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Patient Access to Medical Services Varies by Individual Physician’s Will to Fight Insurance Companies

American healthcare reform debates are focused on strategies to provide “access” to medical services for all. Lack of insurance (or under-insurance) seems to be the primary focus, as it is falsely assumed that coverage provides access. Unfortunately, the situation is far more complicated.

Once a person has health insurance, there is no guarantee that they will receive the medical services that they need. Not because their plan is insufficiently robust, but because the roadblocks for approval of services (provided in the plans) are so onerous that those providing the service often give up before they receive insurance authorization. In my experience, whether or not the patient gets the service, test or procedure that they require often depends on the individual will and determination of their physician. And that’s something we need to talk about.

Take for example, admission to an inpatient rehabilitation facility. Brain-injured patients aren’t much different than those with broken bones. We all know that bones need to be set (or surgically repaired) right away so that they will heal correctly. The brain is very similar – once injured, it needs to be rehabilitated in an intensive, multi-disciplinary environment at the earliest chance for it to achieve its best healing. Nevertheless, insurance companies regularly deny brain injury rehab to patients in the critical healing time frame. They will approve nursing home care for them, but not the intensive cognitive rehabilitation that they need, unless the rehab physician fights an epic authorization battle that can take 10 days or more to overturn the denial of services!  Imagine if your orthopedist had to beg, lobby, and testify for 10 days to fix your broken hip (while the insurance company simply approved you go to a nursing home)? Would he or she be willing to do this? What would happen to your hip in the mean time?

The “prior authorization” process for imaging studies and non-formulary medications is also designed to wear down the providers and passively deny services to patients, thereby saving costs for the insurers. Patients don’t realize that getting an MRI might mean an hour of automated phone system “hell” for their physician, waiting to speak to an insurance customer service rep with an algorithm that determines whether or not the patient is eligible for the service – unrelated to the physician’s judgment or the particulars of the patient case. In the average American primary care practice, an estimated 20 hours per week is spent by physician and staff, attempting to secure insurance approval for necessary tests and medications.  Will your physician have the endurance to prevail? That might be the difference in diagnosing your cancer early or not.

“Oh,” but the insurance companies say, “we had to put these bumps in the road to prevent over-testing and abuse of the system.” I agree that there are some bad actors who should be identified and stopped. Think of the phony durable medical equipment providers, bilking Medicare and private insurers by prescribing unnecessary and expensive wheelchairs, scooters, and other devices. These bad apples are rare, but because of them – all the “good guys” are being hen-pecked to death just to get a walker for a patient with multiple sclerosis.

Unfortunately, there is no incentive for the private insurers to lift the pre-authorization burdens from the “good guy” physicians. Therefore, this will probably have to be achieved through legislation. With big data, it should be fairly easy to identify extreme provider outliers – and have their practices reviewed. For the rest of us, our pattern of judicious prescription of tests, services, and procedures should win us a break from the daily grind of begging, wheedling, and cajoling payers to allow us to get our individual patients what they need, every single time we order something. Until this freedom to practice medicine is achieved, true access to healthcare will not simply be a matter of having health insurance, it will be whether or not your physician has the will to fight for your needs. A “good doctor” has to be more than an excellent diagnostician these days – she must be a savvy, health insurance regulatory navigator and relentless patient advocate.  Keep that in mind as you choose your next physician!

Lack Of Information Synthesis: One Of The Most Important Causes Of Medical Errors

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.

Severe Paperwork Burden Tempts Physicians To Quit Medicine

For physicians, and especially those in primary care, it seems like there is a form for every purpose imaginable—often for purposes that are hard to imagine.

An ACP member in Rhode Island recently gave this example:

“I was just asked by my Medicare Advantage plan to sign a form for [a well-known pharmacy benefit manager]. This form is to be faxed to them in order for them to send me a prior authorization form for a med. So in other words, I had to complete a form in order to get another form. This is nuts!”

Or how about this, from another ACP member in a private internal medicine practice:

“The documentation that is getting to me, is that documentation that the ‘durable medical equipment people want including repetitive- recurrent documentation, whenever we see a patient to document “continued need”. The list of things we have to document, sign, approve or prior authorize, I believe is what makes most physicians think they chose the wrong field. A PBM letter to me about my prescribing practices today nearly did me in! Luckily I just shredded it. If I am kicked out of this business, I am so close to retirement it would be a blessing!”

Or this: Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at The ACP Advocate Blog by Bob Doherty*

Primary Care Physicians Are All One Breath Away From Dropping Medicare

I am going to state something that is completely obvious to most primary care physicians:  I do not accept Medicare and Medicaid patients because it is good business, I accept them despite the fact that it is bad business.

In truth, I could make that statement about insurance as a whole; my life would be easier and my income would be less precarious if I did not accept any insurance.  If I did, I would charge a standard amount per visit based on time spent and require payment at the time of that visit.  This is totally obvious to me, and I suspect to most primary care physicians.  A huge part of our overhead comes from the fact that we are dealing with insurance.  A huge part of our headache and hassle comes from the fact that we are dealing with insurance. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Musings of a Distractible Mind*

What Are The Root Causes Of The Primary Care Shortage?

It’s no secret that without a stronger primary care foundation, the current reform efforts are unlikely to be successful. If anything, it will only delay the inevitable.

I wrote last month that one discussed solution, adding more residency slots, won’t help: it would simply perpetuate the disproportionate specialist:primary care ratio.

A recent op-ed in The New York Times expands on that theme. The authors suggest that not only does primary care need to be promoted, specialist slots should be limited. Simply building more medical schools, or adding more residency slots, without such restrictions will only add to the number of specialists.

Already, many primary care residency slots go unfilled – what’s the point of adding more?

You have to solve the root cause that shifts more students away from primary care: disproportionately low pay, disrespect that starts early in medical training, and poor working conditions where bureaucracy interferes with the doctor-patient relationship.

Until each of those issues are addressed, simply more spending money to produce more doctors simply isn’t going to work.

*This blog post was originally published at KevinMD.com*

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