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Why In-Person Visits Will Always Be The Foundation Of Quality Healthcare

In a recent Forbes editorial, conservative commentator John Goodman argues that the Texas Medical Board is sending the state back to “the middle ages” because they are trying to limit the practice of medicine in the absence of a face-to-face, doctor-patient relationship. He believes that telemedicine should have an unfettered role in healthcare – diagnosis and treatment should be available to anyone who wishes to share their medical record with a physician via phone. This improves access, saves money, and is the way of the future, he argues.

He is right that it costs less to call a stranger and receive a prescription via phone than it does to be examined by a physician in an office setting. But he is wrong that this represents quality healthcare. As I wrote in my last blog post, much is learned during the physical exam that you simply cannot ascertain without an in-person encounter. Moreover, if you’ve never met the patient before, it is even more likely that you do not understand the full context of a patient’s complaint. Access to their medical records can be helpful, but only so much as the records are thorough and easy to navigate. As the saying goes: garbage in, garbage out. And with EMRs these days, auto-populated data and carry-forward errors may form the bulk of the “narrative.”

Telemedicine works beautifully as an extension of a previously established relationship. Expanding a physician’s ability to connect with his/her patients remotely, saves money and improves access. But bypassing the personal knowledge piece assures lower quality care.

I currently see patients in the hospital setting. I run a busy consult service in several hospital systems, and I have access to a large number of medical records, test results, and expert analyses for each patient I meet. Out of curiosity, I’ve been tracking how my treatment plans change before and after I meet the patient. I read as much as possible in the medical record prior to my encounter, and ask myself what I expect to find and what I plan to do. When medical students are with me, we discuss this together – so that our time with the patient is focused on filling in our knowledge gaps.

After years of pre and post meeting analysis, I would say that 25% of my encounters result in a major treatment plan change, and 33% result in small but significant changes. Nearly 100% result in record clarifications or tweaks to my orders. That means that in roughly 1 in 4 cases, the patient’s chief complaint or diagnosis wasn’t what I expected, based on the medical record and consult request that I received from my peers.

If my educated presumptions (in an ideal setting for minimizing error) are wrong 25% of the time, what does this mean for telemedicine? The patient may believe that they need a simple renewal of their dizziness medicine, for example, but in reality they may be having heart problems, internal bleeding, or a dangerous infection. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the patient is correct about their needs up to 75% of the time. Are we comfortable with a >25% error rate in healthcare practiced between strangers?

Goodman’s cynical view of the Texas Medical Board’s blocking of telemedicine businesses for the sake of preserving member income does not tell the whole story. I myself have no dog in this fight, but would side with Texas on this one – because patients’ lives matter. We must find ways to expand physician reach without eroding the personal relationship that makes diagnosis and treatment more customized and accurate. Texas is not returning healthcare “to the middle ages” but bringing it forward to the modern age of personalized medicine. Telemedicine is the right platform for connecting known parties, but if the two are strangers – it’s like using Facebook without access to friends and family. An unsatisfying, and occasionally dangerous, proposition.

The Problem With Medical Licenses

In one of those things I don’t really get*, Texas requires a separate license from an unrestricted medical license to prescribe narcotics. As the price of this extra license has always seemed to be more ‘cover the cost’, nobody has seriously objected. It’s $25, in case you’re interested.

Since it’s a State license, it’s required if your job could even perceivably need to prescribe narcs in a hospital. (So, Radiologists and Pathologists are usually exempted). It’s never been an issue, as long as you don’t screw up.

Until now.

From the Austin American Statesman: Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at GruntDoc*

Primary Care Doctors And The Medicare Boycott

I saw this interesting article linked to from a blog about angry doctors dropping out of Medicare in Texas. As one who shares the universal annoyance at congress’ failure to fix the SGR for more than 30 days at a time, I was kind of cheered by this. That’s what it will take to get the system fixed – a grassroots, full-scale rejection of the system! Good for them. And the opening lines of the article were encouraging:

Texas doctors are opting out of Medicare at alarming rates, frustrated by reimbursement cuts they say make participation in government-funded care of seniors unaffordable.

An “alarming” rate. Wow. Cool. So how many is that, anyway?

More than 300 doctors have dropped the program in the last two years, including 50 in the first three months of 2010, according to data compiled by the Houston Chronicle. Texas Medical Association officials, who conducted the 2008 survey, said the numbers far exceeded their assumptions.

That’s 300, right? Hmm, not too shabby. Not exactly going to topple the state with that, but it’s a start.

Hey, I wonder how many doctors there are in Texas, anyway? I hear it’s a pretty big state, though I seem to recall it consists mostly of scrubland and swamp. Maybe there are only like 500 doctors in the state to start with. Something is tickling my head about Texas, though, I vaguely remember that they had some nice tort reform law a few years ago that I was pretty envious of. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Movin' Meat*

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