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In my last blog post I discussed how harmful physician “thought leaders” can be when they are dismissive of the value of other specialists’ care. I must have touched a nerve, because a passionate discussion followed in the comments section. It seems that physicians (who spend most of their time involved in clinical work) are growing tired of the leadership decisions of those who engage in little to no patient care. Clinicians urge lawmakers to turn to practicing physicians for counsel, because those who are out of touch with patients lack real credibility as advisers.
Interestingly, the credibility question was raised in a different light when I was recently contacted by a prestigious medical organization that was seeking expansion of its board membership. I presumed that this was a personal invitation to join the cause, but soon realized that the caller wanted to use my influence to locate “more credible” candidates with academic gravitas.
When I asked what sort of candidate they wanted my help to find, the response was:
“A physician with an academic appointment at a name brand medical school. Someone who isn’t crazy – you know, they have to be respected by their peers. Someone at Harvard or Columbia would be great. You must know someone from your training program at least.”
While I appreciated the honesty, I began thinking about the age-old “town versus gown” hostilities inspired by academic elitism. In medicine, as with many other professions, it is more prestigious to hold an academic position than to serve in a rural community. But why do we insist on equating credibility with academics?
Another facet of credibility lies in physicians’ tendencies to admire only those at the top of their specific specialty. Dr. Lucy Hornstein described this phenomenon in her powerful essay on “How To Drive Doctors To Suicide:”
“Practice that condescending look and use it at hospital staff events. Make it a point to ignore newcomers. Concentrate on talking just with your friends and laughing at inside jokes, especially when others are around. Don’t return their calls, and don’t take their calls if you can possibly help it. If you accidentally wind up on the phone with the patient’s primary physician, just tell them you’ve got it all under control, and that he (and the patient) are so lucky you got involved when you did.”
A reader notes:
“And perhaps those of us who do see patients should get some self esteem and stop fawning all over [physician thought leaders] at conferences like needy interns.”
And finally, there seems to be an unspoken pecking order among physicians regarding the relative prestige of various specialties. How this order came about must be fairly complicated, as dermatology and neurosurgery seem to by vying for top spots these days. I find the juxtaposition almost amusing. Nevertheless, it’s common to find physicians in the more popular specialties looking down upon the worker bees (e.g. hospitalists and family physicians) and oddballs (e.g. physiatrists and pathologists).
While I try very hard not to take offense at my peers’ dismissiveness of my career’s value, it becomes much more concerning when funding follows prejudicial lines in the medical hierarchy. As a sympathetic family physician writes:
“I have observed the inequitable distribution of resources from the less glamorous to the sexy sub specialties despite obvious patient needs. Unfortunately, the administridiots who usually lack any medical training, opt to place resources where they are most likely to attract headlines.”
Yes, caring for the disabled (PM&R) is “less glamorous” than wielding a colonoscope (GI) (again, not sure who made that decision?) but it should not be less credible, or become a target for budget cuts simply because people aren’t informed about how rehab works.
It is time to stop specialty prejudice and honor those who demonstrate passion for patients, regardless of which patient population, body part, or organ system they serve. Excellent patient care may be provided by academics, generalists, or specialists, by those who practice in rural areas or in urban centers. The best “thought leaders” are those who bring unity and an attitude of peer respect to the medical profession. With more of them, we may yet save ourselves from mutually assured destruction.
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Electronic medical records (EMRs) now play a part in the daily documentation routine for most physicians. While improvements in access to patient data, legibility of notes, and ease of order entry are welcome enhancements, there is a significant downside to EMRs as well. Although I’ve blogged about my frustrations with nonsensical, auto-populated notes and error carry-forward, there is a more insidious problem with reliance on EMRs: digital dependency.
The idea of digital dependency first occurred to me during a conversation with a young medical resident at a hospital where we share patients. I was bemoaning the fact that I was being forced to use hospital-designed templates for admission notes, rather than a dictation system or carefully crafted note of my own choosing. She looked at me, wide-eyed and said:
“You’ve worked without templates? How do you even know where to begin? Can you really dictate an entire note off the top of your head? I couldn’t live without templates.”
As I stared back at her with an equal amount of bewilderment, I slowly realized that her thinking had been honed for drop-down menus and check boxes. Over time, she had lost the ability to construct narratives, create a cohesive case for her diagnostic impressions, and justify her patient plan of action. To this bright, highly trained mind, clinical reasoning was an exercise in multiple choice selection. Her brain had been optimized for the demands of an EMR template, and mine was a relic of the pre-EMR era. I was witnessing a fundamental cognitive shift in the way that medicine was practiced.
The problem with “drop-down medicine” is that the advantages of the human mind are muted in favor of data entry. Physicians in this model essentially provide little benefit over a computer algorithm. Intuition, clinical experience, sensory input (the smell of pseudomonas, the sound of pulmonary edema, the pulsatile mass of an aneurysm) are largely untapped. We lose our need for team communication because “refer to my EMR note” is the way of the future. Verbal sign-outs are a thing of the past it seems, as those caring for the same patient rely on their digital documentation to serve in place of human interaction.
My advice to the next generation of physicians is to limit your dependency on digital data. Like alcohol, a little is harmless or possibly healthy, but a lot can ruin you. Leverage the convenience of the EMR but do not let it take over your brain or your patient relationships. Pay attention to what your senses tell you during your physical exam, take a careful history, listen to family members, discuss diagnostic conundrums with your peers, and always take the time for verbal sign outs. Otherwise, what advantage do you provide to patients over a computer algorithm?
Am I a curmudgeon who is bristling against forward progress, or do I have a reasonable point? Judging from the fact that my young peers copy and paste my assessment and plans into their progress notes with impressive regularity, I’d say that templatized medicine still can’t hold a candle to thoughtful prose. Even the digitally dependent know this.
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Physicians looking for part-time jobs to supplement their income may have run across advertisements for “lucrative” Medicare Advantage evaluation opportunities at CenseoHealth. Here’s a typical ad:
CenseoHealth is the leading Risk Adjustment provider for Medicare Advantage plans – with a network of more than 1,800 credentialed providers conducting over 20,000 member health evaluations a month. Due to our continued growth, we are currently looking to hire in-home physician evaluators to work in these states.
As a CenseoHealth physician, you will meet with Medicare Advantage members in their homes to conduct their annual medical history and physical evaluation.
Conduct evaluations when it’s convenient for you
Ongoing physicians can make $3,500 to $4,000 per week
Physicians who work 1-3 days per week can make $800 – $2,000
Travel and lodging expenses are covered, plus we provide a per diem reimbursement
Malpractice insurance is included
This position does not require you to prescribe medicine, order lab tests, do blood work, or alter the member’s current treatment regimen
Please contact us, for more information.
Director of Physician Recruiting
Sounds pretty good, right? Well here’s what they won’t tell you:
1. Low Hourly Pay. Compensation is $100 per completed evaluation – but you have to drive to each member’s house (sometimes an hour each way) to complete a 31 page history and physical exam. Members are often medically complex, cognitively impaired, and/or non-English speaking. In the end (after counting travel time, cancellations, scheduling snafus, and long hours completing paperwork and FedEx shipping) the hourly wage works out to be about $30.
2. Poor Logistics. Members are scheduled back-to-back without regard to distance between their locations. That means you are chronically late, and some members cancel their meeting with you. No-show and cancellation rates (in my experience) are about 20%. You are not compensated for any of the time associated with driving to their location, talking to them on the phone, or otherwise trying to locate them when they are not home upon your arrival. Once a member cancels, you cannot fill their slot with someone else on the same day.
3. Threat of harm. Members mostly come from low to middle class income levels. Some of them live in truly horrific living situations (no electricity, a home overrun with cockroaches, no food or running water), and others are psychologically unstable. As a female physician driving alone into a very rural area to conduct a physical exam on a male patient who is actively psychotic… this can be dangerous. You never know what or who you will face. I have had to call social services on numerous occasions and have narrowly escaped inappropriate sexual advances.
4. Limited Support. There is no guarantee that anyone from the parent company will be available via phone when you call during an emergency. I have called on several occasions during critical situations where I had to leave a voice message and was assured that “my call was very important” and someone from provider services “would get back to me within 1/2 a business day.”
5. Questionable ethics. Schedulers do not explain to the members why you are coming to their home to evaluate them. Because the schedulers seem to work on commission, they often use questionable tactics to get the members to agree to the evaluation – such as telling them that the meeting is “mandatory” and will “take 20 minutes” or is “just a wellness visit.” For this reason, many members receive you with suspicion, wondering if you’re there to try to “throw them off the Medicare plan” or are angry that they were mandated to meet with you. Lengthy conversations and apologies to set the stage for your evaluation are commonplace.
6. Payment denials and exaggerated pay potential. Evaluations must be completed meticulously or the quality assurrance reviewers will reject your forms and you will not be compensated for your work (if you, for example, forget to check a box or use a non-approved abbreviation). Although the advertisements state that some physicians complete 35-45 evaluations per week, that is nearly impossible in areas where clients are not clustered together tightly. It is an extremely misleading statement, in my experience. Apparently online reviewers agree.
7. Glitchy and costly technology. In order to save on costs, electronic evaluations can be completed via an iPad rather than paper forms. Unfortunately, the software often crashes, resulting in a return to paper in the middle of an evaluation. This ends up increasing the amount of time required to complete evaluations as your evenings are spent copying paper records into the iPad program. In addition, you are required to purchase your own stylus for data entry, as well as all the equipment required during your physical exam (e.g. blood pressure cuff, bathroom scale, ophthalmoscope, stethoscope, and more).
8. Low-budget travel and accommodations. While the agency boasts that they will pay for your accommodations and rental car, that typically translates into a room at a low-budget hotel and a Toyota Yaris with roll-down windows and no GPS.
9. The truth is hidden. The real reason for the evaluations is to help health insurers obtain larger reimbursements from the government. A physician (or NP) is required to verify all of the patient’s current medical conditions to justify their “risk score.” Medicare Advantage plans get paid more to manage patients with higher risk scores, so they are very motivated to document the complete list of diseases and conditions per at-risk senior. Patients may benefit from having an objective third party review their health record, but this is not the main goal. Also, it is unclear if the higher risk scores ultimately translate to more benefits and services for the patients.
10. Treated like a number. Sadly, my experience with my recruiter (the person who matches your availability with evaluation needs in various states where you hold a medical license) has been underwhelming. I took the time to make suggestions about how to improve the process for evaluators, but my recommendations fell on deaf ears. Not only were my phone calls and emails not returned, but when I suggested that it didn’t make sense for me to continue seeing members when I had a 66% no-show rate he simply replied, “I took you off the schedule – we have an abundance of FL doctors so it is not an issue.”
Take a look at the lovely marketing promotional images for the job:
And this video of what it’s like to do a home evaluation:
Now take a look at some photos that I took while on assignment (note: these are not actual patient homes, but are very similar to ones I encountered):
Taking a job as a Medicare Advantage evaluator was a real eye-opener. Poverty and chronic illness in America takes on a whole new light when you experience patients’ actual home environments. It’s like being a medical missionary in your own country. I’ve met patients who hadn’t seen a physician in decades, diagnosed life-threatening illnesses, and made sure that care (or case management) was initiated for countless people living on the fringes of society.
I’m glad for the experience – but think that my peers considering similar work should be told the truth about what they will be doing. Being a Medicare Advantage evaluator is not like the shiny “care anywhere” ad suggests – and “lucrative” is not exactly the right adjective for $30/hour for an MD’s time. But if you don’t mind being treated poorly by your employer, investing a lot of your own money in equipment costs, and putting your life at risk in dangerous home environments – you may actually do some good for the forgotten, frail elderly of this nation, (while helping middle men like Censeo Health to profit from health insurance behemoths, alas). Now you know the truth behind the advertising and can make an informed decision about whether or not you’d like to sign up for this work.
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I recently treated a patient who was hospitalized with paraplegia. During some routine lab testing I noticed that his liver function tests were elevated, and so I began looking for a cause. I discussed the patient’s drinking habits (he rarely drank alcohol), risks for viral hepatitis (no IV drug use or exposure to those with known hepatitis), and general medical history (nothing relevant to liver disease). I reviewed his current medication list, and found little to explain a potential drug-induced hepatitis. He denied any history of acetaminophen use.
Next I ordered a hepatitis panel – all normal. And finally a liver ultrasound (which showed some non-descript “fatty liver” changes). My next best guess was that the patient was a heavy drinker who was simply not telling me the whole story about his history. I hated to have to press for more information, and worried that the patient would be annoyed that I didn’t seem to believe his vehement denials of regular alcohol use.
So I asked him again. “Are you SURE you don’t drink ANY alcohol? Nothing that could have alcohol in it that you might not realize?”
“Well, maybe there is alcohol in the cold medicine that I drink?” he said.
“Why are you drinking cold medicine? Do you have cold symptoms?” I asked.
“I use it to get to sleep at night.” He responded.
“How much do you use?”
“I use it every night. I just drink it out of the bottle.”
“So you don’t use the measuring cup?”
“No. I just drink it out of the bottle.”
Suddenly, I had my answer. There is a significant amount of acetaminophen in many different cold syrup formulations, which is why it is so important to use the dosing cup and not exceed the recommended daily amount.
“So is there alcohol in the cold medicine?” The patient asked.
I explained to him that it was very likely that he was over-dosing himself on cold medicine and that his liver was being harmed as a result of the acetaminophen (not alcohol) it contained. It was a good thing that we had caught the damage in the rehab unit – just an incidental finding on a blood test that could have saved him from eventual liver failure (and even death) if we hadn’t course-corrected.
This experience was a cautionary tale for us both – I realized how easy it was for patients taking liquid drug formulations to overdose themselves, and not be aware of the active ingredients that they contained. My patient didn’t believe he was taking any acetaminophen when I originally interviewed him, and it was my persistent nagging on the alcohol front that finally revealed the cause (again quite accidentally).
Acetaminophen toxicity is the most common cause of acute liver failure in the United States. Better education is needed regarding over-the-counter medications and their potential harms if used incorrectly. I will certainly spend more time asking my patients about their OTC medication use, including sleep aids and liquid formulations. Perhaps I’ll be able to avoid ordering unnecessary liver ultrasounds with better history taking in the future!
For more information on safe use of acetaminophen, see my article at OTCSafety.com.
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Health screening is part of good preventive care, though over-screening can lead to increased costs, and potential patient harm. Healthcare professional societies have recently developed excellent public service announcements describing the dangers of over-testing, and new research suggests that though additional medical interventions are associated with increased patient satisfaction, they also lead (ironically) to higher mortality rates.
And so, in a system attempting to shift to a “less is more” model of healthcare, why is resistance so strong? When the USPSTF recommended against the need for annual, screening mammograms in healthy women (without a family history of breast cancer) between the ages of 40-49, the outcry was deafening. Every professional society and patient advocacy group rallied against the recommendation, and generally not much has changed in the breast cancer screening world. I myself tried to follow the USPSTF guidelines – and opted out of a screening mammogram for two full years past 40. And then I met a charming radiologist at a women’s medical conference who nearly burst into tears when I told her that I hadn’t had a mammogram. Her lobbying for me to “just make sure I was ok” was so passionate that I simply could no longer resist the urge to get screened.
I knew going into the test that there was a reasonably high chance of a false positive result which could cause me unnecessary anxiety. That being said, I was still emotionally unprepared for the radiologists’ announcement that the mammogram was “abnormal” and that a follow up ultrasound needed to be scheduled. I must admit that I did squirm until I had more information. In the end, the “abnormality” proved to be simple “dense breast tissue” and I was pleased to have at least dodged an unnecessary biopsy or lumpectomy. Did my screening do me any good? No, and some psychological harm. A net/net negative but without long term sequelae.
My next personal wrestling match with screening tests was the colonoscopy. I was seeing a gastroenterologist for some GI complaints, and we weren’t 5 minutes into our conversation before he recommended a colonoscopy. I argued that I was too young for a screening colonoscopy (I was 42 and they are recommended starting at age 50), and therefore was doubtful that anything too helpful would be found with the test. My suggestion was that a careful history and some blood testing might be the first place to start. My gastroenterologist acquiesced reluctantly.
As it turns out the blood testing was non-diagnostic and my symptoms persisted so I agreed to the colonoscopy. In this case I felt it was reasonable to do it since it was for diagnostic (not screening) purposes. I was quite certain that it would reveal nothing – or perhaps a false positive followed by anxiety, like my mammogram.
What it did show was some polyps that had a 50% chance of becoming malignant colon cancer in the next 10 years. I was shocked. If I had waited until I was 50 to start screening, I could have missed my cure window. The uneasiness about screening guidelines began to sink in. As a physician I had done my best to apply screening guidelines to myself and resist the urge to over-test, even with a healthy dose of natural curiosity. Yet I failed to resist screening, and in fact, my life was possibly saved by a test that was not supposed to be on my preventive health radar for another 8 years.
Screening tests are recommended for those who are most likely to benefit, and physicians and patients alike are encouraged to avoid unnecessary testing. But there are always a few people outside the “most likely to benefit” pool whose lives could be saved with screening, and the urge to make sure that’s not you – or your patient – is incredibly strong. I’m not sure if that’s human nature, or American culture. But a quick review of Hollywood blockbuster plots (where tens of thousands of lives are regularly sacrificed to save one princess/protagonist/hero from the aliens/monsters/zombies) testifies to our desperately irrational tendencies.
I am now biased towards over-testing, because my emotional relief at dodging a bullet is stronger than my cerebral desire to adhere to population-based recommendations. Knowing this, I will still try to avoid the temptation to over-test and over-treat my patients. But if they so much as hint that they’d like an early colonoscopy – I will cave.
Does that make me a bad doctor?