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Telemedicine As The Cost-Saving Foundation To Healthcare Reform

A Keynote Address To The American Telemedicine Association September 25, 2009

The following is a summary of Alan Dappen, MD, keynote address at the mid-year meeting of the American Telemedicine Association (ATA). His keynote, billed as “Private Practice And Telemedicine: A Success Story” discusses how Dr. Dappen’s practice, DocTalker Family Medicine, which is a fee-for-service practice that deploys telemedicine for over 50% of its patients needs, has enjoyed growth and has received numerous awards and media attention. You can check out Dr. Dappen’s full address on the site.

On to the highlights of Dr. Dappen’s talk:

“This is my third visit to an American Telemedicine Association (ATA) event. I’ve been a proud member for seven years. Two years ago I presented the fundamentals my medical practice DocTalker, where the doctor is chief cook and bottle washer.

“Our practice mirrors the recommendations outlined by the Institutes of Medicine’s book
Crossing the Quality Chasm and those purporting the ‘medical home’ model. Read more »

Why Do We Need Insurance To Cover Primary Care Costs?

As a primary care practitioner, I often am baffled by why Americans need insurance for primary, or day-to-day, care issues. When I’m talking about primary care, I mean those health problems that are considered routine, or day-to-day, problems including ear infections to poison ivy as well as many urgent care issues like sutures and draining infections. These account for a large portion of all health problems that occur in the U.S – and 80% of the things that typically up in the ER or urgent care.

My understanding is that the purpose of insurance is to protect our financial well-being and thus our financial nest egg. Investorpedia, which is part of Forbes Digital Media, offers the following definition: “Insurance allows individuals, businesses and other entities to protect themselves against significant potential losses and financial hardship at a reasonably affordable rate.”

This definition explains why we invest in insurance of all types: car insurance, home insurance and health insurance.

Then I wonder why our expectations and utilization of health insurance differs so significantly from home or car insurance. I pay a monthly premium for my car insurance, and it protects me against having to pay out large sums of money if I would be in a bad car accident. I don’t expect, however, my car insurance provider to pay for an oil change or new battery. Likewise, I pay a yearly premium for my home owner’s insurance, yet I do not expect the insurance company to foot the bill if I need a new screen door – but I certainly will turn to them if a tree crashes through my garage during a bad storm.

Then why should I expect my health insurance to pick up every small, day-to-day health issue that I have, particularly those that can cost less then $150, like a well-woman physical, help with pink eye, a tick bite or extricating a fish hook?

Don’t get me wrong; I feel that health insurance is a must to protecting anyone’s financial assets against a potentially catastrophic health event, like a tragic accident or illness. We all need to be ensured that we will not go broke if we are faced with such health issues.

I currently work for a primary care practice, DocTalker, is built to deliver affordable access to our medical team, round the clock, to ensure that our patients save cost and time. Our patients pay for a doctor’s fees when service is rendered. We base the fee structure on time and materials; our patients pay us for the amount of time they spend with the medical team. An office visit typically lasts for 15 minutes and costs $75. Believe it or not, roughly 75% of our patients pay less than $300 per year for their primary and urgent care health issues. I know of a lot of people who pay that in one office visit to the vet!

Our philosophy is that the faster we can talk to and treat our patients, the faster they will get better, thus saving them time and money from lost work, not to mention saving them in expenses from waiting to treat a condition that can worsen with time (like bronchitis). Once we’ve met with a patient face-to-face, we offer phone and email consultations, which typically cost $50.

The other thought is that if people pay, out-of-pocket, for their day-to-day care problems, then they will be more like to be aware of the cost and quality of the care they receive – much like they are with that vast majority of other purchases that they make, from a car to cell phone service to food. This will cause the consumer to demand a higher quality of care for a better price, and will lead to consumer choice and thus to consumer’s driving the market.

I don’t think that a price tag of $300 for the care of majority of primary and urgent care problems is really that much to ask; after all, many of us pay this much when we have a plumber come to the house to unplug a sink.

I think that my health is worth as much as an unplugged sink. I believe we do can it at a less expensive price. Don’t you?

Until next week, I remain yours in primary care,

Valerie Tinley, FNP-BC

Journey of the Piñata Master Part 2: The Great American Health Care Bash

As I mentioned in my post last week, Journey of a Pinata Master, The lessons of a piñata party are many and subtle, where children must acquire sufficient skill and insight to reach the highest status. Let me show you how the custom of the Mexican piñata, stuffed with candy and used to placate children, has been adopted unwittingly by the U.S. healthcare system to create the Annual American Healthcare Bash. At this gala, candy replaces money and adults represented by special interest groups fill in for children.

The American Healthcare Bash is hosted yearly by insurance companies and the government. These two organizers start asking for donations. In 2009, the piñata will be stuffed with $2.4 trillion (give or take a few billion). In 1999, the piñata held a measly $1.2 trillion. By 2019, piñata is expected to hold $4 trillion. Party planners already are worried about finding a rope strong enough to hold this massive elephant piñata (or donkey, depending on which animal you prefer to hit).

Donations arrive through taxpayers, employers and anyone willing to gain admission to the festivities. Before the party starts, insurance companies remove 20% of the money as their “set-up fee” for hosting and establish the basic game rules. During the event, they take turns controlling the rope holding the piñata.

Any American who contributed to the party, including everyone over 65, is invited to watch the spectacle as the myriad special interest groups (SIGs) take turns batting the piñata. These SIGs include ad almost infinitum: primary care doctors, nurse practitioners, radiologists, imaging specialists, laboratory services, pharmaceutical companies, durable medical suppliers, lawyers, software engineers for electronic medical records, coders, billers, patient navigators, receptionists, schedulers, nurses, billing specialists, hospital administrators, HIPPA compliance “police,” pay-for-performance analysts, the American Medical Association delegates, and hundreds of other professional organizations and credentialing specialists.

Every year, more SIGs have been invited to the gala for their turn to bash the piñata. Most thank the public for such an extravagant event, repeating the chorus, “Don’t worry what this is costing, we’re not hurting you, we’re going after the piñata.” This piñata promises more loot than any other in America.

One by one, players are blindfolded and spun in dizzying circles by the insurance companies or government. Patients start the play and then hand we doctors the bat saying, “Good luck! Give your best shot at whacking what you can from that piñata! I could care less because I’m “protected” by my insurance plan.”

Each player swings wildly, sometimes accidentally bashing the others crowding around the bobbing target. The crowd roars its approval while some SIGs scream instructions of where to aim as the batter swings away. The rope jerking increases as more skilled batters take their turn. When money pours from the breaking hull of the piñata, hordes of SIGs dive in a feeding frenzy. After decades of careful construction, the piñata has been compartmentalized so that no single player can knock out too much money at once.

As the party winds down, most SIGs have received a “fair “ amount of money, but they are angry, never satisfied with their share. Of course, there are a few masters in the crowd, who are grinning ear-to-ear.  When the party closes, the insurance companies take the piñata to another room and remove, behind closed doors, the remaining money (profit) of the day.

After counting its loot, the insurance companies emerge, announcing that it’s been another successful party, drinks all around! Then they say, “The party next year will cost only 8% more. Before you leave tonight, pay up.” Feeling threatened, taxpayers and employers reach deep into their pockets to pay for next year’s gala. Why ruin a great American tradition? If you get sick or don’t pay “your fair dues,” then hasta la vista.

As we grow up, most of us move past the need to gorge candy. Contrarily, when it comes to healthcare, few can limit how much they want to consume, nor recognize its often empty promises. Americans watch with fascinated horror at what’s happening in healthcare while remaining paralyzed to move cohesively towards change.

No matter how well intended and dedicated the doctors and nurses or how amazing the technology and medical breakthroughs to which the  “insured” have access, the unrelenting piñata party lure inevitably results in a mass psychology of “How much money can I make?”

If you, dear reader, are scared of change and continue to support the current  American healthcare piñata party, then be prepared to be beaten to a pulp. Now that you’ve paid your $20 co-pay entrance fee to the party and have emptied your wallet to the insurance company for what you believe is unlimited access to care, you have unwittingly turned yourself into the piñata.

Personally, after lots of experience and practice, I developed a healthy cynicism regarding the greed of this kind of parties.  Ten years ago, I no longer could support the American Healthcare Bash. We built a new practice where the only focus is the patient; the patient pays transparently for the time they need. This idea delivers better care, 24/7 immediate access whenever and wherever you need help at a price that is almost 50% less than the current model.  We need a lot more healthcare professionals and patients to invest in a new future of responsibility. A growing mantra is needed among patients and doctors alike, ”Do the right thing, for the right reason at the right price.” Unlimited wealth, and unlimited health are nothing but mirages, the deepest secret of all stuffed inside the piñata.

Until next week, I remain yours in primary care,

Alan Dappen, MD

Is “Plan” A Four-Letter Word When It Comes To Healthcare Reform

On Saturday, posted an article about President Obama’s most recent town hall meetings and closed with the following paragraph: Obama is yet to reveal a detailed plan, but promises to expand coverage, control spiraling healthcare costs, rein in insurance companies and prioritize preventative care.”

I’ve been looking for an actual plan since Health Care Reform was seriously proposed. In July, Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s Chief of Staff, was quoted in the Washington Post, stating that the Administration had decided against having an actual plan for Reform since it would expose the administration to criticism. Yet, I remained optimistic about Reform, and relished the chance to debate the facts as our Nation turned its focus upon a topic I have long been passionate about.

Unfortunately, my optimism waned as an honest and forthright debate about how to implement Reform has become ever-elusive. Disappointed in the turns this debate has taken on its journey through our national consciousness, I am leery of the simplistic viewpoint portrayed so often… “You are with Obama or against him” …. “You’re a Republican or a Democrat” … “You are for Reform or against it …”

Determined to find Obama’s plan, I began my search by reading his speech to the AMA, surfing the White House website, watching his ABC infomercial all the way through Nightline, and observing a number of town hall meetings. I went on to plaster the walls of my home office, to the amusement of my wife, with everything the President had said, color-coded on poster boards.

By July, as I looked around my office I realized that I was surrounded, not by a plan, but by a group of wishes, beliefs, hopes and ideals. I love the way it sounds when I say “prioritize preventative care” and I long for a day when the $100 million salaries of insurance company CEOs has been “reined in.” However, I am not naïve enough to expect this to happen without a coherent plan.

I used to believe the White House would propose a bona-fide plan. Instead they are implementing a strategy that combines the president’s rhetoric with the defensive tactic of refuting critics of Congressional plans or the President’s zeal.

Even after the House passed their Reform bill (the first actual HC plan to come out of Washington), I can’t make myself take down all of those poster boards leaving me surrounded by inspiring and hypnotizing ideals. Yet I fail to see how the House bill will transform these beautiful ideals into reality as it creates multiple new government agencies and burdens doctors’ offices with more clerical responsibilities — new for the busy doctors of tomorrow: the physician quality reporting initiative, cultural and linguistic competence training, financial disclosure reports between providers and suppliers, and national priorities for performance improvement.

John Mackey, CEO of the Fortune 500 company Whole Foods, wrote an op-ed piece about HC reform for the August 11 Wall Street Journal. His editorial includes understandable plans, worthy of intelligent debate while being based in large part on the health care benefits Whole Foods currently has in place for 36,000 of its employees, and includes the following recommendations:

1. Promote high-deductible health insurance plans and HSAs by removing legal obstacles.

2. Equalize the tax laws so those buying individual insurance can enjoy the exact same tax break employer related insurance customers receive.

3. Encourage competition by allowing insurance companies to compete across state lines.

4. Enact tort reform since insurance costs, frequently over $100,000 per doctor, are passed back to all of us in the form of higher prices for health care.

5. Make costs transparent so we can all understand what health care treatments cost.

6. Enact Medicare Reform.

7. Whatever reforms are enacted it is essential that they be financially responsible.

Three days later, instead of arguing the merits or demerits of Mackey’s plan, an ABC News story focused on the controversy his editorial had stirred up after briefly touching on some of his ideas. Spcifically, the ABC story focused on the boycott by many of his customers with one expressing the following belief, “I think a CEO should take care that if he speaks about politics, that his beliefs reflect at least the majority of his clients.” Another described Mr. Mackey’s position as a slap in the face to millions of progressive-minded consumers. The author quoted four customers pledging to not buy their food at Whole Foods anymore and added them to the implied masses gathering on Twitter and Facebook.

Fortunately, one customer, Frank Federer, was quoted as saying, “At a time when most folks are more inclined toward rancor than discussion of facts, I applaud John Mackey.”

So do I.

A realistic map showing us how to get from point A to point B is missing in the Health Care Reform debate. Facts are one thing in short supply to plot a course on this map. While the main ingredient in the fertilizer used to grow Whole Foods produce is in abundance, there’s just not enough for some of Mr. Mackey’s customers.

Creating Cost-Efficient Primary Care Medical Practices By Using 21st Century Technology

Few business models can top the inefficiencies, high costs, and overuse of manpower as primary health care.  Every minor infection,  cut, runny nose, goopy eye, hack, itch, rash, low back pain, stomach ache, urinary tract infection, tick bite, bee sting … ad infinitum must run the required gauntlet of the five-office-staff  “touch points” in order to be treated.  Let’s count them:

1. Scheduler,
2. Reception / intake window,
3. Nurse,
4. Check-out window, and
5. Billing specialist

Once you’ve seen your doctor and interfaced with all of the “touch-point” staff, next comes the game of musical chairs between the patient, doctor, and insurance company to see who’s going to pay the bill. This game often lasts months and includes pitched battles before a resolution is reached, typically when someone gives up resentfully from sheer exhaustion. All this hassle might be understandable for a surgery, hospitalization or very expensive procedure, but instead we play this game for the simplest booboo. For day-to-day care, this translates into the American people playing this game at least 5 million times a day.

Every practicing family physician/internist’s office employs roughly 4.5 full-time people per provider who slog through the piles of paperwork needed in a third-party driven model. On the insurance side, it can be an even higher body count, with staff lined up to review the claims, police transactions, audit doctors’ notes, data mine patients’ data, review negotiated rates to be paid to each physician, and cut the checks.  Instead of a model where the patient gets a direct service and pays an immediate and transparent price, we create the illusion that health care is “free” and then wonder why it costs so much money to see the doctor. Just look at the people we need to pay in order to receive our free care.

Automation has not reached health care as it has with nearly every other U.S. industry. Rather than streamlining healthcare through technology, we instead keep adding new layers bureaucracy, including administrators who find purpose by helping to improve the authorization process, or the reminder systems for patients not to miss their appointment, or the services which broker the whopping cost of care if  the patient gets stuck with the bill, or act as navigators of  “the system” for people who need to figure out who to see next in the process of care. To stay viable, twenty-first century medical care will have to address these inefficiencies because they create barriers to rapid and transparent care.

The ideal future family doctor’s office will be automated and render most office staff obsolete.  Patients will schedule an appointment online without the hassle of a receptionist. Doctors and nurse practitioners will answer incoming phones and emails from their patients thereby immediately addressing medical questions, thus reducing delays and getting 50% of people what they need without an office visits when one isn’t needed. Patients will log-in and get copies of their personal health records that are linked to the doctors’ electronic medical record so that they can have a copy of their labs, vaccines, and update their own personal information whenever they need it.  The bill for service will become transparent, immediate and mostly policed by the patient who has a personal stake in the price. No one cries “foul” faster than a person who sees a bill and wonders if he’s been ripped off.

By re-engineering the dynamics of the office visit, far fewer doctor’s office of the support staff are required.  Instead of the 4.5 full-time staff per provider, a practice set up like what we’ve done at DocTalker Family Medicine requires only one employee per provider. The DocTalker model, which is a cash-only practice, uses computer, telecommunications and internet technology to enable the clinician to perform functions previously done by the front and back office staff, such as the receptionist, scheduler, in-window, out-window, billing specialist, and office assistant.  Thus a person’s care is centralized through one person (the doctor) rather than many, leading to efficiency and reduction in overhead costs. If competition is encouraged, this process will only get better and less expensive.

Shouldn’t this be a consideration when overhauling cost efficiencies for healthcare reform?

Let us hope that it is.

Until next week, I remain yours in primary care,

Alan Dappen, MD

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