Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Middle-Aged Consumer in the Coal Mine

Whenever you read a health care article, paper, book, blog post or even tweet, that substitutes the term consumers for patients, and the term providers for doctors, or physicians, you should inherently assume that the authors are advocating for something that will not benefit you or the people you care for, something that will most likely harm you financially and if you happen to be less than independently wealthy it will harm you physically in real and immediate ways. These advocacy pieces usually come dressed in the sheep clothing of empowerment, liberation, convenience, savings and democratization, but underneath it all, and often unbeknownst to the authors themselves, there is always an ominous incarnation of the wolf of Wall Street.

Whenever you read something emanating from selfless, do-gooder (usually public or supposedly not-for-profit, but certainly for-revenue) institutions, alliances, consortia, coalitions, and such, note how you are always addressed in the third-person plural. There is no “we” in what passes as enlightened health care conversation. As Dr. Victor Montori astutely observed, there is no “sense of a shared fate. Of a shared journey with our kin.” The wolves of Wall Street, and the hyenas of Silicon Valley dancing at their feet, have no kin and no intention of sharing in our fate.

Consumers and providers are a uniform mass of transactional entities, neatly described by a finite number of discrete financial events. Consumers and providers are hence computable entities. You don’t often see articles about consumers being sad or happy, consumers laughing or crying, consumers falling in love or dying. Providers are never sued for malpractice, never accused of fraud, never disillusioned and they never commit suicide. The vocabulary used for consumers and providers requires that we strip everything human from the subject matter, and leave all that is mercenary and precisely quantifiable in dollars and cents. As the consumer/provider vocabulary is ported to health care, the entire endeavor by necessity is divesting itself of human considerations, including kinship and any remaining sense of a shared fate.

Consumers, although sometimes patronizingly described as savvy, are not assumed to possess any particular wisdom. The only discriminatory behavior ascribed to consumers is the ability to discern cheap from expensive. Consumers are expected to incessantly shop for consumable stuff, like so many rats frantically searching for bits of cheese in a carefully constructed maze. We are expected to shop when things are hunky dory and when things are down in the dumps. We are ordered to shop in the face of national tragedies, and now we are ordered to shop when personal tragedy strikes as well.  We are ordered to shop for life saving medicine. We are ordered to shop for surgeries, and we are ordered to shop for “relationships” with our “providers”. We are effectively ordered to shop for dear life, and to “share” and “rate” our shopping “experience” to better inform the maze designers.

The government of the United States wants us to shop for health insurance every twelve months. Health insurance companies want us to shop for cheap services all through the year. ProPublica and the unparalleled paragon of social beneficence called Yelp, are volunteering to help us do a better job at shopping for “providers”. Glitzy startups like Amino, will “harnesses health Industry data for consumers”, to show us some information about some doctors, for no particular reason and free of charge, because “the initial goal is to create an appealing product, and then figure out a business model later”. Yes, it makes perfect sense that Mr. Vinod Khosla and company would sink almost $20 million in something not projected to have any returns. After all, the entire Silicon Valley Empire was built this way, and now the time has finally come to fully align health care with Silicon Valley and Wall Street ways of doing business.

A fundamental shift in how we are being programmed to think about health care is therefore underway. The rather recent term “consumer-centric healthcare” is now brazenly accompanied by musings on who will be “herding” consumers’ medical records. Following the subtle transformation of health care to “healthcare”, we are beginning to shift the conversation to just “health”, because the “care” part seems redundant. Health care is not too expensive because insurance companies operate like Columbian drug cartels and pharmaceutical companies are essentially drug cartels. Health care is not too expensive because hospitals are coalescing into regional and national monopolies, unchecked and undeterred by the perpetually fund-raising legislative and administrative corps of career politicians. Health care is not too expensive because people who work for a living haven’t gotten a raise in decades. No siree, Bob!

Health care is too expensive because consumers lack the wisdom to be healthy, and providers, i.e. the nondescript entities tasked with pushing “appropriate” processes and products to consumers, are failing to keep consumers healthy (a.k.a. profitable). Consumers must be reformed to be healthier, and providers to be more productive producers of health. To prime the pump, health care itself needs to be transformed from a quirky personal service to a standardized population management industry ripe for plunder (a.k.a. disruption). And then, who better to reform consumers than the high tech propaganda machine? Over the years we were reformed to happily ingest every edible poison known to mankind. We were reformed to bash the brains out of fellow consumers every Friday after Thanksgiving. We were reformed into a trembling mass of righteous fear and indignation that can only function (when properly medicated) in “safe spaces” devoid of intellectual ambiguity.

We were reformed to not just accept, but clamor and pay a premium for the right to carry consumer profiling devices in our pockets, which are used to chart our future in minute detail. Healthcare “futurists” are painting for us abstract visions of healthcare where “health is primary”. Futures where medicine is devoid of hospitals, human doctors and human patients. Futures where you buy genetic analysis from 23andMe on your TV, and fixing your baby in utero is a weekend DIY project. Futures where we need not care for each other because the iPhone Gods are caring for us all. Will we be happy? Will we be free? Que sera, sera….

But our health has always been affected mostly by social order, and less so by health care. As Silicon Valley and Wall Street are taking command of our health, what will be, will be affected by factors far removed from the myopic analysis of our healthcare experts. Fortunately, we are bringing our canary on the journey down this shaft. Unfortunately, the canary is dying.

Mortality rates have began to rise for white, middle-aged Americans without a college education, arguably the people most vulnerable to the mercantile siliconization of life. They use mostly alcohol and opioids to numb the pain and eventually they numb it for good. Unless we find our way out of these toxic dungeons where life is money and money is life, right here, right now, most of us, consumers and providers alike, will suffer the same fate. This is the real clear and present future of consumerized health.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Quantified Doctor-Patient Relationship

In a previous post we explored the doctor-patient relationship, which according to many is an important factor influencing the health care trifecta of quality, outcomes and cost. So far the doctor-patient relationship escaped rigorous quantification, because “relationship” is largely a nostalgic quantity, and because “communications” was deemed to be a reasonable substitute. There are various tools and instruments for subjective measurement of communications with one’s doctor, with the most common being the ubiquitous patient experience survey. However, if we accept a broader definition of the doctor-patient relationship, such as the 6C’s proposed by Dr. Emanuel, a more objective measurement of the relationship seems not only possible, but desirable even for those who may be questioning the value and purpose of quantification in general, and obsessive measurement in particular, present company included.

Let’s take the 6C’s from the top, leaving out communications and compassion, which are subjective quantities. The intent is to create an accurate picture of relationships patients can expect to have with a physician within the boundaries imposed by their financial circumstances. Most suggestions presented here are not attempting to score the physician directly, since relationships are always affected by more than just intrinsic qualities of the two parties relating to each other. For example, a relationship with the most compassionate and articulate physician may turn into a disastrous affair if conflicts of interest dictate how communications are conducted and how and when compassion is expressed. Ideally, a patient specific “scorecard” composed of the criteria below, would be compiled by a non-biased third party, or by physicians themselves, and made available to patients.


For patients, this means choice of practice type and settings, primary care physician, specialists, hospitals, and choice among treatment alternatives. Surely the degree to which these choices are available to patients can be objectively calculated, rated and ranked as is now fashionable. For example, where patients are assigned to physicians by third parties, the relationship would score a big fat zero. A point or two would be awarded to a vertically integrated system where patients can choose from the physicians employed by the group. Scores would be proportional to network size and variability for more traditional plans, with Medicare fee-for-service and cash-only practices getting the highest scores. Obviously, patients will need to account for individual scenarios for incrementing or decrementing scores.

Choice of specialists and hospitals can be inferred from the same variables as measured above, but adjustments will need to be made to account for hospital privileges and referral patterns of the primary care physician. This too can be measured and scored pretty accurately from easily obtainable hard data. Choice among treatment alternatives is a bit trickier, particularly in primary care. Using process measures, sample documentation and insurance plan policies, one could derive an individualized measure of choices available to patients. It is important to note that here we are not measuring “appropriateness”, “stewardship of scarce resources” or how “wisely” people choose, nor do we measure “education” about options. We measure the actual availability of treatment options.


How does one measure physician competence? Arguably, all current “quality” measures, public reporting and board certifications are aiming to quantify and ensure precisely the competence of doctors, in a roundabout way that is failing to measure anything of consequence. If we describe a competent physician as one who stays up to date, has good technical and diagnostic skills, exhibits good clinical judgement and is cognizant of his or her own limitations (as Dr. Emanuel did), we could devise better ways to assess competence. Staying up to date is trivial to measure. Technical and diagnostic skills, as well as clinical judgement, are very difficult to assess objectively, and perhaps this is why all our faux measuring schemes seem woefully inadequate.

We can certainly envision physicians assessed by their peers (perhaps anonymously or through virtual grand rounds collaboratives), but competence cannot be discussed until we quantify the prerequisite time variable. It makes little difference whether a physician is competent or not, if the patient rarely sees the doctor, or if visits are limited to a few minutes of furious typing, clicking and scrolling. So here is one variable that can be objectively and rather easily quantified: time spent with patients by severity of chief complaint, patient health status and vulnerability. We can get fancy and measure frequency of visits and total time spent per patient per year, adjusted for a host of variables.

Another factor closely related to competence in primary care, and not explicitly addressed by the 6C’s framework, is comprehensiveness. This too can be measured objectively. The range of conditions treated by the physician, and the list of those routinely referred out can be compiled, ranked and assigned relative scores accounting for frequency of occurrence, along with patient characteristics. For example, a physician treating large numbers of elderly diabetics with multiple comorbidities, would garner more competence points than a physician who spends most of his time taking telemedicine calls for minor and limited ailments.  A physician who admits and manages her own patients when hospitalized would rank higher than physicians who never set foot in a hospital.


Continuity of care is another word for long lasting, comprehensive relationships, and it can be accurately quantified with very little effort. Both PCMH and standard patient experience surveys include vague attempts to quantify continuity, but those could be misleading. Continuity of care is now applied loosely to teams of clinicians, such as residency groups, and it does not account for how appointments are conducted. When the patient is seen by a team member, and the billing doctor sticks his head in for a few seconds to say hello, does this count as continuity? When any and all patient interactions that do not involve a face-to-face visit are “handled” by other team members, and never the physician, does that count as continuity? How about outsourcing complex care management in between visits altogether, which is the “unintended” consequence of the new Medicare chronic care management fee?

It is important not to confuse continuity of care with continuity of medical records, or care coordination, when quantifying this aspect of the doctor-patient relationship, but other than that this may be the easiest factor to quantify objectively. A physician who always sees his or her patients, is always available in between visits to provide clinical advice, and has maintained this relationship with individual patients over long periods of time, would score high on this factor. Almost by definition, solo practitioners and many direct primary care physicians should top the charts on continuity. Similar to the quantification of patient choice, here too we must account for the vagaries of health insurance marketplaces which are increasingly empowered to break any relationship at any time on a whim.

(non) Conflict of interest

This is arguably the most important factor in the doctor-patient relationship, and other than random incendiary headlines, there are no serious attempts to measure or even shed light on the mushrooming conflicts of interest systematically inserted into the traditional doctor-patient relationship. Ideally, physicians would always act solely in the best interest of the one patient in front of them. Most people still believe that this is the case and most physicians will insists that regardless of circumstances, this is what they strive to do, but there are objective data points that could more precisely quantify the alignment of interests between doctors and patients.

We all know now that accepting the smallest gifts from pharmaceutical companies represents a conflict of interest. But how about directly tying salaries, and other compensation for labor, to corporate revenues? How about enforcement of corporate protocols and suppression of “disruptive” behavior? How do these things jive with the clinical judgement required by our “competence” factor? How about coercive “reimbursement” rates that force physicians to limit time spent with patients, and exclude certain patients from their practice? How about participation in incentive programs that pay doctors to substitute the interests of “society” for the individual interests of patients (as “misguided” and “wasteful” as those may be)? These are precisely quantifiable data.  

Ideally, I would love to see a comprehensive, and frequently updated, list of all potential conflicts of interests for each physician, by health insurance plan, publicly displayed in every practice and on every practice website. Why? Because conflict of interest, whether by choice or externally imposed, affects the most basic ingredient of any relationship: trust. If you were charged with a crime, would you trust a lawyer who is payed to keep society safe from criminals? Would you trust an accountant who is paid to increase IRS revenues?  Would you trust a hair dresser paid a fixed fee per client per year? Would you trust a mechanic who gets a little kickback from your insurance company to use the cheapest replacement parts for your car? Same goes for doctors.

In summary, there is absolutely no reason why we should not collect objective data, which is readily available in quantifiable formats, and combine it to create an informative picture of each physician and the environment in which he or she is practicing medicine. We may not be able to come up with a simplistic single score on some artificial scale, and we may not be able to punish or reward doctors for the “relationship measure", but people have a right to know what lies behind studied communications and standardized compassion, and most of all, people have a right to know how health care reforms are affecting a physician’s ability to maintain relationships with patients. If I’m not mistaken, this is what transparency is all about.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Crisis Masters of Health and Death

There are three visions of peace in the seemingly never ending, but really rather brief, Israeli-Palestinian perpetual crisis. One peace features two independent countries living in collaborative harmony on a piece of land approximately the size of New Jersey. Another peace yearns for a messianic Jewish state stretching from the blue Mediterranean shores to the Jordan River, and possibly beyond. The third and final peace is expected to materialize after the Zionist entity has been permanently erased from the face of this earth, or at least from the face of that New Jersey size holy piece of land.  Each definition is amenable to slight compromises in form, but not at all in substance.

There are three visions for the future of medicine in the seemingly insurmountable, but really rather minor, perpetual health care crisis in America. One future of medicine sees physicians unencumbered by useless administrative tasks, wielding sleek and useful technology tools, offering the best medical care to all patients who need and want attention. Another future is yearning for the revival of chickens and charity as bona fide methods of payment for whatever medical care the free market wishes to bestow on the less fortunate. The third and final future is one devoid of most middling and often faulty doctors, where the health of the nation is enforced by constant computerized surveillance with fully automated preemptive interventions.  Each definition is amenable to slight compromises in form, but not at all in substance.

Years ago I used to walk the streets of East Jerusalem, buy dates in the open air markets of Jericho, and search for the perfect plate of hummus in Ramallah. Everywhere I went people wanted the same things I did. They wanted the rain to stop, or the hamsin to break. They wanted their coffee hot and strong and their bread soft and warm. I said shalom and they said salaam and we all meant the same thing, because ironically people in the Middle East always wish peace upon each other, and people like us, who buy and sell cheap jewelry or dates or hummus, actually mean it.   

Years ago I used to hang out with software programmers, writing code for hospitals, doctors, nurses, billers and schedulers. Everywhere I went these strange looking techie nerds wanted the same things I did. They wanted the overhead lights in the office to be off, and the whiteboards to be bigger. They wanted their Java to compile without error and their curly braces to be perfectly aligned. They worked days, nights, weekends and holidays to keep the lab printers running on every floor. They managed to convince themselves that somewhere in a hospital far away, a patient may get better sooner, or a doctor will see something he may have missed, and an exhausted nurse will breathe a sigh of relief, if they managed to get the face sheets to look just right.   

There is always some effort underway to fix the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Many such efforts have gotten as close to an equitable solution as Moses got to the Promised Land, only to discover that the last barrier is insurmountable. What’s to become of Jerusalem? Who owns the holy ruins of past civilizations, and the tombs of dead prophets? Whose religion bestows the ultimate rights of ownership over rocks and boulders that are coveted by all religions? Should it be the religion that started it all? Should it be the religion with the biggest cathedral, or the religion with the biggest guns? Is possession nine-tenths of the law? Perhaps ownership is the wrong way to think about this. Perhaps access is a more pertinent concept and the historical manifestations of God on this earth should become the commons of all religions. Perhaps, but not today.

There is always some effort underway to fix health care in America. Decades of legislative, regulatory and business driven efforts have gotten us almost universal access to the most unaffordable health care system in the world, only to discover that “information blocking” is a barrier to health. Information is power, but aggregate information is also a tool for amassing wealth, and massive information, of the big data type, is practically legal tender. What’s to become of this seemingly self-generating big data? Who owns the streams of life once they are transformed into data? Whose role in the digital extraction process bestows the ultimate rights of ownership over the monetary value of people? Should individuals own their digital emissions (defeating the entire purpose of this exercise)? Should the collectors own the data? Should the purveyors of data containers own what’s being accumulated inside? Is possession nine-tenths of the law?  Perhaps ownership is the wrong way to think about this. Perhaps access is a more pertinent concept and our aggregate digital lives should become the commons of all people everywhere. Perhaps, but not today.

Jerusalem is not the real problem. There will be no resolution for the Israeli-Palestinian crisis until hate is defeated, or at the very least silenced. Standing with your back against the deep sea and listening to incessant drumrolls of death, dismemberment and extermination is enough to ruin the best gin and tonic at the best club on the most beautiful night on the Tel-Aviv promenade. Deep down you know that the people you met in Jericho, Ramallah and East Jerusalem would much rather get drunk with you in the club, than blow themselves up at the door, but that doesn’t seem very comforting tonight. Jerusalem and all its holy ghosts will be solemnly shared only when everybody benefits from this arrangement, including the millions of people whose lives are at stake here, and excluding the fiery tongued hate mongers who pass as leaders in some parts of this world. Until that day comes, Jerusalem will keep taking our lives, our children, and worst of all, our humanity, in the biggest hoax ever staged by mankind.

Information blocking is not a real problem. There will be no solution to our health care crisis until greed is defeated, or at the very least tightly controlled. Siphoning hard cash in the form of “information” from medical facilities into the coffers of third party data processors, seeking to supplant traditional medicine with computerized cost-benefit analysis, cannot possibly be met with enthusiasm by the doomed. Serenading the public with psychopathic prophecies of eternal health, while stealing their personal information to more accurately find and extract money from their wallets, and to curtail all freedom of choice, is not helping either. Information will flow freely only when everybody benefits from the torrent, including the millions of people whose lives and liberty are at stake here, and excluding the smooth tongued wealth extracting machines which we call leaders. Until that day comes, information will flow haltingly, under duress, in the biggest jail ever created by mankind.

There is an old saying in Hebrew stating that a dead fish stinks from the head, but there is also an old saying in Arabic promising that each dog shall have his day, so there may still be some hope. We the people who are happy and satisfied with hot coffee, a loaf of bread, a nice whiteboard and a little less light shining on us, have no use for crises of any kind. It is the power drunk, greedy and shamelessly opportunistic (mostly) men calling themselves leaders, who manufacture crisis after crisis, to justify their own miserably exalted existence, because crisis and leadership are like a nightmarish version of the chicken and the egg dilemma.  There is no material difference between the rough lunatics, preaching fear of thy neighbor, and promising boundless paradise in return for mindless violence in this world, and the sleek captains of industry, preaching fear of natural life, and promising boundless health on this earth in return for mindless submission to infallible algorithms for the duration.

The crisis masters of Middle East death and American health are both driven by the same “selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity” (to put it delicately). The former manifests itself in the lucrative fire and brimstone raining over that hapless portion of the world since the day Abram chose to change his name to Abraham. The latter is how we the people of the new world go gentle into that good night.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

How much is that PCMH in the Window?

Much has been written about the Patient Centered Medical Home (PCMH) model of primary care, both complimentary and critical. Most evaluations and opinion pieces refer to the particular PCMH flavor defined by the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA), since this is by far the most widely adopted model, and all other models are just minor variations of the same. Practically all reviews, studies, opinions and assessments pertain to the ability of PCMH practices to improve “quality” measures and generate savings for the system, and in all fairness both evidence and opinions are mixed. One aspect of the PCMH that is rarely discussed, is the cost incurred by the practice for sustaining PCMH operations over time.

A new article published in the Annals of Family Medicine estimates ongoing PCMH costs to be approximately $105,000 per physician FTE per year, in personnel costs only. Data was collected through interviews and staff surveys at 20 primary care practices, 8 owned by an academic institution in Utah, 7 private practices and 5 sites of a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) in Colorado. Only the Colorado practices were recognized by NCQA, while the Utah practices had their own proprietary definition of PCMH. The authors reached their shock and awe inducing figure by adding self-reported increases in time spent by staff on each task listed in the NCQA PCMH 2011 Standards, and then priced this incremental effort based on staff compensation.

Unfortunately, the cost of individual PCMH Elements and Factors is not available, but even in aggregate form, the analysis is perplexing. The average $105,000 per physician per year is not an absolute number. It is the incremental difference, according to the authors, between running a “traditional high-performing” practice and running a PCMH practice. As such, the dollar amounts depend on how one defines the baseline. The article does not provide an exact definition for the “traditional high-performing” primary care practice baseline and this is obviously problematic. The authors mention that not all PCMH Elements were fully implemented in the surveyed practices, but an exact list of implemented functions is not available either.

Basically, we don’t know what the starting point was, and we don’t know what the end point is, but we are told that it takes an outlandish $105,000 worth of work to get from the former to the latter. Outlandish, because any independent solo practice faced with half of those costs would go bankrupt in six months or less, and in spite of that, there are many solo practices recognized by NCQA at the highest possible PCMH level, which is more than the practices in this study have accomplished. Here is a riddle for you: how does a micro practice, with one physician and no staff, sustain the highest levels of PCMH operations when according to this study, one would need to add approximately 2 FTEs to the traditional model?

The answer is that the lump sums presented in this article are meaningless. For example, the highest incremental expenditure for the studied practices, to the tune of $3,000 per physician per month, was attributed to NCQA Standard 3, which deals with providing medical care to patients. There are several items selectively listed by the authors in the description of Standard 3, so let’s assume that those are the tasks that generated incremental effort and costs. The first task on the list is the notorious daily huddle. This is most certainly a new PCMH construct that wasn’t there before. However, would the daily 5 or 10 minutes spent on huddles in a PCMH, not be spent on the same exact tasks peppered throughout the day in a traditional practice? Did the study account for such considerations? We don’t know.

Another item listed for this Standard is implementation of evidence-based guidelines. What does this even mean? Should we presume that traditional high-performing practices are not practicing evidence-based medicine? Were they using magic 8-balls to diagnose and treat patients prior to PCMH implementation? The same can be said for multiple other items, such as medications reconciliation or monitoring patients on high-risk medications or making sure that lab orders are resulted at some point, and a host of other tasks routinely performed in any practice, although in different form and perhaps in a more ad-hoc fashion. Of course, we can only speculate here, since the details behind the $105,000 figure are not available, but these seem to be typical examples of the rampant misconceptions regarding the meaning of PCMH operations.

What sets the NCQA PCMH initiative apart from your run of the mill data collection and reporting programs, such as Meaningful Use, PQRS and even ACO, is that it provides a holistic framework for improving practice operations without being narrowly prescriptive on how to accomplish that. It is a comprehensive tool for the practice to examine its inner workings once every three years and brainstorm on ways to improve its processes. There is nothing in the NCQA PCMH framework that does not occur or should not occur in a modern “high-performing” practice. With the exception of some Meaningful Use measures, I would challenge anyone to point out to even one PCMH factor that cannot, or should not, be implemented in a way that benefits patients and the practice itself. And it all starts with the initial recognition process.

Much has been written about the trials and tribulations of obtaining NCQA PCMH recognition, from the extensive documentation requirements to the onerous costs of labor and expertise. There are two approaches to PCMH recognition that generate these types of complaints, and later on may generate the theoretical $105,000 costs. One approach common in large institutions is to view PCMH as a top down initiative managed and executed by a central office, with little or no input from practice staff, including physicians.  The other extreme is the small practice chugging through each PCMH factor, trying its best to generate mountains of screenshots and reports with no particular strategy in mind other than getting enough points to pass the “test”. Both models may get you PCMH recognition, but with much frustration and zero benefits to the practice.

And then there is the right way, which harnesses the PCMH recognition process to benefit the practice and its patients. Forget about “readiness assessments” and “culture change” indoctrination. You were ready and fairly well cultured the day you finished residency. The question you should ask yourself is not whether we do this or that thing, but whether we are doing it well. You may have some pink colored slot on your schedule called same day appointment, but is it where it should be? Is it solving a problem, or is it creating one, or is it there for decoration purposes only? How are you planning to stop the upcoming hemorrhage of patients to non-descript retail clinics and iPhone “doctors”? Should you maybe use this opportunity to revisit your 10 years old scheduling process?  This is not about NCQA. This is about dollars and cents for your practice.

How about “implementing evidence-based guidelines”? Should you be deeply offended because someone dares to ask you to implement clinical practice guidelines for a sore throat? Or should you look at this as an opportunity to write some standing orders for your staff, so that you don’t have to go in an out that exam room more than once, and maybe, just maybe, you can squeeze in a couple more minutes with your little patient, and notice that mom seems to be unusually worried and distracted? And maybe you'd want to ask her about it. And maybe that’s what “patient-centered” is all about. And maybe all the administrative PCMH stuff you do, should be purpose built by you to make this possible. And maybe this is not about recognition, but about creating a safe little space where you can be the doctor you always wanted to be.

We don’t know how the PCMH was implemented in the study. We just know that it was implemented to a certain degree. We don’t know if the missing pieces are minute or crucial for practice financial health and patient care. We don’t know if the physicians in these practices were given the opportunity to build their own medical home, or if someone else decided how to shuffle the deck chairs. We don’t know if the subjective incremental effort reported by staff on each factor was offset by reduced effort elsewhere, or if it represents better use of previously underutilized positions. We have no objective numbers for “before and after” payroll expenditures, although those should be rather easy to obtain for large facilities. There is more than enough missing and undisclosed data in this study to render the $105,000 suspect.

Are there ongoing costs for a PCMH practice? No doubt, there are plenty, but these costs are no different than the costs of running a traditional (or non-traditional) high-performing practice, because PCMH is just another name for high-performing practice. Perhaps the most useful conclusion from this paper is that high quality primary care costs more than mediocre or outright irresponsible primary care, and those who decide how much primary care doctors get paid, should bring this largely self-evident fact into account, when defining physician fee schedules and future payment schemes.

[Disclosure: I am the founder of BizMed, a company whose mission is to support the viability of independent medical practice, and to that end it offers free software and tools to reduce administrative complexity in private practice in general, and for PCMH recognition in particular]

Monday, August 24, 2015

Measuring the Doctor-Patient Relationship

Sixty years ago, before he became a controversial figure in the field of psychiatry, Dr. Thomas S. Szasz co-authored an article for the Archives of Internal Medicine (now JAMA Internal Medicine) on “The Basic Models of the Doctor-Patient Relationship”, which is well worth reading today, particularly for those who believe that patient empowerment/engagement is a novel and disruptive innovation of our digital times. The paper is describing three distinct relationship models (i.e. active-passive, guidance-cooperation, mutual participation) and how they flow and morph into each other based on patient ability/preferences, physician characteristics, and illness circumstances. Dr. Szasz is addressing all the contemporary hot buttons of paternalistic doctors, patient values and shared decision making, but more important is the realization that doctor-patient relationships were a concept debated before most of us were born, in much the same way they are debated today.

Since Dr. Szasz made his contribution to the philosophy of medicine before hidden agendas and political correctness dictated how ideas are phrased, he was free to observe that “each of the three types of therapeutic relationship is entirely appropriate under certain circumstances and each is inappropriate under others”, without the compulsory need to assign blame to either the patient who prefers passivity or the physician who complements those preferences in “an interlocking integration of the sick and his healer”. And when a mismatch arises between the preferences of doctor and patient, the relationship is dissolved, “and so life goes on”. But the days of laissez-faire medicine are over, and today we feel compelled to define the, one and only, ideal physician-patient relationship.

As the managed care era descended upon us in the 1990s, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel felt it necessary to define an aspirational goal for the ideal physician-patient relationship based on six fundamental components (the six C’s):
  1. Choice – For patients, this means choice of practice type and setting, choice of primary care physician, choice of specialist or facility for emergencies and special conditions, and choice among treatment alternatives.
  2. Competence – Physicians should stay up to date, have good technical and diagnostic skills, exhibit good clinical judgement and be cognizant of their own limitations.
  3. Communication – First, physicians should listen and understand symptoms, values, family, jobs and other health related patient concerns. Second, physicians should be able to explain the disease, the diagnosis, treatment alternatives and how those affect patient values, guiding patients through issues raised by their illness, while respecting patients’ preferences for how much they want to know.
  4. Compassion – This is about empathy and helping patients feel supported.
  5. Continuity – Here the paper recognizes that the “ideal physician-patient relationship requires a significant investment of time”, and that frequent changes of physicians undermines such relationship. It also acknowledges that “relationships that endure over time may be more efficient” both by helping doctors treat the patient in more appropriate manner and by fostering patient trust and confidence.
  6. (non) Conflict of interest – Personal and financial interests are emphasized, but the expectation seems to be that “a physician’s primary concern will be his or her patient’s well-being, even though physicians may have obligations that conflict”.
The remainder of his paper explores the many ways in which managed care is positioned to attack all six components, and concludes by stating that “the physician-patient relationship is the cornerstone for achieving, maintaining, and improving health”.

Dr. Emanuel’s definition of the doctor-patient relationship is very broad, and with a few minor additions and deletions, it can also serve as a definition for what we now call patient-centered care. Perhaps it is not by accident that the term “patient-centered medicine” was introduced into common parlance by Enid Balint, the wife and collaborator of Michael Balint who was one of the earliest researchers of the dynamics between doctors, patients and illnesses. Michael Balint went as far as to suggest that the doctor himself was actually a therapeutic “drug”, while Enid Balint envisioned the skills needed in the practice of patient-centered medicine to be “in the way that the doctor allows the patient to use him, rather than in the way the doctor responds to the patient by his interpretations and theories”.

Whereas the contemporary definition of the physician-patient relationship (and subsequently patient-centered care) consists of a rigid set of presumably ideal physician characteristics, the Balints, and to a certain extent Dr. Szasz, saw the physician as a tool to be personalized by each patient and further customized for each illness situation. It is difficult to imagine a more egalitarian or participatory relationship than this one. In fact, Dr. Emanuel’s six C’s can be seen as just one particular facet of the malleable relationship proposed by Enid Balint. In a perfect world, we would concentrate on creating an environment where physicians are able to allow themselves to be used by patients, and trust that good things will happen to both parties as a result.

But in our current world of ingrained distrust and defensive measurements, we feel compelled to digitize, tabulate, rank and rate the doctor-patient relationship, just like we measure everything else. First, the ubiquitous patient experience surveys provide a coarse measure of how patients experience the communications component of the relationship. It is interesting to note that patients are not asked about their preferences, but whether the “provider” did this or did that, presuming that this or that are what the patient wants the “provider” to do in all situations. Can we infer from a highly scored experience survey that the patient has a useful relationship with her doctor? Not really.

Then we have the periodic surveys asking patients to rank the importance of physician attributes, which always include physician compassion and communication patterns, but rarely other components of Dr. Emanuel’s six C’s, and never the chameleon abilities proposed by Ms. Balint. The presumed intent here is to impress upon physicians that they should focus on the highest ranked attributes of the relationship because they matter more often to more people. Some researchers went as far as to define frameworks for measuring the relationship itself, and formal screening instruments to score it from a patient perspective. Those tools seem a bit more pertinent since the questions are about the patient and her perceptions, instead of inquiries about sanctioned physician activities, and because no assumptions are being made regarding the “right” kind of relationship (a Dutch example is depicted below).

Perhaps a combination of the former and the latter, along with objective information, such as assessment of choice, conflict of interest and competency, can get us closer to a meaningful measure of the doctor-patient relationship. Careful analysis of result sets would allow us to answer two basic questions: are patients getting what they value most, and are those fortunate enough to have the relationship they desire experiencing better medical outcomes. Examining the characteristics of both patients and doctors, could yield actionable insights into optimal practice models. Strangely though, in spite of the billions of dollars spent on “patient-centered” research to date, I am not aware of any such study, or serious attempts at anything remotely similar. One can only wonder why.

Although there is ample rhetoric about the doctor-patient relationship and patient-centered everything, much of what we do in health care today is in stark contradiction to Dr. Emanuel’s ideal six C’s, not to mention the revolutionary ideas of the Balints. Patient choice is being curtailed by a bewildering array of narrow network health plans and wholesale clinical decisions made by corporate CEOs. Competence is being redefined to include care provided by non-physicians, non-clinicians, and algorithmic software. Continuity of care is being discouraged in favor of cheapness, convenience and continuity of medical records, while conflict of interest is inherent in all so called value-based arrangements. Compassion has been scripted by marketers, and communication, precisely codified for the eclectic, self-managing, highly educated, financially secure, and largely healthy, patient segment, has become the second most important factor defining the interaction between patients and the health system. The premier factor is of course, access to all of the above.

I don’t think I can agree with Dr. Emanuel’s opinion that the physician-patient relationship is the “cornerstone” of health, but it might very well be the cornerstone of healing. I don’t know how healing the sick affects the myriad measures we are currently collecting, reporting and analyzing with such zest. Some argue that a satisfactory doctor-patient relationship is conducive to patient adherence, increased ability for self-management, and decreased utilization of hospitals and emergency services. If these assertions are even partially true, then the doctor-patient relationship has serious implications for the most important aspect of health care in this country: money. And as such, defining, supporting, and, yes, formally measuring and analyzing the doctor-patient relationship may present a rare confluence of interests between corporate greed and basic human dignity.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The DoD EHR: Ah Hell, Let's Try Again

The health information technology (HIT) world has been hit by a watershed event like no other. The Department of Defense (DoD), widely respected for its indiscriminate generosity to contractors, has awarded the most coveted prize in recent HIT memory – the Defense Healthcare Management Systems Modernization (DHMSM) contract. And the winner is... Leidos, the contractor formerly known as SAIC. A couple of years ago, when the race for the DoD contract began, Leidos/SAIC selected Cerner as its EHR of choice for this contract. The smart money though was on Epic and its Big Blue partner because they are and seemingly always have been the safest procurement choices for top brass in any large organization.

A stunned HIT “community” initiated its favorite game of providing post facto authoritative explanations ranging from cute to grotesque. Here are the most common and least specious opinions. The interoperability lobby offered Cerner’s recent and vocal leadership in organizing a national information exchange as the reason for the DoD choice. Others, who may have been bothered in the past by the prices Epic was able to command, suggested that the relative cheapness of Cerner must have tilted the balance. The technically inclined opined that the Cerner architecture is more modular and hence a better fit for DoD needs. These theories and more may all hold some truth, but what we all seem to forget is that the DHMSM contract was awarded to Leidos, and Cerner is just a subcontractor.

In September 2013 the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), one of the largest defense contractors in the U.S., changed its name to Leidos Holdings, Inc. and spun off a smaller entity that retained the SAIC name. The split was explained as a way to avoid conflict of interests and get more business. The classic SAIC expose, written by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, and published in Vanity Fair in 2007, should be required reading for anyone trying to understand why the DHMSM contract award was pretty much preordained. Epic lost the day it partnered with IBM, and Cerner won the day it selected, or was selected by, SAIC.

Back in 1988 SAIC was awarded a $1 billion dollar initial contract to design, develop, and implement the Composite Health Care System (CHCS). When the first version of the CHCS turned out to be lacking, SAIC was awarded a contract to replace it with CHCS II. Over 27 years SAIC has evolved the CHCS into the current Armed Forces Health Longitudinal Technology Application (AHLTA) through design, redesign, rip-and-replace, integration and deployments in military facilities of all types around the globe. The DoD was very proud of the new $1.2 billion AHLTA back in 2005, but in time it became fondly known as an acronym for “Ah Hell, Let's Try Again”. Nevertheless, SAIC kept raking in support and development contracts for AHLTA, since according to the DoD, SAIC “is the only vendor capable of supporting functional and technical system changes due to their unique experience and familiarity with the system”.

After CHCS and AHLTA, now comes DHMSM, and there is absolutely no reason to believe that the DoD changed its opinion regarding SAIC’s unique capabilities. Spending billions of dollars on one failed solution after another does not seem to be a problem for defense contractors, or government contractors in general, and in all fairness SAIC does have decades of experience in the unique deployment needs of the military, which are vastly different than your typical posh academic center in the homeland. Perhaps throwing a decent commercial EHR in the mix will finally break the perpetual cycle of failure the DoD has become accustomed to paying for. One can only hope.

The more interesting question for non-military HIT is how the DHMSM contract will affect the orders of magnitude larger commercial EHR market. Will Cerner leapfrog Epic and become the EHR of choice for large health systems? Will Cerner be so bogged down in military work that it will start losing ground in the private market? Will Epic repent and submit itself to the Cerner led CommonWell interoperability (data collection) bandwagon? Or alternatively, will Epic snap out of its self-imposed silence and mount an aggressive marketing and PR campaign? Will distant competitors somehow be able to take advantage of the turmoil and take the market by storm? Or maybe, just maybe, once the headlines die down in a few weeks, and we move to the next big thing, nothing will have changed.

The DHMSM contract is very large by comparison to private EHR contracts, but it is not as large as it looks. The initial award is for $4.3 billion over the next 10 years. Multiplying by at least 2, since after all this is a Pentagon contract custom built for SAIC, we are looking at approximately $860 million per year on average, over the next decade for SAIC, Cerner and dozens of other subcontractors. An optimistic estimate of Cerner revenue would be around $80 million per year (HIStalk estimates a more conservative, and probably more realistic, $40 million per year). To mere mortals this may seem like a lot of money, but considering that typical hospital EHR implementations run anywhere between tens to many hundreds of millions of dollars, and considering that Cerner has annual revenues of around $4 billion, the DoD contract seems like a modest contribution to an already gigantic EHR powerhouse.

Speaking of money, it does seem rather excessive to spend so many billions of dollars on a piece of software. Nobody knows how many billions will end up being spent, but we do know that $4.3 billion is the absolute minimum over the next 10 years. Is that a lot? The DoD has 55 hospitals and more than 600 clinics, and it has aircraft carriers, submarines, helicopters and all sorts of personnel carrying vehicles where the EHR will need to be used, not to mention remote caves in foreign lands, and theaters of full blown war. Neither Cerner nor any existing EHR, including VistA, has those capabilities out of the box. Certainly lots of new code will need to be written by Cerner, but the bulk of the money will go to integration and deployment. That money is SAIC money and is independent of EHR choice (this is a good place to go back and read that Vanity Fair article).

There is however no doubt that the DoD contract is a huge marketing win for Cerner, and this is amplified by the fact that Epic does little to no public marketing of its own. The Cerner award will also have beneficial effects on the CommonWell data exchange platform. The already significant influence Cerner exerts on government agencies, such as ONC, will likely increase and that’s a very good thing for Cerner’s commercial business. More important though is Cerner’s foot in the door at the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), just in case they decide (or are forced to decide) to keep up with the DoD and replace their VistA EHR.

So far the experts and the media have been kind to Cerner, and will continue to be so as long as the DHMSM project moves successfully through its milestones. However, as a subcontractor, Cerner has limited control over the project as a whole, and considering that in the world of SAIC, success is defined as extracting the largest possible annuities from the government, whether its deliverables are fit for purpose or not so much, Cerner is running a significant risk of having its otherwise respectable reputation tarnished through no fault of its own. Not sure why, but my feeling is that Cerner has a much better chance of surviving inside the shadowy defense contractor culture than Epic would have ever had, so things may turn out just fine.

Health care nowadays is like the ticker tape of a hyperactive stock market gone mad. Everything is huge, disruptive and transformative for a few days until the next seismic shock rolls in. Since nothing means anything in particular, everything means exactly what each expert wishes it would mean. For some the DHMSM exemplifies the triumph of interoperability and the demise of information blockers. For others it is clear proof that the future belongs to platforms and substitutable modules. Many are just thrilled to see a previously unbeatable contender take one squarely on the chin. And a few feel personally persecuted because a big iron EHR vendor was selected instead of something from the app store. Truth is that the DHMSM means very little to anybody in the EHR industry, other than Cerner of course.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Excerpts from a Doctor's Personal Journal


4/18/13 …finally certified as a PCMH with NCQA. We’re meeting Meaningful Use requirements and are busier than ever. It seems I’m staying at the office later and I haven’t seen any of the expected profit yet, most of the increased reimbursements have barely offset the added costs as far as personnel and IT, but now we can prove the quality of the care we provide…

4/25/13 …at dinner with the family I realized how chaotic my home life is, no structure like at work. I was late getting dinner ready, Thursday is my night to cook, and I didn’t have all the ingredients so I had to run to town and still forgot to buy milk. I needed to pay bills but hadn’t transferred any money to the checking account and had used up the last of the checks without ordering more…That night the twins Annie and Amy were pestering my wife Kate about soccer camp, and Glen was talking about his latest baseball game, he made the varsity baseball team as a sophomore playing first base. Kate, who runs her own business as a florist, observed that at work she has systems to track orders and deliveries, but at home we can run out of milk and no one says anything. It got me thinking…

5/16/13 …after dinner the kids had finished their homework and were starting a game of Monopoly and Kate was about to settle down with her book when I called everybody together for an impromptu family meeting. I proposed that we build a Family Centered Personal Home (FCPH) based on the same principles of the PCMH I had learned at work. I suggested we could have written family procedures and protocols for all the important stuff, and we could track our progress if we digitized and automated as much of it as possible. We would develop a team approach with everyone functioning at the top of their abilities. The kids were excited when I told them we would each need our own IPad connected with the home computer, but Kate was skeptical and wondered how it would help and what it would cost.  Eventually my enthusiasm prevailed and Kate agreed to try. I know that if we can collect enough data and use the right quality metrics we can optimize the FCPH…

8/22/13 …it’s taken all summer but I think we’re ready to begin in time for the start of the new school year. I used all the spare time I had this summer writing protocols for everything from paying bills to homework and piano lessons. I took the money we would have spent on weekend outings and invested in a new home computer and IPads for everyone. I had an IT guy at work help me modify some basic software and spreadsheets to structure our initial data collection, later I’ll need to invest in better software to help interpret the data we collect…

8/29/13 …Ready to roll! I explained tonight that the new computers are tools and not toys, we’re going to use them to track our progress. I showed each of the children how to use the preloaded spreadsheets to track their time spent on homework, chores, piano and violin practice, school attendance using GPA as an outcome metric, and so forth. I included detailed procedures for everything from teeth brushing to basic hygiene and meal prep, expectations for laundry, vacuuming, dishwashing, and lawn mowing... Glen was excited to see I’d included a program to track his baseball batting average. It’s important for children to have some unstructured time to pursue their own interests and hobbies so I built that into the detailed preloaded schedules customized for each of them. For Kate and me, we have the added responsibility of tracking household finances, kitchen and pantry inventory, transportation expenses maintenance and repair, etc. I mirrored some of the children’s software on our computers too so we can have reminders of important events like recitals and soccer games….

8/30/13 …today I introduced the family to the rest of the team, just as with the PCMH Kate and I can’t be expected to do it all, so I’ve hired some surrogate help in the form of tutors, nanny, personal trainers, gardener, and housekeeper. I have outsourced accounting, IT development and most home maintenance responsibilities. Extended family can step in to fill some functions when Kate or I aren’t available. I’ve had to forgo any retirement savings this year and we might miss a mortgage payment or two, but it will be worth it in the name of quality…

9/2/13 …I had to password protect the Intimate Relations protocol and data set on the shared server, it was generating too much interest. I need to talk to Kate about measuring quantity as well as quality as a metric…

10/10/13 …pulled Amy aside tonight and had a stern father-daughter chat, she just hasn’t been tracking her data like the rest of us. She complained it was too much work, that all the data entry was actually keeping her from performing the tasks she is supposed to track. I explained that I completely understand, and that based on my experiences at work the documentation is always more important than anything else so sometimes you have to fudge a little bit in order to get everything done. Without the data we can’t measure how well we’re doing and if we can’t measure it how can we improve? She cried and tried to argue that sometimes the intangible things in life are more important, but in the end she saw things my way and promised to try harder…

12/12/13 …During dinner tonight everyone was quiet, the cacophony of conversations we would have heard last year at this time is gone, instead everyone has their head down rapidly pecking away at their computer screens documenting their activities of the day…we don’t seem to be interacting nearly as much but the pantry is well stocked and the oil/filter in the pickup was changed on time for once…

1/16/14 …reviewed the children’s report cards from fall term and Annie’s grades have fallen. Looking through the automated reporting features of our user friendly software it appears she has been keeping up with her homework, and the chore tracking feature reveals 100% performance, everyone else is tracking around 65% to 80% with a performance incentive set at 72.3%. My personal observations make me question the veracity of Annie’s outcomes, but it’s hard to dispute the data…

2/13/14…Glen is in the front yard playing catch with Nathan his personal trainer, the twins are at the kitchen table with Brenda their mentor working on their algebra, both tasks I used to have to do. This has freed me up to do more important things… I just discovered all the tires on our mountain bikes are flat, they’ve probably been that way for months and nobody noticed, I’ll need to add a bicycle tire pressure monitoring protocol to Glen’s garage inventory and maintenance duties, maybe I should sell the bikes, we haven’t used them in almost a year…

3/27/14 …spent the first couple of days of spring break tweaking our protocols and procedures for the FCPH and letting the kids catch up on their reporting. Was surprised to learn that Glen isn’t going out for baseball this year, he says he just doesn’t have the time…

5/15/14 …Amy is still having a hard time, tonight she complained that our relationships are suffering, she observed that we haven’t played a game of Monopoly in over six months and our dinner conversations are curtailed as we all rush to finish the meal and clean up so we can complete all the documentation needed for the FCPH. It was difficult for me but I had to explain to Amy that in any endeavor like this sacrifices are necessary. At the office before we became a PCMH I used to think that my relationship with my patient was paramount and that I could effect a better outcome by getting to know and bonding with my patients respectfully. Our transformation to the PCMH taught me that I wasn’t doing such a good job. Some of my patients that I’d been treating for years weren’t following my advice and were skewing the metrics used to incentivize me so they had to be discharged from care. I explained to Amy that just as I’ve had to sacrifice any antiquated notions about relationship building in clinical medicine in order to optimize my outcomes, so too must she jettison any such unreasonable expectations as we perfect the FCPH…

6/18/15 …our household is running like a well-oiled machine, and I can prove it! We had to let the housekeeper and gardener go so we still have some issues in those realms, but everyone has very well defined roles and responsibilities… sometimes there can be a lot of finger pointing when things go wrong. I haven’t talked to Amy in weeks, there are still some discrepancies in Annie’s data and actual outcomes I haven’t put my finger on yet, and Kate seems more distant somehow. Glen no longer talks about going to medical school after college. On the computer I can show you how we’ve improved on so many metrics in the last two years, I can’t imagine trying to run a household without the FCPH…

The author is a family physician in solo practice.

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