needed some sort of representation. Some sort of trade group that would present our needs and desires to other groups like the government, insurance companies, and the public. You know, someone to take OUR side in a discussion, to support US in a debate.

So, how’s that working out for you, Doctor? How well are your trade organizations doing, you know, carrying the flag, supporting you and your issues, the things that matter to you? Like protecting your relationship with your patients? Protecting you from frivolous lawsuits and the incessant threats that make you add “cover my ass” to every treatment plan? How are they doing taking up the cause of preventing yet another government program from gumming up your day with more useless, purposeless paperwork? How’s all of that going?

Yeah…thought so.

Once upon a time organizations like the AMA stood for something. The AMA in particular was the ethics referee for all physicians, as powerful as a FIFA ref in the World Cup, and frankly just as impervious to outside influences and criticism. To be censured by the AMA was a serious thing, the only thing worse being the loss of your license to practice medicine. Now? Do you remember reading the histories of the eunuchs who waited on the Chinese emperors of antiquity, emasculated and with a veneer of power that they brandished with a flourish. They lived for the intrigue; they thrived on the daily ebb and flow of palace life, content to be AROUND the tables of power, though they were not really AT the table. It’s like that now.

When did it happen? When did this group of “all-powerful” become a collection of empty sacks? It probably started whenever the AMA lost its great battle over its prohibition of advertising, a case of free speech and restraint of trade in which the AMA was thrashed. It’s never been the same since then, just one small defeat after another. Indeed, the very nature of the game was changed at some point, whether it was the advertising defeat or some other tipping point.

I’ve looked very hard, called into play my most powerful google-fu, looking for the answer. Who led us to this point? Could it really have been a Dr. Chamberlin? No…to0 easy…can’t be. It would be just too perfect if the 3+ decades of universal appeasement as the modus operandi for all of the medical alphabet organizations could have been started by someone so named. Nevertheless, appeasement is precisely what organized medicine has all been about for decades.

Surely, if we agree to accept Medicare payment as our payment in full, they will trust us to do what is right for our patients. If we just agree to label our charts with these treatment and billing codes they will assume that we are doing what we say we are doing. Hey, they’re going to pay you a BONUS for faxing your prescriptions with a computer system. Well, you know, a computerized medical record is theoretically best for our tapped out payment system, and if we do everything just like they say there’s a possibility that they might pay a little bit so you’ll lose less money on it. Well, you know, there are some docs who have cheated the system, so we’ll have to accept the “guilty until we can’t find any way to not find you innocent” policy of regulatory enforcement.

Drip…drip…drip…the slow torture of seeing the next drop come…drip…each tiny capitulation labelled as “cooperation for the common good”…drip…the willful, purposeful blindness of the appeasers…drip…well, certainly THIS time they will reward us for being good team players…drip…no lesson ever learned…DRIP.

Well, Dr. Chamberlin, here’s what I’ve learned. It doesn’t work, this appeasement thing. It never does. It’s never enough, all that you’ve given up, all the times you’ve decided that we would “take one for the team.” Appeasement never works because those you wish to appease do not respect you, and because of that they do not respect US, the physicians. Indeed, they view us with barely concealed scorn. It doesn’t matter whether they are Republicans or Democrats, government or private, Aetna or the Blues, they know that you don’t have what it takes to ever take a stand. You don’t know what it is to use leverage, wouldn’t recognize it in your pocket, and would turn away from it if you did.

What to do…what to do? Believe it or not there are still some physicians out there who have neither emptied their (figurative) sacks, nor become so jaded and angry that they can no longer muster the empathy necessary to be a doctor. What should we do? Should we retreat to some nirvana, some mythical place like the mountain hideaway built by John Galt to house those who would traffic in excellence in a world where success is born of merit? Ah, would that we could. The closest that any might come to this is to retire, withdraw their services from the system and become conductors. Or provide their services to all comers for free; that would shake things up. Not many of us can afford to do that, and if we could not many of us are willing to walk away from that which has defined our very beings for so long.

So, what? Well, for me, I have gazed too long on a system built on the cynical abuse heaped on the followers of the appeasers to avoid becoming just a little bit cynical myself. It’s a game, you know? Games have rules and regulations, little battles that can be won even though the war might already be lost. Perhaps an extra patient at the end of the day. A perfect chart with every preferred practice pattern item covered. Who knows? The rules ebb and flow as the alphabet organizations push a little, pull a little. There’s always a game, a little battle, rules to play by, rules to follow, a way to win within the rules today. A cynical approach to a cynical battle, with hopes for no collateral damage. 10 years of that kind of today, and then…

Alex, the answer, apparently, is nothing, because that would be better than what they are doing now.