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The Flu Vaccine: A Break Up Letter

Dear Influenza Vaccine:

I am sorry to be so formal, but using your pet name, “flu shot”, doesn’t seem appropriate in a letter like this.  I am also sorry to be writing this letter; I don’t want you to be hurt and I don’t want others to think bad of you.

I just don’t love you any more and want out of our relationship.

Don’t get me wrong; I still think you save lives.  You are strong, noble, and deserving of appreciation.  You give to my patients what I seek to give them: a longer life with less sickness, and you do so without much cost.  I will never think badly of you in that way.  I even want to continue meeting with you every year.  I don’t want to lose touch.

But things have gotten hard for me.  You give so much to others, yet you make my life so very hard.  I never know how many people will want you, and yet I have to order you six months or more in advance.   Read more »

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

Open Letter To President Obama: Fix Medicare

Dear President Obama,
I am in favor of Health Care Reform and I agree with you that universal coverage and eliminating the abuses that both patients and doctors have suffered at the whim of the for-profit insurance industry must be curtailed.

But I also want you to fix Medicare. Medicare is so bureaucratic that expanding it in its current form would be the death knell for primary care physicians and many community hospitals. The arcane methods of reimbursement, the ever expanding diagnosis codes, the excessive documentation rules and the poor payment to “cognitive, diagnosing, talking” physicians makes the idea of expansion untenable.

May I give you one small example, Mr. President? I moved my medical office in April. Six weeks before the move I notified Medicare of my pending change of address and filled out 22 pages of forms. Yes, Mr. Commander in Chief…22 pages for a change of address. It is now mid-August and I still do not have the “approval” for my address change.

I continue to care for my Medicare patients and they are a handful. Older folks have quite a number of medical issues, you see, and sometimes it takes 1/2 hour just to go over their medications and try to understand how their condition has changed. That is before I even begin to examine them and explain tests, treatment and coordinate their care. Despite the fact that I care for these patients, according the Medicare rules, I cannot submit a bill to Medicare because they have not approved my change of office address.

I have spent countless hours on the phone with Medicare and have sent additional documentation that they requested. I send the forms and information “overnight, registered” because a documented trail is needed to avoid having to start over at the beginning again and again. I was even required to send a signature from my “bank officer” and a utility bill from the office. Mr President, I don’t have a close relationship with a bank officer so this required a bank visit and took time away from caring for patients…but I certainly did comply.

I am still waiting to hear from Medicare. At my last call they said they had not received yet another document, but when I gave them the post office tracking number, they said it was received after all. They could not tell me when or if they will accept my address change.

I have bills stacking up since April and I just found out that they will not accept them if they are over 30 days old. I have cared for patients for 5 months and will not receive any reimbursement from Medicare. The rules state I cannot bill the patient or their supplemental Medicare insurance either.

Believe me, Mr. President, I commend you for taking on such a huge task. Please also know that Medicare reform is needed along with health care reform.

A loyal American ,
Internal Medicine (aka: primary care) physician

*This blog post was originally published at EverythingHealth*

The AMA And Congress: How To Cross The Cultural Divide

The AMA’s communications department kindly sent me a copy of a letter that they (and 9 other professional society CEOs or Presidents) recently sent to Barack Obama and 12 members of congress. I’ve been blogging about the fact that healthcare providers in general, and physicians in particular, do not seem to have much of a voice in healthcare policy. In fact, from what I can tell, Dr. Nancy Nielsen is carrying the torch almost exclusively. I don’t mean to belittle anyone’s efforts, it’s just that I’ve noticed that she is often the only physician at the highest level policy meetings.

So it was with great interest that I read the group letter to Obama et al., wondering what collective message our physician leaders were trying to get across. The writing was academic – using terminology familiar to those heavily steeped in medicine – and emphasized the creation of a patient-centered culture supported by evidence based medicine.

However, the letter raised an interesting question in my mind: Will members of congress read and understand it? I believe that the most effective letters to congress are likely to share three qualities: 1) they must be emotionally provocative 2) they must be written at about the 6th grade reading level 3) they must be brief.

Why Letters Must Appeal To Emotion (“Cultural Competency”)

Dr. Nielsen said at a recent Medicare Policy Summit that speaking with Senators can be “pure theatre.” That has been my observation as well. Decades of experience speaking in large committee meetings have taught them that amusing sound bites or emotional outbursts get attention. In fact, it may be the best way to get things done in congress. For example, did you know that the reason why kidney care is the only disease-based eligibility under Medicare is that Shep Glazer testified before congress during one of his dialysis sessions?

Washington , D.C. , Nov. 4, 1971 – In the most dramatic plea ever made on behalf of kidney patients, Shep Glazer, Vice-President of NAPH, testified before the House Ways and Means Committee while attached to a fully functioning artificial kidney machine.

Minutes before, in the corridor outside the hearing room, Shep told reporters from the AP, UPI, and the Washington Post, “Gentlemen, I am going to tell the Committee that if dialysis can be performed on the floor of Congress, it can be performed anywhere.” As his wife, Charlotte , connected him to the machine, he continued, “Kidney patients don’t have to be confined to hospitals, where expenses are $25,000 a year and more per patient. It’s much cheaper in a satellite unit or at home. I want to show the Committee what dialysis is really like. I want them to remember us.”

My point is that in congress, as opposed to medical meetings, emotion is king. Physicians have a hard time speaking from the gut, since we’re trained to speak from data – because we know that the gut can be misleading. However, my plea to physician groups is this: let’s collect our data, understand the science behind our point of view, and then present our advice in a way that is persuasive to congress. That means we’d probably benefit from a few theatre classes (can we get CME credit for them?) I’m not suggesting that we become undignified in any way – I’m just saying that personal stories, case studies, and appeals to emotion are the currency on the Hill. If we want attention, we’ll need to find a way to make our points in their own language.

For example, I was listening in to a recent Senate hearing on healthcare finance, when a Republican senator began his introductory remarks about “out of control spending” with this:

I must tell you that I have major concerns about our current approach to spending. We’ve already sunk billions of dollars into all kinds of bailouts and programs without any clear benefits. But every time I bring up the excessive spending issue, you’d think I was a skunk at a picnic…

An amusing analogy, and one that resonated with his peers. This Senator understood the culture to which he was speaking. In other words, he had a “culturally competent” message.

Why Letters Should Be Written At About The 6th Grade Reading Level (Health Literacy)

Dr. Richard Carmona told me that one of the first things he learned as Surgeon General was that the American people understand health information at a 6th grade reading level. Thus, there is no point in making a 100+ page medical report on the health hazards of smoking the corner stone of a public smoking cessation campaign.

Health information must be written in a clear, and actionable manner – but it must also be delivered in such a way that it resonates with diverse communities. Letters to congress are no different – many of our congressmen and women do not have advanced medical or science degrees. We must be sensitive to that and write to them in a way that makes it easy for them to understand what we’re hoping to accomplish.

Why Letters Must Be Very Brief

Much has been made of the fact that many people who signed the recent 1000+ page stimulus bill hadn’t actually reviewed it. In fact, it is estimated that 306 members of Congress voted for a bill they had not read.

Of the 535 members of the United States House and Senate,  246 House members and 60 members of the august Senate voted for the $787 billion  stimulus bill without having read a single one of the bill’s 1,071 pages or having any idea of where all of this money borrowed from our grandchildren is going to be spent.

So if our members of Congress don’t read the stimulus bill, will they take the time to read long letters from professional societies? I think you know the answer.


The AMA should be applauded for their lobbying efforts on the part of physicians in Washington. However, my personal view is that letters to congress may be more effective if they are written in a concise, jargon-free, compelling way that respects the “culture” of congress. We physicians hear a lot about “health literacy” and “cultural competency” – and must remember to apply those principles to letter-writing campaigns.

Will any letter influence congressional decision-making? It’s hard to measure the “ROI” of group letters to congress – and certainly they’re only one part of a larger strategy. However, it behooves us physicians to find ways to reach across the cultural divide to speak to congress about the issues that trouble us all: the fate of patients. Letters may be helpful, but an increased presence in Washington, along with some heartfelt reasoning, may be our best shot. Perhaps the Broadway actors affected by the economic recession could help us out?

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