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Documenting To Death: Are EMRs Eroding The Soul Of Medicine?

Electronic medical record systems (EMRs) have become a part of the work flow for more than half of all physicians in the U.S. and incentives are in place to bring that number up to 100% as soon as possible. Some hail this as a giant leap forward for healthcare, and in theory that is true. Unfortunately, EMRs have not yet achieved their potential in practice – as I have discussed in my recent blog posts about “how an EMR gave my patient syphillis,” in the provocative “EMRs are ground zero for the deterioration of patient care,” and in my explanation of how hospital pharmacists are often the last layer of protection against medical errors of EPIC proportions.

Considering that an EMR costs the average physician up to $70,000 to implement, and hospital systems in the hundreds of millions – it’s not surprising that the main “benefit” driving their adoption is improved coding and billing for reimbursement capture. The efficiencies associated with access to digital patient medical records for all Americans is tantalizing to government agencies and for-profit insurance companies managing the bill for most healthcare. But will this collective data improve patient care and save lives, or is it mostly a financial gambit for medical middle men? At this point, it seems to be the latter.

There are, however, some true benefits of EMRs that I have experienced – and to be fair, I wanted to provide a personal list of pros and cons for us to consider. Overall however, it seems to me that EMRs are contributing to a depersonalization of medicine – and I grieve for the lost hours genuine human interaction with my patients and peers. Though the costs of EMR implementation may be recouped with aggressive billing tactics, what we’re losing is harder to define. As the old saying goes, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”

Pros Of EMR Cons Of EMR
Solves illegible handwriting issue Obscures key information with redundancy
Speeds process of order entry and fulfillment Difficult to recall errors in time to stop/change
May reduce redundant testing as old results available Facilitates excessive testing due to ease of order entry
Allows cut and paste for rapid note writing Encourages plagiarism in lieu of critical thinking
Improves ease of coding and billing to increase reimbursement Allows easy upcoding and overcharging
Reminds physicians of evidence-based guidelines at point of care Takes focus from patient to computer
Improves data mining capabilities for research and quality improvement Facilitates data breaches and health information hacking
Has potential to improve information portability and inter-operability Has potential to leak personal healthcare information to employers and insurers
May reduce errors associated with human element May increase carry forward errors and computer-generated mistakes
Automated reminders keep documentation complete May increase “alert fatigue,” causing providers to ignore errors/drug interactions
Can be accessed from home Steep learning curve for optimal use
Can view radiologic studies and receive test results in one place Very expensive investment: staff training, tech support, ongoing software updates, etc.
More tests available at the click of a button Encourages reliance on tests rather than physical exam/history
Makes medicine data-centric Takes time away from face-to-face encounters
Improved coordination of care Decrease in verbal hand-offs, causing key information to be lost
Accessibility of health data to patients Potential for increased legal liability for physicians

Physician Specialty Silos Can Cause Friendly Fire Casualties

It’s no secret that medicine has become a highly specialized business. While generalists used to be in charge of most patient care 50 years ago, we have now splintered into extraordinarily granular specialties. Each organ system has its own specialty (e.g. gastroenterology, cardiology), and now parts of systems have their own experts (hepatologists, cardiac electrophysiologists)  Even ophthalmologists have subspecialized into groups based on the part of the eye that they treat (retina specialists, neuro-ophthalmologists)!

This all comes as a response to the exponential increase in information and technology, making it impossible to truly master the diagnosis and treatment of all diseases and conditions. A narrowed scope allows for deeper expertise. But unfortunately, some of us forget to pull back from the minutiae to respect and appreciate what our peers are doing.

This became crystal clear to me when I read an interview with a cardiologist on the NPR blog. Dr. Eric Topol was making some enthusiastically sweeping statements about how technology would allow most medical care to take place in patient’s homes. He says,

“The hospital is an edifice we don’t need except for intensive care units and the operating room. [Everything else] can be done more safely, more conveniently, more economically in the patient’s bedroom.”

So with a casual wave of the hand, this physician thought leader has described a world without my specialty (Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation) – and all the good that we do to help patients who are devastated by sudden illness and trauma. I can’t imagine a patient with a high level spinal cord injury being sent from the ER to his bedroom to enjoy all the wonderful smartphone apps “…you can get for $35 now from China.” No, he needs ventilator care and weaning, careful monitoring for life-threatening autonomic dysreflexia, skin breakdown, bowel and bladder management, psychological treatment, and training in the use of all manner of assistive devices, including electronic wheelchairs adapted for movement with a sip and puff drive.

I’m sure that Dr. Topol would blush if he were questioned more closely about his statement regarding the lack of need for hospital-based care outside of the OR, ER and ICU. Surely he didn’t mean to say that inpatient rehab could be accomplished in a patient’s bedroom. That people could simply learn how to walk and talk again after a devastating stroke with the aid of a $35 smartphone?

But the problem is that policy wonks listen to statements like his and adopt the same attitude. It informs their approach to budget cuts and makes it ten times harder for rehab physicians to protect their facilities from financial ruin when the prevailing perception is that they’re a waste of resources because they’re not an ICU. Time and again research has shown that aggressive inpatient rehab programs can reduce hospital readmission rates, decrease the burden of care, improve functional independence and long term quality of life. But that evidence isn’t heeded because perception is nine tenths of reality, and CMS continues to add onerous admissions restrictions and layers of justification documentation for the purpose of decreasing its spend on inpatient rehab, regardless of patient benefit or long term cost savings.

Physician specialists operate in silos. Many are as far removed from the day-to-day work of their peers as are the policy wonks who decide the fate of specialty practices. Physicians who have an influential voice in healthcare must take that honor seriously, and stop causing friendly fire casualties. Because in this day and age of social media where hard news has given way to a cult of personality, an offhanded statement can color the opinion of those who hold the legislative pen. I certainly hope that cuts in hospital budgets will not land me in my bedroom one day, struggling to move and breathe without the hands-on care of hospitalists, nurses, therapists, and physiatrists – but with a very nice, insurance-provided Chinese smartphone.

Mystery Solved: Which Patients Are Good Candidates For Acute Inpatient Rehabilitation?

Occupational Therapy Environment, Saint Luke's Hospital, WA

For most physicians who practice inpatient medicine, acute inpatient rehabilitation facilities are mysterious places with inscrutable admissions criteria. This is partly because physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) has done the poorest job of public relations of any single medical specialty (Does anyone know what we do?), and also because rehab units have been in the cross hairs of federal funding cuts for decades. The restrictive CMS criteria for inpatient rehabilitation have resulted in contortionist attempts to practice our craft in an environment where clinical judgment has been sidelined by meticulous ICD-9 coding.

But I will not bore you with the reasons behind our seemingly capricious admissions criteria. Instead I will simply tell you what they are in the simplest way possible. After much consideration, I thought it would be easiest to start with the contraindications to acute rehab – I call these “red lights.” If your patients have any of these, then they will not qualify for transfer to the acute inpatient rehab unit. I followed the absolute contraindications with relative contraindications (you guessed it, “yellow lights”) – these patients require some clinical and administrative judgment. And finally, I’ve listed the official green lights – the diagnosis codes and medical necessity rules for the ideal inpatient rehab candidate.

I hope that these rules demystify the process – and can help discharge planners, rehab admissions coordinators, and acute care attending physicians alike help to get the right patients to acute inpatient rehab.

RED LIGHT (Patient does not meet criteria, admission is not currently indicated):

  1. Inability to Participate: Patient cannot tolerate 3 hours of therapy per day.
  2. Unwillingness to participate: The patient does not wish to participate in PT/OT/speech therapies and/or shows no evidence of motivation in previous attempts to perform therapy
  3. Poor rehabilitation potential: The patient’s functional status is currently no different than their usual baseline. (Confirmed by previous history, medical records, or reliable source.)
  4. Dementia: The patient has a chronic brain deficiency that is not expected to improve and makes carryover of training unlikely or impossible.
  5. Doesn’t need help from at least 2 different rehab disciplines: The patient must demonstrate likely benefit from working with at least 2 of these: PT, OT, Speech.
  6. Acute illness or condition: The patient has an acute illness/condition requiring medical intervention prior to transfer to an acute rehab facility – these include:
    • septicemia (infection with fever and elevated white count)
    • delirium (medication effect, dehydration, infectious, toxic-metabolic)
    • unstable vital signs (severe hyper or hypotension, severe tachy or brady arrhythmia, hypoxia despite oxygen supplementation)
    • acute psychotic episode (including active hallucinations or delusions)
    • uncontrolled pain (the patient’s pain is not sufficiently controlled to allow participation in therapy)
    • severe anemia
    • extreme fatigue or lethargy due to medical condition
  7. Procedure or workup pending: The patient is in the middle of a work up for DVT, cardiac disorder, stroke, infection, anemia, chest pain, bleeding, etc. or is about to undergo a procedure (surgery, imaging study, interventional or lab test) that could alter the immediate course of his/her medical/surgical management.

YELLOW LIGHT (The patient may not be a good rehab candidate, clinical/administrative judgment required regarding admission):

  1. Possible poor rehabilitation potential: The patient’s prior level of function (PLOF) is likely low or similar to current level, however there is no clear documentation of the patient’s PLOF. It is unclear if aggressive rehabilitation will substantially improve the patient’s functional independence.
  2. Unclear benefit of ARU versus SNF: The patient is unlikely to avoid future placement at a skilled nursing facility. Would it be in the patient’s best interest to transfer there directly?
  3. Mild dementia or chronic cognitive impairment: The patient has carryover challenges but is able to participate and follow directions. There may be family members who could benefit from PT/OT/Speech training so they can take the patient home and be his/her caregiver(s).
  4. Unclear safe discharge plan:  The patient lives alone or has no family support or has no financial means to improve their living conditions or their home is unfit for living/safe discharge or patient refusing SNF but qualifies otherwise.
  5. Insurance denial: The patient’s insurer declines their inpatient rehab stay. Physiatrist may attempt to overturn decision or facility may wish to take patient on a pro bono status.  Uninsured patients may be candidates for emergency Medicaid. Facility must decide if they will lobby for it.
  6. Severe behavioral disorders (unrelated to acute TBI): Verbally abusive, violent, inappropriate or disruptive to other patients.
  7. The patient meets medical necessity criteria for acute inpatient rehab but their impairment is not represented by one of the 13 impairment categories approved by CMS. (E.g. medical debility, cardiac impairment, pulmonary disease, cancers, or orthopedic injury without required comorbidities). Admission may depend upon individual facility’s case mix and its current annual compliance rate with 60% rule.

GREEN LIGHT (The patient is a good candidate for acute inpatient rehab if they have no red or yellow lights, meet criteria for medical necessity AND meet the impairment categories listed below):


Acute inpatient rehabilitation services are medically necessary when all of the following are present:

  • Individual has a new (acute) medical condition or an acute exacerbation of a chronic condition that has resulted in a significant decrease in functional ability such that they cannot adequately recover in a less intensive setting; AND
  • Individual’s overall medical condition and medical needs either identify a risk for medical instability or a requirement for physician and other personnel involvement generally not available outside the hospital inpatient setting; AND
  • Individual requires an intensive inter-disciplinary, coordinated rehabilitation program (as defined in the description of service) with a minimum of three (3) hours active participation daily; AND
  • Individual is medically stable enough to no longer require the services of a medical/surgical inpatient setting; AND
  • The individual is capable of actively participating in a rehabilitation program, as evidenced by a mental status demonstrating responsiveness to verbal, visual, and/or tactile stimuli and ability to follow simple commands.  For additional information regarding cognitive status, please refer to the Rancho Los Amigos Cognitive Scale (Appendix B); AND
  • Individual’s mental and physical condition prior to the illness or injury indicates there is significant potential for improvement; (See Note below) AND
  • Individual is expected to show measurable functional improvement within a maximum of seven (7) to fourteen (14) days (depending on the underlying diagnosis/medical condition) of admission to the inpatient rehabilitation program; AND
  • The necessary rehabilitation services will be prescribed by a physician, and require close medical supervision and skilled nursing care with the 24-hour availability of a nurse and physician who are skilled in the area of rehabilitation medicine; AND
  • Therapy includes discharge plan.

13 Diagnosis Codes Approved by CMS for Acute Inpatient Rehab

1. Stroke

2. Spinal cord injury

3. Congenital deformity

4. Amputation

5. Major multiple trauma

6. Fracture of femur (hip fracture)

7. Brain injury

8. Neurological disorders, including:

• Multiple sclerosis

• Motor neuron diseases (Guillain Barre, ALS)

• Polyneuropathy

• Muscular dystrophy

• Parkinson’s disease

9. Burns

10. Arthritis: Active polyarticular rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and seronegative arthropathies

resulting in significant functional impairment of ambulation and other activities of daily living;

11. Vasculitis: Systemic vasculidities with joint inflammation resulting in significant functional impairment of ambulation and other activities of daily living

12. Severe or advanced osteoarthritis (osteoarthrosis or degenerative joint disease) involving two or more weight bearing joints (elbow, shoulders, hips, or knees but not counting a joint with a prosthesis) with joint deformity and substantial loss of range of motion, atrophy of muscles surrounding the joint, and significant functional impairment of ambulation and other activities of daily living

13. Knee or hip joint replacement, or both, during an acute care hospitalization immediately preceding the inpatient rehabilitation stay and also meets one or more of the following specific criteria:

  • The patient underwent bilateral knee or bilateral hip joint replacement surgery during the acute care hospital admission immediately preceding the IRF admission
  • The patient is extremely obese with a Body Mass Index of at least 50 at the time of admission to the IRF or
  • The patient is age 85 or older at the time of admission to the IRF.


Federal Hospital Inspectors Miss True Dangers, Focus On Documentation Minutiae

In an effort to promote transparency in healthcare, the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) has published a database of recent hospital deficiencies discovered by Medicare and Medicaid  inspectors. They then highlighted 168 reports containing the phrase “immediate jeopardy.” This, of course, piqued my interest as I presumed that hospitals who were putting putting patients in “immediate jeopardy” must be some pretty bad actors.

After sifting through the hospital names, I saw no record of ones who should probably be on the list based on my personal experiences. I did find some surprises, including well respected academic centers (including Stanford, UCSD, and Intermountain Health). I did a “deep dive” on a hospital for which I have a good deal of respect and some familiarity. What I discovered was both funny and sad.

In the case of the hospital that I knew, the very grave concerns expressed by the inspectors turned out to revolve around patient signatures on HIPAA documentation, and physicians refreshing their electronic restraint orders on patients with traumatic brain injuries. These documentation mishaps had landed the hospital on the ominous list of institutions who are “putting patients lives in immediate jeopardy.”

What a waste of inspector time and hospital resources! Apparently, a hospital who passes CMS muster simply means that they are providing documentation correctness to patients. Forget the real sources of life-threatening dangers – medication errors, poor physician handoffs, unnecessary testing and treatment, and unsanitary conditions. What the safety police are focused upon is whether or not the sick and delirious signed their health information privacy paperwork.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important to let patients know their rights, etc. But I’ve yet to see more than 10% of patients even read the HIPAA-related documentation that they sign.  Surely an absent signature or two shouldn’t land a hospital on a humiliating federal watch list.

True patient safety cannot be regulated. It is far too complex and nuanced, requiring collaboration between all members of a hospital’s staff. From frequent nursing surveillance, to careful medication review, to laboratory critical value alerts, to conscientious sanitation practices – hospital culture dictates whether or not a patient receives excellent care. Watch lists would be far more accurate if they were simply based on hospital employee questionnaires. As Dr. Marty Makary has discovered, complicated care quality algorithms are no more accurate at predicting hospital excellence than simply asking staff if they’d recommend the place to family members.

So next time you see your hospital flagged by the feds, don’t assume that there is a serious problem going on – better to ask someone who works there if it’s a safe place for care.

Escaping The Rat Race: How Physician Reimbursement Scarcity Increases Costs And Promotes Fraud

Animal research has shown that the best way to get a rat to press a pellet-producing lever is to set the mechanism so that it doesn’t always release a pellet with each push. The unpredictability (or scarcity) of the reward causes the rat to seek it with more fervor. Casino owners are well aware of this phenomenon, gaming our brain’s natural wiring so that our occasional wins drive us to lose more than we would if our winning had a predictable pattern.

I believe that the same principle is at work in physician reimbursement. Although most patients don’t realize this, physicians aren’t always paid for the work they do, and they are paid wildly different rates depending on how they code an encounter or procedure. After several health insurance denials of payment for legitimate work, physicians look for ways to offset their losses. Those may include changing the coding of their procedures to enhance the rate of reimbursement, exaggerating the complexity of an encounter, or (less commonly) billing for things they didn’t do. Because of the perceived injustice in a system that randomly denies payment for legitimate work, the physician feels less morally concerned about her over billing and coding foibles.

And so a vicious cycle of reimbursement deprivation, followed by fraud and abuse, becomes the norm in the U.S. healthcare system. Payers say that physicians are greedy and unethical, and physicians say that payers deny reimbursement unfairly and pay rates that are too low to be sustainable. The government’s response is to hire a cadre of auditors to ferret out physician fraud while cutting reimbursement to physicians further. This is similar to reducing the rate of pellet release to the rats in the Skinner boxes, while randomly electrocuting them through the metal flooring. The result will be that rats will work harder to find work-arounds to get their pellets, including gathering together into larger groups to share pellets. This is occurring more and more commonly as solo practitioners are joining hospitals or large group practices to make ends meet.

But we need to realize a few things about the “Skinner box healthcare system:”

1. Rats are not evil because they press levers manically when there is a scarcity of pellets. Physicians are not evil when they look for ways to make up lost revenue. While fraud and abuse are always wrong, it is not surprising that they are flourishing in an environment of decreasing reimbursement and increasing health insurance payment denials. If we want to address fraud and abuse, we need to understand why it’s happening so that our “solutions” (i.e. hiring thousands more government auditors to investigate medical practices) don’t end up being as useless as shocking the rats.

2. Health insurance (whether public or private) is not evil for trying to rein in costs. Payers are in the unenviable position of having to say “no” to certain expenditures, especially if they are of marginal benefit. With rats pressing levers at faster and faster rates for smaller and smaller pellets, all manner of cost containment mechanisms are being applied. Unfortunately they are instituted randomly and in covert manners (such as coding tricks and bureaucratic red tape) which makes the rats all the more manic. Not to mention that expensive technology is advancing at a dizzying rate, and direct-to-consumer advertising drives demand for the latest and greatest robot procedure or biotech drug. Costs are skyrocketing for a number of good and bad reasons.

3. There is a way out of the Skinner box for those primary care physicians brave enough to venture out. Insurance-free practices instantly remove one’s dietary reliance on pellets, therefore eliminating the whole lever pressing game. I joined such a practice several years ago. As I have argued many times before, buying health insurance for primary care needs is like buying car insurance for your windshield wipers. It’s overkill. Paying cash for your primary care allows you to save money on monthly insurance premiums (high deductible plans cost much less per month) and frees up your physician to care for you anywhere, anytime. There is no need to go to the doctor’s office just so that they can justify billing your insurance. Pay them for their time instead (whether by phone, in-person, or at your home/place of business) and you’ll be amazed at the convenience and efficiency derived from cutting out the middle men!

Conclusion: The solution to primary care woes is to think outside the box. Patient demand is the only limiting factor in the growth of the direct-pay market. Patients need to realize that they are not limited to seeing “only the physicians on their health insurance list” – there is another world out there where doctors make house calls, solve your problems on the phone, and can take care of you via Skype anywhere in the world. Patients have the power to set physicians free from their crazy pellet-oriented existence by paying cash for their health basics while purchasing a less expensive health insurance plan to cover catastrophic events. Saving primary care physicians from dependency on the insurance model is the surest path to quality, affordable healthcare for the majority of Americans. Will you join the movement?

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