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Work Hour Restrictions Protect Patients From Sleepy Surgeons

Surgery Residency, Massachusetts General Hospital and Work Limits – Health Blog – WSJ

It’s not surprising that newly minted doctors at one of the most prestigious hospitals in the country, and in a specialty with a particularly demanding residency, have been violating national limits on work hours.

But the Boston Globe’s report that Massachusetts General Hospital must rein in surgical residents’ hours is a reminder that the work limits put in place several years ago remain unpopular with many residents and senior doctors.

Not surprising in the least.  I’m actually astonished that there’s anybody with the chutzpah to defend extended work hours for residents.   I did my residency largely in the pre-hour-restriction era — there were hour restrictions on months in the ER, but effectively none for the off-service rotations — and it was a terrible way to deliver care.  I did my time of q3 call in the units and q2 call on surgical services.  This includes a memorable time when I was the sole intern on the pediatric surgical service and was on duty for ten days straight without leaving the hospital.  That gives a new meaning to being a “resident physician!”  (Actually, that’s the original meaning, if you must get picky about it.)

The care provided was just scary.  I prided myself on being a machine and able to get through 36 hours of uninterrupted work without cracking; I used to run marathons and endurance was my forte.  And I did get through it better than most.  But after 24 hours with no down time (and there was never meaningful down time), you get stupid, and you make mistakes.  I remember once, in the medical ICU I was surprised in morning rounds to find that one of my patients had had a swann-ganz catheter placed overnight.  Caught flat-footed by this in front of the attending, I asked the nurse who had put in a swann without telling me, only to be informed that I had done the procedure! Apparently I was too sleep-addled to recall that I had done it!  Fortunately, I had apparently done it right, because a swann involves threading a catheter through the heart into the pulmonary vessels and can be Very Bad [tm] if you screw it up.   But I apparently did it by reflex without actually achieving a state of full wakefulness.  This sort of thing was fairly routine, and I also remember well the overnight residents being excoriated in morning rounds for the errors and misjudgments they had made overnight.  Great training, but not so great for the patients who were the victims of the mistakes.

It seems to me that the defenders of the status quo have donned their rose-colored glasses.  They fondly remember the camaraderie and the pride in accomplishment that their residencies evoked, while conveniently forgetting the mistakes and omissions, while neglecting the depression and divorces and other personal costs of such an abusive training environment.  And there’s the faux toughness: “I got through it, they can, too if they’re not too weak.”  And the old guard romanticize the qualities of the “true physician” in their dedication to their patients above all else: “These younger doctors just don’t care enough.”

What a load of crap.

Look, it’s with damn good cause that other professions in which errors can hurt people have work time restrictions (truck drivers, airline pilots, etc), and it’s stupid and arrogant to think that we physicians are so awesome that we are immune to the human factors of fatigue and circadian rhythms that contribute to errors.  When it’s inexperienced trainees working the ridiculous hours with minimal supervision (in many cases), the potential for fatigue-related errors is compounded.

I also question the motivations of some of those who defend the status quo.  It seems strangely self-serving that residency directors who would otherwise have to find attending physicians or PAs to perform the work that residents do on the government’s dime are the ones to insist that the situation is just fine, or that “the evidence of benefit is lacking.”  How cool is it that they can ignore reams of research on human factors, take the a priori position that the system is fine as it is, and demand formal evidence on “efficacy, safety and cost” before making any changes?  That’s balls!  It’s also fairly blatant obstructionism and should not be given any credence.

Dr Bob of Medrants has some thoughtful comments on the matter, mostly pleading for flexibility in the new rules. I would mostly agree, excepting that flexibility is best given to those who have proven themselves trustworthy, and residency directors (especially but not exclusively of surgical training programs) have repeatedly and flagrantly flouted the rules thus far imposed.   Flexibility is fine, but accountability should also be demanded.

I would also take issue with Dr Bob’s comment that this “training system that has served our profession well for many years.”  I look at the statistics on physician burnout, substance abuse, divorce, depression and suicide.  They are terribly concerning.  I would not lay all of this at the feet of residency, but I would say that the abusive (I’m sorry, “rigorous”) environment of residency training sets the tone for the culture of machismo that harms physicians as much as it harms patients.  Nobody is well-served by the current system.

It is true that change might be painful.  Reducing hours might mean reducing patient contacts and reducing the training opportunities for physicians.  This might require academic centers to revalue the time of physicians in training, by which I mean that residents might no longer be used as free menial laborers.  Maybe it doesn’t make sense to have a surgical resident “running the book” — many surgical residents never see the inside of the OR till their second and third years.  The universities might have to hire PAs or NPs for the “scut work” instead of using MDs in training as glorified secretaries (what a waste of time and money).

I’m glad the Institue of Medicine and the ACGME seem to be on the right path with the recommendations.  The reactionary response from the change-resistant academic centers will take some time and political will to overcome. I remember when they first imposed the rules, they followed it up by decertifying the Internal Medicine program at Hopkins for violating the rules.  That effected the desired change, I can tell you!   Hopefully, as the restrictions evolve, there will be accountability and enforcement until the culture starts to shift.

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

Is This Really How We Should Measure Physician Quality?

The OSHA-ization of health care quality continues.

A research group and a consulting firm have been hired by the state of Massachusetts to head up a new initiative to publish cost and quality information on Massachusetts doctors.  But the quality measures they will use are the same old ones we have seen for a long time.  They mean very little to most patients, and even less to doctors as a measure of how good their work may be.

To understand what I mean, look at what is being measured.

For the category “Adult Diagnostic and Preventative Care,” there are only four quality measures.  They are:

  • rates of colorectal screening tests
  • the number of patients in an insured population who lowered their blood pressure in a given year
  • correct imaging test use for lower back pain
  • rates of use of a spirometry test for COPD

The good news is Massachusetts doctors do better than the national average on these measures.  The bad news is it’s hard to say what that means as far as how good any doctor is who is measured this way.

Maybe it’s better in women’s health.  There, the four quality measures are:

  • rates of breast cancer screening for women 40-69
  • rates of cervical cancer screening for women 21-64
  • rates of chlamydia screening for women 16-20
  • rates of chlamydia screening for women 21-25

Hmm.  So if I am a 30 year-old woman trying to figure out how good my doctor is, the only thing that is being measured is whether he does a cervical cancer screening on me or not.  How about pediatrics?

  • rates of well visits
  • correct antibiotic use for upper respiratory infections
  • follow-up with children starting medications for ADHD

I could go on, but there’s a pattern.  All of these “quality” measures are crunching medical billing data and styling it as a quality metric.  And so every metric is going to be focused on things that are easily measurable by a review of those bills.

But there’s a more disturbing pattern.  The information is simply not valuable to consumers.  Worse, I think it is deeply misleading.  A medical group that does chlamydia screenings on 100% of its patients may be good or bad – or it just may be smart enough to know that if they do the state of Massachusetts will rate them with five gold stars.  But consumers won’t be able to tell the difference. All they will know is that practice A is “high quality,” while practice B isn’t.  Some doctors are starting to sound the alarm about this.

And this is the larger point.  Our health care is organized in a way that systematically undervalues the thinking, processing and deciding aspects of medicine- the things that really matter to you when you’re a patient who is sick trying to get help.  Our system treats medicine as an assembly-line process amenable to assembly-line metrics.  But it’s not.

Doctors, like others in professions requiring judgment and reflection, need time to think, and ought to be judged by how well they do that. Since the leading cause of misdiagnosis is a failure of synthesis – a failure by the doctor to put together available information in a way that leads them to the right conclusion – our system ought to be built around helping make sure this happens each and every time.

So, instead of a web site where you could see how often a medical practice does chlamydia screenings, imagine you could find out how often doctors at a hospital got their patients the right diagnosis and treatment?  Now that would be a useful way to measure quality.

*This blog post was originally published at See First Blog*

Cash-Only Physician Practices Could Save You A Bundle

When most people think of “cash-only” medical practices, plastic surgery and dermatology procedures are top of mind. But there is a small contingent of primary care physicians who offer low-cost “pay-as-you-go” services. Yearly physicals, well-child visits, screening tests, vaccinations, and chronic disease management are all part of comprehensive primary care options available. And this costs the average patient only $300 a year.

It is estimated that 75% of Americans require an average of 3.5 office visits per year to receive all the medical care they need. If the average office visit is 15-20 minutes in length, then that averages out to 1 hour of a physician’s time each year. How much should that cost? Dr. Alan Dappen (founder of Doctokr Family Medicine, a cash-only primary care practice in Vienna, Virginia) says, “$300.” But insurance premiums are often closer to $300 per month for these Americans, and that doesn’t include co-pays for provider visits.

So why aren’t people buying high deductible insurance plans, saving thousands on premiums per year, and flocking to cash-only primary care practices?  Dr. Dappen says it’s a simple matter of mindset – “People have been conditioned to believe that if they pay their insurance premiums, then healthcare is ‘free.’ In reality, their employers are taking out $3600 or more per year from their paychecks for this ‘free’ care. But since employees don’t see that money, they don’t miss it as much.”

A high deductible health insurance plan (where insurance doesn’t kick in until you’ve paid at least $3000 out of pocket in a given year) costs about $110/month for the generally healthy 75% of Americans (you can check rates at eHealthInsurance.com). That’s a savings of at least $2280/year for those who switch from a regular deductible plan to a high deductible plan.

What are the odds that the average, reasonably healthy American will outspend $2280/year? I asked Alan Dappen how many of his 1500 patients spent more than $2000 on his services per year. The answer? Three.

“Most Americans who buy-in to low deductible plans pay a lot more in premiums than they’ll ever use. They’re essentially betting against the casino, and we all know who wins on those bets.”

So I asked Alan Dappen if “the casino” was making most of its money on the “healthy” 75% of its enrollees to subsidize the cost of the sick 25%.

“Sure they are. And I suppose if enough people saw the light and switched to high deductible plans with cash-only physicians, it might force change in the health insurance industry.  Perhaps the government would use our taxes to help subsidize the sicker patients.

The bottom line is that at this very moment, 75% of Americans could be saving thousands of dollars per year on their healthcare costs – and have their very own cash-only primary care physician available to them 24-7 by phone, email, home visit, or office visit. The cash-only doc can afford to offer these conveniences because they are paid by the hour to do whatever the patient needs done, without forcing the relationship to conform to insurance billing codes. In fact, the physician saves a bundle on coding and billing fees – and can pass that on to the patients.”

I wondered about the outrageous costs of laboratory fees and radiology charges for people who don’t qualify for the insurance company negotiated rate. Dappen explained:

“My practice has negotiated similar rates with local labs and radiology groups. Screening tests and x-rays are very reasonable.”

I asked Dr. Dappen who uses his services.

“I see both ends of the spectrum. The high-powered executives who don’t have the time to wait in a doctor’s office and enjoy the convenience of handling things with me via phone or house call. For them, time is money, and by losing half a day or more traveling to a doctor’s office and waiting for their 15 minute slot, they might lose $5000 in billable work time. On the other end I see patients with no insurance or high deductible plans. They enjoy the same conveniences, and end up paying an average of $300/year for their healthcare. This is high quality care that they can afford.”

I guess the only thing preventing this model of healthcare from taking off is the courage of individuals to try something new. I myself have switched to a cash-only practice with a high deductible health insurance plan, and have saved myself thousands a year in the process. I love the convenience of knowing that my doctor has all my records in his EMR, I have his cell phone number, and he can renew my prescriptions with a simple email request. I can’t imagine why more people aren’t doing this.

Alan Dappen says, “They just have to wake up out of the Matrix.”

**For more in-depth coverage of the rising trend in cash-only practices, check out MedPage Today’s special report.**

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.

How To Reduce Costs And Improve Quality In Healthcare: A Legal Approach

By Jeff Segal, M.D.

I often attend health policy discussions. I am usually the only physician in the room. My colleagues lament they just do not have time to make their voices heard. As healers, our first duty is to care of the sick and disabled; and to provide comfort when we have little else to offer. I hope the public will listen to one doctor’s voice.

We have many problems to solve: access to healthcare for the uninsured; affordable premiums for those with coverage; outcomes that provide value and keep patients safe. These goals can be realized.

Let me set the stage for a proposed solution; one that can easily complement any number of other proposals.

This year, tens of thousands of physicians will receive a sobering letter. The summons will claim the doctor recklessly, negligently, and with wanton disregard for safety injured his patient. The poor doctor will not recognize this butcher in print and might not even remember the patient, now a plaintiff. The doctor will never forget this day. And this day will have expensive consequences for all of his future patients.

Fear of litigation is ubiquitous. The experience is so odious we physicians will do almost anything to avoid repeating it. We will order tests, perform procedures, and recommend referrals, all to prevent sitting in front of a jury. As one ER physician put it, “I will scan patients until they glow if it will keep me out of court.” And there are 800,000 of us who are fully capable of ordering just as many tests and referrals as the fictional TV character, Dr. Gregory House. We euphemistically label it defensive medicine.

Defensive medicine eludes easy definition, but it is pervasive. Some defensive tests provide value to the patient. Some paradoxically put the patient in harm’s way. Most of the time, no value accrues, just cost and inconvenience.

Combine defensive medicine with a sub-critical mass of health information technology, and the formula is complete for overpriced, idiosyncratic, fragmented care. That said, we can harness the tremendous emotional energy surrounding litigation for more positive ends, benefiting all stakeholders. Let me explain.

Healthcare is a partnership between stakeholders (patients, physicians, and payers); each with different needs and wants.

Patients want lower health insurance premiums without sacrificing timely access to physicians or safety. If something untoward happens, they do not want to lose their home.

Physicians want protection against meritless lawsuits, lower professional liability premiums, and to be front and center in developing the care pathways for managing patients. If they deliver superior outcomes, they want to be paid more.

Payers (insurance carriers, business, and the government) want care delivered in the most cost-effective way possible.

These goals are not mutually exclusive.

We proposed a model which relies on a contractual interaction between the various stakeholders. Patients (consumers) purchase a modified health insurance policy. That policy includes transferring a potential future right to sue – to the payer- or more accurately- to a neutral third party. In exchange, the patient receives not only health insurance, but a disability and life insurance policy. If a patient is injured, he receives a near-term predictable remedy. Not a lottery jackpot, but enough to carry on. He also pays a lower premium. And the system guarantees implementation of health information technology, including patient safety systems.

The payer (neutral third party) now has the ability to sue the doctor down the road if something goes wrong. To minimize any untoward outcomes, payers enter into an agreement with physicians. If the doctor follows cost-effective algorithms, developed bottom up with substantial physician input, the physician is effectively immunized from litigation. If these algorithms are not followed, the doctor could document why. It is only the combination of the physician ignoring the pathways, associated with a breach in the standard of care causing damages, that puts the physician at risk for litigation. Some or all of an award from such litigation could be passed back to the patient.

Physicians would be armed with knowledge of how to predictably avoid an adversarial legal process. The conventional tort system remains as a backstop incentivizing the doctor to voluntarily embrace efficient best practices. Care will be more consistent and patients will be safer. Dollars will be saved.

How much? We ran a sophisticated financial analysis on such a proposal. The system saves enough cash to bundle the disability and life insurance policies at no extra cost; pay for health information technology infrastructure and maintenance; with enough money left over to buy a health insurance policy for every uninsured American. The model ran Monte Carlo simulations that demonstrated if physicians are properly incentivized to follow efficient best practices, there is enough money left over to prefund these initiatives. Monte Carlo simulation is a computer model that generates thousands of probable future outcomes. The simulation looks at a number of inputs combined in ‘‘random’’ order. As a result, it is designed to account for the uncertainty inherent in complex systems such as health care.

The simulation concludes that by providing a formula for decreasing frequency of litigation, patients can paradoxically be safer, have better access to care, and have broader remedies if they are injured. Where the conventional tort system arguably has failed, namely in maximizing patient safety and making those who are injured whole, a reformed system that more often than not keeps doctors out of court could succeed.

While on first blush, the system is financed by decreasing or eliminating the practice and the costs of defensive medicine, the opportunity is much broader. Intertwined with the concept of defensive medicine, but separate, is savings associated with implementation of efficient best practices. Across the country there is considerable variation in practice patterns. This variation imposes considerable costs without a requisite improvement in outcomes. For example, at the population level, Medicare patients with severe chronic illness in higher-spending regions receive more care than those in lower-spending regions but do not have improved patient survival, quality of life, or access to care. In fact, their outcomes appear worse.1 It is reasoned that embracing best practices would improve clinical outcomes at a lower cost; in other words, improve patient safety at a lower cost. Although pay-for-performance programs have been proposed as one way to coax physicians to embrace efficient best practices, an equally powerful incentive would include a solution to litigation.

This model has been vetted and received warmly by those on the left and the right. I want to address three concerns.

In the model, what happens to dangerous doctors? Most doctors who are sued are not repeat offenders. To the extent individual physicians pose a recurrent danger, their care would be reviewed, and action would be taken, on an administrative level.

Isn’t the model cookbook medicine? No. Almost no clinical algorithm is applicable 100% of the time. Nonetheless, physicians must use their judgment 100% of the time. Physicians need latitude to deviate from algorithms. The proposed model allows such deviation if, in the physician’s clinical judgment, it is the right thing to do. There, the physician has contemplated the algorithm and consciously avoided its use with his patient. In such a setting, he is presumably doing so because he believes it is in his patient’s best interest. Such deviation will not trigger litigation.

How will plaintiff’s attorneys react? This model has been reviewed by a number of seasoned veterans. To their credit, those surveyed find much to like, preferring a bottom-up contract based approach to a top-down legislative dictate. Further, the current paradigm is a high stakes, high risk, long term game of poker. By the time a case gets to trial, an attorney has spent tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of his own money. He has to hire experts, attend depositions, file motions, and more. And, he often loses in court. If the system were more predictable and transactional, even attorneys could find a great deal to cheer about.

The outline sketched above just scratches the surface. There are many more details. We live in a time of great change. Any model that earns the support of physicians, patients, payers, and attorneys might actually be the change we have been waiting for.

***

1.  Fisher E, Wennberg D, Stukel T, Gottlieb D, Lucas F, Pinder E. The implications of regional variations in Medicare spending. Part 2: health outcomes and satisfaction with care. Ann Intern Med. 2003;138:288–298.

Dr. Segal, a neurosurgeon, is the founder and CEO of Medical Justice Services.
Medical Justice Services is a member organization of Center for Health Transformation.

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