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What are orthopedic surgeons worrying about?

I had the chance to speak with Jim Herndon recently about how the current healthcare climate is affecting orthopedic surgeons. He said that there are 3 things that worry orthopods:

  1. Decreasing Medicare reimbursement. In 1990, reimbursement for a total hip procedure was $2,200. In 2007, the reimbursement is $1,190. Medicare is planning to further cut reimbursement 30% in the next 4-5 years.
  2. Increasing malpractice insurance costs. Premiums are steadily increasing. In Boston, the average malpractice insurance is about $50,000/year. In Philadelphia, the cost is $150,000. And if you’re an orthopedic surgeon specializing in spinal surgery, malpractice insurance premiums can start at $250,000/year.
  3. Pay for performance. No one really knows how this will be applied specifically to surgeons (other than the obvious infection rates), but fears are mounting regarding how to show the best possible performance in one’s practice.

Let’s say that a typical surgeon in Philadelphia pays 33% in overhead (the hospital facilities, staff, etc.). Let’s say that he is also taxed 33% on his income. That means that he’d have to perform 382 hip replacements per year, just to pay his malpractice insurance. That’s almost 2 surgeries/day, 5 days a week, 11 months/year.

So what are surgeons doing? They are reducing overhead by setting up outpatient surgery centers (Dr. Herndon estimates that 60% of orthopedic surgery can be performed in an outpatient setting), they are increasing the volume of surgeries they perform, they are buying radiology facilities where they send their patients for XRays, MRIs etc. (Dr. Herndon explains that Stark Laws don’t prohibit this, so long as the physician takes on the risk of the facility – i.e. that he can potentially make or lose money), and they are financing physical therapy practices that supply therapy to their patients.

Orthopedic surgeons in private practice have become very business savvy in order to survive in this climate. But somehow I feel saddened by all this – the business of medicine is a grim reality that can create a wedge between the physician-patient relationship. A patient is left to wonder about the motivations behind tests and therapies – and perhaps even behind recommendations for the surgery itself.

I guess the second opinion has become more important than ever before?

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

Is health care a right? Two views on a touchy subject (Part 1)

There is an old question still sparking debate in the blogosphere (see Kevin MD’s links): is health care a right or a privilege? I think it’s worthwhile to consider both sides of the argument, as one’s position on this issue actually provides the foundation for how one proposes to “fix” this broken health care system.

I have searched the Internet for some of the best quotes on the subject (and I’m sure I have missed most of them) to frame the debate. Today’s post is devoted to the “health care is NOT a right” position. My next post will provide quotes from the “health care IS a right” camp. I hope that you will provide your own views pro or con as comments.

Mr. Robinson wonders if (based on the US Constitution) one can classify health care as a “right:”

By definition, rights can not extend past the boundaries of one’s own person.  One can not, for instance, exercise one’s right to free speech by demanding that one’s neighbor cease speaking, for by doing so, one would deny the neighbor’s right to free speech.  Given that healthcare, for the most part, is the product of someone else’s knowledge, labor, capital, and equipment, it is not within the boundaries on one’s own person.  Healthcare can not be a right because it makes demands on other people.

This analogy by Dr. Peikoff sheds some light on what would happen if healthcare were treated as “a right” by the government:

Take the simplest case: you are born with a moral right to hair care, let us say, provided by a loving government free of charge to all who want or need it. What would happen under such a moral theory?

Haircuts are free, like the air we breathe, so some people show up every day for an expensive new styling, the government pays out more and more, barbers revel in their huge new incomes, and the profession starts to grow ravenously, bald men start to come in droves for free hair implantations, a school of fancy, specialized eyebrow pluckers develops — it’s all free, the government pays. The dishonest barbers are having a field day, of course — but so are the honest ones; they are working and spending like mad, trying to give every customer his heart’s desire, which is a millionaire’s worth of special hair care and services — the government starts to scream, the budget is out of control. Suddenly directives erupt: we must limit the number of barbers, we must limit the time spent on haircuts, we must limit the permissible type of hair styles; bureaucrats begin to split hairs about how many hairs a barber should be allowed to split. A new computerized office of records filled with inspectors and red tape shoots up; some barbers, it seems, are still getting too rich, they must be getting more than their fair share of the national hair, so barbers have to start applying for Certificates of Need in order to buy razors, while peer review boards are established to assess every stylist’s work, both the dishonest and the overly honest alike, to make sure that no one is too bad or too good or too busy or too unbusy. Etc. In the end, there are lines of wretched customers waiting for their chance to be routinely scalped by bored, hog-tied haircutters some of whom remember dreamily the old days when somehow everything was so much better.

This attorney wonders where the “rights” begin and end in the health care environment:

If we speak of a right to healthcare, we need to ask: What kind of healthcare? Perfectly healthy people seek healthcare simply to confirm that they are healthy. Some people seek treatments—vaccines, nutritional and hormonal supplements, surgery to eliminate genetic cancer risks—as preventive measures in order to preserve their health. Some people seek healthcare for conditions that others would not, such as minor colds, common balding, or sports performance enhancement. Few of us would be willing to recognize, or finance, a “right” to whatever kind of healthcare a person might think desirable.

A physician gives an example of what can happen when consumers demand their “rights” to health care:

“Doctor, this guy states he has a bleeding brain tumor and wants a CT scan of his head,” the emergency department registration clerk announced as I entered his room. He looked me in the eye and intoned, ” I want a CT scan of my brain. I have a bleeding brain tumor.” “Do you have a headache, neck stiffness, loss of strength?” “No,” he responded. I proceeded to examine and finding no neurological deficit I inquired why he thought a CT scan was needed. He informed me that a relative had suggested that the numbness he felt in his scalp might have been a sign of a tumor. He was furious when I told him a CT scan was unnecessary and indignantly took my name to make a complaint to the administrator. I had denied him his right.

A patient continues the refrain:

What’s so special about health care? Why not rights to higher education, job training, clothing, computers, child care, cars, etc.? There are a lot of things that will improve a society if everyone had them. This doesn’t mean that we should establish positive rights to provide all these things for those who can’t afford them. We need to keep incentives in place (and perhaps provide education) to encourage people to spend and save their money wisely and to nurture a solid work ethic. Encouraging people to help themselves seems to be a solution for the long-term, not trying to get everyone else to buy the necessities for them.

Do you think that health care is a right? 

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

Can the Internet save primary care?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the plight of family physicians – reimbursal for their services continues to decline, overhead steadily increases, and pressure to see a minimum of 30 patients a day can drive them to near despair. Family physicians want to provide quality care for their patients, but are exhausted by volume demands and paperwork.

If you missed this article about the primary care crisis in America in the New England Journal of Medicine, it’s an excellent read. Here are some excerpts:

Excessive demands contribute to long waiting times and inadequate quality of care for patients. A growing proportion of patients report that they cannot schedule timely appointments with their physician. Emergency departments are overflowing with patients who do not have access to primary care. The majority of patients with diabetes, hypertension, and other chronic conditions do not receive adequate clinical care, partly because half of all patients leave their office visits without having understood what the physician said.

These problems are exacerbated by the system of physician payment. Thirty minutes spent performing a diagnostic, surgical, or imaging procedure often pays three times as much as a 30-minute visit with a patient with diabetes, heart failure, headache, and depression…

These factors add up to an unsurprising result: fewer U.S. medical students are choosing careers in primary care. Between 1997 and 2005, the number of U.S. graduates entering family practice residencies dropped by 50 percent…

Who might support a national policy to rescue primary care? Employers and insurers, public and private, may reap a return on investment by fostering a more effective primary care sector that will reduce health care costs… Whoever takes up the cause of primary care, one thing is clear: action is needed to calm the brewing storm before the levees break.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal sent ripples through the blogosphere. It was about how a few family physicians found a way to drastically reduce overhead – by being a solo practitioner and using technology to replace office staff and automate billing as much as possible.

Drs. Charlie Smith and Joe Scherger are family physicians here at Revolution Health who are leading the charge towards high tech solutions for family physicians. Charlie explains his philosophy in his recent blog post:

Having practiced primary care for over 30 years, I’m convinced the model of receiving in office care for every problem is not working well. I really like the ideas espoused by Don Berwick in changing the model of care in the doctor’s office to that of seeing patients in groups, treating them by phone or by e mail, rather than in the office. Using phone calls or e mails to sort through the patient issues, the doctor can decide to see the ones who really need to come into the office and the others can be taken care of without an office visit. This is a MUCH more efficient method, allows you to take care of many more people that need care, and gets people the care when they need it, rather than forcing them to wait until they can fit into a slot in your office.

The ideal way to partner with your doctor to use the health care system in the most effective way possible is to call or e mail him whenever possible, use the internet to research all of your health conditions, and only go into the office when you require in office care, such as exams, procedures, lab tests or x rays. Become an e patient!

I personally believe that Revolution Health can substantially improve the life of family physicians through innovative technologies designed to automate their practices as much as possible (thus reducing overhead and time spent on paperwork), as well as educating patients about the management of their diseases and conditions, (thus improving outcomes and increasing pay for performance bonuses), and triaging low acuity issues through online physician emailing services and retail clinics (thus helping patients receive the care they need without excessive use of office time).

Who will take up the cause of primary care (asks the NEJM)? Revolution Health will. Let’s work together to improve the quality of life for physicians and patients alike.

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

Circumcision reduces HIV transmission in Africa

Recent research suggested that circumcision may reduce the rate of HIV transmission by 50% (foreskin cells are particularly vulnerable to infection with the virus). In response to this news, adult men in Uganda and Kenya have been undergoing the procedure in the hope of reducing their risk of HIV infection.

Some young boys in Kenya were actually expelled from school for not being circumcised. Their parents were asked to bring them back to school once the deed was done.

HIV rates have decreased in Uganda from 15% to 5% after aggressive public health initiatives raised awareness of the importance of safe sexual practices. This is an incredibly positive achievement.

One would hope, however, that circumcision in infancy would become the preferred target age for future procedures.

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

Can we cure malaria with blood pressure medicine?

Malaria is caused by a crafty little parasite that has become resistant to many medicines. But now researchers at Northwestern University have discovered a chink in its armor – a blood pressure medicine called propranolol. Who knew that a common beta-blocker used to treat hypertension might provide the death blow to such a scourge?

Usually, malarial parasites infect their host’s blood stream through a mosquito bite, and then congregate in the liver and pounce on red blood cells as they pass by. They have a way of adhering to the red blood cells via certain surface receptors (beta 2 adrenergic receptors linked to Gs proteins). They latch on to the red cells and then burrow into the cell and hijack it in order to reproduce inside it. Then, like the horror movie Alien, once they’re fully grown (into “schizonts”) they burst out of the cells and roam free to repeat the process all over again.

Now propranolol happens to block the Gs proteins, which effectively makes it impossible for the parasites to attach themselves to the red blood cells (which they need to use to reproduce themselves).

So what’s the caveat to of all this? Well, folks don’t know they have been infected with malaria until they have symptoms, and the symptoms include high fevers and low blood pressure… so giving someone a medicine that lowers their blood pressure even further might not be a good idea.

The other caveat is that propranolol works like a charm in the test tube, and in mice, but we haven’t yet tried it out in humans who have malaria.

Still, it seems to me that a little bit of propranolol might go a long way to preventing malarial infections in at risk populations. I’ll be interested to see what further studies show!

And if you’re interested, I’ll create a few more blog posts about parasites and other creepy crawly human invaders… Just let me know if you can handle more of this!

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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