Better Health: Smart Health Commentary Better Health (TM): smart health commentary

Latest Posts

Attention Health Policy Makers: How To Win Docs And Influence Patients

carnegie_smallPretty much everyone agrees that we need to improve the quality of healthcare delivered to patients. We’ve all heard the frightening statistics from the Institute of Medicine about medical error rates – that as many as 98,000 patients die each year as a result of them – and we also know that the US spends about 33% more than most industrialized country on healthcare, without substantial improvements in outcomes.

However, a large number of quality improvement initiatives rely on additional rules, regulations, and penalties to inspire change (for example, decreasing Medicare payments to hospitals with higher readmission rates, and decreasing provider compensation based on quality indicators). Not only am I skeptical about this stick vs. carrot strategy, but I think it will further demoralize providers, pit key stakeholders against one another, and cause people to spend their energy figuring out how to game the system than do the right thing for patients.

There is a carrot approach that could theoretically result in a $757 billion savings/year that has not been fully explored – and I suggest that we take a look at it before we “release the hounds” on hospitals and providers in an attempt to improve healthcare quality.

I attended the Senate Finance Committee’s hearing on budget options for health care reform on February 25th. One of the potential areas of substantial cost savings identified by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is non evidence-based variations in practice patterns. In fact, at the recent Medicare Policy Summit, CBO staff identified this problem as one of the top three causes of rising healthcare costs. Just take a look at this map of variations of healthcare spending to get a feel for the local practice cultures that influence treatment choices and prices for those treatments. There seems to be no organizing principle at all.

Senator Baucus (Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee) appeared genuinely distressed about this situation and was unclear about the best way to incentivize (or penalize) doctors to make their care decisions more uniformly evidence-based. In my opinion, a “top down” approach will likely be received with mistrust and disgruntlement on the part of physicians. What the Senator needs to know is that there is a bottom up approach already in place that could provide a real win-win here.

Some 340 thousand physicians have access to a fully peer-reviewed, regularly updated decision-support tool (called “UpToDate“) online and on their PDAs. This virtual treatment guide has 3900 contributing authors and editors, and 120 million page views per year. The goal of the tool is to make specific recommendations for patient care based on the best available evidence. The content is monetized 100% through subscriptions – meaning there is no industry influence in the guidelines adopted. Science is carefully analyzed by the very top leaders in their respective fields, and care consensuses are reached – and updated as frequently as new evidence requires it.

Not only has this tool developed “cult status” among physicians – but some confess to being addicted to it, unwilling to practice medicine without it at their side for reference purposes. The brand is universally recognized for its quality and clinical excellence and is subscribed to by 88% of academic medical centers.

In addition, a recent study published in the International Journal of Medical Informatics found that there was a “dose response” relationship between use of the decision support tool and quality indicators, meaning that the more pages of the database that were accessed by physicians at participating hospitals, the better the patient outcomes (lower complication rates and better safety compliance), and shorter the lengths of stay.

So, we already have an online, evidence-based treatment support guide that many physicians know and respect. If improved quality measures are our goal, why not incentivize hospitals and providers to use UpToDate more regularly? A public-private partnership like this (where the government subsidizes subscriptions for hospitals, channels comparative clinical effectiveness research findings to UpToDate staff, and perhaps offers Medicare bonuses to hospitals and providers for UpToDate page views) could single handedly ensure that all clinicians are operating out of the same playbook (one that was created by a team of unbiased scientists in reviewing all available research). I believe that this might be the easiest, most palatable way to target the problem of inconsistent practice styles on a national level. And as Senator Baucus has noted – the potential savings associated with having all providers on the same practice “page” is on the order of $757 billion. And that’s real money.

I highly recommend a bottom up approach, not top down. That’s how you win docs and influence patients.

When Fraud Isn’t Fraudulent: RAC And The Spanish Inquisition

Dr. Rob Lamberts does an admirable job explaining why physicians are worried about the Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) approach to identifying Medicare fraud. Complying with Medicare coding and billing rules is so difficult that physicians regularly resort to undercharging for their services, just to avoid the perception of fraudulent practices. Any medical practice that bills more than average is potentially subject to RAC audit, and the auditors themselves are paid a commission for finding “fraud.” In many cases, the “fraud” amounts to insufficient documentation of appropriate and necessary work performed by the physician.

Dr. Rob writes:

The complexity of E/M coding makes it almost 100% likely that any given physician will have billing not consistent with documentation.  Those who chronically undercoded (if they are still in business) are at less risk than those who coded properly.  Every patient encounter requires that physicians go through an incredibly complex set of requirements to be paid, and physicians like myself have improved our coding level through the use of an EMR.  This doesn’t necessarily imply we are over-documenting, it simply allows us to do the incredibly arduous task of complying with the rules necessary to be paid appropriately.

Have I ever willingly committed fraud?  No.

Am I confident that I have complied with the nightmarish paperwork necessary to appropriately bill all of my visits?  No way.

Am I scared?  You bet.  The RAC will find anything wrong with my coding that they can – they are paid more if they do.

Dr. James Hubbard writes:

It would be fine if they were truly looking for fraud and abuse, but they look for some technicality or just a different interpretation. Forget about any recourse. A few years ago, I was asked to pay Medicaid back $5000. I protested they were completely wrong with their interpretation of their findings. The auditors said I had to pay it, but could argue for a refund by sending forms and proof to the “review committee”. I did that and received a reply that the $5000 was too small for the review committee to take up. I stopped taking Medicaid.

Sounds like the Spanish Inquisition, doesn’t it?


For more excellent analysis of the subject, I strongly recommend Dr. Rich Fogoros’ recent book: Fixing American Healthcare.

Nurses May Not Fill The Primary Care Shortage: “We’re Not Suckers”

There is a critical shortage of primary care providers in the United States. The public’s perception is that there is no shortage, and politicians have spent very little time talking about how to address the shortage. The American Academy of Family Physicians has been carefully studying this issue and strongly recommends incentives for physicians who would consider primary care: increased reimbursement for non-procedural work, and medical school debt-forgiveness are two of many.

The universal coverage system in Massachusetts immediately unmasked the problem of the primary care shortage. Newly insured citizens have been astonished to discover that they cannot find a primary care physician even though they want one. Wait times often exceed 6 months, and very few physicians are accepting new patients.

I have had the privilege of listening in to various healthcare reform discussions among politicians and advocacy groups here in Washington. Every time I raise the issue of “what will you do about the primary care shortage?” they offer the same tepid response: all providers will need to “work together” to provide primary care services, and innovative programs like retail clinics and nurse-driven care models will help to fill the gap in physicians.

My friend and fellow blogger, Dr. Rich Fogoros recently wrote an amusing (and cynical) post about how physicians should simply “hand over” primary care to nurses. (The same argument that many politicians seem to be making). The only problem with this reasoning is that nurses may not be willing to provide primary care services for the same reasons that physicians aren’t too keen on it: the pay is low, the workload is grueling, and there are other career options that offer better lifestyle and salary benefits.

I spoke with a group of nurses on a recent podcast about this very issue and their view was that, “we’re not suckers” – primary care is not as appealing as ICU work, for example.

Gina (Code Blog): Not every nurse wants to go back to school for additional years and shell out a lot of money to become a nurse practitioner and then not make a whole lot more than we’re making now. I’ve worked with nurse practitioners who have come back to work in the ICU because they can’t make enough money in primary care to support their families.

Strong One (MyStrongMedicine): We don’t have enough educators to teach nursing at our nursing schools. Nurse educators are paid about a quarter of what they’d make at the bedside. There are long waits to get into nursing school because we don’t have enough instructors to handle the influx. Until that problem is solved we aren’t going to see in increase in nurses entering the market.

Terri Polick (Nurse Ratched’s Place): I have a friend who’s a nurse practitioner and she had to borrow over $100,000 for her education. I’m a three-year diploma nurse so technically I don’t even have a college degree – but I’m making a lot more than nurse practitioners and I don’t have all that debt. Politicians need to know that nurse practitioners can’t just “pick up the slack” from physicians. Nursing and medicine are two different specialties and we’re trained to do different things.

So for those of you out there who may have shrugged at the primary care shortage and figured that when the docs are gone, someone else will just pick up the slack – think again. Any national universal coverage system will simply unmask what many physicians have known all along: equal access to nothing is nothing. Without making primary care a more attractive career option for providers of all stripes, don’t expect an influx of any sort into the field.

Long wait times for basic healthcare will probably become the norm in America.

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

Read more »

How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

Read more »

See all interviews »

Latest Cartoon

See all cartoons »

Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

Read more »

The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

Read more »

Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

Read more »

See all book reviews »