0 Simple treatments: bad doctors or a bad health system?

The New York Times editorial on September 9, 2012, “Simple treatments ignored”, is a commentary on a report in the September 7 issue of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR)  that many Americans with hypertension (high blood pressure) were not being adequately treated. The Times notes that the study “found that 67 million Americans had high blood pressure and that 31 million of them were being treated with medicines that reduced their blood pressure to a safe level. The remaining 36 million fell into three groups: people who were not aware of their hypertension, people who were aware but were not taking medication, and those who were aware and were treated with medication but still had hypertension.”

This is definitely not a good thing; hypertension is a serious disease that can have devastating results – most obviously in stroke, but also in increasing the risk of heart attack and kidney failure. Also, as the article states, treatment is relatively easy – that is to say, there are drugs that are available for effectively keeping hypertension under control. In fact, so many people are receiving effective treatment that the incidence of bad outcomes, such as stroke, has greatly decreased. The Times editorial, however, creates the impression that much or most of the fault of for lack of treatment is the result of ignorant, incompetent, uncareful (or uncaring) physicians; the reason, they write, is “…mostly because overburdened doctors did not give hypertension high priority.” This is a highly dubious assumption.

The editorial goes on to praise, specifically, the Kaiser Health System for doing a good job of controlling its patients’ blood pressure, and thus reducing the rate of strokes and heart attacks:  “The organization created a hypertension registry to track patients and the care they were getting; eased the burden on doctors by using pharmacists to initiate drug therapy and medical assistants to monitor patients’ progress; made it easy for patients to get free blood pressure checks; and showed doctors how their record on controlling blood pressure compared with others in the system.” This is great.

People should get treated effectively for treatable diseases, and hypertension is certainly one. There are, however, many reasons why they are not always treated, and this problem includes patient as well as provider issues. Hypertension is, on the whole, asymptomatic; it does not cause pain or weakness or even, usually, headaches; thus the sobriquet “silent killer”. The treatments, in addition to drugs, include things like “…weight loss, increased physical activity, lower sodium and alcohol consumption, and stress management,” which require significant effort and commitment on the part of the patient, and are not easy to do.

But, more important, the lessons of Kaiser are not easily translated into the rest of the health system. Kaiser is a very atypical in that it is a vertically-integrated, closed-panel health system. For starters, and it is a very important start, every patient in their panel is insured (though Kaiser) and every patient sees a Kaiser provider. Thus, they control both the coverage and direct care of this population, and they have a large enough scale to do outreach programs to encourage and support people in adopting and maintaining the behaviors listed above. This is, however, not the case for most of the community. Many people are not insured, and many others have insurance that does not cover drugs and other treatments. A variety of factors, some provider related (such as not being able to get an appointment) and others originating from patients’ own decisions (choosing to go to ERs and urgent care centers, and indeed “doctor shopping”), they see different providers. That the US has an uncoordinated health non-system is the key problem, not that "their doctors are asleep at the switch."

The article concludes: “The benefits of reducing high blood pressure — not to mention the cost savings — are obvious. The wonder is that the health care system has done such a bad job of delivering those benefits.” To me the wonder is that we have tolerated not actually having a health system for as long as we have, and that health policy continues to try to address issues of quality of care while ignoring the elephants in the room: that so many people have no coverage or poor coverage, and that reimbursement overwhelmingly rewards intervening once problems have arisen rather than preventing them. That a physician hired by a hospital to inject clot-busters into the brain’s arteries to try to reverse a stroke that has already occurred earns, literally, several times as much as (and works much less than) a primary care physician who treats hypertension (and many other diseases). The reimbursement system is completely inequitable and inappropriate, and the health system is a sick hodge-podge of half measures.

First, we need a health insurance system that covers everyone: Medicare for all. Then we need to reward systems-based and outcomes-based care. Then maybe all of us can see results like Kaiser's.

0 Physician advocacy: for patients and for social change

A recurring question for physicians and others in the health profession is what degree of health advocacy is expected or appropriate. For those of us in medical education, the question becomes how much of the training (and evaluation) of medical students and residents should be based on advocacy for their patients or populations. Sarah Dobson and colleagues provide a useful formulation of this question in a “Perspective” in the recent Academic Medicine, “Agency and activism: rethinking health advocacy in the medical profession”.[1] They note that “Health advocacy appears in various forms in professional charters and standards”; however, as Canadians they focus on the CanMEDS document. This is “…a competency-based framework developed by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada that describes the core knowledge, skills, and abilities of specialist physicians,” that has 7 core roles including “health advocate”.

In the United States, the clearest expression of the role of advocate is in the American Medical Association’s (AMA) Declaration of Professional Responsibility: Medicine’s Contract with Humanity, which contains, as item #8, “Advocate for social, economic, educational, and political changes that ameliorate suffering and contribute to human well-being.” Overall, the Declaration is quite an impressive document, the contents of which would surprise many in both the medical and lay communities who think of the AMA as professional advocacy group with no social conscience; sadly, there might be as many unpleasantly as pleasantly surprised by the discovery. Advocacy for patients is generally considered an appropriate role for physicians by physicians, but advocacy for social, economic, educational and political change is far less widely accepted.

Dobson and colleagues propose a parsing of the concept of advocacy into two components. They call these “agency”, working on behalf of the interests of a specific patient, and “activism”, which is more directed toward changing social conditions that impact health, and whose effect is seen on populations more than individuals. This is helpful in clarifying different perspectives on the term “advocacy”. While the CanMEDS framework, for example, calls for physicians to “…responsibly use their expertise and influence to advance the health and well-being of individual  patients, communities, and populations,” the authors observe that trainees “…have variously described it as charity or as going above and beyond regular duties.” They note that “...several studies have concluded that although physicians generally endorse the idea of advocacy, they rarely engage in it.” They summarize the difference between agency and activism by saying “…whereas agency is about working the system, engaging in activism is about changing the system.”

The article concludes that there is a distinction to be made between the role and responsibilities of the individual physician and that of the medical profession as a whole. “Physicians and other health professionals witness the effects of the socioeconomic determinants of health every day, made
visible to various degrees in every patient encounter, “ but they question “whether this authority translates into an obligation.”

There are, however, many physicians who do act as social activists, and we need more of them. The source will be medical students who then become residents. Luckily, there seem to be no shortage of entering medical students with this commitment. They demonstrate it by community volunteer work, creating and working in free clinics, volunteering their time to work in schools, and pursuing training in public health, public policy, and community involvement. Sadly, however, along with empathy, which has been shown to dramatically drop as medical students enter their clinical training (Hojat, et al.[2], and this blog, “Are we training physicians to be empathic? Apparently not., September 12, 2009), so does volunteerism and commitment to social change.

In the US, despite the AMA Declaration, there are no requirements for teaching advocacy included for teaching medical students by the Liaison Committee for Medical Education (LCME), which accredits medical schools, or in training residents by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME), which accredits residency programs. In the absence of such requirements, it is less likely that advocacy programs will be developed for students and residents, and more likely that, when they are, it will be the students who are already interested in doing such activities who participate. That is great, and programs which allow students to be involved and helps “inoculate” them against from losing their interest and commitment will continue to exist (such as several that we have here at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, including our free clinic and longitudinal elective Community Leadership track). However, if these are not expectations of all students, of all physicians, then only a minority will be involved.

Indeed, when we look at the American political landscape, we see a fair number of physicians involved in politics. It could be argued that, in these roles, they are advocating for social, economic, educational, and political changes. What is disconcerting is that the majority of these physician politicians seem to ignore the second half of that sentence, “…that ameliorate suffering and contribute to human well-being”. They are often found among, and sometimes as leaders, in advocating policies that slash the social safety net, decrease funding for public education, and oppose universal health insurance. Too frequently, they act as agents of their own social class than as advocates for those most in need.

That doctors will most often adopt the “agency” role when it comes to issues that most directly affect the health of their patients, that can be arguably seen as “medical”, is very reassuring. I was once at a physician meeting in which a “conservative” state legislator was speaking against a statewide smoking ban. Reassuringly, the vibe in the room was very hostile to the content of her remarks. Sensing that, she turned to a physician from her district who was also very conservative and a political supporter of hers and said “You? Do you agree with this?” To which he shrugged his shoulders and replied, “I’m a doctor!”

The advocacy role is more complex. Not only are many physicians socially conservative and not, perhaps, in support of policies “…that ameliorate suffering and contribute to human well-being,” physicians are busy people who mostly see themselves in the role of providing direct patient care, not advocating for systemic societal change. Even physicians with public health roles may see their advocacy in a much more limited way (for immunizations, smoking cessation, cancer screening, seat belt use, etc.) rather than structural societal change.

I would like to think that all physicians manifest advocacy in the “agency” sense for their patients. It may be wishful thinking to hope that all physicians will manifest advocacy in the “activist” sense, that they will fulfill the AMA’s Declaration by actually advocating “…for social, economic, educational, and political changes that ameliorate suffering and contribute to human well-being.” But if we do not make this a core value for physicians that is ubiquitously taught in medical school and residency, if we do not select students because of their commitment to advocacy, we will have much less of it.

And we need it badly.

[1 Dobson S, Voyer S, Regehr G, “Agency and activism: rethinking health advocacy in the medical profession”. Acad Med. 2012;87:1161–1164.First published online July 25, 2012. doi:10.1097/ACM.0b013e3182621c25
[2] Hojat M, Vergare MJ, Maxwell K, et al, “The Devil is in the Third Year: A Longitudinal Study of Erosion of Empathy in Medical School”, Academic Medicine, Sept 2009;84(2):1182-91

0 Abortion and women's health: who truly has a conscience?

“Conscience clauses” have become increasingly common in laws about health care as state legislatures seek to limit people’s access to services that they don’t approve of but have not, as yet, been able to make illegal. Of course, it started with abortion care, with doctors being allowed to “opt out” of training requirements for abortion (not that anyone was ever required to “opt in”), and gained momentum with the development of mifepristone (formerly RU-486), the abortion pill, ensuring that pharmacists would not have to fill prescriptions for it if they opposed abortion.

Of course, mifepristone is only sold directly to providers, so pharmacists are not called upon to fill these prescriptions, so the laws moved on to whether pharmacists could refuse to fill prescriptions for emergency contraceptives (the “morning after pill”). A lot of jurisdictions passed laws under the guise of the “conscience clause”, some even permitting pharmacists to not even dispense regular contraceptive pills. Which, of course, can be used for emergency contraception. And which, of course, is not abortion. But so much for the facts.

It is not coincidental that these restrictions have focused on women’s reproductive health. It appears that legislators’ concern is not about “right to life” (which many make a joke of with their opposition to anything that might help people after they are born), and fall into the arena of “women’s reproduction and the things associated with it, like sex, make us uncomfortable and so we don’t want to be involved with it”. In addition, there is persistent undertone of “…after all, these are women, people who do not understand how to take care of themselves and make their own decisions, so we have to do it for them.” This is pretty clearly part of the agenda of the religious right – limiting the ability of women to make their own decisions about their bodies.

Indeed, a victory for women was achieved when emergency contraception was made available without a prescription – and then a step backward was taken when HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled recommendations from the FDA and prevented its availability without a prescription to women under 17. Now that makes no sense at all if one is concerned about their health – women under 17 are the most likely to have sex without contraception, to be pressured into sex by men, to not be able to plan whether they are going to have sex and thus possibly become pregnant, to have the self-efficacy to walk into a pharmacy and ask for emergency contraception. So we are going to make it particularly difficult for them? Well, it does make sense for an agenda that says “limit rights where we can limit them” and we can move on from there. Yes, these girls are the most vulnerable. So let us victimize them.

What is particularly upsetting is the usurpation of the language of conscience by those who would restrict women’s reproductive options. We do not hear of conscience clauses about not dispensing Viagra, Cialis, and the like because the loss of ability to have an erection with age is natural. Or for that matter, against cosmetics, or drugs that will treat God-given genetic chronic diseases. A joke, but not so funny, supposes a Christian Scientist pharmacist who refuses to supply any medication. This usurpation of language is parallel to the current ownership of the language of “life” by the anti-abortion movement. The implication is that pro-choice people do not value life, but our argument is that we value the life of the born – the woman, children who are alive, and those who might be born.

Into this discussion comes the voice of Lisa H. Harris, in a New England Journal of Medicine “Perspective”, September 13, 2012, “Recognizing conscience in abortion provision”.[1] Dr. Harris argues that the provision of abortion is also driven by conscience, and that this right to conscience has not been protected. So firmly has “conscience” been associated in public discourse with the right to refuse to do abortion, the idea that conscience can be, and is, central to the decision of the abortion provider is almost jarring. And yet it is certainly true.

Harris refers to the work of the physicians who practiced abortion at great risk to themselves, their reputations and their ability to continue to practice medicine in the years before Roe v. Wade:

The conclusion that abortion provision is indeed “conscientious” by this standard is best supported by sociologist Carole Joffe [2], who showed in Doctors of Conscience that skilled “mainstream” doctors offered safe, compassionate abortion care before Roe. They did so with little to gain and much to lose, facing fines, imprisonment, and loss of medical license. They did so because the beliefs that mattered most to them compelled them to. They saw women die from self-induced abortions and abortions performed by unskilled providers. They understood safe abortion to be lifesaving. They believed their abortion provision honored ‘the dignity of humanity’ and was the right — even righteous — thing to do. They performed abortions ‘for reasons of conscience.’”

There are no doctors who showed more courage, more conscience, than these pre-Roe abortion providers. But the power of this commitment, of this conscience-driven provision of abortion, has not lessened in the post-Roe years. The ever-more restrictive laws passed by state legislatures, seasoned with the constant picketing and harassment of patients, leavened with bombings and fires, and finally consummated by the murder of abortion providers, should leave no doubt about the moral strength of these people. The testimonies on “Why I Provide Abortions”, on the website of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health (PRCH), or those its video “Voices of Choice” (including the voice of George Tiller, MD, murdered in 2009; see my post In Memoriam George Tiller, May 31, 2009) are clear and moving; they come from physicians who know that, if they do not provide safe abortions, women will obtain them unsafely at the risk of their lives:

"My experience goes back to my residency training at Boston City Hospital. I was appalled by the intermittent but steady stream of otherwise healthy young women dying in front of my eyes from septic shock due to unsterile, botched procedures.”

"When a woman acts in a responsible way, doing what she believes is in her best interests and the best interests of her family, she's being moral.”

“I believe women shouldn't have to explain to governments, religious groups, those of another opinion or the patriarchy at large that they've made a decision to deal with the condition of their own bodies.”

Dr. Harris indicates, correctly, that the same standards of conscience should be applied equally: “Certainly, if abortion providers’ conscience-based claims require scrutiny, so do conscience-based refusals, to ensure that refusals are indeed motivated by conscience and not by political beliefs, stigma, habit, erroneous understanding of medical evidence, or other factors.”

There are many people opposed to abortion who are sincere in their opposition and motivated by conscience. Beyond that, e.g., refusing to fill contraceptives, is getting to the point that maybe it is time to seek a new field of work. But to imply that concern for women and conscience only apply to abortion and contraception opponents and deny the conscience and morality of those who provide such care is unethical and dishonest. George Tiller’s motto was “Trust Women”, but many people don’t.

Another voice from “Why I Provide” says it simply and profoundly:

"I provide abortions because I value the life and health of my patients, and because when abortion is not legal, safe and accessible, women suffer and die.”

That is a conscience clause.

[1] Harris, L. “Recognizing conscience in abortion provision”, NEJM 13Sept2012;367(11):891-3.
[2] Joffe CE. Doctors of conscience: the struggle to provide abortion before and after Roe v. Wade. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.

0 Primary care, specialty care: what about health?

Three “Perspectives” in the September 6 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine address different, but clearly related, aspects of the transformation of health care. I have previously discussed one of them, “Becoming a physician: the developing vision of primary care" by Barnes, and Comfort in Social determinants key to the future of Primary Care (September 22, 2012). The two others are "What business are we in? The emergence of health as the business of health care"[1], by Asch and Volpp from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and "From Sick Care to health care -- re-engineering prevention into the US health system" by Marvasti and Stafford.[2] Taken as a whole, the three provide some significant insight to the current US healthcare delivery system, the changes that need to be made in it, and the way we will get there.

Asch and Volpp discuss the need to shift from "what can we produce" (health care) to "what do people want" (health). They use the parallels of the failure of major industries (railroads in the last century; Eastman Kodak in this) to make this distinction. Each of those industries made the mistake of confusing what they produced with what people wanted when they bought their products. Thus, railroad companies provided railroads, when customers wanted transportation of goods and people; when alternatives (trucking, air) became available they were unable to adjust (although in Europe they did a pretty good job). Similarly, Kodak made film when what people wanted was to store images of their lives. Asch and Volpp do not mention that the ad agencies got this right (“we create memories”) but the corporation did not move into the digital age early enough and, last year, went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The “health care” industry provides, at best, health care, but more often just medical care, and most especially disease care. People seek it out because it is what available; what they want is health, to not be sick, in pain, disabled. This is of course why “mainstream” medicine is not the only source of treatment people seek. It explains the allure, and extensive use, of products of the “alternative care” industry, which ranges from degreed practitioners like chiropractors and naturopaths to long-used herbal and other cultural treatments dispensed by various methods (botánicas and the Internet), to Eastern medicine such as acupuncture, to religious rituals including American Indian healing, Catholic exorcisms, and the rituals of Santeria, Candomblé, and Voodoo derived from Africa, to straightforward quackery. “Integrative medicine” is an effort by traditional western medicine to employ many of these techniques and traditions. While we probably would actually prefer the diagnostic and treatment magic of Star Trek’s doctors, we’d certainly like the magic pill, elixir, injection, herb, or prayer that would heal all our ills – preferably with no real or sustained effort on our parts, and without side effects. Interestingly, while “alternative” medicine is seen as more “holistic”, it is in fact often more biologically reductionistic, using interventions (e.g., enemas, diet changes, supplements) to cure social and psychological problems (see my 2005 piece “Towards a definition of holism” in the British Journal of General Practice).[3]
Perhaps this is all “quackery”, or just some of it is and others are not. In mainstream American medicine, something doesn’t become a real disease until there is a test for it – or better yet a drug for it – thus the medicalization of many things that people have experienced as part of the mortal coil for thousands of years. Some things that were accepted as “part of life” (and death) are now diagnosable and treatable; others might be in the future. But those of us in the “health care” industry need to understand that folks will only buy what we are selling if it is, on the whole, the most effective way for them to get what they want: health.

Marvasti and Stafford discuss the need to change from a system designed to treat acute conditions and acute exacerbations of chronic diseases to one in which, in Fries' model, of "morbidity compression", "in which the disease-free life span is extended through the prevention of disease complications and the symptom burden is compressed into a limited period preceding death." This dovetails well with what I have discussed above; people want to be healthy. They recognize that they are going to die, but they want to do this quickly, painlessly, and at the end of a long and healthy life. As a loved one of mine who is closer to this than many puts it, “someday I just won’t wake up”. Morbidity compression. If he is lucky, if we are all lucky, that will be how it happens.

But right now, our health care system is in fact designed to treat acute conditions and acute exacerbations of chronic disease, not to maintain the care and the health of people who have not yet developed chronic disease or are stable. More to the point, our system does this because this is what is paid for; we are just scratching the surface of the ideas of “chronic disease management”. In fact, we pay so well for acute interventions that hospitals are hiring acute “interventionalists” at extraordinary salaries compared to their colleagues in the same specialties that actually manage people over time. For example, “stroke neurologists”, or sometimes interventional neuroradiologists, who can inject clot-busters into the arteries of people with acute strokes make perhaps 2-3 times what a neurologist who just manages chronic neurologic diseases does (not that much more than regular radiologists, who are overall much higher paid); this is because the hospitals that employ them are so highly reimbursed for these procedures.

The need to manage actual people, especially when they have chronic disease, not just an acute episode, is obvious to most of us. It may even be obvious to the insurance companies and other payers, to the hospitals who support the acute interventionalists, but so far they haven’t changed what it is that they pay for, what it is that is financially incented. I write a lot about primary care, but it is not only primary care. Commenting on my last piece, Social determinants key to the future of Primary Care, a neurologist colleague who cares for people with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a terrible and always fatal degenerative condition that satisfies almost none of the criteria for “morbidity compression”, wrote:

But the group health care model is also the best for chronic rare diseases managed by subspecialists....this is what we do in ALS clinic on Monday mornings. You should come visit, Josh, at 8 when all the folks (speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, social workers, dieticians, equipment providers, respiratory therapy) meet with the neuromuscular neurologists to discuss each case. Then we see them and all weigh in and we give patient a printout with advice from each. But, alas, there is no way to pay for this without support from local and national foundations....Medicare doesn't cover it by far.

I wrote back:
Of course. In this sense, you are sharing the same issues as primary care doctors -- you are managing patients, not just a single episode of disease. Certainly ALS is a disease, but it is a chronic one that takes over people's -- and their family's -- lives, and requires not only complex and interdisciplinary, but long-term, management. Indeed, the concept of the medical home was developed in the 1960s by the specialty pediatricians managing kids with chronic diseases such as cystic fibrosis, juvenile diabetes, and sickle cell, which share with ALS the fact that there is one disease that dominates the lives of the patient and their family; to care for it requires managing not just the disease but working with the whole person and their family. It can also (but is not always in practice) be true of HIV clinics.

This is less true of many other adult diseases, which often co-exist --diabetes, hypertension, congestive heart failure, chronic lung disease, depression, arthritis -- so that one specialist is not interested in (or perhaps capable of) managing them all -- thus primary care for adults, geriatricians, etc.

It is virtually not at all true of those who do radiology, anesthesiology, single-time consults, or one-shot surgery, or one-shot-into-the-cerebral artery neuro-interventionalists. Or, to be short, any of the folks making a lot of money for single things, while the stuff that you do in ALS clinic is not paid for.

This is insane. We do not have a health system, and we do not even have a health care system. We have a medical care system, with the emphasis on the medical. It is fine to pay for an episode of care, but it is much more important to reward care.

[1] Asch DA, Volpp KG, “What Business Are We In? The Emergence of Health as the Business of Health Care”, NEJM 367(10);887-89. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp1206862
[2] Marvasti FF, Stafford RS, “From Sick Care to health care -- re-engineering prevention into the US health system", NEJM, 367(10);889-91. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp1206230
[3] Freeman J, “Towards a definition of holism”, Br J Gen Pract. 2005 Feb;55(511):154-5. PMC1463203

0 Social determinants key to the future of Primary Care

A "Perspective" in the September 6 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, "Becoming a physician: the developing vision of primary care"[1] by Kathleen A. Barnes, Jason C. Kroening-Roche, and Branden W. Comfort*, addresses the change in the practice of primary care enabled by changes in payment and structure and how this is more attractive to medical students. All three are medical students (although Kroening-Roche already has both his MD and MPH) from schools in different parts of the country (Harvard, Oregon, and Kansas); they met at the Harvard School of Public Health, and all of whom seem to be interested in being primary care physicians. They describe a model – or, more accurately, as they say, a vision – of primary care practice in which they see themselves in the future, and about which they are enthusiastic. By extension, one would hope that this is also true of many other medical students.

The practice that they describe is quite detailed in many ways:
 "…a day in a primary care office would begin with a team huddle….The team would discuss the day's patients and their concerns. They would review quality metrics, emphasize their quality-improvement cycle for the week, and celebrate the team's progress in caring for its community of patients…The RN would manage his or her own panel of patients with stable chronic disease, calling them with personal reminders and using physician-directed protocols…The social worker, nutritionist, and behavioral therapist would work with the physician to address the layers of complexity involved in keeping patients healthy. Clinic visits would ideally be nearly twice as long as they are now…"

It sounds great. As the authors note, there are practices that are working toward, and in some cases have begun to achieve this "new model" of care; these 3 did not originate these ideas. Practitioners and thinkers such as Tom Bodenheimer, Joe Scherger, Bob Phillips, and Kevin Grumbach have written about this, and many practices, particularly integrated groups such as Kaiser Permanente, Inter-Mountain Health Care, and Geisinger Clinic have implemented many of these characteristics. But will it be the future of all health care? Will, importantly, these changes – or ones like them – both provide the functionality that the health system needs from primary care and the physicians entering into this practice?

In many articles, including Transforming primary care: from past practice to the practice of the future [2], Bodenheimer has emphasized the need for teams from a practical standpoint – there are more people needing care and not enough primary care physicians to provide it. Phillips ("O Brother Where Art Thou: An Odyssey for Generalism", presented at the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine Annual Conference in May, 2011) shows data indicating that even including "mid-level providers" such as advanced practice nurses and physician's assistants there are way too few primary care providers, and the trajectory of production is in the wrong direction. Our own data[3] show the marked decrease in the number of medical students entering family medicine (and other primary care specialties) in the last dozen years. So it is profoundly to be hoped that the model of care described by these authors develops, that they are able to develop it, and that it will attract more future physicians.

While practice change is hard, and culture change is harder, there are issues that these authors talk about but do not seem to overly worry them. They note the importance of the Affordable Care Act, and how it "…emphasizes population health and primary care services, and establishes accountable care organizations that require strong primary care foundations," but do not, in my opinion, adequately address two key challenges to implementation that will present profound obstacles to the achievement of their vision.

The first is payment, reimbursement, allocation of health care dollars. They assume that, "…thanks to a restructured reimbursement system," medical assistants will "…have protected time to provide health coaching for behavior change and to ensure that the patients on their panel were current with their preventive care." Because reimbursement would be "…through global payments linking hospitals to primary care practices, the physician, too, would have a financial incentive to keep patients healthy…."  It is a great model, and one that I agree with, but it hasn't happened in most places. Because it is more costly and requires significant investment in prevention and primary care, and since there are unlikely to be additional dollars in the health system, it will mean lower reimbursement for hospitalizations, for procedures, and for the specialists who are the currently the most highly paid. This, I would argue, would not be a bad thing, but it will not happen easily. Those who are doing well under the current system are going to fight to hold on to it, and the reimbursement structure is not changing quickly enough to push such change outside of integrated health systems – and even within many of them.

The second is what can be summarized as the "social determinants of health". Good public health students, they observe that "…the health care system must strive to affect more than the 10% of premature mortality that is influenced by medical treatment," and note correctly that "Primary care cannot be primary without the recognition that it is communities that experience health and sickness. Providing better health care is imperative but insufficient." 

This is true, but there is more to it. Health care, in itself, even well-organized with adequate numbers of primary care practices working in teams, and collaborating with public health workers, and going out into the community, and employing culturally-competent health navigators/guides/case managers/promotoras, is not going to do it alone. The social determinants of health have to be addressed by the entire society.

Poverty, unstable housing, food insecurity, cold, and the social threats that often accompany the communities in which they are prevalent (violence, drug use, abuse, etc.) will continue to create situations in which people are not healthy and need medical care. Even in the larger society, in the part where people are not living at the edge, there are many anti-health forces; stress (including the stress of working harder and at more jobs to keep away from the edge), the ubiquity and ease of access of poor quality, high-calorie food, and the shredding of the social safety net that is almost gone for at the bottom and fraying at the sides (Social Security, Medicare), are not harbingers of a happier, healthier society.

I am thrilled about the enthusiasm of these young physicians and physicians-to-be, and their commitment to primary care and a new kind of practice. They begin by observing, echoing Bob Dylan from 50 years ago, and more important the movement that was growing then, that "times are changing", but I fear we are not yet clear what that change will be; there is tremendous energy – and even more money – behind a change that will be for the worse for everyone except the most privileged.

They end by saying that "We are here to engage in and advance the movement." They are talking about transforming primary care, but I hope that they and their colleagues recognize that it will not be enough unless they are willing to engage in and advance the movement to transform society.

*In full disclosure, one of the authors, Branden Comfort, is a student at the KU School of Medicine. Although he has spent his clinical years at our Wichita campus, I know him well because we worked together in the student run free clinic (and he was my advisee) in his first two years here in Kansas City.

[1] Barnes KA, Kroening-Roche JC, Comfort BW, "The developing vision of primary care", NEJM Sept 6, 2012;367(10):891-4.
[2] Margolius D, Bodenheimer T, Transforming primary care: from past practice to the practice of the future, Health Aff (Millwood). 2010 May;29(5):779-84.
[3] Freeman J, Delzell J, ""Medical School Graduates Entering Family Medicine: Increasing The Overall Number", Family Medicine, October 2012, in press.

0 Research basic and applied: we need them both

 “Not every mystery has to be solved, and not every problem has to be addressed. That’s hard to get your brain around.”

This statement was the coda of a very good article, “Overtreatment is taking a harmful toll”, by Tara Parker-Pope, in the NY Times, August 28, 2012. The topic of the article, and the implication by the speaker, who was talking about her own family’s health care and unnecessary testing, is one that I have written about several times recently, in terms of both screening tests (“The "Annual Physical": Screening, equity, and evidence”, July 4, 2012) and investigation and treatment of disease (“Rationing, Waste, and Useless Interventions”, June 21, 2012). Thus, I certainly agree that there is too much testing and too much intervention, and that it has a high cost in both dollars and in potential risk to people (the English word for what the health system calls “patients”). So why do I feel a little uncomfortable with the quotation above?

I think it is because I very strongly believe that the decision on what tests to do and what interventions to take should be informed, as much as possible by the evidence. That evidence, I have also argued, should come from research, from well-designed studies, from science. This is also costly, but it is necessary. Your treatment should be based on evidence and probability gathered from studies of large populations. Without it, doctors and other health professionals are flying blind, with treatments based on their own experience, or worse yet “what makes sense”. Sometimes the doctor’s own experience is a good guide, if they see a lot of patients with the same problem, and have reason to know what works. It is even better when they can bring in knowledge of the local community (e.g., what antibiotics are common bugs resistant to here? What are the common belief systems of the people that I care for?) and better yet if they actually know you, and what you value, and what your medical history is, and what your belief system is, and what is most likely to engage your effort in the interest of your health.

But it is better if the set of options from which they choose are all based in evidence. That something makes sense, I have often pointed out to medical students and residents, makes it a research question, not an answer. If something makes sense, based on what we already know, it is likely to be a more valuable thing to study than something that does not make sense. However, until the study, or more likely several studies, are done we won’t know if it is, in fact, true. Human beings, both in terms of their biology and behavior, are too complex, and have too many different systems interacting with each other, to predict accurately how something that “makes sense” based on one of those dimensions is likely to turn out.

The thing is that not all research is immediately clinically relevant. Sometimes it is; the “Ottawa rules”, developed by research done in Canada, provide physicians with evidence based guidelines about when it is appropriate to do x-rays for injured ankles, knees, and feet – common problems. Other studies investigate whether particular drugs may provide real benefit to people with more uncommon problems. This is particularly satisfying when the drug is not some new, expensive blockbuster but something cheap and common like aspirin or folic acid. Or when an old drug, all but abandoned for its original purpose, turns out to be very effective for another condition entirely. (One of my colleagues just demonstrated this for an old heart drug that works for a rare neuromuscular condition – coming soon to your local JAMA!) But much research is at a very basic level. Before those drugs can be tested on particular conditions, they have to be developed. Before they can be developed, the biological and biochemical mechanisms upon which they have an effect have to be identified. Just as, before we can send rockets to the moon, we need to understand physics. Science, what in medicine we call “basic science”, has to continually move forward, and this requires not solely focusing on what might be of practical use tomorrow, but what is still a mystery that has to be solved.

I find it almost ironic that I am writing this defense of basic science research. Just recently, I was in NYC and went to brunch at the riverpark restaurant. On the block leading to it is a big vegetable gardens where they grow many of their own ingredients, much of it surrounded by a big wooden fence. And, since it is right there at Bellevue Hospital and NYU Medical Center and Rockefeller University, that fence is decorated with pictures and biographies of Nobel Prize winners in Medicine who had ties to NYC. My reaction was that all of these people (even if they had MD degrees) were doing laboratory, basic science research, not clinical research, even though the prize is for “Medicine”. Of course, having won Nobel Prizes, their research led to important practical breakthroughs, but for every Nobel Prize winner who discovers something that will make a major difference in health, there are thousands and thousands of others, working in laboratories everywhere, and this work is necessary.

Personally, I don’t think it is necessarily necessary that it  be done in medical schools, whether NYU or the University of Kansas, rather than in research institutes like Rockefeller or Kansas City’s Stowers Institute (or Karolinska in Sweden or the Pasteur Institute in France). I find, as a family doctor, that the fact that much basic research in human biology is done at medical schools leads to what I think are negative “side effects”. I believe that there is an over-emphasis on teaching medical students biological sciences in great detail (often at the level of minutia) and an under-emphasis on the social sciences. I think that these areas are just as important – maybe more important for the practicing physician -- but are usually not considered as “core” to medical student teaching.

In part this is because those working in the social sciences are most often “there”, at the main campus, not “here”, at the medical school. I am proud that the research conducted by faculty in my department is mostly community-based, looking at determinants of health and health disparities. But, whether biomedical research should be as important a part of medical schools as it usually is, or not, it is absolutely clear that it needs to occur, and that scientists need to solve mysteries.

Every mystery? Well, of course, that will never happen. And even for the ones they solve, the results are not always beneficial for folks. We can map the human genome! We can tell you if you and your family members are at increased risk for a terrible disease! Of course, often we cannot do anything about it, but it can make you depressed and pessimistic, and maybe you’ll lose your health insurance. So maybe we don’t need to tell your insurer, or even tell you, but getting to be able to do something about it first requires doing the science.

And of course there is a big difference between uncovering the mysteries of the universe, and even of finding evidence for what is appropriate diagnosis and treatment in populations, and in having to investigate everything in you. The father of another person quoted in the article developed delirium from overtreatment with drugs that was mistaken for dementia. “I don’t know if we have too many specialists and every one is trying to practice their specialty, but it should not have happened.” I agree; too many mistakes, too many errors (see Medical errors: to err may be human, but we need systems to decrease them, August 10, 2012) can come from there being too many specialists combined with too little communication.

The quote at the top of this piece notes that not everything has to be addressed and that this is hard to wrap your brain around, but it shouldn’t be.  All that research in the basic and clinical sciences should help us to understand when we need to investigate (do a CT scan for a black eye, in another example from the article, say) and when we don’t.

Often we should leave well enough alone. 

0 Financial Incentives, maybe; corporate profit, no!

If we truly wish to move toward a healthcare system which delivers high quality in a reliable manner, one of the great flaws of our current system is that incentives are not always lined up to achieve that goal. Indeed, we could make a strong argument that incentives, particularly financial incentives, often lead healthcare providers (sometimes individuals, but certainly large organizations such as hospitals, nursing home and hospital chains, pharmaceutical companies, device manufacturers) in the wrong direction. That is, they pursue financial profitability rather than the highest quality of care for our people.

Sometimes these two run together, and sometimes they do not. If the disease you have is one that is well-provided for and you have the money or insurance to pay for it, you are in luck. If you don’t have financial access to care, or your disease’s “product line” was not one deemed financially profitable enough for your hospital or health system to invest in, you are not. Similarly, if you have a disease that lots of others share, pharma is always ready to provide a drug for it – particularly if it is still patented; if you have an “orphan” disease, you may not be able to get treatment, or it can cost (truly) more than $100,000 a year.

The federal government, through Medicare, has sought to use financial incentives to (most often) control costs and (sometimes) to encourage quality; this occurs under both Republican and Democratic administrations, but is also a big feature of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). One example going back to the 1980s, is the reimbursement of hospitals for what Medicare has figured is the appropriate cost of care for a particular set of diagnoses, rather than by whatever the hospital charges. Under ACA and in incentive plans in place from private insurers, doctors get more money if they do more of the “right” things and fewer of the “wrong” things. Financial incentives can also be used by organizations to encourage certain types of performance in its employees or contractors. Examples include incentive payments for generating more revenue, or financial penalties written into a contract for poor performance. Financial incentives are not unique to health care and, in fact, have been used and studied in many other industries. Their use in health care is not unique to the US.The question is, however, “do they work?”

This is the question that a group of Australian scholars led by Paul Glasziou sought to answer in an “Analysis” published in the British Medical Journal (subscription required), “When financial incentives do more good than harm: a checklist.”[1] Glasziou and his colleagues review the data on the effectiveness of financial incentives in both health care and other industries, and focus upon a meta-analysis by Jenkins et al.[2], and two Cochrane studies, one an analysis of 4 systematic reviews (? a meta-meta analysis?)[3] by Flodgren et al., and one looking at primary care by Scott, et al.[4] Basically, the results were mixed; sometimes they worked (to achieve the desired ends) and sometimes they didn’t. Glasziou observes: “While incentives for individuals have been extensively examined, group rewards are less well understood….Finally, and most crucially, most studies gathered few data on potential unintended consequences, such as attention shift, gaming, and loss of motivation.” (Again, see Daniel Pink, “Drive”, on Motivation).

In an effort to help identify what works, Glasziou has developed a 9-item “checklist” for financial incentives in healthcare that is the centerpiece of this article. Six items are related to the question “Is there a remediable problem in routine clinical care?”, and 3 are related to Design and Implementation. The first six are:
1. Does the desired clinical action improve patient outcomes?
2. Will undesirable clinical behavior persist without intervention?
3. Are there valid, reliable, and practical measures of the desired clinical behavior?
4. Have the barriers and enablers to improving clinical behavior been assessed?
5. Will financial incentives work, and better than other interventions to change behavior, and
6. Will benefits clearly outweigh any unintended harmful effects, and at an acceptable cost?

And the 3 regarding implementation are:
7. Are systems and structures needed for the change in place?
8. How much should be paid, to whom, and for how long?
9. How will the financial incentives be delivered?

They provide explanations of each of these and include a useful table that uses real life positive and negative examples to illustrate their points. For example, regarding #1 they note that the UK has provided financial incentives to get the glycated hemoglobin level in people with type 2 diabetes below 7%, despite several studies showing no patient benefit. (This is an example of “expert opinion” governing practice ever after contradicted by good research.) #2 means some behaviors occur or extinguish if effective processes are put in place without financial incentives. #3 is important because of the cost of implementation (“We found no studies on the cost of collecting clinical indicators.”); one of the great complaints of providers is that they spend so much time providing information to various oversight bodies that they haven’t sufficient time to provide good patient care.

Criterion #5 relates to the issue of “what, in fact, motivates people?” Criterion #6 is, I believe, relates to the greatest flaws in most of our financial incentive (often called “pay for performance” systems. The four behaviors most often creating harmful effects have all been discussed in this blog:
Attention shift (focusing on the area being rewarded distracts from attention to other areas);
Gaming (a huge negative especially for large organizations). This specifically refers to manipulating data to look “good” on the measurement, but also includes upcoding and what might be called intentional attention shift, where the organization focuses, on purpose, on to the areas that make it the most money and neglects others;
Harm to the patient clinician relationship, when the patient, often correctly, feels that it is not her/his benefit but some external target that is motivating providers;
Reduction in equity. This is extremely important. I have written extensively about health disparities; this point is meant to drive home the reality that this inequities, or disparities, can persist even when there is an overall improvement in the areas being measured.

Most of these issues and several others derive from the simplistic application of financial rewards to complex interdependent systems. Financial incentives assume that paying more for a service will
lead to better quality or additional capacity, or both. However, because money is only one of many internal and external influences on clinical behavior, many factors will moderate the size and direction of any response. The evidence on whether financial incentives are more effective than other interventions is often weak and poorly reported.”

These authors are from Australia, which like most developed countries, has a national health insurance system. (See the map[5]).  The data they cite is world-wide, but largely from their country, the UK (which also has a national health system) and the US (which does not). The real problems of health disparities and inequity are enormous in our country. They are not modified by the presence of a national health system, which reduces many of the financial barriers to health care; indeed they are exacerbated by a make-money, business-success psychology of providers that may be worse in the for-profit sector but essentially drives the non-profit sector as well.
The application of a simplistic corporate psychology to health care delivery can lead to poorer quality and greater inequity in any country. In combination with an entire system built on making money, gaming the system, and excluding the poor, and making corporate profit (see graph) it is a disaster. Our disaster.

[1] Glasziou P, et al., When financial incentives do more good than harm: a checklist, BMJ 2012;345:e5047 doi 10,1136/bmj.e5037, published August 20, 2012
[2] Jenkins GD, Mitra A, Gupta N, Shaw JD. Are financial incentives related to performance? A meta-analytic review of empirical research. J Appl Psychol 1998;83:777-87.
[3] Flodgren G, Eccles MP, Shepperd S, Scott A, Parmelli E, Beyer FR. An overview of reviews evaluating the effectiveness of financial incentives in changing healthcare professional behaviours and patient outcomes. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2011;7:CD009255.
[4] Scott A, Sivey P, Ait Ouakrim D, Willenberg L, Naccarella L, Furler J, et al. The effect of financial incentives on the quality of health care provided by primary care physicians. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2011;9:CD008451.

[5] Interestingly, this map, from the Atlantic, may make us think that the aloneness of the US in not having national health care is less serious than it is. Most adults are used to seeing map projections that inflate the size of Europe and North America. This is a geographically more accurate map, but if it were in our “accustomed” projections would be even more green.

0 Quality and price for everyone: Bigger may be better in some ways, but not all

Atul Gawande, MD, a Harvard surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, regularly contributes significant and provocative articles to the New Yorker under the head “Annals of Medicine”. In recent years I have written about several of these, including the “The Cost Conundrum”, June 1, 2009 (my comments in Medicare Costs: "All Politics are Local", June 11, 2009), “The Hot Spotters”, January 24, 2011 (Freedom abroad, health at home: experiments in preventive health care, February 13, 2011 and Camden and you: the cost of health care to communities, February 18, 2011), and “Cowboys and Pit Crews”,  May 26, 2011 (EMRs and Primary Care: The good, the bad, and the challenges, June 11, 2011 and Physician Oaths and Social Responsibility, July 11, 2011). His latest contribution, “Big Med”, August 13, 2012, continues his outstanding tradition of thinking outside the box, making important connections, and writing for a popular-but-educated audience.

“Big Med” starts with a visit to the popular restaurant chain, The Cheesecake Factory, and proceeds with his investigation into how it works and works effectively. This chain provides an enormous variety of menu choices, high quality both in terms of ingredients and taste (perhaps not the gourmet’s standard, but really good food), excellent consistency, and reasonable prices. It does not take a huge step to understand the relevant metaphors for health care, and in particular hospital care. Hospitals provide a huge menu of services, and we would all like them to be consistently of high quality and available at a reasonable cost. Unfortunately, they’re not. Gawande searches for how The Cheesecake Factory does it, and comes up with some excellent suggestions for health care.

He starts with the key ideas mentioned above: people should be able to go into a hospital and expect the best care and the best possible outcomes. These should be consistently delivered, and delivered at many locations (not necessarily every hospital for every procedure – to extend the analogy, The Cheesecake Factory has lots of restaurants, but not in every town) and done in a cost-effective way. While with restaurants, each of us knows what we like and whether something tastes good and whether we think we have gotten value for our dollar this is not true for health care. Most people (including physicians outside their own specialty) have little idea of what is quality in medicine. They can tell if they had a good outcome (“I’m better”), but not if it was the intervention that made it better, or perhaps just speeded up – or retarded – natural healing. They can tell if they had a bad outcome (or their survivors can), but not if this was unavoidable. (The current method we have for adjudicating this – malpractice suits – is entirely invalid.) They do not know if their outcome would have been better in a different hospital or with a different doctor or team, or even in the same hospital with the same doctor on a different day. They certainly don’t know whether what they, or their insurer, are paying is appropriate for the value.[1]

Gawande writes that “Big chains thrive because they provide goods and services of greater variety, better quality, and lower cost than would otherwise be available. Size is the key…We can bristle at the idea of chains and mass production, with their homogeneity, predictability, and constant genuflection to the value-for-money god. Then you spend a bad night in a “quaint” “one of a kind” bed-and-breakfast that turns out to have a manic, halitoxic innkeeper who can’t keep the hot water running, and it’s right back to the Hyatt. Medicine, though, had held out against the trend. Physicians were always predominantly self-employed, working alone or in small private-practice groups. American hospitals tended to be community-based. But that’s changing. Hospitals and clinics have been forming into large conglomerates. And physicians—facing escalating demands to lower costs, adopt expensive information technology, and account for performance—have been flocking to join them.”

He goes on to describe examples of how American medical care is changing, focusing on the experience of his mother getting a knee replacement at his hospital by a surgeon (not the most famous) who has organized a standardized system for delivering this care, using a (large) team. This surgeon has also accomplished the remarkable (to anyone who knows surgeons) feat of getting all the prima donna orthopedists at his hospital to agree to use the same prosthesis. The principle, just as in the casual dining area, is find out who does it best, identify the characteristics that make it so (removing the chaff and nonsense that may be associated but are just noise, often costly noise), and replicate it.

Applying this principle requires not only standardization, but size. Every hospital cannot be a mom-and-pop store, and the cost savings from scale are what make the whole thing possible. Yes, medical care cannot be completely reduced to recipes, and this can be a real danger. Individual doctors are different, and their skills are different not only by specialty or subspecialty, but in the way they interact with their patients. Some people may like a doctor who is older, or younger; a doctor who is a woman, or a man; a doctor who is more formal, or more casual. Some want a doctor who will explain things to them and elicit their beliefs and desires, and make them the educated “decider”; others want a doctor who is more didactic and authoritative. None of these is the “best” for someone who does not share those values; each is the “best” for those of us who do. The only caveat is when a particular approach actually makes a difference in the health outcomes for all people, not just those who “like” the doctor’s style.

Another danger in size and scale is that many of the processes and procedures that are put in place by these big, standardized organizations do not improve health outcomes, and may even limit them by taking time and energy from the things that do. Management in health care is still very much tied to “Motivation 2.0” (see “Drive”, by Daniel Pink[2], and my comments in The Primary Care Conundrum, August 18, 2012).  Many big food, or hotel, or hospital chains do not provide quality, and most certainly do not contain costs; see, for example, “A giant hospital chain is blazing a profit trail”, by Julie Creswell and Reed Abelson in the New York Times August 14, 2012, about Hospital Corporation of America (HCA). Like HCA, “big” is not a panacea, and can be a negative for social values and social justice.

Gawande includes important cautions:

"Yet it seems strange to pin our hopes on chains. We have no guarantee that Big Medicine will serve the social good. Whatever the industry, an increase in size and control creates the conditions for monopoly, which could do the opposite of what we want: suppress innovation and drive up costs over time. In the past, certainly, health-care systems that pursued size and market power were better at raising prices than at lowering them….

“The vast savings of Big Medicine could be widely shared-or reserved for a few. The clinicians who are trying to reinvent medicine aren't doing it to make hedge-fund managers and bondholders richer; they want to see that everyone benefits from the savings their work generates-and that won't be automatic….

"Our new models come from industries that have learned to increase the capabilities and efficiency of the human beings who work for them. Yet the same industries have also tended to devalue those employees. The frontline worker, whether he is making cars, solar panels, or wasabi-crusted ahi tuna, now generates unprecedented value but receives little of the wealth he is creating. Can we avoid this as we revolutionize health care?"

I don’t know, but I hope so. Holding on to old ways of doing things when they are not the best (or even very good), or the idea that each doctor can use a different prosthesis and they are all the best, is bad. Devaluing individual workers, whether they are physicians or technicians or cleaners, is bad. Developing ways of delivering high-quality care which is what both individual people and the whole society needs is good.

Good outcomes will certainly not come from the drive to maximize profit. To get truly good outcomes, we must put people and put social justice at the center of any change.

[1] I love this part: Historically, doctors have been paid for services, not results. In the eighteenth century B.C., Hammurabi’s code instructed that a surgeon be paid ten shekels of silver every time he performed a procedure for a patrician—opening an abscess or treating a cataract with his bronze lancet. It also instructed that if the patient should die or lose an eye, the surgeon’s hands be cut off. Apparently, the Mesopotamian surgeons’ lobby got this results clause dropped. Since then, we’ve generally been paid for what we do, whatever happens.”

[2] Pink, Daniel H, “Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us”, Riverhead Books, New York 2009.

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