February 11, 2011
A Game-Changing Statistic: 1 in 250
Although the medical profession has been harming unlucky patients for centuries, the patient safety movement didn’t take flight until 1999, when the Institute of Medicine published its seminal report, To Err is Human. And that report would have ended up as just another doorstop if not for its estimate that 44,000-98,000 Americans each year die from medical mistakes, the equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing each day.
Come to think of it, the quality movement also gelled after the publication of Beth McGlynn’s 2003 NEJM study, which produced its own statistical blockbuster: American medical care comports with evidence-based practice 54% of the time, a number close enough to a coin flip to be unforgettably disturbing.
These two examples demonstrate the unique power of a memorable statistic to catalyze a movement.
Last month, my colleague Rebecca Smith-Bindman, professor of radiology, epidemiology, and ob/gyn at UCSF and one of the nation’s experts in the risks of radiographs, gave Medical Grand Rounds at UCSF. Her talk was brimming with amazing statistics, but this is the one that took my breath away:
A 20-year old woman who gets an abdominal-pelvic CT scan (i.e., just about any young woman coming to the ED with belly pain) has a 1 in 250 chance of getting cancer from that single scan.
Did that fully register? One CAT scan, which until recently most of us ordered with no more restraint than we exhibit when asking the Starbucks barista for a tall latte, will cause cancer in one out of every 250 patients. Two-hundred fifty: that’s the number of students in my college Bio 101 class. Wow.
February 10, 2011
The Real Cost of Early Elective Deliveries
What if I told you that across the country there’s a procedure being performed on pregnant women that makes their newborns more likely to end up sick and in a $3,000-a-day Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU)?
Too outrageous to believe?
Early elective delivery – when labor is induced 3 to 4 weeks early without medical necessity – is on the rise in the U.S. According to a report released in January 2011 by the Leapfrog Group, between 1992 and 2003 the number of these births increased from 19% to 29%. Seven hospitals across the country perform these deliveries on 100% of women without medical necessity, and over thirty others perform them 50% of the time or more.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has long recognized the risks associated with inducing labor when it’s not medically needed. One retrospective study found that infants born at 37 weeks are nearly 23 times more likely to suffer severe respiratory distress than those born between 39 and 41 weeks. ACOG thinks this is unacceptable.
How to Meaningfully Shop for an EHR
So you’ve been hearing all about the recent EHR buzz and decided to give it a try. Whether you are convinced that electronic records are the way to go, or you have reached a point where you are willing to give it a try, the first thing to do is buy one of those EHRs. You may be staring at a glossy brochure or website featuring a distinguished silver-haired doctor holding a cool little tablet computer and smiling reassuringly at the little old lady sitting comfortably in front of him, with a large 1-800 number on the bottom urging you to call now. Don’t.
Shopping for an EHR may be more complicated, but is not much different in nature than shopping for a car or a new type of breakfast cereal. Of course, you have been shopping for cereal since you were a toddler and probably bought your first car as a teenager, so the entire shopping process is almost second nature. Not so with an EHR. Just like cars and cereal boxes, there are hundreds of EHR products out there, and just like cars and cereals, you need not bother with most, and after you narrow the field down to three or four, it makes little difference which one you end up taking home. The qualitative roadmap below will lead you to those three or four obvious choices of EHRs best suited to your particular situation. The final choice is yours to make.
Exploitations of Immortality
Rebecca Skloot’s remarkable book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has quite a following among health lawyers. As an excerpt from the book explains,
Henrietta Lacks was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells — taken without her knowledge — became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, her cells — known as “HeLa cells” — are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than 60 years.
If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons — as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the effects of the atom bomb; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.
Skloot tells the story of the Lacks family, which never shared in the prosperity based on the HeLa cells. This is old news for any property student familiar with Moore v. Regents, but it’s particularly poignant in this context.
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OrganizedWisdom storms the waiting room!
OrganizedWisdom is one of the more innovative Health 2.0 content and search companies, and the dynamic duo of Steven Krein and Unity Stoakes just pulled off an interesting coup by getting OW's wisdom cards into the ubiquitous Readers' Digest magazines that fill every doctor's office.
I caught up with Steve and Unity and they told me about the deal, their new board member (ex Time-Warner CEO Jerry Levin) and what they're expecting to come next.
February 09, 2011
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Things Are About to Get Ugly
Word is that House Republicans will attach an amendment to the latest federal spending bill that will cut-off funding for the health care bill.
The last Congress never finalized a budget for the current fiscal year—the feds have been operating under a series of continuing resolutions. The most recent one will expire on March 4th. If another resolution is not agreed to, much of the government has to shutdown.
House Republicans, under heavy pressure from their base, have decided to take the Democrats on over the new health care law by cutting all remaining funding for implementation of the law in the current 2010 fiscal year (October to October).
Democrats, under the same heavy pressure from their base to protect the bill, aren’t about to let them do that. While the Republicans can accomplish this in the House—and will next week—they don’t have the votes in the Senate and they don’t have the President’s pen.
A thirtysomething friend of mine, let's call her Sally, started running last year in an effort to get in better shape.
As often happens in these scenarios, Sally developed some foot pain. So she went to a "foot" doctor (I'm not sure whether she meant a podiatrist or an orthopedic surgeon specializing in feet).
Reasonably enough, the doctor ordered an x-ray of her foot. The official reading showed no fracture, but there was a "questionable" finding on the edge of one of the midfoot bones such that the doctor couldn't rule out some more insidious process. A stress fracture, perhaps? Those can be awful, and take a long time to heal.
So, again in reasonable fashion, the doctor ordered a CT scan of Sally's foot. This is the logical next step if a plain old x-ray is abnormal. Heck, a lot of the time, even when an x-ray is normal, we still order the CT scan looking for something that we can't see on the x-ray.
And though I said this was a reasonable choice, if you really think about it, was it so reasonable?
February 08, 2011
Where Doctors Locate
Pop quiz. How many doctors are at the top of Mt. Everest? None, actually. Yet, think about how many people get sick up there. Think about how many die.
Do you think extra bonus payments could coax a few doctors to relocate up there? What if we waived their student loan debt?
If you find these questions interesting, there's clearly something wrong with you. But cheer up.
As the map below shows, there is a lot of variation in the number of people per doctors across Texas counties. [Thanks to Jason Roberson and his colleagues at The Dallas Morning News for making the data available.] At one extreme, Bandera County in the Texas Hill Country has 21,266 people and only one doctor. At the other extreme, Baylor County, near the Oklahoma border, has 666 patients per doctor.
Should we care about any of this? If so, why?
Before getting into specifics, let me address a cultural issue that I believe greatly prejudices all discussions of doctor location.
Bandera County bills itself as "The Cowboy Capital of the World." It clearly promotes tourism. But the online reviews of its eight area restaurants don't make me want to visit any time soon. Ditto for the online reviews of its 10 hotels, motels and dude ranches. Still, a lot of people visit there and it has a growing population.
Is this a case of ethical blinders?
Today's New York Times has an important story about the ineffectiveness of removal of lymph nodes for certain women with breast cancer. That is a significant result of clinical research. But read this:
Experts say that the new findings, combined with similar ones from earlier studies, should change medical practice for many patients. Some centers have already acted on the new information. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan changed its practice in September, because doctors knew the study results before they were published.
And they felt no need to spread the word quickly to other hospitals and to breast cancer patient advocacy groups and help women across the world avoid the surgery and its after-effects? (As noted in the article, "It can cause complications like infection and lymphedema, a chronic swelling in the arm that ranges from mild to disabling.")
Paul Levy is the former President and CEO of Beth Israel Deconess Medical Center in Boston. For the past five years he blogged about his experiences in 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 Not Running a Hospital.
Deciding What Works
Steven Goldberg is probably best known for the controversial "Billions of Drops in Millions of Buckets: Why Philanthropy Doesn't Advance Social Progress." In this post he looks at the ways in which success and failure are measured in his field. Healthcare audiences will note many familiar themes. What should we measure? How should we measure it? How much weight should we give the results? And perhaps most importantly: what other questions should we be asking? -- John Irvine
Conventional wisdom holds that randomized control trials (RCT) are the “gold standard” of evaluation. In fact, RCTs only make sense under very strict conditions that can rarely be met in the real world. Most of the time, RCTs produce inconclusive results and simply aren’t worth the time and money. As the social sector assumes greater responsibility for improving the lives of many more people, it should focus less on pseudo-scientific “proof” that programs work and focus more on making good programs better.
Now that the Social Innovation Fund (SIF) appears to have survived the “transparency” commotion, the eleven chosen intermediary grantmakers have less than six months to select their portfolios of nonprofit grantees.
As a commendable exercise in “evidence-based” grantmaking, SIF requires the intermediaries to incorporate evaluation into every step of their awards, from the initial competitive solicitations all the way through final payments and renewals. Applicants will be required to explain how their success should be measured and demonstrate their capacity to do so, and awards will be contingent upon the establishment of meaningful performance metrics, the timely collection and reporting of reliable data, and the faithful implementation of sound evaluation protocols.
Transmogrifying California Healthcare
I’m really looking forward to this coming Friday, February 4th, as I get to moderate a panel on “The Impact of Health Reform on California.” The panel, which was organized by UC Berkeley’s Institute for Governmental Studies is being held in Sacramento and will take place before a sold-out crowd of nearly 200, in large part because it has a meaty topic and some really top-notch participants, including:
- Diana Dooley
Secretary, Health and Human Services Agency
- Cindy Ehnes
Director, California Department of Managed Healthcare
- Paul Markovich
Chief Operating Officer, Blue Shield of California
- Saumya Sutaria
Director, McKinsey & Co.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson (who I went to college with) and Congresswoman Doris Matsui will also make some remarks.
This should be a great event because each of the panelists has a pretty significant role to play in how the State of CA adopts and adapts to health reform, and there is a remarkable amount at stake.
Saul Bellow once said, “California is like an artificial limb the rest of the country doesn’t really need.” That may be true, but in our healthcare economy we can’t afford to amputate.
A Multi-Layered Defense for Web Applications
The internet can be a swamp of hackers, crackers, and hucksters attacking your systems for fun, profit and fraud. Defending your data and applications against this onslaught is a cold war, requiring constant escalation of new techniques against an ever increasing offense.
Clinicians are mobile people. They work in ambulatory offices, hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, on the road, and at home. They have desktops, laptops, tablets, iPhones and iPads. Ideally their applications should run everywhere on everything. That's the reason we've embraced the web for all our built and bought applications. Protecting these web applications from the evils of the internet is a challenge.
Five years ago all of our externally facing web sites were housed within the data center and made available via network address translation (NAT) through an opening in the firewall. We performed periodic penetration testing of our sites. Two years ago, we installed a Web Application Firewall (WAF) and proxy system. We are now in the process of migrating all of our web applications from NAT/firewall accessibility to WAF/Proxy accessibility.
We have a few hundred externally facing web sites. From a security view there are only two types, those that provide access to protected health information content and those that do not. Fortunately more are in the latter than the former.
Patient Privacy and PCAST
The President’s Council of Scientific Advisors (PCAST) report on health care IT points out that “A patient cannot make meaningful privacy choices unless he or she understands the flows and uses of information and can therefore make informed choices. That is not the reality today… While facetoface counseling on privacy choices should be available whenever choice is either required by law, policy or practice, most patients will probably educate themselves on the issues and make privacy choices through a web interface, where they will also be able to change their choices at any time… An important point is that, when patients have a meaningful opportunity to choose, a patient’s choices will be persistent, that is, continuing until changed. Most patients ideally will have elected privacy choices at a time when they are healthy and competent. This is truer to the principal of informed consent than is a rushed signature at thetime of a medical emergency, or when the patient’s physical or mental competency is compromised.”[i]
We have developed a proof of concept prototype (http://sourceforge.net/projects/kaironconsents/) for such a patient privacy preference management system that could be implemented nationwide.
February 07, 2011
Why This Primary Care Doctor Loves His EHR
A recent post in the Wall Street Journal Health Blog noted that a study found electronic medical records don't improve outpatient quality. The authors of the Archives of Internal Medicine article, Electronic Health Records and Clinical Decision Support Systems, correctly points out that we should be skeptical and "doubt [the] argument that the use of EHRs is a "magic bullet" for health care quality improvement, as some advocates imply."
This should surprise no one. Were we that naive to think that simply installing health information technology (HIT) in the medical field would generate significant improvement in outcomes? Does simply installing computers in our classrooms improve educational test scores?
Of course not.
The excellent commentary after the article makes some plausible reasons why the clinical decision support (CDS) didn't seem to improve outcomes on 20 quality indicators. First, it isn't clear that the CDS implemented across the various doctors' offices and emergency rooms actually addressed the indicators studied. Second, the data studied is already dated (from the 2005 to 2007 National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey), a long time in technology terms (iPhone first debuted in 2007). The authors of the original article also point out that there is some evidence that institution specific use of CDS actually improves quality. Whether this can be scaled to the national level is the question.
Going Beyond the Dartmouth Debate
We all have heard that “spending more” on health care does not necessarily lead to better care. In fact, in regions of the country where care is more intensive and more expensive, sometimes outcomes are worse. This is the basic thrust of what has become known as the “Dartmouth research,” and most medical researchers agree.
But a paper just published in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that specific types of higher hospital spending may lead to better outcomes. After examining the records of some 2.5 million patients admitted to 208 California hospitals from 1999 to 2008 a group of researchers from the University of Southern California and Harvard Medical School report that patients who received more costly and aggressive care were less likely to die while in the hospital.
Let me be clear: this study is not trying to prove that the Dartmouth research is “wrong." The investigators, led by John Romley of the Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics at the University of Southern California, begin by acknowledging that “a convincing set of studies demonstrates that U.S. regions that spend more on medical care--using more specialists, diagnostic tests, imaging, and inpatient hospital care--have similar or poorer patient outcomes than areas that spend less. (Here they footnote the Dartmouth Atlas and this article by Dartmouth’s Elliott Fisher, et.al.
You're Sick. I'm Not. Too Bad.
I like the idea that we can make smart choices, eat sensible amounts of whole foods and not the wrong foods, exercise, not smoke, maintain balance (whatever that means in 2010) and in doing so, be responsible for our health. Check, plus.
It’s an attractive concept, really, that we can determine our medical circumstances by informed decisions and a vital lifestyle. It appeals to the well — that we’re OK, on the other side, doing something right.
There is order in the world. God exists. etc.
Very appealing. There’s utility in this outlook, besides. To the extent that we can influence our well-being and lessen the likelihood of some diseases, of course we can! and should adjust our lack-of-dieting, drinking, smoking, arms firing, boxing and whatever else damaging it is that we do to ourselves.
I’m all for people adjusting their behavior and knowing they’re accountable for the consequences. And I’m not keen on a victim’s mentality for those who are ill.
So far so good -
Last summer former Whole Foods CEO John Mackey offered an unsympathetic op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on the subject of health care reform. He provides the “correct” i.e. unedited version in the CEO’s blog:
When Patients Go Home, Safety Must Follow
Every day, U.S. health care becomes less institutional and more domestic. According to the National Home and Hospice Care Survey, approximately 1,355,300 patients received home health care services in 2000. Just four years later, the National Association for Home Care & Hospice reported that more than 7 million people in the United States receive home health care annually. Experts expect that number to continue to rise, especially as Baby Boomers age and people with chronic conditions live longer.
The migration of care from institutional to home settings has many advantages. It can save the healthcare system money by moving patients into lower-cost environments, and it allows patients to receive care where they are most comfortable, often surrounded by supportive family and friends. However, this migration of care also poses important risks, especially for patients who require complex medical treatment.
The Greater Fool
In the last four decades, we have witnessed a series of investment "bubbles" that have all collapsed. It seems that there is no end to the number of people with cash who will be intoxicated by a good story line, even when there is little substance to back it up. All of these stories depend on the capital markets to bolster the price of investments, counting on the "greater fool" theory: There is always someone who will take on a bad investment at just the wrong time, providing a good return to those who are lucky enough to escape before the crash.
In the early 1990s, ENRON was entering the market with a new electricity trading division. A business partner of mine was asked by one of the largest government pension funds to evaluate a proposal to invest $250 million in the start-up. He came to me a few weeks later, saying that he was having trouble evaluating the deal. They could not give a substantive answer to the basic questions: How will each transaction make money? What will be your competitive advantage in this business? What do you expect your market share to be? When he would ask the ENRON guys for a business plan, their answer was, "We did it in natural gas. We can do it in electricity. Trust us."
My friend advised the pension fund not to invest. It did so anyway, apparently because of personal relationships between the fund managers and people at ENRON. As we now know, the fiction behind ENRON's financial plan eventually led to its collapse.
February 05, 2011
A Patient is Not a Shunt
Some people may tell you that health care IT will solve many of the quality and cost problems in health care.
I don’t believe them.
I know a 70-year old man named Carlos (not his real name) who was hospitalized following a bout of hydrocephalus. Hydrocephalus is a build-up of fluid in the skull, which affects the brain. Among other things, people with hydrocephalus can be confused, irritable, and nauseous. Carlos had all of these symptoms.
Carlos’ problem was fixable by inserting a special kind of drain in his head called a “shunt.” This kind of shunt is, essentially, a series of catheters that runs from the brain into the abdomen, and which drain the excess fluid. You can’t see it from the outside, so it’s meant to stay inside of you for a very long time.
For a week after Carlos’ shunt was installed, his symptoms completely disappeared. But they soon started to re-emerge. Worried, his family took him to the hospital. Doctors found that his hydrocephalus was back – the shunt wasn’t draining properly. They admitted him to the hospital, and the next day they put in a new shunt. The surgery went well.
Health Care Reform in the U.K. and U.S
“England and America are two great nations separated by a common language.”
-attributed to both Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw
In 1965 I spent the summer of my third year in medical school at the General Practice Teaching Unit of the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, Scotland because I wanted to learn more about the National Health Service (NHS). My impression then was that both the U.K. and U.S. medical care systems were evolving toward the same end result from very different directions. (1) That viewpoint has been reaffirmed by recent events. Both countries have embarked this past year on significant health care reform. Both countries are seeking to reduce costs, improve quality, become more patient-centered, and invest in health information technology (HIT). In both countries the majority of patients are highly satisfied with the NHS or Medicare and are vigilant about not giving up any of its benefits.
Both health care reform acts are being criticized for being too timid, or too bold, or too incremental, or too radical. The U.K. plan is being attacked by some as a disastrous turn toward privatization while the U.S. plan is “another step toward socialism”, i.e. very little change in the tenor since 1965. Vocal U.K. critics on the left decry the proposed move away from regulation (NHS) toward competition and market-place economics while the vocal U.S. critics on the right warn against more regulation and movement away from reliance on competition and market-place forces.
Increased Primary Care Support
The basic foundation of the NHS has always been General Practice physicians (GPs) who have no hospital privileges and refer all patients needing hospitalization to full-time hospital specialists (Consultants). (2) In 1965, and in 1996, such a separation of outpatient and inpatient medical practice was threatening to community physicians in the U.S. (3) Today it is difficult to recruit primary care physicians (and some specialists) to a community unless the hospital has hospitalists to care for inpatients. The community-based internist in U.S. is now more like the GP in U.K. then ever before, and that is not a bad thing.
Shaw Got It Right
George Bernard Shaw wrote The Doctor's Dilemma, Preface on Doctors in 1909. It is fun to read some excerpts:
It is not the fault of our doctors that the medical service of the community, as at present provided for, is a murderous absurdity. That any sane nation, having observed that you could provide for the supply of bread by giving bakers a pecuniary interest in baking for you, should go on to give a surgeon a pecuniary interest in cutting off your leg, is enough to make one despair of political humanity. But that is precisely what we have done. And the more appalling the mutilation, the more the mutilator is paid. He who corrects the ingrowing toe-nail receives a few shillings: he who cuts your inside out receives hundreds of guineas, except when he does it to a poor person for practice.
Scandalized voices murmur that these operations are necessary. They may be. It may also be necessary to hang a man or pull down a house. But we take good care not to make the hangman and the housebreaker the judges of that. If we did, no man's neck would be safe and no man's house stable. But we do make the doctor the judge... I cannot knock my shins severely without forcing on some surgeon the difficult question, "Could I not make a better use of a pocketful of guineas than this man is making of his leg? Could he not write as well—or even better—on one leg than on two?"
Why doctors do not differ
The truth is, there would never be any public agreement among doctors if they did not agree to agree on the main point of the doctor being always in the right. Yet the two guinea man never thinks that the five shilling man is right: if he did, he would be understood as confessing to an overcharge of one pound seventeen shillings; and on the same ground the five shilling man cannot encourage the notion that the owner of the sixpenny surgery round the corner is quite up to his mark. Thus even the layman has to be taught that infallibility is not quite infallible, because there are two qualities of it to be had at two prices.