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Can the Internet save primary care?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the plight of family physicians – reimbursal for their services continues to decline, overhead steadily increases, and pressure to see a minimum of 30 patients a day can drive them to near despair. Family physicians want to provide quality care for their patients, but are exhausted by volume demands and paperwork.

If you missed this article about the primary care crisis in America in the New England Journal of Medicine, it’s an excellent read. Here are some excerpts:

Excessive demands contribute to long waiting times and inadequate quality of care for patients. A growing proportion of patients report that they cannot schedule timely appointments with their physician. Emergency departments are overflowing with patients who do not have access to primary care. The majority of patients with diabetes, hypertension, and other chronic conditions do not receive adequate clinical care, partly because half of all patients leave their office visits without having understood what the physician said.

These problems are exacerbated by the system of physician payment. Thirty minutes spent performing a diagnostic, surgical, or imaging procedure often pays three times as much as a 30-minute visit with a patient with diabetes, heart failure, headache, and depression…

These factors add up to an unsurprising result: fewer U.S. medical students are choosing careers in primary care. Between 1997 and 2005, the number of U.S. graduates entering family practice residencies dropped by 50 percent…

Who might support a national policy to rescue primary care? Employers and insurers, public and private, may reap a return on investment by fostering a more effective primary care sector that will reduce health care costs… Whoever takes up the cause of primary care, one thing is clear: action is needed to calm the brewing storm before the levees break.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal sent ripples through the blogosphere. It was about how a few family physicians found a way to drastically reduce overhead – by being a solo practitioner and using technology to replace office staff and automate billing as much as possible.

Drs. Charlie Smith and Joe Scherger are family physicians here at Revolution Health who are leading the charge towards high tech solutions for family physicians. Charlie explains his philosophy in his recent blog post:

Having practiced primary care for over 30 years, I’m convinced the model of receiving in office care for every problem is not working well. I really like the ideas espoused by Don Berwick in changing the model of care in the doctor’s office to that of seeing patients in groups, treating them by phone or by e mail, rather than in the office. Using phone calls or e mails to sort through the patient issues, the doctor can decide to see the ones who really need to come into the office and the others can be taken care of without an office visit. This is a MUCH more efficient method, allows you to take care of many more people that need care, and gets people the care when they need it, rather than forcing them to wait until they can fit into a slot in your office.

The ideal way to partner with your doctor to use the health care system in the most effective way possible is to call or e mail him whenever possible, use the internet to research all of your health conditions, and only go into the office when you require in office care, such as exams, procedures, lab tests or x rays. Become an e patient!

I personally believe that Revolution Health can substantially improve the life of family physicians through innovative technologies designed to automate their practices as much as possible (thus reducing overhead and time spent on paperwork), as well as educating patients about the management of their diseases and conditions, (thus improving outcomes and increasing pay for performance bonuses), and triaging low acuity issues through online physician emailing services and retail clinics (thus helping patients receive the care they need without excessive use of office time).

Who will take up the cause of primary care (asks the NEJM)? Revolution Health will. Let’s work together to improve the quality of life for physicians and patients alike.

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.

Electronic medical records: are we there yet?

In a happy coincidence, my favorite blog fodder feeder sent me a link to an article about Kaiser Permanente’s electronic medical record woes a day prior to Dr. Feld’s latest post on the subject of EMRs. Dr. Feld’s thoughts on the matter will certainly help to round out this discussion.

I’ve always been fascinated by technologies that are ahead of the curve. I blame this on my parents (take note – parents can be blamed for good things). Growing up in rural Canada our family was ahead of the tech curve – we had a satellite dish before there was scrambling, we had the very first Apple computers at home, and we built our own yogurt factory complete with an advanced digitally automated temperature gauge system, before the rest of the industry had moved beyond millimeters of mercury.

In college I was the first kid with a laptop in class, and in med school I was one of the first with a PDA. I took a portable printer with me to Europe in the late 80’s to go along with my Wordstar word processing program. I thought I was pretty cool, I guess! Stirrup pants, granny boots, permed hair and pink lip gloss.  Those were the days.

Cliff Bassett recently asked me why I was working at a new company (Revolution Health) that was so cutting edge rather than remaining in clinical practice. I had never thought about why I did it before – but now I see that it was part of my pioneering pattern. There’s nothing more fun than being ahead of the curve… but it can be aggravating as well.

Technologies are awkward for their first adopters – they aren’t streamlined, they can actually take more time rather than saving it, and they can make communications with others (who don’t use it yet) more difficult. But a few of us do it anyway – we jump in head first, believing by faith that the enterprise itself is worthwhile and that once we get to version 3.0 we’ll be sitting pretty.

But what do we do when we’re at version 1.0? Normally, we just tear our hair out and send lots of “bug alert” messages to developers. But when the technology affects someone’s health, the bugs are a lot more sinister. The recent article about Kaiser Permanente’s digital growing pains is disturbing indeed:

Kaiser Permanente’s $4-billion effort to computerize the medical records of its 8.6 million members has encountered repeated technical problems, leading to potentially dangerous incidents such as patients listed in the wrong beds, according to Kaiser documents and current and former employees… Other problems have included malfunctioning bedside scanners meant to ensure that patients receive the correct medication, according to Kaiser staff.

Still, 90% of physicians use paper records, making it difficult to share information – and this is no doubt contributing to the IOM’s estimated 98,000 error related deaths/year. Dr. Feld explains the complexity of a fully functional electronic medical record:

However, a paperless chart is in reality worth little unless the information entered is usable in a relational data base format rather than word processing format. Only then, can patient care be enhanced…An effective Electronic Health Record must consist of five components

Electronic Medical Records
Personal health records (PHR)
Continuity of Care Record (CCR)
Electronic health record (EHR)
Financial Management Record (read more…)

So, the bottom line is that the EMR is in version 1.0 at Kaiser Permanente, and only a twinkle in our government’s eye. It is complicated to create, nearly impossible to coordinate, dangerous if implemented half-way, and yet utterly necessary for ultimate cost savings and patient safety.

What can we do between version 1.0 and 3.0? Prayer and vigilance come to mind… it will be up to the foot soldiers (the docs, nurses, and hospital staff) to keep patients safe while juggling paper and digital until digital can fly on its own.

How do you think we can minimize our digital growing pains?

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.

Healthcare price transparency – a good common goal

In my last blog post, I unwittingly evoked vehemence on the part of those pro/con a single payer model for healthcare. And so in this post I’d like to offer some more food for thought (while attempting to dodge the high velocity tomatoes):

First of all, Dr. Reece summarizes things nicely, suggesting that this debate is not entirely resolvable:

Incompatible Mindsets

• If your mindset is that government’s moral duty is to redistribute resources to protect the health of all, and that health is directly related to the extent of health system coverage, you think and receive information in a certain way. You generally attribute superior health statistics of other nations to universal coverage, even if these other nations have more homogeneous, smaller populations, and different cultures.

• If your mindset is that private markets provide the best care for most of the people most of the time, provide better access to high technologies, give more health care choices to citizens, distribute resources more efficiently and that the health of the people is more related to cultural behaviors and a nation’s heterogeneous population, you receive information in completely different way.

The Unending Argument

The power and efficiency of government vis-à-vis the power and efficiency of markets is a never-ending argument – an argument unlikely to change mindsets. To progressives, it’s a moral argument: to conservatives, it’s an exercise in reality. You can marshal persuasive arguments on both sides, without convincing either side who is right.

An economics blogger explains why extending Medicare benefits to all would not succeed:

The dirty little secret behind Medicare is that it works only because it does not cover every American. Part of the reason for this is that Medicare’s payment structure is designed to pay doctors and hospitals in such a way as to limit total spending, rather than to ensure they can break even. Clearly, they have to do better than break even to stay in business, and the people running Medicare know that. Medicare depends on the fact that there are lots of non-Medicare patients out there who (through their private insurance) can pay enough to keep the doctors and hospitals in business. This is called “cost shifting.”

Whether pro/con single payer system, I think that we nearly all can agree on one thing: price transparency is morally right. It’s hard to fix a system if you don’t really know where the money is coming from or going to.  I think it would be nice to have people on both sides of the debate work together for that common goal first. Would you agree?

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.

Medical errors may be reduced by redundancy?

One of the great advantages of electronic medical records (EMRs) is that they can reduce unnecessary repeat testing. Without an EMR that is accessible to all physicians taking care of a single patient, there’s no way for them to know what the other one is prescribing. Expensive tests like MRIs are often ordered by two different physicians (a neurosurgeon and a rehabilitation medicine specialist for example) because one didn’t know that the other had already ordered it. Alternatively, they may be affiliated with institutions that don’t share data, so previous MRI images are not available for viewing by the new specialist – so she just orders another one.

However, an interesting question is raised by Dr. Perloe’s post to my last blog entry: what if all specialists taking care of a patient had access to one medical record – and there was a lab error? They would all rely on the same erroneous record, and this could spark a whole host of inappropriate tests and procedures. Even second opinions (based on one single record) would be less helpful – because they would be misled by false results.

So, the irony is that the redundancy in our system has its benefits. We should be mindful of the checks and balances that we are unwittingly removing with EMRs. Occasional lab errors will always be with us – let’s make sure we catch them early, and not commit them to a permanent record relied upon by all.

This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.

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