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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*

Primary Care Is Being Crushed By A Paper Weight

Ever wonder why your physician only spends 5-10 rushed minutes with you during your office visit? You may think it’s because there are simply too many patients vying for her time, but that’s not the real reason. The root cause is that health insurance companies are stealing time from your visit by requiring excessive documentation from your doctor. She can’t give you the time you need, because doing so would put her out of business.

In a special report on the administrative burden of healthcare, MedPage Today revealed that PCPs spend about one third of their income on documentation required by health insurers. Because they run a business with thin margins, they must increase the volume of patients they treat in order to cover the salaries of the staff required to manage this “paper weight.”

About 49% of all physicians have said that they are considering retiring or quitting medicine in the next two years (the rate is lower for specialists), largely because of increasing documentation requirements and decreasing reimbursement. Read more »

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

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How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

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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…

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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…

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