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Healthcare’s coding system: no pain, no gain for docs

Dr. Rob, the author of “Musings of a Distractible Mind,” is really good at explaining difficult concepts. If you haven’t read his description of healthcare’s coding system, you should take a peek. It explains why documenting care is so complicated, how doctors try to “game the system” and what happens to them if they do.

Here’s a small excerpt:

“You see, what you get paid for an office visit is not based on what you do at that visit, it is based on what you document. The more you can document, the higher you can bill… There are several responses to this situation by physicians:

· Undercode to avoid the accusation of fraud

· Use EMR to document more and bill at a more appropriate level

· Code at the higher level without documenting higher and risk audit, jail, etc.

· Stop accepting insurance and just accept cash up front based on your own criteria

· Do other things besides office visits – such as surgical procedures, labs, x-rays, or other procedures that pay much better than the office visit. The pay for EKG with interpretation is nearly as high as that of the decision making that the physician makes that may save the life of the patient.”

So next time your doctor is delayed in seeing you… she’s probably trying to document all the right check boxes and codes for the last patient she treated!This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.

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 RevolutionHealth.com.

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 RevolutionHealth.com.

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 RevolutionHealth.com.

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 RevolutionHealth.com.

Latest Interviews

How To Make Inpatient Medical Practice Fun Again: Try Locum Tenens Work

It s no secret that most physicians are unhappy with the way things are going in healthcare. Surveys report high levels of job dissatisfaction burn out and even suicide. In fact some believe that up to a third of the US physician work force is planning to leave the profession…

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Caring For Winter Olympians In Sochi: An Interview With Team USA’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Gloria Beim

I am a huge fan of the winter Olympics partly because I grew up in Canada where most kids can ski and skate before they can run and partly because I used to participate in Downhill ski racing. Now that I m a rehab physician with a reconstructed knee I…

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Latest Cartoon

Richmond, VA – In an effort to simplify inpatient medical billing, one area hospitalist group has determined that “altered mental status” (ICD-9 780.97) is the most efficient code for use in any patient work up.

“When you enter a hospital, you’re bound to have some kind of mental status change,” said Dr. Fishbinder, co-partner of Area Hospitalists, PLLC. “Whether it’s confusion about where your room is located in relationship to the visitor’s parking structure, frustration with being woken up every hour or two to check your vital signs, or just plain old fatigue from being sick, you are not thinking as clearly as before you were admitted. And that’s all the justification we need to order anything from drug and toxin screens, to blood cultures, brain MRIs, tagged red blood cell nuclear scans, or cardiac Holter monitoring. There really is no limit to what we can pursue with our tests.”

Common causes of mental status changes in the elderly include medicine-induced cognitive side effects, disorientation due to disruption in daily routines, age-related memory impairment, and urinary tract infections.

“The urinalysis is not a very exciting medical test,” stated Dr. Fishbinder. “It doesn’t matter that it’s cheap, fast, and most likely to provide an explanation for strange behavior in hospitalized patients. It’s really not as elegant as the testing involved in a chronic anemia or metabolic encephalopathy work up. I keep it in my back pocket in case all other tests are negative, including brain MRIs and PET scans.”

Nursing staff at Richmond Medical Hospital report that efforts to inform hospitalists about foul smelling urine have generally fallen on deaf ears. “I have tried to tell the hospitalists about cloudy or bloody urine that I see in patients who are undergoing extensive work ups for mental status changes,” reports nurse Sandy Anderson. “But they insist that ‘all urine smells bad’ and it’s really more of a red herring.”

Another nurse reports that delay in diagnosing urinary tract infections (while patients are scheduled for brain MRIs, nuclear scans, and biopsies) can lead to worsening symptoms which accelerate and expand testing. “Some of my patients are transferred to the ICU during the altered mental status work up,” states nurse Anita Misra. “The doctors seem to be very excited about the additional technology available to them in the intensive care setting. Between the central line placement, arterial blood gasses, and vast array of IV fluid and medication options, urosepsis is really an excellent entré into a whole new level of care.”

“As far as medicine-induced mental status changes are concerned,” added Dr. Fishbinder, “We’ve never seen a single case in the past 10 years. Today’s patients are incredibly resilient and can tolerate mixes of opioids, anti-depressants, anti-histamines, and benzodiazepines without any difficulty. We know this because most patients have been prescribed these cocktails and have been taking them for years.”

Patient family members have expressed gratitude for Dr. Fishbinder’s diagnostic process, and report that they are very pleased that he is doing everything in his power to “get to the bottom” of why their loved one isn’t as sharp as they used to be.

“I thought my mom was acting strange ever since she started taking stronger pain medicine for her arthritis,” says Nelly Hurtong, the daughter of one of Dr. Fishbinder’s inpatients. “But now I see that there are deeper reasons for her ‘altered mental status’ thanks to the brain MRI that showed some mild generalized atrophy.”

Hospital administrators praise Dr. Fishbinder as one of their top physicians. “He will do whatever it takes to figure out the true cause of patients’ cognitive impairments.” Says CEO, Daniel Griffiths. “And not only is that good medicine, it is great for our Press Ganey scores and our bottom line.”

As for the nursing staff, Griffiths offered a less glowing review. “It’s unfortunate that our nurses seem preoccupied with urine testing and medication reconciliation. I think it might be time for us to mandate further training to help them appreciate more of the medical nuances inherent in quality patient care.”

Dr. Fishbinder is in the process of creating a half-day seminar on ‘altered mental status in the inpatient setting,’ offering CME credits to physicians who enroll. Richmond Medical Hospital intends to sponsor Dr. Fishbinder’s course, and franchise it to other hospitals in the state, and ultimately nationally.

***

Click here for a musical take on over-testing.

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Latest Book Reviews

The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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Unaccountable: A Book About The Underbelly Of Hospital Care

I met Dr. Marty Makary over lunch at Founding Farmers restaurant in DC about three years ago. We had an animated conversation about hospital safety the potential contribution of checklists to reducing medical errors and his upcoming book about the need for more transparency in the healthcare system. Marty was…

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