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November 19 is International Toilet Day. That may sound funny, but it is a serious event. It is a day to contemplate what we have and others don’t. As we sit in privacy on our comfortable flush toilets today, it is hard to imagine that a scant two hundred years ago sewage disposal meant emptying chamber pots into the nearest convenient place, which was often the street.
If you were out for a walk in Britain in the 18th century and heard the cry “gardy-loo,” you had better scamper across the street because the contents of a chamber pot were set to be hurled your way from a window. The expression derives from the French “regardez l’eau” and was commonly heard as chambermaids carried out their duties. Some even suggest that the custom of a gentleman walking on the outside when accompanying a lady can be traced to the desire to protect the fair sex from the trajectory of the chamber pot’s contents.
What may be even harder to imagine than the sidestepping of flying fecal matter is that roughly a third of the world’s population today cannot easily sidestep the problems associated with exposure to untreated sewage because of a lack of access to a toilet. As a consequence, diarrheal disease is rampant, killing more children than AIDS, malaria and measles combined. In developing countries a child dies every twenty seconds as a result of poor hygiene. Mahatma Gandhi recognized the problem when he proclaimed in 1925 that “sanitation is more important than independence.”
The invention of the flush toilet and the introduction of plumbing for sewage disposal mark two of the most significant advances in history. Let’s get one of the toilet myths out of the way right away. Contrary to numerous popular accounts, Thomas Crapper did not invent the flush toilet! It is easy to see how connecting his name with the invention would make for a compelling tale, but what we actually have here is a prime example of the classic journalistic foible, “a story that is too good to check.”
Almost all accounts of the Crapper saga claim that a 1969 book by Wallace Reyburn, cleverly titled “Flushed with Pride-The Story of Thomas Crapper” establishes Crapper as the inventor of the flush toilet. Reyburn actually says no such thing. The book is an entertaining celebration of the life and times of Crapper, the man who “revolutionized the nations’ water closets.” Indeed, that he did do. But flush toilets were around long before Thomas Crapper ever got into the game in the 19th century.
The first flush toilet appeared as early as 1700 B.C. The Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete, built around that time featured a toilet with an overhanging cistern that dispensed water when a plug was removed. Curiously it would take another three thousand years until the next step in flushing technology was taken by Sir John Harrington, godson of Queen Elizabeth I. In 1596 Harrington installed a “water closet” in the Royal Palace that featured a pipe fitted with a valve connected to a raised water tank. Opening the valve released the water that would carry waste into a cesspool. Apparently the Queen was not overly pleased with the invention because odours from the cesspool wafted up into the Royal powder room. It would take another couple of centuries before this problem was addressed.
The first patent for a flushing toilet designed to keep sewer gases from seeping back was issued to Alexander Cummings in 1775. Cummings designed a system that allowed some water to remain in the bowl after each flush, preventing the backflow of odours. Joseph Bramah attempted to improve upon this system with a sophisticated valve that was supposed to seal the waste pipe after each flush. While it didn’t work perfectly, Bramah’s toilet was introduced at just the right time because London was beginning to install sewage systems. Some 6000 Bramah toilets soon dotted the city’s landscape. And then about a hundred years later, along came Thomas Crapper.
In 1861 the Thomas Crapper plumbing company opened for business in London. The time was ripe for the sale of plumbing supplies because the need for proper sanitation was being firmly established. A public report issued in the city of Leeds claimed a significantly higher death rate among children who lived in “dirty” streets where sewage flowed openly. And in 1854 physician John Snow had pinpointed the homes in London where someone had contracted cholera during an epidemic and traced the problem to water contaminated with sewage being dispensed from a pump in Broad Street. The need to flush away problems associated with sewage was becoming clear.
There is no question that Crapper made significant improvements in toilet technology. He invented a pull-chain system for flushing, and an air tight seal between the toilet and the floor. Crapper was also responsible for installing plumbing at Westminster Abbey where to this day visitors can view the manhole covers clearly displaying the name “Thomas Crapper Co.” What he was not responsible for was the introduction of the word “crap” into our vocabulary. That term meaning “refuse” predates Crapper by several centuries.
It is virtually impossible to attribute the numerous improvements in toilet technology since Crapper’s time to individuals. There are patents galore for eliminating overflow, reducing water usage, curbing noise, improving waste removal from the side of the bowl, devices to alert night time users if the seat is up and gimmicks to encourage men to aim properly. And the future may belong to toilets equipped with biosensors that automatically monitor urine and feces for health indicators such as sugar and blood. But for now, just think of the amazing technology that allows for the removal of the roughly 200 grams of poo we deposit per person per day. That’s a stunning 600,000 kilos in a city of three million!
So on November 19, as we get comfy on our high tech toilets, ready to flush away the remnants of a scrumptious meal, a roll of soft toilet paper and fragrant soap by our side, let’s give a thought to how we can help those unlucky enough to have been born in a place where “gardy-loo” still rings true.
Joe Schwarcz, Ph.D., is the Director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society and teaches a variety of courses in McGill’s Chemistry Department and in the Faculty of Medicine with emphasis on health issues, including aspects of “Alternative Medicine”. He is well known for his informative and entertaining public lectures on topics ranging from the chemistry of love to the science of aging. Using stage magic to make scientific points is one of his specialties.
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I have been an outspoken, and often times exasperated, patient advocate and student of healthcare reform. There is no doubt that the U.S. healthcare system is operating far below its potential in terms of efficiency, effectiveness, and affordability. In fact, an entire industry of policy wonks and consultants have sprung up in both the public and private sectors – all with recommendations about how to “fix” our system. In my opinion, the most insightful suggestions will come from those who are currently doing the work of healthcare (i.e. clinicians) and change will be adopted and promoted most fervently by the young and freshly minted among them.
Medical students, residents, and physicians newly in practice now have a place to voice their opinions – The American Resident Project is an ambitious movement to promote fresh thinking from tomorrow’s physician-leaders. I am pleased to be supporting this effort here on my blog and in face-to-face meetings with fellows at medical centers across the country. I hope you’ll bookmark the website and join in the community conversation about how to innovate in the midst of a broken system. This is more than a think-tank for change – the ideas and opinions of young doctors may be our best hope for a brighter tomorrow.
Stay tuned for some fresh ideas in the setting of some healthy talk therapy!
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I used to be a big believer in the transformative power of digital data in medicine. In fact, I devoted the past decade of my life to assisting the “movement” towards better record keeping and shared data. It seemed intuitive that breaking down the information silos in healthcare would be the first logical step in establishing price transparency, promoting evidence-based practices, and empowering patients to become more engaged in their care decisions. Unfortunately I was very wrong.
Having now worked with a multitude of electronic medical records systems at hospitals around the country, one thing is certain: they are doing more harm than good. I’m not sure that this will change “once we get the bugs out” because the fundamental flaw is that electronic medical records require data entry and intelligent curation of information, and that becomes an enormous time-suck for physicians. It forces us away from human interaction, thus reducing our patients’ chances of getting a correct diagnosis and sensible treatment plan.
How bad is it? The reality on the ground is that most hospitals are struggling enormously with EMR implementation. There are large gaps in the technology’s ability to handle information transfer, resulting in increased costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars per small hospital system, not to mention the tragically hilarious errors that are introduced into patient records at break neck pace.
At one hospital, the process for discharging a patient requires that the physician type all the discharge summary information into the EMR and then read it into a dictation system so that it can be transcribed by a team in India (cheaper than US transcription service) and returned to the hospital in another part of the EMR. The physician then needs to go into the new document and remove all the typos and errant formatting so that it resembles their original discharge summary note. In one of my recent notes the Indian transcriptionist misheard my word for “hydrocephalus” and simply entered “syphilis” as the patient’s chief diagnosis. If I hadn’t caught the error with a thorough reading of my reformatted note, who knows how long this inaccurate diagnosis would have followed the poor patient throughout her lifetime of hospital care?
Another hospital has an entire wing of its main building devoted to an IT team. I accidentally discovered their “Star Trek” facility on my way to radiology. Situated in a dark room surrounded by enough flat panel monitors to put a national cable network to shame, about 40 young tech support engineers were furiously working to keep the EMR from crashing on a daily basis – an event which halts all order processing from the ER to the ICU. Ominous reports of the EMR’s instability were piped over the entire hospital PA system, warning staff when they could expect screen freezes and data entry blockages. Doctors and nurses scurried to enter their orders and complete documentation during pauses in the network overhaul. It was like a scene from a futuristic movie where humans are harnessed for work by a centralized computer nexus.
At yet another hospital, EMR-required data entry fields regularly interrupt patient throughput. For example, a patient could not be given their discharge prescriptions without the physician indicating (in the EMR) whether each of them is a tablet or a capsule. As patients and their family members stand by the nursing desk, eager to be discharged home, their physician is furiously reviewing their OTC laxative prescriptions trying to click the correct box so that the computer will allow the transfer of the entire prescription list to the designated pharmacy. When I asked about the insanity of this practice, a helpful IT hospital specialist explained that the “capsule vs tablet” field was required by Allscripts in order to meet interoperability requirements with our hospital’s EMR. This one field requirement probably resulted in hundreds of extra hours of physician time per day throughout the hospital system, without any enhancement in patient care or safety.
For those of you EMR evangelists in Washington, I’d encourage you to take a long, cold look at what’s happening to healthcare on the ground because of these digital data initiatives. My initial enthusiasm has turned to exasperation and near despondency as I spend my days as a copy editor for an Indian transcription service, trying to prevent patients from being labeled as syphilitics while worrying about whether or not the medicine they’re taking is classified as a tablet or a capsule in a system where I may not be able to enter any orders at all if the central tech command is fixing software instability in the Star Trek room.
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As I travel around the country, working in the trenches of various hospitals, I’ve been struck by the number of errors made by physicians and nurses whose administrative burden distracts them from patient care. The clinicians who make the errors are intelligent and competent – and they feel badly when an error is made. However, the volume of tasks required of them in a day (many of which are designed to fulfill an administrative “patient safety” or “quality enhancement” process) makes it impossible for them to complete any task in a comprehensive and thoughtful manner. In the end, administrators’ responses to increased error frequency is to increase error tracking and demand further documentation that leads to less time with patients and more errors overall. It’s a vicious cycle that people aren’t talking about enough.
As I receive patient admissions from various referral hospitals, I rarely find a comprehensive discharge summary or full history and physical exam document that provides an accurate and complete account of the patient’s health status. Most of the documentation is poorly synthesized, scattered throughout reams of EMR-generated duplicative and irrelevant minutiae. Interpreting and sifting through this electronic data adds hours to my work day. Most physicians don’t bother to sift – which is why important information is missed in the mad dash to treat more patients per day than can be done safely and thoroughly.
I have personally witnessed many critical misdiagnoses caused by sloppy and rushed medical evaluations. I have had to transfer patients back to their originating surgical hospitals (at some of America’s top academic centers) for further work up and treatment, and have uncovered everything from cancer to brain disorders to medication errors for patients who had been evaluated and treated by many other specialists before me. No one seems to have the time to take a long hard look at these patients, and so they end up undergoing knee-jerk treatments for partially thought through diagnoses. The quality of medical care in which I’ve been engaged (over the past 20 years) has taken a dramatic turn for the worse because of volume overload (fueled by diminishing reimbursement) in the setting of excessive administrative and documentation requirements.
To use an analogy – The solution to the healthcare cost crisis is not to increase the speed of the assembly line belt when our physicians and nurses are already dropping items on the floor. First, stop asking them to step away from the belt to do other things. Second, put a cap on belt speed. Third, insure that you have sufficient staff to handle the volume of “product” on the belt, and support them with post-belt packaging and procedures that will prevent back up.
What we require most in healthcare is time to process our thoughts and engage in information synthesis. We must give physicians the time they need to complete a full, comprehensive, evaluation of each patient at regular intervals. We need nurses to be freed from desk clerk and safety documentation activities to actually inspect and manage their patients and alert physicians to new information.
Until hospitals and administrators recognize that more data does not result in better care, and that intelligent information synthesis (which requires clinician time, not computer algorithms) is the foundation of error prevention, I do not foresee a bright future for patients in this manic assembly line of a healthcare system.
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Animal research has shown that the best way to get a rat to press a pellet-producing lever is to set the mechanism so that it doesn’t always release a pellet with each push. The unpredictability (or scarcity) of the reward causes the rat to seek it with more fervor. Casino owners are well aware of this phenomenon, gaming our brain’s natural wiring so that our occasional wins drive us to lose more than we would if our winning had a predictable pattern.
I believe that the same principle is at work in physician reimbursement. Although most patients don’t realize this, physicians aren’t always paid for the work they do, and they are paid wildly different rates depending on how they code an encounter or procedure. After several health insurance denials of payment for legitimate work, physicians look for ways to offset their losses. Those may include changing the coding of their procedures to enhance the rate of reimbursement, exaggerating the complexity of an encounter, or (less commonly) billing for things they didn’t do. Because of the perceived injustice in a system that randomly denies payment for legitimate work, the physician feels less morally concerned about her over billing and coding foibles.
And so a vicious cycle of reimbursement deprivation, followed by fraud and abuse, becomes the norm in the U.S. healthcare system. Payers say that physicians are greedy and unethical, and physicians say that payers deny reimbursement unfairly and pay rates that are too low to be sustainable. The government’s response is to hire a cadre of auditors to ferret out physician fraud while cutting reimbursement to physicians further. This is similar to reducing the rate of pellet release to the rats in the Skinner boxes, while randomly electrocuting them through the metal flooring. The result will be that rats will work harder to find work-arounds to get their pellets, including gathering together into larger groups to share pellets. This is occurring more and more commonly as solo practitioners are joining hospitals or large group practices to make ends meet.
But we need to realize a few things about the “Skinner box healthcare system:”
1. Rats are not evil because they press levers manically when there is a scarcity of pellets. Physicians are not evil when they look for ways to make up lost revenue. While fraud and abuse are always wrong, it is not surprising that they are flourishing in an environment of decreasing reimbursement and increasing health insurance payment denials. If we want to address fraud and abuse, we need to understand why it’s happening so that our “solutions” (i.e. hiring thousands more government auditors to investigate medical practices) don’t end up being as useless as shocking the rats.
2. Health insurance (whether public or private) is not evil for trying to rein in costs. Payers are in the unenviable position of having to say “no” to certain expenditures, especially if they are of marginal benefit. With rats pressing levers at faster and faster rates for smaller and smaller pellets, all manner of cost containment mechanisms are being applied. Unfortunately they are instituted randomly and in covert manners (such as coding tricks and bureaucratic red tape) which makes the rats all the more manic. Not to mention that expensive technology is advancing at a dizzying rate, and direct-to-consumer advertising drives demand for the latest and greatest robot procedure or biotech drug. Costs are skyrocketing for a number of good and bad reasons.
3. There is a way out of the Skinner box for those primary care physicians brave enough to venture out. Insurance-free practices instantly remove one’s dietary reliance on pellets, therefore eliminating the whole lever pressing game. I joined such a practice several years ago. As I have argued many times before, buying health insurance for primary care needs is like buying car insurance for your windshield wipers. It’s overkill. Paying cash for your primary care allows you to save money on monthly insurance premiums (high deductible plans cost much less per month) and frees up your physician to care for you anywhere, anytime. There is no need to go to the doctor’s office just so that they can justify billing your insurance. Pay them for their time instead (whether by phone, in-person, or at your home/place of business) and you’ll be amazed at the convenience and efficiency derived from cutting out the middle men!
Conclusion: The solution to primary care woes is to think outside the box. Patient demand is the only limiting factor in the growth of the direct-pay market. Patients need to realize that they are not limited to seeing “only the physicians on their health insurance list” – there is another world out there where doctors make house calls, solve your problems on the phone, and can take care of you via Skype anywhere in the world. Patients have the power to set physicians free from their crazy pellet-oriented existence by paying cash for their health basics while purchasing a less expensive health insurance plan to cover catastrophic events. Saving primary care physicians from dependency on the insurance model is the surest path to quality, affordable healthcare for the majority of Americans. Will you join the movement?