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Are Face-to-Face Office Visits Really Required to Provide the Highest Quality Care?

Imagine yourself a patient 2400 years ago. By chance, Dr. Hippocrates is your “preferred provider.” You and Dr. Hippocrates have a long standing relationship, and you’ve seen him in person many times, including for a comprehensive check-up and medical history. Since his office is located 20 miles away, getting there requires a Herculean effort. With the help of friends, donkeys, walking and several days of delay you luckily arrive before closing time at 4 pm on Wednesday.  You remember well the weekends, the evenings and the holidays that you got to the office sicker than a dog, only to be left in the street until the clinic re-opened.   

 

When you arrive, many sick patients greet you, their expressions fatalistic. All have made similar journeys, and some are very sick.  A line strings out the waiting room door that is two hours long.  Dr. Hippocrates is rushing to finish the day’s work, see the last person and go home to supper and his family.  With so many people to see and not much time, Hippocrates flies through the patient histories, relying only on his memory, knowledge and expertise to prescribe treatments and cures, moving quickly from one patient to the next.

 

For you, an herb is prescribed and you make the arduous journey home. Two days later you’re feeling worse. Maybe it’s the herb, maybe it’s the wrong diagnosis, maybe it’s the exhaustion from the ordeal. Yet one thing is for sure, taking the trip back to Hippocrates is too daunting to consider.

 

Fast forward to present day, and consider yourself as patient. Fortunately, the science of medicine has changed exponentially. Sadly the business model and the experience of getting that care is egregiously similar. Every time you need to use health care in today’s world, a gauntlet of obstacles stands between you and the service. First, there’s the receptionist answering the phone, then the scheduler fitting you into a limited number of times to come to the office, with all available slots being at least two days in the future. Upon arriving at the office, a waiting room stuffed full of sick patients greets you.  Next, the person at the in-window verifies your insurance eligibility. On to the nurse who greets and reviews your history, then a wait again for the hurried doctor to rush in, and in 10 minutes or less, reduce your problem to a prescription.  You’re ushered out and to the window where the co-pay is made and next a follow-up visit scheduled. The bill proceeds to the billing specialist and somewhere along the way (often months later) you might get an insurance adjustment charge.  The next day you wake up with a rash. Maybe it’s the drug, maybe it’s the wrong diagnosis, but taking that trip back through that system is going to give you pause and it’s not just the pause of your time or life interrupted.  For most day-to-day health care this story has repeated itself ad infinitum from antiquity until today. 

 

A huge unexamined question in primary health care revolves around the requirement of “forced” office visits.  Why do you think you are going to the obligatory ritual of the office visit for every medical problem be it a prescription refill, poison ivy rash, allergic runny nose,  tick bite, urinary tract infection among thousands of  other problems. Do medical experts really need to “see” you to protect you, themselves, or build a relationship?


The answer to this conundrum once analyzed is simple: No. As a matter of fact, the majority (over 50%) of routine primary care health problems can be taken care remotely, by phone, email, IM, or even online chat, if the doctor and patient have a pre-existing relationship.   And why don’t more primary care practitioners use the convenience of remote access to get their patients the fastest initial and follow-up treatments possible? It’s about the money.  Insurance companies pay a doctor to help you by seeing you face-to-face.  Since doctors are beholden to insurance companies payments to cover the cost of your visit and since your copay doesn’t even get close to covering the cost of running the business.
So the primary docs elect to put you through The Funnel.

 

When the idea is first suggested, most people disbelieve that phone consultation alone between a doctor and patient could handle more than 50% of the medical issues sent through the funnel of the mandatory office visit gauntlet.  Don’t misread this, talking with your doctor doesn’t mean that you don’t need to be seen in person sometimes too. Likewise, all patient-doctor relationships should begin first with a face-to-face visit, complete with check-up and the discussion of the patient’s prior medical history.  However, just open your eyes to the possibility of a new idea. I’ll let this uncomfortable thought settle in for while and will check back on your progress in my next post.   

 

Until next week I remain yours in primary care,

 

Alan Dappen, MD

Primary Care Wednesdays: Where Did Marcus Welby Go?

By Steve Simmons, M.D.

Photo of Steve Simmons, M.D.

Steve Simmons, M.D.

In the early 70s Marcus Welby MD, embodied the expectations of patients and the hopes of doctors seeking to emulate his bedside manner.  Sadly, when we look at medicine today, patients and doctors alike are left wondering what happened to Welby’s style of patient-focused medicine.  Much has changed in healthcare during the nearly 40 years since the show first aired.  Patients are more informed and expect to be included when clinical decisions are made.  Insurance companies and government bureaucracies have wrested control of the patients from their doctors.  Doctors must now focus on business and mind-numbing paperwork to the detriment of their medical knowledge and patients.  Runaway costs and an impersonal health care system dominate the landscape of the early 21st century.

The interests of the patient should be paramount and the doctor-patient relationship sacrosanct; however, by inviting a third party into this relationship the interests of the patient are frequently subverted.  The office meetings of the past, where difficult medical cases would be discussed, have been replaced with business meetings, insurance coding seminars, and a parade of experts reminding physicians to sit during the office visit to create the impression of more time being spent with their patient.  The inevitable frustration patients feel is directed towards their physician, who in turn has been saddled with his own frustration trying to merge ethical and business concerns.

Doctors are leaving primary care in droves, half planning to work less, become administrators, or retire.  A survey of medical students discovered hectic clinics, burdensome paperwork, and systems that do a poor job of managing patients with chronic illness as reasons for not choosing primary care medicine. Only 2% of students plan to select general internal medicine as a career. Most students are becoming specialists, where they can make more money, glean respect, and better control their schedule. If national healthcare becomes a reality, today’s critical shortage of primary care doctors will become problematic when the uninsured start looking for a doctor.

What qualities do we want in a primary care physician and what role do we need him to play in our lives?  A succession of TV doctors: Welby, Hawkeye, and now, House, share the virtues of diligence, attention to detail, and moral courage.  They can help us track the evolution of our patient’s expectations over four decades.  Dr. Welby’s patients willingly followed his guidance and instruction, while Dr. House’s patients live in the Information Age and have probably searched the internet before seeking his help.  Unfortunately, the admiration felt for Dr. House helps demonstrate that an entire generation expects an aggressive and uncaring doctor, thinking it the norm.

In 1979, Alan Alda gave the commencement address at Columbia University Medical School, titled, “On Being a Real Doctor.”  He said, “We both study the human being and we both try to offer relief–you through medicine, and I through laughter–but we both try to reduce suffering.”  Few believe today’s healthcare system is focused on suffering.  Third party payers are holding on to the money, controlling care, and this influences doctors. Patients like physicians have lost focus on what really matters: to ease suffering.

I sometimes imagine Dr. Welby practicing medicine today.  Towards the end of his day I see him sitting behind his desk, entangled in red tape, frustrated by his inability to untie the knot binding medical and financial realities.  His waiting room is full of patients, dragging the same red tape behind them. 

Fortunately, if one doctor’s argument is correct and all primary care physicians are Marcus Welby, we have reason to hope.  Our healthcare system is broken, but not irrevocably. Doctors and patients can stop wrestling against their constraints, turn away from their frustration, and find each other.  Patients will use access to information and drive health reform forward; many are speaking up today.  Doctors would do well to remember we are all patients but the onus of explaining the healthcare crisis and proposing meaningful change falls on physicians.  In our practice, doctokr Family Medicine, we try to cut red tape wherever we can, striving for an open and transparent practice, placing the doctor-patient relationship central in everything we do.  I believe you can find a doctor like Marcus Welby in your community and hope our posts will encourage you to try.

Until next week, I remain yours in primary care,

Dr. Steve Simmons, doctokr Family Medicine

Primary Care Wednesdays: Pioneering PCPs Offer Insights On Healthcare Reform

I’m really proud to announce the addition of my very first, regular guest blogger team: the healthcare professionals of Doctokr Family Medicine. Each Wednesday they will bring us new insights from the frontier of primary care – their cash-based, high tech, low cost service meets the needs of thousands of local patients at an average yearly cost of only $300. These primary care providers are happy, unhurried, and unfettered by insurance paperwork. They provide 24/7 care by phone, email, office visits and house calls. They’ve negotiated affordable rates with local labs and radiology services and pass on those savings to their patients. Their prices are transparent, affordable, and membership fees are very low.

Sound too good to be true? Well, check back every Wednesday to see what the doctors and nurses of an American primary care revolution have to say.

Their first post will be featured live at 8am, Wednesday, December 3rd.

Left to right: Alan Dappen, M.D.; Steve Simmons, M.D.; Valerie Tinley, N.P.

   

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