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Should You Get A Mammogram?

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A recent mammogram study in the New England Journal of Medicine was so controversial that the authors (Drs. Welch and Bleyer) decided to make a YouTube video to defend and explain their conclusions. Now that’s a first, isn’t it? Well kudos to the study authors for their creative approach to getting ahead of a controversy. However, their video (created for the “general public”) is still a bit too technical in my opinion. I’d like to take a crack at distilling it further.

A question on most women’s minds (as they turn 40 and beyond) is whether or not they should get a screening mammogram (x-ray of the breasts). If you have found a lump in your breast or you have a family history of breast cancer the answer is yes. No need to read any further. However, for the majority of us lumpless, family-history-free women, a screening mammogram is far more likely to expose us to unnecessary follow up testing than it is to catch a tumor early.  Dr. Welch explains that screening mammograms aren’t very good at identifying aggressive breast cancer early enough to make a difference in whether one lives or dies anyway. That’s very disappointing news.

Dr. Welch goes on to explain that most of the gains we’ve made in breast cancer survival have been because of improved breast cancer treatments, not because of early detection with mammograms. He estimates that every year in the U.S. 1.3 million women are “over-diagnosed” with breast cancer because of screening mammograms, subjecting women to unnecessary biopsies, surgical procedures, and further follow up studies. In the video, Dr. Welch doesn’t explain exactly what these “over diagnosed” cancers end up being exactly (Cysts? Benign calcifications? Early non-aggressive cancers that the immune system kills on its own?) But suffice it to say that they don’t contribute to the cancer death rates.

So, given the fact that you are more likely to suffer through a false alarm than to discover a cancer early (and even if you do find it early, if it’s the “bad” kind you may not survive) are you willing to undergo a screening mammogram? That’s a personal question that we each have to answer for ourselves. As time goes on, however, I suspect that the answer will be made for us since health insurance companies (whether public or private) will begin to balk at paying for tests that do more harm than good overall. I think this issue is really at the heart of the controversy (the perception of rolling back a health benefit that women currently “enjoy”). Eventually screening mammograms may become an out-of-pocket expense for women who simply prefer the peace of mind that a normal test can give – even at the risk of going through a false alarm.

That being said, it sure would be great if we could find a screening test that identifies breast cancer early – especially the aggressive kind. Perhaps a blood test will do the trick one day? At least it is comforting to know that we have made great strides on the treatment side, so that fewer women than ever before die of breast cancer. More research is needed on both the screening and treatment sides of course.

As for me, I do regular breast self exams – though because I have no family history of breast cancer I’ve opted out of screening mammograms because I feel the cost/benefit ratio is not in my favor. I certainly hope that a better screening test is developed before I face a potential diagnosis. I respect that other women will disagree with me – and I think they have the right to be screened with the only option we currently have: the mammogram. I’m not sure how long it will continue to be covered by insurance, but at a price point of about $100, most of us could still afford to pay for it out-of-pocket if desired.

The bottom line of this controversial research study is that screening mammograms don’t actually catch death-causing breast cancers early enough to alter their course. Even though it makes intuitive sense to be screened, long term observations confirm that overall, mammograms do more harm than good. So now we wait for a better test – while some of us continue with the old one (as the National Cancer Institute recommends), and others (like me) don’t bother.

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Thanks to ePatient Dave and Susannah Fox who brought the issue to my attention on Facebook. Isn’t social media grand?

Why Pay For Performance Measures Should Also Apply To Health Insurance Companies

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In a recent post entitled, “The Joys Of Health Insurance Bureaucracy” I described how it took me (a physician) over three months to get one common prescription filled through my new health insurance plan. Of note, I have still been unable to enroll in the prescription refill mail order service that saves my insurer money and (ostensibly) enhances my convenience. The prescription benefits manager (PBM) has lost three of my physician’s prescriptions sent to them by fax, and as a next step have emailed me instructions to complete an online form so that they have permission to contact my physician directly (to confirm the year’s refills). Unfortunately, page one of the form requires you to fill in your drug name and match it to their database’s list before you can continue to page two. For reasons I can’t understand, my common drug is not in their database. Therefore, I am unable to comply with my insurer’s wish that I enroll in mail order prescription refills. This will further delay receipt of my medication – and probably increase my cost as I will be penalized for not opting into the “preferred” mail order refill process.

Now, all of this is infuriating enough on its own, but the larger concern that I have is this: How many patients are not “compliant” with their medication regimen because of problems/delays with their health insurer or PBM? Physicians are being held accountable for their patients’ medication compliance rates, even receiving lower compensation for patients who don’t reach certain goals. This is called “pay-for-performance” and it’s meant to incentivize physicians to be more aggressive with patient follow up so that people stay healthier. But all the follow up in the world isn’t going to get patient X to take their medicine each day if their health insurer or PBM makes it impossible for them to get it in the first place. And shouldn’t there be consequences for such excessive red tape? Who is holding the insurers and PBMs accountable for their inefficiencies that prevent patients from getting their medicines in a timely manner?

Pay-for-performance assumes that physicians are the only healthcare influencers in the patient compliance cycle. I’ve learned that we only play a part in helping people stay on the best path for their health. Other key players can derail our best intentions, and it’s high time that we look at the poor performance of health insurers and PBMs as they often block (with intentional bureaucracy) our patients from getting the medicine they need. While insurers save money by having patients struggle to get their prescriptions filled, doctors are payed less when patients don’t take their medicines.

Not a great time to be a doctor or a patient… or both.

Are Primary Care Physicians Being Assimilated By The Borg?

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If you live in a small town or rural area of the United States, you may have noticed that family doctors are becoming an endangered species. Private and public health insurance reimbursement rates are so low that survival as a solo practitioner (without the economies of scale of a large group practice or hospital system) is next to impossible. Some primary care physicians are staying afloat by refusing to accept insurance – this allows them the freedom to practice medicine that is in the patient’s best interest, rather than tied to reimbursement requirements.

I joined such a practice a few years ago. We make house calls, answer our own phones, solve at least a third of our patients’ problems via phone (we don’t have to make our patients come into the office so that we can bill their insurer for the work we do), and have low overhead because we don’t need to hire a coding and billing team to get our invoices paid. Our patients love the convenience of same day office visits, electronic prescription refills, and us coming to their house or place of business as needed.

Using health insurance to pay for primary care is like buying car insurance for your windshield wipers. The bureaucracy involved raises costs to a ridiculously unreasonable level. I wish that more Americans would decide to pay cash for primary care and buy a high deductible health plan to cover catastrophic events. But until they do, economic pressures will force primary care physicians into hospital systems and large group practices. My friend and fellow blogger Dr. Doug Farrago likens this process to being “assimilated by the Borg.”

Doug offered a challenge to his readers – to customize the definition of Star Trek’s Borg species to today’s healthcare players. I gave it my best shot. Do you have a better version?

Who are the Borg:

The Borg are a collection of alien species that have turned into cybernetic organisms functioning as drones of the collective or the hive. A pseudo-race, dwelling in the Star Trek universe, the Borg take other species by force into the collective and connect them to “the hive mind”; the act is called assimilation and entails violence, abductions, and injections of cybernetic implants. The Borg’s ultimate goal is “achieving perfection”.

My attempt to customize the definition:

Hospitalists are a collection of primary care physicians that have turned into cybernetic organisms functioning as drones of the collective or hive. Hive collective administrators (HCAs), in association with partnered alien species drawn from the insurance industry and government, take other primary care physicians by economic force and connect them to “the hive mind”; the act is called assimilation and entails crippling reimbursement cuts, massive increases in documentation requirements, oppressive professional liability insurance rates, punitive bureaucratic legislation, and threat of imprisonment for failure to adhere to laws that HCA- partnered species interpret however they wish. The HCAs’ ultimate goal is “achieving perfect dependency” first for the drones, then for their patients, so that HCAs and their alien partners will become all powerful – dictating how neighboring species live, breathe, and conduct their affairs. Resistance is futile.

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To learn more about my insurance-free medical practice, please click here. We can unplug you from the Borg ship!

Does Normalizing Obesity Do More Harm Than Good?

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It is estimated that 44% of Americans will be obese by the year 2030. The AMA warns that increasing obesity rates will lead “to millions of additional cases of type 2 diabetes, stroke and coronary heart disease, as well as arthritis and hypertension. Billions of dollars will be wasted through lost economic productivity and skyrocketing medical costs.”

And yet, a funny thing is happening in consumer land – efforts to normalize obesity are gaining momentum via social media platforms. Take the “beauty comes in all sizes” ad for example. This was shared with me by an old grade school friend on Facebook. And while I can appreciate the sentiment that women of various genetic predispositions are beautiful, I stopped short at the idea that obesity itself was attractive. There is a growing movement among obese men and women to promote acceptance of their size, and if they win this argument they could substantially undermine efforts to help Americans become healthy and avoid disease. I know this sounds harsh, but to me, promoting beauty of all sizes – when that includes obesity- is tantamount to promoting a “smoking is cool” campaign.

Smoking rates in the United States have dropped from 42.4% in 1965 to 19% in 2010. Although one-in-five people still smoke, we have successfully reduced the smoking burden by more than half. The reasons for this reduction are complex, but they include public awareness campaigns regarding the harmfulness of cigarette smoking, increasing taxes on cigarettes, and public policy regarding where and when people can smoke in public.

The same exact approach can’t work for obesity because while people can simply quit smoking, we can’t quit eating. And what we eat is less important than how much we eat. I personally do not favor “fat taxes” on specific food items because almost any food could cause weight gain if consumed in large enough quantities. I also don’t favor singling out obese people for portion reduction at restaurants (this has actually been proposed), or other policies that are similar to what we’ve done with smoking in public spaces. Promoting prejudice against the obese is not constructive.

So that leaves us with public perception/education and peer pressure as our primary national strategy for reducing obesity rates.  (Of course smaller initiatives can help: employers can incentivize weight loss and wellness, policy makers can encourage new housing developments that promote active lifestyles, and local groups and non-profits can promote fitness initiatives and healthy eating behaviors.)

My concern is that if too many people decide that normalizing obesity is better than fighting it, America will lose this battle. Obesity-related disease is already costing us about twice as much as smoking-related illnesses. And both smoking and obesity are nearly 100% avoidable.

Obesity is not beautiful, and we must redouble our efforts to win the hearts and minds of the public on this subject without resorting to the other extreme (idolizing anorexia). Good health lies somewhere in the middle – and keeping our middles within a reasonable range is the most important health goal we have.

Are Illness Coping Mechanisms Learned From Parents?

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Photograph: Roger Bamber

How far do we travel from our parents’ patterns?  A question psychotherapists and their clients have been wrestling with for decades.

We can’t escape the parental imprint.  Some of us may not want to.  But those of us who did hope to be different often find ourselves in our 40s or 50s unexpectedly leaking parental behaviors or attitudes we thought we had purged ourselves of in our 20s.

I sometimes hear myself saying to Richard, my partner, as he heads out the door for his Tae Kwon Do class, “Be careful.”  He has a second degree black belt and has been studying for years.  He is always careful.  My admonition is a spillover of my father’s anxious voice warning me to be on the lookout for endless, unnamed dangers hiding in plain sight at every turn.  Other times I see myself tighten up like a fist when something I thought I had control over twists in an unpredictable direction.  It is not my jaw that clenches in agitation; it is my mother’s jaw, on my face.

How our parents do or did illness is a powerful pattern.  Did they suffer in silence, while allowing no one to offer tenderness or help?  Did they submerge into illness and allow it to define who they were?  Did they use illness to control and manipulate?  To get attention?  Did they remain engaged in living and loving?  Did they learn from illness to become more fully who they were?  Did they become nastier to each other?  Or sweeter?  And finally, did they take care of each other — physically and emotionally?

My parents, who kept each other at a distance when well, became even more separated when ill.  They went so far as to resent each other for their increasing incapacities.  It was not pretty.

There were times when I was in the thick of my pain condition, that I isolated and withdrew from Richard.  But more often, I allowed my pain to teach me to reach out for comfort and connection.  I had to.  For me, the voice of pain was more powerful than my parents’ example.

Dealing with illness can be a consuming job.  When you find yourself behaving in ways that don’t create the kind of bridge to your partner that will help lighten the load for both of you, pause and ask yourself:  “Am I playing out a pattern that doesn’t really belong to me?  Whose voice am I speaking with?  Can I do it differently?”

How did your parents deal with illness?  What did you learn to do and not to do from them?

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Barbara Kivowitz is a psychotherapist, business consultant, and book author. She blogs regularly at In Sickness And In Health.

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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.

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Click here for a musical take on over-testing.

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