Having been a physician now for 16 years, I have had a first hand view at the variety of healthcare reforms and regulation put into place over that time. Most recently, the Affordable Care Act has been at the center of our attention, but it is by no means the only thing the government has done over that time.
Today, President Trump and the Republicans are working to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and possibly replace it with something else (Something Great if you listen to Trump.) I have mixed feelings about this. I think that the ACA did some good things, but also got some things wrong. At its fundamental core, by forcing all people to buy healthcare through a private insurer (albeit through a government funded network), it was trying to create universal coverage. Unfortunately, the ACA struggled to get healthy people who would pay more than they consumed to enter the system, thus creating a system where there were often more claims than premiums.
A middle aged man named called Joe decided in mid life that he would become a doctor. A former boxing instructor, Joe felt compelled to learn medicine to help his fellow man. Already in his 30s, he worked hard to develop the prerequisite education to enter medical school, which he did in the late 1990s.
I met Joe in my first year of medical school. He was a very bright guy and had a great sense of humor. He was a bit different than most of us, and not just in age. I remember him asking me once “why would we use anti-hypertensives to treat hypertension. I mean, if a person’s blood pressure is that high, maybe that’s what their body needs it to be at!”. I remember thinking it was a strange way to think, given that allopathic medicine pretty much presumes that letting the body do whatever it will may not actually be the best course for long term health.
Joe did reasonably well through the first two years of medical school. In his third year he had moderate success, and sometimes struggled with having a different outlook on what medicine should be that the attending physicians that were instructing him. Over time, this became a bigger problem, and Joe eventually made the decision that being an allopathic physician wasn’t what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
As many of my readers know, I spend a fair amount of time online. I love interacting with other docs that do what I do, and even more so, I love interacting with women that have the conditions that I treat. Even though I have left academics, I am a teacher at heart, and enjoy the opportunity to pass on what I have learned when I can.
One of the biggest questions I see is about how endometriosis care is paid for.
Unlike typical care, many endometriosis physicians are not under contract with insurers for care. This creates a whole different system for payment of medical care that is confusing to many patients – so let me explain it here. Read more…
A reader recently send me this graphic on the costs of healthcare, which is interesting in many ways.
Created by: Medical Billing and Coding Certification
Some of this diagram I agree with, and some I do not, or at least what is implied by the information contained therein. Overall, the diagram is correct – American’s can’t afford healthcare. At least not the kind we try to provide. However, I don’t feel that the diagram really addresses why Americans can’t afford healthcare in an accurate way.
As a physician formally trained in computer science, I have the opportunity to look at today’s computerized medical record systems both from the perspective of a end user and as a software designer. It is perhaps because of this that I have been so persistently disappointed with the current state of clinical record software.
I am disappointed because despite all the fancy hardware and expensive software, our clinical records systems aren’t that much better than paper. We would think that a patient could go to any doctor and present their medical records the doctor could read them, but they can’t. We would think that it would be easy for me to get a CT scan report that was done at an outside hospital, but no. It actually has to be printed out and faxed, requiring not only human intervention and time, but if reentered into the receiving provider’s system actually converts a digitally stored report into a picture of a piece of paper, completely breaking the idea of an electronic record system. While information can be digital in one system, if it ever is passed on to someone working in another system, it becomes just another piece of digital paper. The sad truth is that despite our incredible investment in EMR systems, we have only created a massive collection of information silos, and have almost no way to transfer information between them – a system little better than the paper charts we sought to eliminate. And sadly, because these silos are hard coded and massive, innovation is stifled.
There is a very specific reason why our system operates like this, and it is that EMRs as a whole lack a common way to represent information. Each system represents medical records in its own proprietary format, and thus lack the ability to speak to each other. An thus no matter how wonderfully a EMR system represents information to its users, if information has to get out of the system, it can only be through pictures of pieces of paper.
So is there a solution to these problems? I would argue yes. But it requires a fundamental change in our paradigm – a change to a common “Model” for representing data.
Last year I wrote about a few strategies for decreasing costs in the operating room. Since being in fellowship operating many days per week, I’ve come up with a new idea, this time a bit more radical.
In Freakonomics, Leavitt and Dubner posit that in all things, human beings respond to incentives. If you want to understand human behavior, all you have to do is identify the incentives that drive them, be they emotional, financial, or social. In that vein, I wonder what incentives drive us to spend so much money on healthcare, and to waste resources when they need not be wasted.
I found a potential answer in another book, Chris Anderson’s “Free: The Future of a Radical Price” In this work Anderson investigates how an economy is affected when the marginal cost of production of a good approaches zero. Specifically, he investigates the economy surround digital goods, that while costing resources to develop, have a marginal cost of zero to produce and distribute. He proposes that in such a system, it is quite natural that the price of such goods will eventually approach zero, and if it doesn’t, the goods will be routinely stolen rather than paid for.
The corollary to this idea is the concept of optimal use of a resource when its cost is zero. That is, if one gets a real benefit from the use of a resource but it costs nothing whatsoever to use it, what is the right way to use that resource? Anderson suggests that the correct course is to use that resource to its maximal extent, and even to waste it without thinking despite diminishing returns. Read more…
Today I saw a patient for a preoperative visit and went through the ritual of “informed consent” and the signing of the surgical permit. We had decided to do a hysterectomy to treat her problematic fibroids, and she very much wanted to proceed. Having discussed the alternatives, we now had to go through the legal ritual of the surgical consent.
As usual, I discussed what we could expect to gain from the hysterectomy. There was a 100% chance that she would no longer have any bleeding, and a very strong chance that any pain that originated in her central pelvis would get entirely or mostly better. Anemia that resulted from the bleeding would improve. Other symptoms, like urinary pressure and frequency, and lateralized pelvic pain, would likely improve though it is not as strong a likelihood as the other symptoms.
We also discussed the risks. “You could have bleeding during the surgery, potentially enough to need a blood transfusion before or after surgery. You could get a communicable disease from a blood transfusion. You could develop a wound infection or abscess, which sometimes is easy to treat and other times quite complicated. Anything in the abdomen could be damaged during the surgery, such as the bowel, bladder, ureters (“which carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder” I always say), blood vessels, or other structures. Anything damaged can be fixed at the time by myself or a consultant. There is a possibility something could be damaged but we do not recognize it at the time, or that there is a delayed injury. If this occurs you might need further surgery, antibiotics, or hospitalization. Though extremely rare, you could die or be injured from an unforeseen surgical complication or complication of anesthesia.”
At this point she looked white as a sheet, as usual, and then I tempered with “but all of this is extremely unlikely, less than 1% of cases for major issues, and I have to explain it all for legal reasons. I am well trained to do this surgery and will do my absolute best for you.” I answered her questions, the consent is signed, and we had our pre-op.