American College of Physicians: Internal Medicine — Doctors for Adults ®

Monday, May 19, 2014

Fatal error

The janitor approached my office manager with a very worried expression. ”Uh, Brenda …” he said, hesitantly.

“Yes?” she replied, wondering what janitorial emergency was looming in her near future.

“Uh … well … I was cleaning Dr. Lamberts’ office yesterday and I noticed on his computer …” He cleared his throat nervously, “Uh … his computer had something on it.”

“Something on his computer? You mean on top of the computer, or on the screen?” she asked, growing more curious.

“On the screen. It said something about an ‘illegal operation.’ I was worried that he had done something illegal and thought you should know,” he finished rapidly, seeming grateful that this huge weight lifted.

Relieved, Brenda laughed out loud, reassuring him that this “illegal operation” was not the kind of thing that would warrant police intervention.

Unfortunately for me, these “illegal operation” errors weren’t without consequence. It turned out that our system had something wrong at its core, eventually causing our entire computer network to crash, giving us no access to patient records for several days.

The reality of computer errors is that the deeper the error is—the closer it is to the core of the operating system—the wider the consequences when it causes trouble. That’s when the “blue screen of death” or (on a Mac, the “beach ball of death”) show up on our screens. That’s when the “illegal operation” progresses to a “fatal error.”

The fatal error in health care

We have such an error in our health care system. It’s absolutely central to nearly all care that is given, at the very heart of the operating system. It’s a problem that increased access to care won’t fix, that repealing the SGR, or forestalling ICD-10 won’t help. It’s a problem with something that is starts at the very beginning of health care itself.

The health care system is not about health.

Yes, the first word, “health” is inaccurate. Our system is built to address the opposite of health, sickness, exchanging money for addressing illness. The clinician is paid for matching diagnosis with procedure (ICD for CPT, in code). Economically, more (or more serious) diagnoses and more (or more complex) procedures result in more pay. Last I checked, more/more serious diagnoses and more/more complex procedures are not in the definition of “health.”

So is this just a case of bad nomenclature, or not wanting to use the term “sick care system” for public relations reasons? What does it matter what it’s called? The problem is that health is what the patient wants (although it’s hard to call someone a “patient” if they are healthy), but the system does nothing to help people each this goal. In fact, our system (as constructed) seems to be designed to discouraging providers from helping people toward the goal of health. After all, the system itself becomes unnecessary in the presence of health.

Getting what we pay for

So what do you get from such a backward system, one that rewards the outcomes people are supposed to avoid? You get what you pay for:
1. A premium is placed on making diagnoses, since they are rewarded.
• Unnecessary tests are done to “fish” for problems to treat. I got my vitamin D level drawn at my last doctor’s visit, but was not displaying any symptoms/signs of a deficiency and know of no evidence that treating it in someone like me would do any good. To what end do I have this diagnosis? I am not sure.
• New diseases are created to promote intervention. ”Low T” syndrome is a perfect example of this, not only rewarding the provider by adding complexity for the visit and the lab for the test run to make the diagnosis, but also the drug company who brought the “disease” to the public consciousness.
2. The likelihood of a person being considered “healthy” is much less.
• Obesity, depression, poor attention at school, social maladjustment - things that used to be considered different points along the range of normal human existence - are now classified as diseases. Risk factors, such as high cholesterol, are made in diseases to be treated. The end result is a diagnosis for everyone.
• Overdiagnosis leads to overtreatment with medications that themselves can cause problems (which is rewarded by increased pay for doctors, hospitals, drug companies, etc).
3. Little effort is made to do things that would lead to health.
• Spending more time/resources on people to educate them about their health is bad business, as it decreases the number of diagnoses and procedures a clinician can do in the course of the day.
• Since there is no motivation to prevent little problems from becoming big ones, they tend to be neglected. Patients often report the need to be “sick enough” to go to the doctor’s office, and seem embarrassed when their concerns are found to be “nothing serious.”

Why payors won’t change

So why don’t payors just stop paying for unnecessary medications, tests, and procedures for invented diagnoses? The did once, actually. Back in the early days of HMO’s, when most doctors and patients were used to getting any medication, test, and procedure without question, the payors changed: they stopped paying for everything. ”No, sir, you don’t need an MRI scan for back pain.” ”No, ma’am, you don’t need the brand name drug that costs 20 times more.”

This attempt to control cost was not met with praise, but instead by the demonization of payors by both doctors and patients. Insurance companies quickly became public enemy #1, said to be denying care to those in need. In reality, they were not denying care; they were simply refusing to pay for it. Patients could get the MRI or brand medicine if they wanted, they’d just have to pay for it themselves. But that wasn’t in the discussion.

In the end, they did what every God-fearing person does with a problem they don’t want: they passed the buck. Instead of refusing to pay for unnecessary procedures, they did 2 things:
1. Required authorization by providers. This meant that the denial was because of the provider’s inability to justify it, not the payor’s unwillingness to pay for it.
2. Started penalizing/reporting “bad” providers. This started with the use of “pay for performance,” and has come to full fruition recently by the “transparency” movement, where doctors’ and hospitals’ utilization are publicly reported.

The analogy I’ve used in the past is that of an alcoholic who blames their spouse for their inability to control their drinking. ”If only those damn doctors would stop ordering those unnecessary tests and prescribing those unnecessary drugs, I wouldn’t have the need to irresponsibly pay for them.”

Rethinking reform

The root financial arrangement in the health care system is to promote more: more diagnosis, more disease, more tests, more interventions, and more medications, with each of these being rewarded with more revenue. It seems the obvious cause of our out-of-control spending, spending which does not yield better health.

Attempts to reform the system have ignored this root problem, instead focusing on other things:
• Improving access to care (a la the ACA) - which addresses the real problem of uninsured/underinsured people, but ignores the fact that care became inaccessible for a reason: it costs too much.
• Measuring the care of providers and hospitals, attempting to manipulate them into reducing the cost of their care. The HITECH act (and our old pal “meaningful use”) does this via computerizing and capturing the data of clinicians, as do the ACO’s (accountable care organizations) for hospital systems. While there is a small shift of financial incentives in these arrangements, they greatly increase the complexity of the system, creating huge areas of spending that did not previously exist (yes, I am talking about the EMR companies, with Epic at their head).
• Changing who is in charge, either by privatizing Medicare and Medicaid or by going to a single-payor system. If a ship is sinking, the priority is to fix the hole, not to change captains.

Warning! This is where I get on my soap box.

For any solution to have a real effect, this core problem must be addressed. The basic incentive has to change from sickness to health. Doctors need to be rewarded for preventing disease and treating it early. Rewards for unnecessary tests, procedures, and medications need to be minimized or eliminated. This can only happen if it is financially beneficial to doctors for their patients to be healthy.

What a coincidence! That’s what my new practice does! Who’d have thought it? The healthier my patients are, the less of me they need and the larger my patient panel can get. I am motivated to keep problems small, to avoid complexity, and to think in terms of true prevention rather than the invention of diseases.

Obviously, the system still must address the inevitable/unpreventable medical problems that arise despite my best efforts to prevent them. This is where the high-deductible plans come in: covering problems that the patient cannot afford. Yet my job will always be to prevent patients from spending that deductible, wherever possible, avoiding unnecessary tests, medications, or ER visits. Why? Because in doing so I justify the monthly payment. It turns out that this is not very hard. This is a win/win/win, as patients are healthier, I make more money, and insurance companies don’t have to pay for nearly as much.

The bottom line

Any significant change, whatever the means, won’t happen until there is an even more basic shift, a shift in the very center of health care: we must focus again on people. The patient (or the person trying to avoid becoming a patient) has moved from the center of the health care transaction and has become the raw-materials for what we call “health care.” The doctor/hospital needs the patient to generate the codes necessary to be paid by the payor, which is the bottom-line reason for our problems. A system that has incentives to create disease and procedures, will be satisfied (and even happy) with a lack of health. But a system which rewards health will be radically different.

Changing the focus of care to this is more than just emotional idealism, it is good business. Care should not be about codes, procedures, medications, tests, or interventions, but instead about helping people live their lives with as few problems as possible. We need an economy that thrives when the patient costs the system less.

Any attempt to reform without this change will ultimately fail.

After taking a year-long hiatus from blogging, Rob Lamberts, MD, ACP Member, returned with "volume 2" of his personal musings about medicine, life, armadillos and Sasquatch at More Musings (of a Distractible Kind), where this post originally appeared.

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Blog log

Members of the American College of Physicians contribute posts from their own sites to ACP Internistand ACP Hospitalist. Contributors include:

Albert Fuchs, MD
Albert Fuchs, MD, FACP, graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine, where he also did his internal medicine training. Certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine, Dr. Fuchs spent three years as a full-time faculty member at UCLA School of Medicine before opening his private practice in Beverly Hills in 2000.

And Thus, It Begins
Amanda Xi, ACP Medical Student Member, is a first-year medical student at the OUWB School of Medicine, charter class of 2015, in Rochester, Mich., from which she which chronicles her journey through medical training from day 1 of medical school.

Ira S. Nash, MD, FACP, is the senior vice president and executive director of the North Shore-LIJ Medical Group, and a professor of Cardiology and Population Health at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. He is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Cardiovascular Diseases and was in the private practice of cardiology before joining the full-time faculty of Massachusetts General Hospital.

Zackary Berger
Zackary Berger, MD, ACP Member, is a primary care doctor and general internist in the Division of General Internal Medicine at Johns Hopkins. His research interests include doctor-patient communication, bioethics, and systematic reviews.

Controversies in Hospital Infection Prevention
Run by three ACP Fellows, this blog ponders vexing issues in infection prevention and control, inside and outside the hospital. Daniel J Diekema, MD, FACP, practices infectious diseases, clinical microbiology, and hospital epidemiology in Iowa City, Iowa, splitting time between seeing patients with infectious diseases, diagnosing infections in the microbiology laboratory, and trying to prevent infections in the hospital. Michael B. Edmond, MD, FACP, is a hospital epidemiologist in Iowa City, IA, with a focus on understanding why infections occur in the hospital and ways to prevent these infections, and sees patients in the inpatient and outpatient settings. Eli N. Perencevich, MD, ACP Member, is an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist in Iowa City, Iowa, who studies methods to halt the spread of resistant bacteria in our hospitals (including novel ways to get everyone to wash their hands).

db's Medical Rants
Robert M. Centor, MD, FACP, contributes short essays contemplating medicine and the health care system.

Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member
Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing physician in Massachusetts. He has published numerous articles in clinical medicine, covering a wide range of specialty areas including; pulmonology, cardiology, endocrinology, hematology, and infectious disease. He has also authored chapters in the prestigious "5-Minute Clinical Consult" medical textbook. His other clinical interests include quality improvement, hospital safety, hospital utilization, and the use of technology in health care.

Juliet K. Mavromatis, MD, FACP, provides a conversation about health topics for patients and health professionals.

Dr. Mintz' Blog
Matthew Mintz, MD, FACP, has practiced internal medicine for more than a decade and is an Associate Professor of Medicine at an academic medical center on the East Coast. His time is split between teaching medical students and residents, and caring for patients.

Everything Health
Toni Brayer, MD, FACP, blogs about the rapid changes in science, medicine, health and healing in the 21st century.

Vineet Arora, MD, FACP, is Associate Program Director for the Internal Medicine Residency and Assistant Dean of Scholarship & Discovery at the Pritzker School of Medicine for the University of Chicago. Her education and research focus is on resident duty hours, patient handoffs, medical professionalism, and quality of hospital care. She is also an academic hospitalist.

Glass Hospital
John H. Schumann, MD, FACP, provides transparency on the workings of medical practice and the complexities of hospital care, illuminates the emotional and cognitive aspects of caregiving and decision-making from the perspective of an active primary care physician, and offers behind-the-scenes portraits of hospital sanctums and the people who inhabit them.

Gut Check
Ryan Madanick, MD, ACP Member, is a gastroenterologist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, and the Program Director for the GI & Hepatology Fellowship Program. He specializes in diseases of the esophagus, with a strong interest in the diagnosis and treatment of patients who have difficult-to-manage esophageal problems such as refractory GERD, heartburn, and chest pain.

I'm dok
Mike Aref, MD, PhD, FACP, is an academic hospitalist with an interest in basic and clinical science and education, with interests in noninvasive monitoring and diagnostic testing using novel bedside imaging modalities, diagnostic reasoning, medical informatics, new medical education modalities, pre-code/code management, palliative care, patient-physician communication, quality improvement, and quantitative biomedical imaging.

Informatics Professor
William Hersh, MD, FACP, Professor and Chair, Department of Medical Informatics & Clinical Epidemiology, Oregon Health & Science University, posts his thoughts on various topics related to biomedical and health informatics.

David Katz, MD
David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACP, is an internationally renowned authority on nutrition, weight management, and the prevention of chronic disease, and an internationally recognized leader in integrative medicine and patient-centered care.

Just Oncology
Richard Just, MD, ACP Member, has 36 years in clinical practice of hematology and medical oncology. His blog is a joint publication with Gregg Masters, MPH.

Kevin Pho, MD, ACP Member, offers one of the Web's definitive sites for influential health commentary.

MD Whistleblower
Michael Kirsch, MD, FACP, addresses the joys and challenges of medical practice, including controversies in the doctor-patient relationship, medical ethics and measuring medical quality. When he's not writing, he's performing colonoscopies.

Medical Lessons
Elaine Schattner, MD, FACP, shares her ideas on education, ethics in medicine, health care news and culture. Her views on medicine are informed by her past experiences in caring for patients, as a researcher in cancer immunology, and as a patient who's had breast cancer.

Mired in MedEd
Alexander M. Djuricich, MD, FACP, is the Associate Dean for Continuing Medical Education (CME), and a Program Director in Medicine-Pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, where he blogs about medical education.

More Musings
Rob Lamberts, MD, ACP Member, a med-peds and general practice internist, returns with "volume 2" of his personal musings about medicine, life, armadillos and Sasquatch at More Musings (of a Distractible Kind).

David M. Sack, MD, FACP, practices general gastroenterology at a small community hospital in Connecticut. His blog is a series of musings on medicine, medical care, the health care system and medical ethics, in no particular order.

Reflections of a Grady Doctor
Kimberly Manning, MD, FACP, reflects on the personal side of being a doctor in a community hospital in Atlanta.

The Blog of Paul Sufka
Paul Sufka, MD, ACP Member, is a board certified rheumatologist in St. Paul, Minn. He was a chief resident in internal medicine with the University of Minnesota and then completed his fellowship training in rheumatology in June 2011 at the University of Minnesota Department of Rheumatology. His interests include the use of technology in medicine.

Technology in (Medical) Education
Neil Mehta, MBBS, MS, FACP, is interested in use of technology in education, social media and networking, practice management and evidence-based medicine tools, personal information and knowledge management.

Peter A. Lipson, MD
Peter A. Lipson, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing internist and teaching physician in Southeast Michigan. The blog, which has been around in various forms since 2007, offers musings on the intersection of science, medicine, and culture.

Why is American Health Care So Expensive?
Janice Boughton, MD, FACP, practiced internal medicine for 20 years before adopting a career in hospital and primary care medicine as a locum tenens physician. She lives in Idaho when not traveling.

World's Best Site
Daniel Ginsberg, MD, FACP, is an internal medicine physician who has avidly applied computers to medicine since 1986, when he first wrote medically oriented computer programs. He is in practice in Tacoma, Washington.

Other blogs of note:

American Journal of Medicine
Also known as the Green Journal, the American Journal of Medicine publishes original clinical articles of interest to physicians in internal medicine and its subspecialities, both in academia and community-based practice.

Clinical Correlations
A collaborative medical blog started by Neil Shapiro, MD, ACP Member, associate program director at New York University Medical Center's internal medicine residency program. Faculty, residents and students contribute case studies, mystery quizzes, news, commentary and more.

Interact MD
Michael Benjamin, MD, ACP member, doesn't accept industry money so he can create an independent, clinician-reviewed space on the Internet for physicians to report and comment on the medical news of the day.

PLoS Blog
The Public Library of Science's open access materials include a blog.

White Coat Rants
One of the most popular anonymous blogs written by an emergency room physician.

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