Health Wonk Review –Waste, Warnings and the Future

 

Last week I hosted Health Wonk Review for HIO.  This round-up of some of the health care posts published over the past two weeks includes:

–  A piece by Managed Care Matter’s Joe Paduda that takes a hard look at “Flu season and Tamiflu,” and asks “Which one’s more hyped?”

 – A investigative post on Health Care Renewal that reviews “The Tragic Case of Aaron Swartz,”  the young computer activist who faced criminal charges for downloading thousands of scientific scholarly articles from the site JSTOR. After being pursued by a “tough as nails, relentless federal prosecutor,” Swartz committed suicide. Yet blogger Roy Poses notes, this same U.S. Attorney has been “soft as a marshmallow when dealing with top executives of health care corporations.”

– A post by The Hospitalist Leader’s Brad Flansbaum questioning the ACA’s assumption that a high rate of hospital readmissions signals waste. Just how many were preventable?

 –  In  a provocative post on Health Business Blog, David E. Williams asks why Cincinnati hospitals are furious because some employers have signed up for an insurance plan that would pay all hospitals just 40% more than Medicare pays for the same service.  The Hospitals claim  that isn’t enough. Moreover, each hospital would like to set its own prices—quietly. (This allows brand-name hospitals to charge far more than some of their competitors, for exactly the same services. )

 – On Wright on Health, Brad Wright describes a new rule, proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services that could prove “disastrous” for patients on Medicaid: “HHS is now attempting to woo states into participating in the Medicaid expansion by allowing them to increase cost-sharing in Medicaid” for all but the poorest of the poor. (More bloggers and reporters might want to write about this. The proposed rule will be open for comment until Feb. 13.)

 

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Health Wonk Review-The Holiday Edition

On this last holiday week-end, I hope many of you will have the time to read  the  newest edition of Health Wonk Review, a round-up of some of the best health care posts of the past two weeks.

This time Lynch Ryan hosts HWR on  Worker’s Comp Insider. . The posts raise provocative  questions:

Did the LA Times Sensationalize Blue Cross of California’s rate increases?

Why doesn’t President Obama require that CMS negotiate for drug discounts –a move that would take us $200 billion closer to a cliff-avoiding deal?

[My guess is that this will happen sometime this year. Back in April of 2011 Naomi published a HealthBeat post suggesting that Obama had put the idea of letting Medicare negotiate prices back on the table].

How do commercial insurers evaluate physician quality?

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The Empowered Patient

When you or a loved one enters a hospital, it is easy to feel powerless. The hospital has its own protocols and procedures. It is a “system” and now you find yourself part of that system.

The people around you want to help, but they are busy—extraordinarily busy. Nurses are multi-tasking. Residents are doing their best to learn on the job. Doctors are trying to supervise residents, care for patients, follow up on lab results, enter notes in patients’ medical records and consult with a dozen other doctors.

Whether you are the patient or a patient advocate trying to help a loved one through the process, you are likely to feel intimated—and scared.

Hospitals can be dangerous places, in part because doctors and  nurses are fallible human beings, but largely because the “systems” in our hospitals just aren’t very efficient.  In the vast majority of this nation’s  hospitals, a hectic workplace undermines the productivity of  nurses and doctors who dearlly want to provide coordinated patient-centered care.

At this point, many hospitals understand  that they must streamline and redesign how care is delivered and how information is shared so that doctors and nurses can work together as teams. But this  will take time. In the meantime, patients and their advocates can help improve patient safety.

Julia Hallisy’s Story

Julia Hallisy learned about patient safety the hard way. Hallisy’s daughter, Kate, was diagnosed with an aggressive eye cancer when she was five months old. Over the next decade, she went through radiation, chemo, reconstructive surgery, an operation to remove her right eye, a hospital-acquired infection that led to toxic-shock syndrome and an above-the-knee amputation.

“My husband and I spent years of our lives in hospital hallways, waiting rooms, and emergency rooms,” Hallisy recalls. “We became savvier and more educated the longer my daughter’s illness went on. . . .

“We slowly came to realize that the quality of healthcare she was receiving, as mediocre as it sometimes was, was actually far superior to the care other families around us in the hospital were receiving. They began to notice this discrepancy as well, and they wanted to know how we knew the things we did and who had given us such valuable ‘inside’ information. We had to explain to them that we had come across everything we knew . . . by watching our daughter suffer through medical errors, misdiagnoses and inexperienced medical providers, and investigating the mistakes and taking steps to make sure they didn’t occur again.”

Kate was treated at some of the finest hospitals in the San Francisco area.

She died in 2000. Kate was eleven years old

                             Empowering a Patient,  an Advocate, or a  Survivor

How could a mother handle such unspeakable grief? Hallisdecided to write a book that might help others. In 2008,  I reviewed it on HealthBeat.

At the time I wrote: “Remarkably, The Empowered Patient is not an angry book. It is not maudlin. To her great credit, Hallisy manages to keep her tone matter-of-fact as she tells her reader what every patient and every patient’s advocate needs to know about how to stay safe in a hospital.”

Recently, Hallisy emailed to tell me know that the book has now become a non-profit foundation: The Empowered Patient Coalition.

Go to their website and you will find fact sheets, checklists, and publications including, A Hospital Guide for Patients and Families that you can download at no charge. I found the Hospital Guide eye-opening. I have read and written a fair amount about patient safety in hospitals, but it told me many things that I did not  know.

For instance, did you realize that it is perfectly appropriate to ask your surgeon how many times he has performed this particular operation?

Are you aware that you (or your advocate) can—and should—read your medical records while you are in the hospital? (This may be the only way you will find out that your doctors disagree with each other about your treatment.)

Do you know what to do if you if you request a consultation with a more experienced physician because you have serious questions about the decisions made by residents –and hospital staff don’t agree that you need to talk to someone higher up on the ladder?

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Breakfast with Atul Gawande

Sunday, Boston Surgeon Dr. Atul Gawande spoke at the New Yorker Festival about the importance of a hospital being able to “Rescue Success from Profound Failure.”   (Long-time Health Beat readers will recognize Gawande as the author of Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes On An Imperfect ScienceThe Checklist Manifesto  and a number of brilliant New Yorker articles that I have written about in the past, including: “Letting Go: What Should Medicine Do When it Can’t Save Your Life?”,  “It Will Take Ambition It Will Take Humility,” and  “The Fight for the Soul of American Medicine”  (Hat-tip to the New Yorker for publishing so many stellar articles illuminating an extraordinarily complicated subject: healthcare and healthcare reform.)

Before Gawande’s talk began, IBM, the event’s sponsor, hosted a small breakfast where Gawande spoke informally to a group of doctors, health plan executives, hospital administrators and people from IBM who are in the vanguard of healthcare reform. The New Yorker was kind enough to invite me to attend the breakfast and blog about the conversation.

                              Less Expensive Medical Care Can Mean Better Care   

At Sunday’s breakfast Gawande began by observing that “in just the past four or five years we have seen a huge shift in the national conservation about health care.” Since 2007 or 2008 many have come to realize that when it comes to medical care in the U.S., “there is no direct relationship between the amount of money spent and positive results.”  In other words, although we spend twice as much as many other developed countries on health care, medical care in the U.S. is not twice as good. In some ways it is worse.

Yet this epiphany is not as discouraging at it sounds. As Gawande pointed out, “Recognizing that expensive care does not necessarily equal top-quality care has enabled a decoupling of the two issues in the public mind, and opened up the possibility for real beneficial change in the system. The Affordable Care Act’s goal” of securing high quality care for everyone is, in fact, affordable. “We don’t have to ration care.”
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“The Third Rail of Payment Reform”–Tackling Wide Variations in How Much Providers Charge

Gallery

Why do some hospitals and doctors charge far more than others for exactly the same routine procedure?   “Because they can; it’s not any more sophisticated than that,” says Gerard Anderson, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Hospital Finance and … Continue reading

How to Avoid Avoidable Care–by George Lundberg

Below, a  guest-post by Dr. George Lundberg, Editor-at-Large of MedPageToday; Editor in Chief of Collabrx; President and Board Chair of the Lundberg Institute.  (Full disclosure: I am a member of the Lundberg Institute’s Board)

What Lundberg says is not meant to be news.  Today, physicians tend to agree that many of the tests that patients undergo are unnecessary. Three years ago, one hospitalist shared a story on HealthBeat, describing how he warned his residents about over-testing His hospital may not have been happy about his disclosure: tests boost revenues.

But in some cases, we have solid medical evidence showing that for certain patients, these tests do more harm than good– though vested interests may try to bury that evidence. (See Dr. Hoffman’s post below.)

Yet doctors continue to order the tests– why?  

George Lundberg brings a unique perspective to this problem. Drawing on his wealth of experience, both as a practitioner and as a teacher, he puts it in a historical context.  For 40 years, he has asked physicians why they perform so many tests. The frankness of their responses is matched only by Lundberg’s own candor as he diagnoses the excesses in our medical system . 

How to Avoid Avoidable Care 

George Lundberg

Why do physicians order laboratory tests?  The traditional reasons are: diagnosis 37%, monitoring 33%, screening 32%, previous abnormal result 12%, prognosis 7%, education 2%, and medicolegal 1%.

In  order to confirm these data, I began to ask the same question of many groups of clinical and laboratory workers over three continents in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s during  Socratic teaching sessions on how to use the clinical laboratory correctly. And I began to get very different answers.  

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U.S. Rumor and Hospital Report

Introduction: Below a post by Paul Levy, the former President and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. For the past five years he kept an online journal, Running a Hospital. He now writes as an advocate for patient-centered care, eliminating preventable harm, transparency of clinical outcomes, and front-line driven process improvement at one of my favorite blogs: Not Running a Hospital.

Levy’s post originally appeared on The Health Care Blog (THCB).  

I should add that, as a journalist, I have watched lists like this one being compiled at various magazines: “The Best Colleges in the U.S.”  “New York’s Best Doctors,”  “The Best Motels in America”. . ..  Who puts them together?  Young journalists who know no more than the rest of us about which universities, hospitals, or motels offer a better education, safer surgery –or a nicer swimming pool.   (I recall reporting a “best motels” piece for Money Magazine many years ago. I didn’t visit the motels. I talked to their owners on the phone.)  

These are not investigative pieces. This goal is not to warn consumers; the goal is to advertise.As for the physicians surveyed, Levy is not blaming them for offering opinions rather than in-depth information about outcomes and patient safety.  Most hospitals don’t make hard data about medical errors or infection rates available.  In fact, many hospitals don’t keep detailed data about medical mistakes.  They may well count the number of “adverse events,” but they don’t discuss and analyze them, even internally. Hospital CEOs have other priorities.  This, I think, takes us to the crux of the problem. (See my companion post below)

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It has been almost four years since I commented on the annual hospital ranking prepared by US News and World Report.  I have to confess now that I was relatively gentle on the magazine back then.  After all, when you run a hospital, there is little be gained by critiquing someone who publishes a ranking that is read by millions.  But now it is time to take off the gloves. All I can say is, are you guys serious?  Let’s look at the methodology used for the 2011-12 rankings:

In 12 of the 16 [specialty] areas, whether and how high a hospital is ranked depended largely on hard data, much of which comes from the federal government. Many categories of data went into the rankings. Some are self-evident, such as death rates. Others, such as the number of patients and the balance of nurses and patients, are less obvious. A survey of physicians, who are asked to name hospitals they consider tops in their specialty, produces a reputation score that is also factored in.

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Hospital CEOs Reveal Their Top Priorities

While reading Paul Levy’s post on hospital rankings, I couldn’t help recall an  American College of Health Care Executives (ACHE) survey that he discussed onNot Running a Hospitalback in March of 2010.  The ACHE asked hospital CEO’s about their top concerns. Below, a table shows the results: “Patient Safety” and “Quality of Care” ranked at the bottom of their list of priorities.

Granted, from 2004 to 2007 these issues moved up in the rankings, but CEOs still were more likely to worry about “financial challenges,” “the cost of caring for the uninsured,” and “Doctor/hospital relations.”  They might as well have been the CEOs of auto companies, who worry about  first about profits, then costs, then labor relations, roughly in that order.  

Maggie2

Even worse, by 2009, Levy notes, “there was a major disappointment.”   The two issues most important to patients appear to have fallen off the chart.   “We can't blame just the CEOs for missing the boat on elevating safety and quality,” Levy commented. “It is the governing bodies of the hospitals, behind and above the CEOs, who should hold them accountable on this front.”

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Advice to Hospitals in a Downturn: “Market the High-Margin Service”

One  might think that hospitals would be recession-proof.  After all, hospital care is a necessity.

But one would be wrong. When times are tough, people put off elective surgery, and even avoid going to the hospital in an emergency.  Although they may have insurance, often they can’t afford the co-pays that accompany hospital care. As for the uninsured, not long ago a study showed that uninsured patients suffering from gunshot wounds often leave the ER, voluntarily, without being admitted to the hospital.. (I’ll be writing about this study in a future post.)
 
What can hospitals do? Hospitalimpact.org, a new blog “dedicated for current and emerging hospital leaders, thinkers and enablers” offers some advice:

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Donating an Organ: Should It Be A Gift?

A story in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine raised some very thorny questions about organ transplants. I spent the afternoon reading more about transplants; by evening I had stumbled onto what seems to me at least a partial solution.

The NYT piece tells the story of Sally Satel, a 49-year-old psychiatrist in need of a kidney transplant. In 2004, her kidneys suddenly, quite inexplicably, began to fail. (The cause may have been a medication she had taken in her twenties.)  She had no living relatives except a couple of cousins whom she rarely saw. A close friend came forward, was tested, found that her blood was a match, volunteered to donate a kidney–and then reneged. (It turns out that when she went to chorus practice one evening, “a fellow alto” talked her out of it. The fellow-alto was, of all things, an organ transplant specialist. Satel was enraged: “a transplant surgeon should know how hard it is to get a donor.”)

A second friend volunteered, and again proved a match. But then she, too, got cold feet– though she didn’t tell Satel right away.

Finally, a 62-year-old stranger in Canada saw Satel’s message on an organ match website, called and offered to help her.  He was the right blood type, he seemed “steady” and “honest,” and after a few weeks of phone calls and e-mails, they set a date to do the operations in early January. Then, just before Thanksgiving, he went dark. “Everything turned to radio silence as my e-mail and phone messages went unanswered,” Satel recalls. When her transplant coordinator contacted him, he waffled. He wasn’t sure he would be able to make it in January; he was too heavily involved in a political campaign…

“I was astonished at the Canadian’s . . . what? Negligence, cowardice, rudeness?” Satel writes. “It was a sickening roller-coaster ride: hope yielding to helpless frustration, gratitude giving way to fury. How dare he reduce me to groveling and dependence? Yet I assume he intended no such thing. I think the Canadian was actually quite devoted to the idea of giving a kidney — just not necessarily now or to me.”

By now Satel is desperate. She realizes that her only alternative is dialysis “three days a week, for four debilitating hours at a time, I would be tethered to a blood-cleansing machine… I had an especially morbid dread of dialysis,” Satel admits.  She was haunted by what she had read about “the playwright Neil Simon [who] received a kidney from his longtime publicist in 2004 . . .but before that he endured 18 wretched months on dialysis, suffering cramps and vomiting spells that kept him largely confined to his house. His memory deteriorated, and he hated the time away from his writing. Shortly before his donor came forward (unsolicited, it should be noted), Simon’s doctors said he might have to start spending more time on dialysis. If that were necessary, he said, he had decided, ‘I didn’t want to live my life anymore.’ Neither, I thought, would I.”

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