Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Our Cheap and Productive Lives

So you think there is a war on doctors, don’t you? It certainly looks that way from your particular vantage point. The government is deftly intruding into your professional life with a computerized fifth column that is extracting information on your every move, and to add insult to injury, it forces you to actually collect the data which is to be used against you in the court of public opinion. Media outlets are stepping all over each other to be first in line with sensational headlines implying reckless abandonment to greed in a profession believed to hold higher ethical standards than most. And the ever louder calls to rein in the seemingly rampant waste, fraud and abuse in health care, are becoming synonymous to reining in doctors’ irresponsible conduct.  The art of rabble rousing has always included oblique references to how the mighty have fallen. What is unique about the modern day twilight of the doctors is that it has practically nothing to do with the doctors themselves.

There really is no war on doctors. There is a war on patients, and doctors are merely collateral damage. You are an exploitable asset, to be bought and sold like cattle, and with you, the “covered lives” that you “control”. In a perfect world the price of acquisition would include orderly transfer of said control to the new owner, but the world is not yet perfect, so for the time being you must be retained as a proxy for the controlling interests in covered lives. You will have to learn new skills because the management of many covered lives is different than the management of the few, or the one. You will be held accountable for the health of your populations, and you will need to exhibit financial stewardship of the scarce resources allotted by the owners. In other words, your job now is to increase the productivity of the covered lives assigned to you, at the lowest possible cost to your employer, and the clients of your employer. These are classic key performance indicators (KPIs) in any business, and health care is no different.

The established leadership of the medical profession is currently on an all-out crusade to prepare the rank and file for their evolving position in this new world order. In April, NEJM published the recording of a roundtable discussion, moderated by Dr. Atul Gawande, which concluded with the heralding of a “new culture in practicing medicine” where doctors “prioritize our responsibilities as shepherds of scarce social resources to the same extent that we’ve historically prioritized our responsibilities for providing benefit to our specific patients”. To reinforce the argument, Dr. Peter Ubel, in an opinion piece titled “Promoting Population Health through Financial Stewardship”, is proposing to take the ABIM Choosing Wisely campaign to new levels and have doctors “contemplate trading off small clinical benefits for individual patients in order to promote more general societal welfare”. Since institutions have a business imperative “to reduce the amount of care they provide to patients” because of new payment models, Dr. Ubel keenly observes that “[i]f physicians resist these efforts because they feel they owe it to their patients to provide the best care regardless of costs, hospitals may look for other ways to trim expenditures, such as by reducing nursing staff”. If you are a doctor, and especially if you are a patient, the enormity of this statement should give you monumental pause.

Why wouldn’t hospitals auction off original artwork hanging in the lobby instead of firing nurses, is largely beyond me, but this particular flavor of financial stewardship, which is benefiting society by limiting clinical benefits available to its members, is all the rage now. Did you ever wonder why insurance companies seemed to not mind Obamacare requirements to place no limits on lifetime or even yearly maximums? Wonder no more. Last month the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association published the “ACC/AHA Statement on Cost/Value Methodology in Clinical Practice Guidelines and Performance Measures”. It seems that clinical guidelines are going to sport new value ratings that can be used to inform insurers and policy makers engaged in coverage determinations. Based on the World Health Organization (WHO) methodology, spending over $150,000 per quality adjusted life year (QALY) will be designated as low value care. The American Society of Clinical Oncology is working on its own financial stewardship guidelines, coming soon to your iPhone. Obviously insurers could just restrict coverage based on these ratings, but oh how much better it would be if doctors just refrained from prescribing these treatments on the QT.

For their part, distinguished economists, who practice their dismal science in the health care domain, are also searching for tools to help doctors manage their assigned populations. Writing for the New York Times, Prof. Uwe Reinhardt is lambasting Congress for its reticence to assign formal monetary value to the lives of people. There is implicit bulk valuation when covered lives are transacted, of course, but what you need at the bedside is patient-centered, personalized value estimates for each patient profile. How else will you decide if there is acceptable ROI when contemplating small clinical benefits? There is a rather humorous exercise in demagoguery, mistakenly attributed to George Bernard Shaw, which states that our seemingly moral convictions are not based on principles, as much as they are based on the amounts paid to us for transgressions. Following this irrefutable logical argument, Prof. Reinhardt is suggesting that it’s time for Congress to stop feigning indignation, and that it should take a lesson from the venerable Milton Friedman and put a price on every human head.

Walmart is promising to bring organic food to the masses. Walmart will make organic food affordable for the poor. What a wonderful idea! For Walmart that is. Small organic farmers are going to be forced to accept cheap Walmart prices and increase their “productivity”, or agree to sell their farms to industrial farming corporations. Maybe former organic farmers can get a job at Walmart, stocking shelves with pseudo-organic foods. Before you know it what passes as organic foods will be as lousy as regular foods, only a bit more expensive. Walmart is the future of all commerce because Walmart doesn’t just sell cheap replicas to unsuspecting poor people. Walmart is also nurturing and growing the poverty necessary to attract new customers. And this travesty is precisely the model chosen as the blueprint for fixing health care in America.

Caveat Emptor

For the longest time now I was of the opinion that the entire patient engagement movement is much ado about nothing, either stating the obvious, or demanding the impossible. I changed my mind. The emerging realities of health care in the U.S. are rendering patient engagement imperative, except for those patients who are participating in programs like, say, Penn Passport, a Penn Medicine product advertised as “a great resource for people who value their health care”, which includes Pavilion services complete with “warm cherry cabinetry, soothing earth-toned fabrics, comfortable elegant furnishings and convenient in-room safe” (the safe did it for me). For all others, it will be up to each and single one of us to advocate for ourselves in an essentially adversarial system. Perhaps a new profession will emerge, and perhaps patients would be best advised to bring an attorney to the exam room.

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Average Patient, since you are unwilling or unable to properly value your health care, the system will do the valuation for you. To ensure that the services you receive at industry venues are clinically appropriate for your situation, you must engage in independent and sustained research of your condition. This is particularly important if you are poor, old, disabled, very sick, or illiterate. Most of your research can be done on the Internet. If you can’t afford a computer, the public library will provide one for you. If you don’t have a car, most buses will have a stop in proximity to a public library. It is imperative that you keep notes and actively question all therapies offered to you and most importantly, those that are not. You should insist on real-time, online access to your medical records. Not some generic summary, but the full notes outlining the thoughts (if any), differentials and considerations made by those in charge of shepherding your scarce resources.

You could try to find a tiny private practice that is “in-network” with your insurer and pray that they take new patients, or you could scrounge together a few dollars, and go find a cash-only physician that may be willing to advocate for you. But the best thing you can do is to take a more expansive approach to patient engagement, and stand up for yourself and your family in this abject, immoral and underhanded war on the American people. The only thing that stands between you and cheap pseudo-medicine that looks fine from a distance, and full of holes upon closer inspection, is your doctor. No, doctors are not saints, and a few are outright villains, but taking away the ability of your doctor to exercise independent judgment on your behalf, is not intended to benefit you, or society for that matter, unless by society, you mean the six Walmart heirs, and their peers. You may be tempted to think that physicians are wealthy enough and powerful enough to ward off attacks from without and from within on their own. You would be very wrong. And is this really a health risk you are willing to assume? It’s time to engage….

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Brace Yourself for Transparency

It’s here. For the first time in 35 years (or 33, depending on which click bait headline you clicked on), the much anticipated data on Medicare payments to physicians, has been released to the public, on the historic date of April 9th, 2014. “Data trove shows U.S. doctors reap millions from Medicare”, according to the distinguished Reuters news service. The Washington Post will tell you “[e]verything you need to know about today’s unprecedented Medicare pricing data dump” and Pro Publica, which specializes in rendering doctors transparent, is announcing more tools for picking doctors coming soon, based on these data. If you want to read juicy stories about a handful of crooks who happen to have a medical license, and who were already under investigation by Medicare, click on some of the links above or below. If you want to understand what this all means to you, stay with me and keep reading.

The data released by Medicare includes the doctor’s name, address and specialty. For each physician, there is a list of CPTs performed for more than 10 patients during CY 2012, and for each CPT there is the number of unique patients billed for the procedure, the number of times the procedure was performed (or billed to Medicare), the average charge per CPT and the average payment for the same. There are over 800,000 names on the list (not just physicians), so chances are good that unless you are a pediatrician or a concierge doc, your name is on it. Of course, this is just the preliminary raw list, but given enough time and innovative efforts, many, many sub-lists will be evolving. Even before the list was released to the public, several publications with advanced media access, managed to quickly produce high-spender lists, so stay tuned to your favorite news outlet for more to come. Until then, the New York Times has the best search tool, so go ahead, look yourself up. It’s OK; everybody else is doing it.

One thing to note is that the data does not include Medicare Advantage patients, so right off the bat almost a third of Medicare patients are excluded from this data trove, not to mention the exclusion of Medicare Advantage bonuses from our newfound transparency. So if you find a geriatrician that reaped only $2,056 from Medicare, try not to worry too much. Chances are the guy or gal is fully loaded with Medicare Advantage patients. Commercial payers are obviously not on the list, but neither is Medicaid. We all know that Medicare payments are just the tip of the iceberg and doctors get additional boatloads of money from private insurance, and if we don’t know, I’m sure we will be so advised by the media in the next few days. But in the interest of full transparency, wouldn’t it be enlightening to see Medicaid’s relative contribution to doctors’ wealth? I mean defrauding the elderly is pretty bad, but defrauding hungry children, should give the upcoming three-part expose pieces so much more oomph….

On the White House blog, Todd Park is telling us that “New Medicare Data Offers Unprecedented Transparency for Consumers”.  Considering that the Medicare physician fee schedule was always public and anyone could see the price of any service in any locale, and considering that the total amount Medicare is paying out to doctors is also a fairly well known number, what is it we didn’t know? Lots of stuff. First, we didn’t have an itemized list of how much Medicare is paying each doctor for each individual service. Now that we do, we can learn, for example, that Dr. X in St. Louis has billed Medicare 200 times for venipuncture (at $3 apiece) for 100 patients and also billed for about 200 office visits for 100 patients. It seems that if you go see this doctor, you will invariably end up with a needle in your arm, so better find someone else who is not going to hurt you just because you showed up, and have all sorts of unnecessary tests done on you. See how helpful data can be to an informed consumer? Don’t worry; you won’t have to engage in such complex analysis for much longer, because journalists and unemployed technologists are busy building 4th grade literacy level tools and decision aids for us all.

But that’s nothing compared to the power of implied impropriety. There are two dollar columns in this unprecedented trove of data, one is what the doctors billed Medicare and the other is what Medicare paid. A while back Medicare released a smaller unprecedented trove of similar data for hospitals with the same two columns. That too was hailed as a new era for informed consumers who will now have the ability to choose hospitals based on the value they provide. Fast forward to today, and all that remains from that particular trove are a bunch of articles highlighting the immoral variations between hospital charge master prices and their effects on the uninsured. Since physicians’ data exhibits the same discrepancy between what is billed and what is paid, and since nobody cares to understand why and how those charges end up on claims, you can expect similar stories about uninsured people being charged “sticker prices”. On a side note though, how come people are uninsured? Isn’t it illegal to be uninsured? Shouldn’t you just head over to Healthcare.gov and get affordable insurance instead of complaining about prices for the uninsured?  Yes, you will end up with a high deductible, but you won’t have to pay sticker price, and I’m sure there will be some in-network facility within driving distance that can treat chest pain, and if there isn’t, maybe as an engaged patient, you should buy one of those iPhone defibrillators Dr. Eric Topol is using on airplanes, or was it an Android EKG, not sure. But I digress.

What else can we do, or are expected to do, with this data treasure? Well, it seems that CMS is asking all of us to grab a magnifying glass and play “Where is Waldo?” with this unprecedented trove of clues for how Medicare is being defrauded by doctors. CMS, it seems, has no ability to systematically flag the Chiropractor who bills upwards of 150 manipulations per patient per year, so it keeps paying and paying ad infinitum. In lieu of building a few cheap algorithms, why not throw the entire database out there and see if taxpayers can obtain some free fraud detection from the public at large? Sort of like the Sheriff used to put together a citizen posse to chase and apprehend criminals in the old west…. The criminals, particularly the ones not guilty of any crime, should adapt and learn how to use Big Data troves to defend themselves, with the added benefit of accelerating “trends toward large medical groups and doctors working as employees instead of in small practices”, per the Huffington Post. That is a good thing too, because dealing with organized crime is so much better for society than dealing with petty theft.

Where does this leave individual physicians? Well, you could run for the nearest rock and crawl under it until this too shall pass. Alternatively, you could start generating some educational content of your own, trying to explain to your patients what the troves of data mean, and what they don’t. You could put together more complete data, at least for your own patients, and address the clinical rationale for those completely out of context data points. You could write for larger audiences, and you could contact your local media offering to provide some balance to the tabloid stories about millionaires injecting people in the eyeballs with Lucentis.

The one thing I would recommend you don’t do, is to seize this opportunity to vent your frustrations with higher paid specialties, because the media is already doing that, and because this is exactly what they want you to do, and because in the eyes of the public there is no difference between this or that specialty. It’s hunting season for all doctors, and you will not save your neck, or your specialty, by joining in the hunt for other species. And finally, considering that the median amount of money doctors were reaping from the program for the elderly and the disabled was around $30,000 per year, I can’t help but wonder if some business decisions are not highly overdue, for some people. Just sayin’…