Especially since the events of last week, it would be absurd for DrRich to think that everybody is out to get him. Still, it seems plain that, of late, not all individuals enjoy his efforts here at the Covert Rationing Blog.
Two years ago, for instance, DrRich was “invited” to testify as a witness before a federal grand jury in a matter involving one of his consulting clients. While under oath, DrRich was caused to understand that the Feds (at least certain members of the DOJ) are well aware of this blog, and of the general tenor of its content. The impression left by this experience makes DrRich doubt whether many of his fans come from that particular precinct.
Further, the CRB has been the victim of two targeted denial-of-service attacks just in the last several months. Perhaps this is a common experience for healthcare bloggers, but then again, perhaps not. Finally, there’s the fact that last May (some readers may recall) a nasty hacking exploit completely trashed the CRB at the server level, resulting in the loss of the first three years of DrRich’s endeavors here (which, some have said, is the greatest tragedy to befall posterity since the burning of the Library at Alexandria).
And so, Dear Reader, while DrRich is certainly happy to be hosting Grand Rounds for the fourth time, and is particularly delighted with the quality of postings which he has the honor of featuring this week, it occurs to him that hosting an event with such high (and well-deserved) visibility might draw certain “extra attention” here. So perhaps you had better read this quickly.
We begin with HealthAGEnda, the John A. Hartford Foundation blog, which is posting a remarkable series of articles by Amy Berman, a senior program officer at that foundation, who has recently been diagnosed with an incurable form of breast cancer. Ms. Berman discusses very openly and frankly both the good and the bad aspects of the American healthcare system she is encountering as she deals with this likely fatal illness. In this post, the second in a series, Ms. Berman talks about her ordeal in confirming what she already strongly suspected was a very bad diagnosis, and describes the comfort she experienced, while “meeting the enemy,” from compassionate but frank healthcare professionals. She had a much less favorable experience, which she describes in her first post, demonstrating just how devastating it can be for a patient to encounter a one-size-fits all physician. The impact such an encounter has on a patient who needs real medical help is especially relevant in an era in which doctors are being urged (coerced) into following just such an approach. Ms. Berman is an extremely brave and gracious woman, and the important insights she is providing in her efforts to chronicle her illness ought to be read by every health professional.
Henry Stern of Insureblog discusses the documented, systematic mistreatment of the elderly under the British National Health Service. Stern points out that while similar mistreatment of the elderly also happens in the American healthcare system, here it is sometimes not systematic, but rather is most often due to sloppiness or inadvertent error, and further, when it happens remedial actions (such as lawsuits) are often available. In contrast (evidence suggests), treating the elderly badly in the NHS seems to have become virtual policy. DrRich, of course, longtime president and sole member of Future Old Farts of America (FOFA), is confident that nothing of the sort will ever happen here in the U.S. where the government always has our best interests in mind, and he is sure that when government officials refer to the NHS as an ideal to which we should all aspire, they are probably not talking about this part of it.
Writing on a related topic, Julie Rosen of Bedside Manner tells about steps doctors and families can take to resolve disagreements on how aggressive one ought to be when deciding on the use of certain treatments for elderly and mentally incapacitated patients. DrRich finds Ms. Rosen’s recommendations appropriate, since all of them take place at the local level, with full participation of the patient’s loved ones, and do not (explicitly, at least) involve the heavy hand of any Central Authority.
And still speaking of the role of authority in deciding on aggressive treatments, The ACP Internist posts a news report about a court-ordered spinal operation on a 16-year old who was injured during a wrestling competition. Neither the young man nor his parents wanted the operation, which they feared might cause paralysis. (Apparently, they were actually paying attention during the “informed consent” process.) Further, as the mother apparently demonstrated in a video shown on local TV, her son had a “full range of motion” prior to surgery. Nonetheless, the young man was removed to protective custody, and the court-ordered surgery was performed (apparently successfully, thank goodness, or else this might have turned into a controversial decision). One hopes the judge, in making his determination that the family was not acting reasonably, was not swayed by their expressed partiality to herbal medicine and homeopathy. Wacko as such practices may be, they do not appear particularly relevant in this case, given the family’s seemingly cogent argument that the risk/benefit calculation, as it had been presented to them by medical professionals, simply did not meet their threshold for such aggressive treatment. Apparently, it met the state’s.
The ACP Hospitalist offers a post from a doctor at Grady Hospital entitled: “10 ways to know that the nurses hate you.” These 10 clues as to nurses’ disapprobation are both amusing and true. However, after observing for over 30 years the kinds of behaviors to which nurses are forced to resort when they see that things are greatly amiss, but at the same time they are powerless to directly intervene, DrRich thinks this post more accurately ought to be entitled, “10 ways to know that the nurses think you are killing your patients.” The nurses may or may not actually hate the doctor for it, but they wish he/she would stop – and here are 10 ways in which they may often express that wish.
While some states are big troublemakers (and you know who you are), others are moving to implement provisions of Obamacare just as the Central Authority has decreed. Louise from Colorado Health Insurance Insider tells us that Colorado Senate Bill 168 was introduced last week to create the nonprofit healthcare cooperative which is required by all states under Obamacare. (Shouldn’t somebody tell the Colorado state senators that writing long tracts like this in ALL CAPS is considered impolite, as it is the documentary equivalent of shouting?) Louise notes that the healthcare cooperatives mandated by Obamacare may help to reduce the number of uninsured, but adds that Obamacare “will do little to address a range of other problems, including rising healthcare costs, the unaffordability of healthcare even for people who have health insurance, over-utilization of care, and the problems created when we link health insurance to employment.” While these are all legitimate points, regular readers will know how little DrRich himself goes in for such grousing.
Obamacare, after all, does so much! As a case in point, David Harlow at HealthBlawg writes about Accountable Care Organizations, a new entity which figures prominently under Obamacare, and which will be a chief vehicle for controlling the cost and quality of healthcare (i.e., for controlling physicians’ behavior). A lot of scary things have been written about ACOs (including, truth to tell, things written here at the CRB), but Harlow points out that ACOs might not turn out to be such a bad idea after all. For evidence, he points to some of the successes realized by AQCs (Alternative Quality Contracts) in Massachusetts, under admittedly favorable practice environments, and notes that some of these successes might be translated directly to ACOs. DrRich hopes he is right. But it is a little worrisome that nobody, including Harlow (as he himself allows), really knows what ACOs will end up looking like. Their structure is, as we speak, being fought over by numerous federal agencies (like a carcass being fought over by a pack of dogs), and among these agencies (DrRich shudders to contemplate) is the Department of Justice. But Mr. Harlow knows far more about this stuff than DrRich, so let’s all hope for the best. Short of defanging Obamacare, that’s about all one can do.
Amy Tenderich of Diabetes Mine submits a guest post from Valentine’s Day, written by Wendy Strgar, entitled “Healthy Sex, Healthy Love.” Ms. Strgar, who is known in some circles (circles of which DrRich himself is innocent) as a “loveologist,” and who markets the sexual-aid products to prove it, actually makes a pretty convincing argument that sexual activity can be an important part of reducing one’s risk for all sorts of medical problems. So: Are you one of those folks who has thought about having more sex, but you’re just not sure the pay-off is worth all the trouble? Read this post.
Dr. Pullen at DrPullen.com posts about the problem of anti-personnel mines, which continue killing and maiming innocent people all over the world, and for decades after hostilities cease. He rightly thinks the US ought to do more to resolve this problem, and in particular, he decries apparently serious suggestions some have made that we ought to deploy mines on our southern border to prevent illegal crossings. DrRich agrees with Dr. Pullen, but does not believe that mining the U.S. border will ever become a serious consideration (unless it is to prevent American citizens from sneaking southward to receive black market healthcare).
Doug Perednia at The Road to Hellth is writing a fascinating series on the wonders of Pay for Performance. In this, his second offering, Perednia provides some pretty overwhelming evidence, including evidence from studies which proponents use to justify P4P, that P4P demonstrably does nothing useful. Actually, DrRich should qualify that statement: It does nothing useful in terms of improving clinical outcomes. What it does do (as Perednia demonstrates) is to forcibly distract physicians from listening to their patients, to fully consume all the time allotted for a patient visit, and to actively discourage other forms of doctor-patient interactions which might lead to additional healthcare expenditures. So despite a now-well-documented lack of any improvement in patient outcomes, P4P is in fact achieving its actual designed ends, and thus must be counted a great success.
Dr. Joe Smith, who writes the Dr. Unplugged blog (a Medscape blog which requires free registration), travels the globe seeking out emerging technologies related to wireless healthcare. In his latest article Smith laments the fact that, so far, the healthcare consumer has completely missed out on the ongoing wireless revolution, a revolution that has greatly empowered consumers in virtually every other economic sphere. He concludes that despite this slow penetration, wireless technology inevitably will also transform the lives of healthcare consumers. DrRich agrees that this outcome is indeed inevitable, but thinks it may take a while. Resistance to the empowerment of individual healthcare consumers is deeply entrenched, massively well-funded, extraordinarily powerful, amazingly ruthless, and very widely distributed (from the beltway to the bedside). Such resistance is akin to the all-pervasive power of the Church 500 years ago, a power that was eventually broken, but that required the technology (printing press), the killer app (Bibles printed in the vernacular), the catalyst (Martin Luther’s 95 theses), the poorly-expressed but ultimately deep-seated desire of the populace for the knowledge being offered, and the fortitude to persevere through 300 years of reformational bloodshed. So, yes, history ultimately will win out with regard to wireless healthcare, but one fears it may take more than just the healthcare equivalent of the iPod or Facebook to see it happen.
The anonymous author of The Notwithstanding Blog is a Canadian medical student with a background in economics. In the short time this blog has been around, he (or she) has done some very cogent writing applying economic insights to medicine. The featured post describes why medical ethicists (despite their constant yammering about honoring the autonomy of the individual) almost always decide specific ethical questions the other way, that is, against individual autonomy. DrRich, in his ham-fisted style of analysis, always tends to blame this phenomenon on the fact that Progressives in recent decades have largely taken over the Ethicists’ house, just as they have taken over in most academic fields, and that Progressives as part of their DNA must always come down on the side of the collective. But Dr. Notwithstanding offers what is likely a better explanation, based on economics (the science of human behavior) instead of on political ideology. As you’ll see, in addition to being an original thinker Dr. N is an engaging writer. You should give this blog a try.
In stark contrast to Notwithstanding’s anonymous blog is Carolyn Roy-Bornstein‘s eponymous one. Here she describes one of the absurdities doctors see every day with the modern-day electronic medical records which are being adopted all over the place, with great fanfare (and with public subsidies), to streamline healthcare, reduce redundancy, eliminate waste, and assure quality care. Namely, while these new electronic records may greatly simplify the lives of the federal regulators and the forensic accountants who keep track of which doctors are being naughty and which are being nice, they often gum up the works for the people on the ground who are actually trying to take care of sick people. EMRs can do this in many ways, and Dr. R-B nicely describes one of them: She laments the reams of redundant, boilerplate, tree-killing verbiage these records spit out, each and every day, for each and every patient, a characteristic which makes the formerly simple task of figuring out how the patient’s doing today a constant challenge, a perpetual exercise in patience and persistence. and a powerful attractor for medical errors. She ends by speculating whether it might make things easier to have somebody sing these records to her. A nice thought, but DrRich thinks it would not help. What you’d get is an early Phillip Glass composition, in which the same nonsense phrases are repeated over, and over, and over, and over. . .
The Happy Hospitalist discovers that latex examination gloves (powdered, one-size-fits-all, Spic and Span brand), are available at 10 for one dollar at the local dollar store. His discovery suggests a couple of things. As Happy points out, hospitals which are expected to survive on Medicaid payments now have someplace to shop. And, if you want to bring down the cost of healthcare products and services, simply make them available for direct purchase by consumers.
Carolyn Thomas of Heart Sisters writes of journalist Melissa Mia Hall who died in her Texas home in January after avoiding medical help for her severe and persistent chest pain (regarding which she wrote a running commentary to friends – and ultimately to posterity – via e-mail). Ms. Thomas concludes that had Ms. Hall had health insurance (which she did not), she likely would have done more than just document the progression of her fatal heart attack. DrRich has no personal knowledge of Ms. Hall, and so cannot contradict this conclusion, nor does he wish to. However, a recent survey by the American Heart Association showed that in 2009, only 50% of women (regardless of insurance status) said they would call 911 if they thought they might be having a heart attack. DrRich, who has long lamented the feminization of men in our society, now utters his dismay at the converse – the masculinization of women. Ladies, if you have symptoms suggestive of a heart attack, don’t try to tough it out. Call 911.
Steven Wilkins of The Mind Gap tells how sessions of culturally-sensitive “storytelling” can break down certain cognitive barriers for some patients, and more fully engage them in their medical treatment. Wisely, Wilkins is not suggesting that beleaguered PCPs develop a stable of appropriate yarns they can spin for their recalcitrant patients during the 7.5 minutes the Central Authority has allotted for each “patient encounter.” Rather, he has several helpful suggestions for incorporating such storytelling into existing systems, which would leave the doctors alone to do what they’re paid for – making little electronic chits on Pay for Performance checklists.
Vineet Arora at FutureDocs talks about the universally-recognized phenomenon of the over-ordering of radiological diagnostic tests, which is detrimental both to patients’ health and to the healthcare budget. She discusses the many reasons too many of these tests are ordered. It boils down to the fact that the healthcare system provides physicians with extraordinarily strong incentives, at many levels, NOT to rely on their clinical judgment, but instead, in order to optimize their odds of professional survival, to just go ahead and get the test. Unfortunately the solutions Dr. Arora suggests to this difficult problem do not hinge on restoring the doctor’s clinical judgment as a legitimate decision-making tool. (This is no fault of hers; to restore respect for the doctor’s clinical judgment would require a wholesale change in how the healthcare system now operates.) Instead, she suggests counterbalancing the strong coercions doctors feel to order too many of these tests, with new, and equally strong, coercions not to. Laboratory rats faced with similar, unresolvable imperatives to respond to two opposite stimuli, of course, quickly die of the stress.
Dinah from Shrink Rap notes that the FDA is about to take an action that may effectively render electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) a thing of the past. Specifically, the FDA is likely to reclassify ECT machines (which have been in clinical use since long before the FDA controlled such things) as Class II medical devices. If so, then for these devices to remain on the market, the two companies that manufacture them would have to conduct expensive new clinical trials to document safety and efficacy within 30 months. Observers judge that these companies would not have the resources to do so. ECT is a highly controversial procedure, and there are vocal groups which are trying to ban it – but for some patients with severe depression, Dinah points out, ECT has been a very effective and potentially life-saving last resort therapy. These unfortunate patients, apparently, can now join all the others whose response to various treatments resides in the tail of the standard distribution curve, and for whom the tailored, individualized therapy they require will no longer be an option. So they will just have to make do with the guideline-driven treatments that suit the average patient just fine. Nonetheless DrRich predicts this change can be implemented with minimal outcry, since severe depressives, being often imbued with great inanition, likely won’t complain very vociferously about it.
Speaking of shrinks, Philip Hickey of the Behaviorism and Mental Health Blog writes about his observations regarding how and why “mental illness” has become such a growth industry. He says, “’Mental illness’ is a spurious explanatory concept whose purpose is to medicalize for profit the ordinary problems of human existence which our ancestors tackled and resolved without drugs for thousands of years.” While DrRich might not buy his entire thesis, there is much more truth in what Hickey says than one would like to think. Among other things, when healthcare becomes a right, then the more struggles of the normal human experience we decide to turn into a medical diagnosis, the more it becomes society’s obligation to alleviate those normal struggles. There is a natural endpoint to this process of over-medicalization, of course, but it is not pleasant to contemplate.
Dr. Wes speculates on what is really different about the new pacemaker leads which recently have been declared officially MRI-safe by the FDA. Wes suggests that much of the extraordinarily expensive and time-consuming effort that was made in obtaining the “MRI-safe” label had more to do with the incredible regulatory maze that had to be navigated, than with any actual engineering changes. DrRich, who a few years ago was peripherally involved as a consultant in a similar effort (with a different company), declares Dr.Wes’ speculation to be likely pretty accurate. But fear not, for Medicare will be reimbursing the manufacturer for its regulatory ordeal for many years to come.
The venerable DB of DB’s Medical Rants offers a timely rant about how those who create the clinical guidelines which dictate the practice of modern medicine often do so inadvisedly, and sometimes with their own (possibly cryptic) agenda in mind, and as a result of such guidelines, patients may die. DrRich himself has covered this same topic lately. DB’s commentary hits the mark.
Paul S. Auerbach of the Medicine for the Outdoors Blog provides this post on cholera vaccines. It turns out that cholera vaccination is a little less than straightforward, and given the relatively small amount of vaccine available worldwide, would not be suitable for wide-scale use. So as far as cholera prevention goes, pray for sanitation.
Rich Elmore and Paul Tuten at HealthcareTechnologyNews write the wonderful news that the Direct Project has launched. The Direct Project, they tell us, is an implementation of a secure, health-related e-mail standard designed to “allow health practitioners to securely exchange health data, medical records digitized to be easily shared between doctor’s offices, hospitals, benefit providers, government agencies and other health organizations, all across America.” This sounds like a pretty good idea, except perhaps for the “government agencies” part, since, for many of us, these are the very folks we’d least want looking at our most private personal information. As for the patients themselves, it is not clear whether they also will have ready access to all this extremely secure information about their own health, or whether instead they will have to wait until the information finally shows up on Wikileaks.
February 24 – DrRich has been petitioned by the authors to issue a correction for this last item. In order to do complete justice to them, DrRich reproduces their suggested correction in its entirety:“The Direct Project encrypts the information being transmitted. No one other than the intended received can get the information. There is nothing stored using the Direct Project technologies – it serves only as a transport mechanism to enable, for example, a provider to securely send information to a consulting physician. The goal is to replace the pervasive fax machine with something more secure, more modern and able to be used by healthcare stakeholders with the most basic technology (internet access and a PC) up to the most sophisticated user of an electronic health record.”
DrRich thanks the authors for correcting any misapprehensions he may have inadvertently introduced. To be clear, when the Feds get your personal health information, and when you have difficulty obtaining it yourself, that will not be the fault of Direct Project, whose purpose is merely to assure that the data gets sent only to the person/agency which is targeted to receive it, and no one else. DrRich leaves it as an exercise for his readers to determine whether his original commentary may still offer any value.
Thanks for speed-reading Medical Grand Rounds this week.
Next week Grand Rounds will be hosted by The Examining Room of Dr. Charles.