Sunday, December 30, 2012

Cynical Thoughts about Medical Insurance

Is anyone else irritated by medical insurance companies' efforts to improve the health of their members by encouraging them to do recommended tests based on claims-made data? Recently, a patient asked me if he should get the pulmonary function tests his insurance company recommended based on his asthma diagnosis. He does have mild intermittent asthma. He uses a steroid inhaler once a year during the spring for about a month and might use his rescue inhaler with exercise four or five other times during the year. If you check the guidelines put out by the National Asthma Education and Prevention Program it is recommended that a spirometry test or PFTs be performed annually to assess any changes in lung function. The fact is, this patient has been treating his asthma the same way for about fifteen years. He feels fine. So will doing PFTs make a difference? We discussed it (over Christmas and through the patient portal, which I love) and decided that doing testing was unlikely to cause a change in therapy. Since he had better things to do than PFTs he would prefer to skip the tests. Hopefully he won't see an increase in his premium for refusing to follow his insurance company's medical advice. Does this make me worry about becoming nothing more than a flunky ordering tests for patients based on Humana or Aetna or Anthem's "best practices"? In a word, yes.

What irritates me more, is being faxed long lists of patient names with recommendations for mammograms, colonoscopies or diabetic eye exams. Our office is supposed to pull those charts and encourage patients to have their preventive exams. Of course if we do pull them, it turns out the "claims-made" data from the insurance company isn't all that accurate and many patients have already had their tests done. Thus another waste of the office employees' time pulling charts. Hopefully it will be easier with electronic records.

I suppose the cynic in me wonders "What's the angle here?". Does the the upper management of these companies really care about the members they insure that much? Is that what it takes to continue to make the obscene salaries their positions pay (see chart below)? When Humana sends me yet another envelope full of "healthy" coupons in their quarterly newsletter that shows me how much money they saved me with my last doctor visit, complete with lots of "healthy advice" enclosed, why does it make me roll my eyes?

When I want medical advice I will talk to my doctor or find an expert on-line, I will not talk to my insurance company. I do not want or need coupons from Humana. Nor do I want my insurance company to remind me of preventive care visits via my telephone. My patients are thrilled by it, however. "Humana pays for me to go to Silver Sneakers! Isn't that great?" or "A free 30-day Jenny Craig membership is available, what do you think doc?" 

Just call me Thomas, because I am a doubter. Nothing is truly free in the insurance business, so somewhere along the line the consumer is paying for the SilverSneaker membership and the salary of the individual who is soliciting companies to provide coupons from the insurance company. Please, just pay my claims and not give me such a headache trying to obtain my prescription from your 90 day pharmacy service. That's what I would call good service! 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Physician Patient Communication

All professions need good communication skills. Obviously in healthcare the ability to communicate with patients should rank high in a physician's list of talents. These days that interaction occurs in a number of ways: face-to-face, direct telephone contact or though a staff member, via emails, patient portals, or even texting. Because the communication is in the arena of medicine, the protection of an individual's health information is paramount. Enter HIPAA, which is a federally mandated program to ensure patient confidentiality.

The face-to-face form of interaction is the most rewarding because multiple senses are used in the process. First, I listen to the words while hearing the tenor of a patient's voice; a few octaves higher with anger or fear, deep and gnarly from years of smoking, "push" of speech in an anxious or grandiose individual, or an accent that might be heavy enough for me to wonder if there is a cultural or comprehension problem. Sight gives me other cues; body language--crossed arms, angry face, tearful, an open posture, a resigned facial expression, stiff limbs or back. Sometimes my sight reveals more concrete things--bizarre tattoos, picked at sores, expensive accessories, worn and torn clothing. My nose may be assailed by the scent of the smoker, too much perfume, not enough soap, musty clothing or pleasant shampoo--all of that speaks to me. Finally touch--dry and peeling skin, a mass somewhere it shouldn't be whose texture may speak to me of reassurance or of terror. 

The opposite must be true as well. We speak volumes to our patients without opening our mouths, or despite opening them. The tenor of our voices may be patronizing, authoritative or uncertain. Our faces and body language reveal our thoughts with a roll of the eye, crossed arms, or open facies. We can look professional or casual. Smell can be important--what asthmatic wants to see a physician whose aftershave or perfume is overwhelming? Perhaps touch is the most expressive. Early on I learned that even when I don't need to, patients expect to have a "laying on of hands" in some fashion. They may trust you less if you haven't at least looked in an ear or listened to a heart. 

The hardest communication for me is remembering to finish with eye contact and a plan: "We'll contact you with the lab results", "I will have our referral clerk Megan call you" or just "Have a great holiday" instead of rushing out to see the next patient. But the best visits include a hand shake or on a good day, a hug. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Be Careful What You Wish For

Physician-to-physician communication has become an increasingly difficult problem and its lack has worsened the fragmentation of healthcare today[1]. The challenge is complicated by many things:
  • Physicians lack the time to call colleagues about patients when their income is patient volume-based 
  • Fewer opportunities for direct physician contact, i.e. the doctor's lounge
  • EHR systems cannot talk to each other
  • Patients don't always tell their physicians about other doctors taking care of them
  • Printed EHR records are so full of verbiage that important findings are missed by the doctors trying to scan pages of unimportant documentation
  • Patients rarely carry their health histories with them in any format outside of memory
Another problem, at least in the healthcare system where I work, is the lack of a centralized area where physicians can come together to find community specific information. Blast emails are sent to doctors whose boxes are already full of "junk", making it difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Recognizing this problem I recently approached the IT department at my institution. 

It was gratifying to me that they not only understood the issue, but were excited about assisting in a solution. My vision is to create a Physician Community where providers can go to find answers and communicate in a secure environment about any number of issues--problems with EHR, announcements, medical directors' updates, calendars with CME and other dates of interest, blogs, CME, vlogs, links to outside trustworthy medical sites, and a place to crowdsource patient or system problems. IT gave me access to build such a community in a Sharepoint environment. 

Of course in addition to the problem of building the environment and populating it with what the doctors need, is getting them to use it. I feel certain that "If you build it they will come" does not apply in this situation. I envision needing to enlist lots of assistance from the President and CMO of the system down to the office managers and EHR superusers. 

I'm a firm believer that Social Media is the most important revolution in patient care today. Effective electronic communication between physician is part of that movement. But today, as I'm reading Sharepoint for Dummies, I can't help but wonder--what was I thinking and can this make a difference? 

1. Shannon MD MPH, Shannon. January/February 2012.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Catch-22 of the Physician Champion Role

Yes, I'm a geek. When my girls were in high school, their friends were amazed that they received texts from their mother. One daughter has commented on Facebook that her mother is more tech-savvy than she is. At the beginning of 2012 my interest in the healthcare benefits of social media was born and I began blogging. I investigated and use LinkedIn, Twitter and Google+ while remaining attentive to Pinterest, AboutMe, Doximity, Instagram and others. So when my employer offered me the position of EHR Physician Champion for our physician group a couple of months ago, I took on the challenge. And challenge is the operative word.

Presently there are about 25 physicians in our 180+ multi-specialty group "live" (using electronic records). In a meeting specifically called to discuss "Provider Go-Lives", three individuals tasked with implementing EHR turned to me and said, "So Dr. Nieder, how can we encourage doctors who are not embracing EHR to do so." Hmmm....good question.

Let me preface these remarks by stating that our administrators have tried everything in their well-researched knowledge base to make this transition work. As we move forward improvements are made with every new Go Live. My immediate response was two-fold:
  1. In training, don't give physicians the impression that using an EHR is using a paper chart in electronic form. It is an entirely new way to document and, unfortunately, the learning curve resembles third year medical school with IT support instead of attendings. It is every bit as daunting. 
  2. Encourage the doctors to shadow with someone already successfully using the system. 
The next question was harder. "What can we do to push the physicians who are balking?" Ah, therein lies the rub. Of course I recognize that the question was also my responsibility in the role of Physician Champion. To answer it, I was going to have to do some thinking. There are many reasons doctors give for not wanting to use EHR as posts by Palmd, HealthcareTechReview, MITTechnologyReview, and others attest but the biggest one in my system is that it slows down physicians whose salaries are based on productivity. 

My understanding of the value of EHR is simple enough--more legible notes, better population care using "big data", enhanced patient care using clinical decision support tools, improved documentation to increase reimbursement, establishment of direct patient communication through portals, healthcare savings by reducing duplicate test ordering, and improved communication between providers in continuity of care. Even though our present system is poised to realize all these goals, the only one it is capable of performing at this very moment is legibility. So how can I convince physicians to use a tool that is going to slow them down (i.e. reduce their pay) and doesn't yet have the necessary functionality to improve patient care?

As a geek, the EHR experience has me torn between two emotions: incredulity at its lack of usability  and that sinking sensation I remember from the late 80's when the software rarely did what it was advertised to and crashed all too frequently, freezing the computer and forcing the user to restart both the software and often the entire system. The promise was there but the reality was long in coming. So too is today's EHR.