Better Health: Smart Health Commentary Better Health (TM): smart health commentary

Article Comments (4)

How Atul Gawande is Being Misunderstood

Everyone is reading Atul Gawande’s article in the New Yorker about health care costs. But I think most people misunderstand Gawande’s major point.

Everyones At It

Everyone’s At It

The conventional wisdom on Gawande’s piece is this: our problems are caused by bad incentives in our health care system. They encourage doctors to overprescribe care. McAllen, Texas is the poster child of this problem. If we can change the economic incentives, doctors will behave better. They will follow medical evidence, not their bottom lines, and from this will emerge a rational, affordable system.

This isn’t what Gawande is saying.

Gawande went to McAllen expecting to see a microcosm of the American health care system. As expected, he found excessive, even abusive spending, and a culture that encouraged both. But he also found that in nearby El Paso, Texas, medicine wasn’t practiced this way, nor in most other places in the country. And so he came up with a surprising insight. Yes, McAllen is a reflection of what can happen based on the incentives in the system. But if every incentive works this way, why is McAllen such an outlier?

Gawande concluded it had to do with the “culture” of medicine in each community. Most doctors go into medicine to help patients. In Gawande’s visit to McAllen, he heard stories that money had become more important than quality care. What Gawande realized was how important this question of “culture” was to how McAllen became McAllen. It made him think of places that had a completely different culture, like the Mayo Clinic.

The doctors of the Mayo Clinic decided, some decades ago, to put medicine first:

The core tenet of the Mayo Clinic is “The needs of the patient come first” — not the convenience of the doctors, not their revenues. The doctors and the nurses, and even the janitors, sat in meetings almost weekly, working on ideas to make the service and the care better, not to get more money out of patients. . . . Mayo promoted leaders who focused first on what was best for patients, and then on how to make this financially feasible.

Gawande couldn’t believe how much time doctors at the Mayo clinic spent with each patient, and how readily they could interact with colleagues on difficult problems. While it is true, the Mayo Clinic has financial arrangements that make this easier, it is the culture of patient care that dominates, not questions of pay:

No one there actually intends to do fewer expensive scans and procedures than is done elsewhere in the country. The aim is to raise quality and to help doctors and other staff members work as a team. But almost by happenstance, the result has been lower costs.

“When doctors put their heads together in a room, when they share expertise, you get more thinking and less testing,” [Denis] Cortes [CEO of the Mayo Clinic] told me

And this is where Gawande is being misunderstood.

The “cost conundrum” that Gawande talks about is not about how to cut costs, or how to change who pays for health care and how much. It’s deeper than that. Gawande’s point is that we have been fixated for so long on the question of money in health care that we are starting to forget about medicine. By focusing on ever more clever ways to pay doctors, we have systematically undervalued everything that makes for high quality medicine. Things like time with your patient, thinking about his or her problems, consulting with colleagues, and coming up with sound advice.

We discount what he calls the “astonishing” accomplishments of the Mayo Clinic on this score. And instead of designing health care reform around ways to help more hospitals become like the Mayo Clinic, we choose instead to think about money, to focus our attention on how to cut costs in places like McAllen.

Politically, it makes sense – it’s convenient to have a poster child like McAllen to explain why one reform plan or another should become law. But the pity is that in this important time of reform we’re not talking about trying to put the needs of the patients first – to put medicine back in the center of health care. The pity is that in spite of the fact that everyone’s reading Gawande’s article, his most important insight is being misunderstood.

If we continue to be focused on money over medicine, we will lose the “war over the culture of medicine – the war over whether our country’s anchor model with be Mayo or McAllen.”

*This blog post was originally published at See First Blog*


You may also like these posts

Read comments »


4 Responses to “How Atul Gawande is Being Misunderstood”

  1. Roy says:

    Excellent re-take on this issue, Evan!

  2. Ben Stanger, MD says:

    Falchuk's comments nicely frame the “cultural” changes that could benefit both quality of care and out-of-control costs. The Mayo model provides a good balance that would improve both measures. However, Mayo is exceptional for many reasons — including characteristics of individual practitioners, malpractice concerns, and other features — even among academic medical centers.

    Reform that refocuses attention on the care provided to patients, rather than on reimbursement, is critical for a functioning and affordable health care system. However, I this distinction will be too subtle for policymakers, whose job it is to REGULATE. In the end, I fear the result of reform will be practice (and spending) requirements that only increase the complexity of medical care. One of the secrets of success of the Mayo program is that under that system, physicians have the freedom to do what they think is necessary (and only what they think is necessary) for good care.

  3. Evan Falchuk says:

    Thanks for the comments!

    I agree, Dr. Sanger, reform is going to end up focused on reimbursement. The insistence on seeing everything through a financial lens makes it easy to do things like misread Gawande's piece.

    In this sense, the health care reform debate is over. Some big reform bill will be signed and it will focus on new ways to pay for care. These fundamental issues of how care is actually delivered – which have everything to do with the quality and cost of care – will continue to be left to doctors and patients to figure out on their own.

    We need a cultural shift in how we think of health care to move things in this direction. It will take time, but we have to keep at it, day by day.

  4. Evan Falchuk says:

    Thanks for the comments!

    I agree, Dr. Sanger, reform is going to end up focused on reimbursement. The insistence on seeing everything through a financial lens makes it easy to do things like misread Gawande's piece.

    In this sense, the health care reform debate is over. Some big reform bill will be signed and it will focus on new ways to pay for care. These fundamental issues of how care is actually delivered – which have everything to do with the quality and cost of care – will continue to be left to doctors and patients to figure out on their own.

    We need a cultural shift in how we think of health care to move things in this direction. It will take time, but we have to keep at it, day by day.

Return to article »

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…

Read more »

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…

Read more »

See all interviews »

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.

See all cartoons »

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…

Read more »

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…

Read more »

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…

Read more »

See all book reviews »