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Telemedicine Care: A malpractice risk? Au Contraire …

In early 2006, four years into running my current medical practice, doctokr Family Medicine, I got a call from my medical malpractice carrier.  Just weeks before I’d received a notice that my malpractice rates could go up by more than 25%.  The added news of a pending investigatory audit was chilling. In 25 years of practicing medicine I’d never been audited.

“Is there a complaint, or a law suit against me that I don’t know about?”

“No,” the auditor told me over the phone, “We’ve never seen a medical practice like yours and feel obligated to investigate your process from a medical-legal perspective.”

“Great,” I thought, with a weary sigh. “I’m already battling the insurance model, the status quo of the medical business model, and slow adoption by consumers who are addicted to their $20 co-pay. All I’m trying to do is to breathe life into primary care and get the consumer a much higher quality service for less money than currently subsidized through the insurance model. And now this.”

The time had arrived to add the concerns of the malpractice companies to the list of hurdles to clear if a new vision of a medical care model was ever to catch flight.

I frequently am asked the question “Aren’t you afraid of the malpractice risk?” when I explain my medical practice model, which is based on the doctor answering the phone 24/7, resulting in the patient’s medical problem being solved by the phone more 50% of the time. The simplest counter to this question is to analyze the risk patients incur when the doctor won’t answer the phone. What happens when the doctor is the LAST person to know what’s going on with patients?   The answer is obvious.  But malpractice companies could have concerns beyond patient safety. Buy-in from the malpractice companies would be critical to the future viability of all telemedicine.

I prepared a summary paper, which included 12 bullet points, explaining how a doctor- patient relationship based on trust , transparency, continuous communications and high quality information systems significantly reduce risk to the person you’re trying to help.

Bullet 1: The industry standard is that 70% of malpractice cases in primary care center on communication barriers. My medical team deploys continuous phone and email communications and 7 days a week- same day office visits when needed between doctor and patient thus significantly reducing these barriers.
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The remaining bullets could be summarized by the conclusions from the Institute of Medicine’s visionary book Crossing the Quality Chasm: A New Health System for the 21st Century using a table developed by The American Medical News when they reviewed the book. I carefully plotted our practice standards compared to the traditional business model as it stands today based on this table:

dappeniompracticechart1
The auditor showed up, spent 4 hours reviewing our practice, electronic medical records, compliance to HIPPA, our intakes, on-line connectivity, procedures, and practice standards. While the auditor reviewed, I sat as unobtrusively as I could, feeling my brow grow damp with perspiration, as I carefully answered her questions. During the auditor’s time, I never moved to sway her to “my way.” I just let the data that I had accumulated from four years of practice do the talking.

Once the auditor left, I waited for two weeks for the results. By the time their letter arrived, I was scared to open it.  The news arriving made me jubilant. The medical practice company announced a DECREASE in my premiums because we used telemedicine and EMR to treat patients so fast (often within 10 minutes of someone calling us we have their issue solved without the patient ever having to come in).

I will admit that I felt, and actually still do feel, vindicated by having my malpractice insurer understand fully the value that the type of telemedicine my practice offers to our patients: round-the-clock access to the doctor, speed of diagnosis, and convenience, which all led to healthier patients and lower risk.

Doctors answering the phone all day for their patients, it’s not just lower risk, it’s better health care at a better price. It’s a win-win-win strategy whose day is arriving.

Until next week, I remain yours in primary care,

Alan Dappen, MD


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3 Responses to “Telemedicine Care: A malpractice risk? Au Contraire …”

  1. Alan…keep up the good work. I'm a big fan. Thank you for being transparent and helping us all learn more about a really frightening situation.

  2. Alan…keep up the good work. I'm a big fan. Thank you for being transparent and helping us all learn more about a really frightening situation.

  3. Michael Sher says:

    Dr. Dappen,

    Thanks for the uplifting post. Sometimes people lose sight of the importance of fundamentals. Although new technology such as EMR and telemedicine will certainly improve quality and reduce costs, basic practices such as open communication and transparency must also be employed.

    Best wishes for continued success!!!

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Richmond, VA – In an effort to simplify inpatient medical billing, one area hospitalist group has determined that “altered mental status” (ICD-9 780.97) is the most efficient code for use in any patient work up.

“When you enter a hospital, you’re bound to have some kind of mental status change,” said Dr. Fishbinder, co-partner of Area Hospitalists, PLLC. “Whether it’s confusion about where your room is located in relationship to the visitor’s parking structure, frustration with being woken up every hour or two to check your vital signs, or just plain old fatigue from being sick, you are not thinking as clearly as before you were admitted. And that’s all the justification we need to order anything from drug and toxin screens, to blood cultures, brain MRIs, tagged red blood cell nuclear scans, or cardiac Holter monitoring. There really is no limit to what we can pursue with our tests.”

Common causes of mental status changes in the elderly include medicine-induced cognitive side effects, disorientation due to disruption in daily routines, age-related memory impairment, and urinary tract infections.

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Nursing staff at Richmond Medical Hospital report that efforts to inform hospitalists about foul smelling urine have generally fallen on deaf ears. “I have tried to tell the hospitalists about cloudy or bloody urine that I see in patients who are undergoing extensive work ups for mental status changes,” reports nurse Sandy Anderson. “But they insist that ‘all urine smells bad’ and it’s really more of a red herring.”

Another nurse reports that delay in diagnosing urinary tract infections (while patients are scheduled for brain MRIs, nuclear scans, and biopsies) can lead to worsening symptoms which accelerate and expand testing. “Some of my patients are transferred to the ICU during the altered mental status work up,” states nurse Anita Misra. “The doctors seem to be very excited about the additional technology available to them in the intensive care setting. Between the central line placement, arterial blood gasses, and vast array of IV fluid and medication options, urosepsis is really an excellent entré into a whole new level of care.”

“As far as medicine-induced mental status changes are concerned,” added Dr. Fishbinder, “We’ve never seen a single case in the past 10 years. Today’s patients are incredibly resilient and can tolerate mixes of opioids, anti-depressants, anti-histamines, and benzodiazepines without any difficulty. We know this because most patients have been prescribed these cocktails and have been taking them for years.”

Patient family members have expressed gratitude for Dr. Fishbinder’s diagnostic process, and report that they are very pleased that he is doing everything in his power to “get to the bottom” of why their loved one isn’t as sharp as they used to be.

“I thought my mom was acting strange ever since she started taking stronger pain medicine for her arthritis,” says Nelly Hurtong, the daughter of one of Dr. Fishbinder’s inpatients. “But now I see that there are deeper reasons for her ‘altered mental status’ thanks to the brain MRI that showed some mild generalized atrophy.”

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As for the nursing staff, Griffiths offered a less glowing review. “It’s unfortunate that our nurses seem preoccupied with urine testing and medication reconciliation. I think it might be time for us to mandate further training to help them appreciate more of the medical nuances inherent in quality patient care.”

Dr. Fishbinder is in the process of creating a half-day seminar on ‘altered mental status in the inpatient setting,’ offering CME credits to physicians who enroll. Richmond Medical Hospital intends to sponsor Dr. Fishbinder’s course, and franchise it to other hospitals in the state, and ultimately nationally.

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