Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Can you be "too strong" for family medicine?

Last week medical students and residency training programs received their “match” results, the end product of a complex computerized process. Now (except for the 1100 students at US allopathic schools who did not match and programs that did not fill), students know where they will be training and residency programs know who will be joining them. The number of “un-matched” US students is greater than last year; so is the number of positions. This is the result of recent expansions in both the number of medical schools and the number of students in existing medical schools.

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) has been lobbying hard for the expansion of residency positions, arguing that expanding medical school class size is not going to translate into more doctors if there are not more residency positions. AAMC is not, however, calling for those increases to be tied to a certain percentage of primary care. Since primary care residents are not big money-makers for the hospitals that are the main sponsors of residency training, and not in great demand by medical students (see more below), it is quite likely that, absent specific stipulations, the opposite will occur – most of the expanded number of residency slots will be in non-primary care specialties. This will, of course, further exacerbate the already unbalanced subspecialty/primary care ratio that currently exists.

Unlike AAMC, many family medicine organizations are calling for expansion of residency slots to be tied to primary care, and I am in agreement with that. However, the concept of “forcing” students to choose primary care residency slots who may not want to makes many people uncomfortable. They would prefer to “make family medicine” more desirable to our students. I would argue that this is going to be an uphill battle given the priorities of many current medical students.

As a family medicine educator, I try to stay on top of the trends in medical education, student preference, and workforce. I also interact with a lot of medical students, so have, I think, some idea of what their priorities are. Sometimes, however, I am surprised by the lack of knowledge about family medicine among students who, I thought, should “know better”. For example, a student recently contacted me about a friend who had applied to family medicine residencies as a “backup” for their preferred, more “selective” specialty, and did not match; the perception was that this student was rejected because they were seen as “too strong” for family medicine. I was surprised. I wrote the following in response:

"I don't think it is possible to have someone be "too strong" for family medicine regardless of how you define strength (grades, board scores, compassion, ability to learn and apply learning, multi-tasking, or how much you can bench press). Family Medicine is truly the most complex and difficult specialty. The breadth is enormous, as I am reminded as I -- for the sixth time in my career -- study for my recertification boards, and study maternity care, sports medicine, caring for people with heart disease, well-child care, ICU care, lung disease, diabetes, fractures, arthritis, acutely-ill children, preventive care, epidemiology, nutrition, diabetes, gynecologic problems, management of psychiatric problems, adolescent issues, and on and on. There is nothing like it. It is also true that the skills, preferences, and experiences that make someone strong for one specialty may not make them "stronger" for another.

"As far as the practice is concerned, family physicians have to see undifferentiated patients and try to come to a conclusion about what they have and how to manage them. This is a lot more conceptually challenging than seeing someone with a ready diagnosis or a narrow scope of diagnoses and applying your in-depth knowledge to figuring out a best method of treatment for it, or doing a procedure on it. Family Physicians (and other primary care/generalist physicians) do not care for one disease or organ system of a person, they care for the person. They manage multiple co-existing chronic diseases -- our adult patients typically have a large number of them such as hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, depression, and social stressors in their lives, for example -- and balance the treatments for each so that they do not make the others worse and are best designed for that individual person. And to, while doing so, learn and care for the person. This is harder than doing the same limited set of procedures or treating the same limited set of diagnoses day after day. While a typical subspecialist may have 5 diagnoses that account for 80% of her patient visits, for family medicine the top 20 diagnoses do not cover more than 30%!

"I do not mean in any way to insult or seem to be critical of other specialists; they do important things and we need them to refer to for the procedures that we don't do or the uncommon cases of diseases that are rarer or unresponsive to usual treatment (although I do think that the current balance between subspecialists and primary care doctors is way off). I also do not mean to seem ignorant of the fact that many other specialties, including orthopedics, are much more competitive than family medicine to match in. This is because demand (from students) exceeds supply (of positions) and allows those specialties to set higher (by whatever they mean by this, usually grades and scores) standards. But this should not be confused with the complexity of the specialty. Demand is driven by many things including (but I am sure not limited to), the particular interest of a student in the diseases cared for by a specialty, their interest in performing psychomotor skills (such as procedures), anticipated income, anticipated lifestyle issues, and many others. It is also true that many other specialties require strong medical students. But do not confuse supply/demand issues with the intelligence, hard work, difficulty, decision making ability needed, breadth, and conceptual complexity of a specialty. For these, nothing exceeds family medicine."

I also sent a link to this (I think) wonderful post called "Desperately Seeking Herb Weinman" by Steve Lewis in Pulse, an online journal of narratives about health and medical issues, that gets to other characteristics of primary care doctors that are important to people. The author has a very scary health episode that takes him to the emergency room, and acutely feels the depersonalization of not having a doctor who knew him (like his old, now retired, doctor, Herb Weinman, did): “I know that the overworked ER staff who treated me were good and competent healthcare providers. But I also know that there was not a soul in the ER that day who would have cried if I had died. As Herb Weinman would. And I want that. I want that.”

A colleague, who also has concerns about the motivations of some medical students, reposted a post from a student on “studentdoctor.net”, the largest discussion group for medical students about whether Allergy should replace Anesthesiology on “the ROAD” [Radiology, Ophthalmology, Anesthesiology, Dermatology, which are widely considered by medical students to be the specialties with the highest income-to-work ratio] because it seemed like “…such a cush job.” Then followed a listing of the incomes of different specialists, which I will not replicate, but will note that the low end of all was much higher than the high end of primary care incomes; however, primary care doctors earn a lot more than the average person!

My colleague commented: ”We need a different pool of applicants...We need a different yardstick...We need payment reform. There are plenty of smart people who want to serve. There are a lot of folks who would be thrilled to be the smartest, best paid person in their town.”

I agree. I want many more medical students to want to go into primary care. If it is about money, we are not going to be competitive. It is going to have to be about wanting to care. And that means, to me, using different criteria to accept people to medical school.

More people like Herb Weinman, I guess.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Squeezing the needy: a truly flawed financing system for healthcare

In his always-valuable “Quote of the Day” for February 26, 2013, Don McCanne, MD, cites an article by Robert Pear in the New York Times from February 25, “States Can Cut Back on Medicaid Payments, Administration Says”. He quotes from the article that “In a brief filed with the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, federal officials defended a decision by California to cut Medicaid payments to many providers by 10 percent…. [it] urged judges to uphold those cuts, which are being challenged by patients, doctors, dentists, hospitals, pharmacists and other health care providers in California…[who] said California’s payment rates were inadequate even before the cuts. They pointed to a federal study that said,’ “California stands out because of its very low Medicaid payment levels.’”

 A similar article that he cites from the Los Angeles Times by Anna Gorman, February 25, 2013, “Healthcare overhaul may threaten California's safety netstates that “An estimated 3 million to 4 million Californians — about 10% of the state's population — could remain uninsured even after the healthcare overhaul law takes full effect,” while at the same time the public hospitals and clinics that would provide care to those additional millions are having their funding streams from the state cut.

And this is in a state with a long history of providing care for its medically indigent by having such hospitals and clinics (unlike, oh, say, Kansas) and with a reasonably progressive Democratic governor, Jerry Brown. But it also has a huge budget deficit. At the most narrow level, the state has no choice but to spend less on the programs over which it has control, and these programs are the ones that benefit those whose low-wage jobs (or no jobs at all) make them dependent on public programs to ensure the health of their families.

The key point here is that the huge transfer of funds from the public sector to private control, as a result of tax cuts on corporations and wealthy individuals, has led to the inability for even states such as California, which arguably want to, to provide the basic health and social safety net for its most needy citizens. This is precisely the result that advocates of these programs want, to “choke” government, and precisely the impact on the poor that would be predicted. Meanwhile, at the local, state and federal level, tax “relief”, in terms of both cuts and direct giveaways to major industries, continue to support the least needy.

At the same time (February 20, 2013), Time magazine has published an amazing exposé by Steven Brill of the ridiculous over-pricing and capricious billing done by US hospitals, Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills are Killing Us”. It is a long and through article, citing case after case and example after example, of how the current system of billing and reimbursement in health care, and particularly in hospitals costs a fortune, is sapping the economy overall. And, of course, the burden falls hardest on those who are either uninsured or poorly insured, and are billed “list” prices, which are much higher than those paid by either public (Medicare or Medicaid) or private (eg., Blue Cross, Aetna) insurers. MUCH higher. Often dozens of times higher. A few examples that he cites:
  • A troponin (blood test for a heart attack) test billed to an uninsured patient at $199. Medicare pays $14; a CBC (blood count) billed $157 when Medicare pays $11.
  • A nuclear heart scan for which Medicare pays $554 billed at $8,000.
  • A Medtronic spinal stimulator that lists for $19,000 from the manufacturer (if the hospital paid full list) billed to the patient for $49,000.

The article is good investigative journalism, and goes beyond such simple examples to look at the entire structure of the health system’s payment mechanism, including the incentives to do more and more (even when unnecessary or possible even harmful) expensive – and high profit – tests and procedures. It looks at enormous hospital profit margins and salaries of “C-suite” executives: “…in our largest cities, the system offers lavish paychecks even to midlevel hospital managers, like the 14 administrators at New York City’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center who are paid over $500,000 a year, including six who make over $1 million.” (Of course, salaries in the measly low one-digit millions pale before the incomes of those in the pharmaceutical industry!) It helps us to understand both why costs are so high and why programs that limit payment, like Medicare and Medicaid, are so hated/fear/despised by hospital administrators.

The hospitals may well be taking a loss on Medicaid/Medicare reimbursement, because “Medicare takes seriously the notion that nonprofit hospitals should be paid for all their costs but actually be nonprofit after their calculation.”  But while “Hospital finance people argue vehemently that Medicare doesn’t pay enough and that they lose as much as 10% on an average Medicare patient...even if the Medicare price should be, say, 10% higher, it’s a long way from $11.02 plus 10% to $157.61.”  The thing is that they “need” to make more because, although “non-profit” they make big profits – they just don’t share them with stockholders. “…thousands of nonprofit institutions have morphed into high-profit, high-profile businesses that have the best of both worlds. They have become entities akin to low-risk, must-have public utilities that nonetheless pay their operators as if they were high-risk entrepreneurs.”

What was interesting to me is that most of the patients who received those outrageous bills above were neither unemployed nor uninsured (although the one who was uninsured had the misfortune of being 64 rather than 65, so paid the $199 for her troponin instead of Medicare paying the $14). Rather, they were employed in low wage jobs and had lousy insurance, with very low per-visit, per-year, or lifetime caps and were treated by the hospitals as if they were uninsured (“’We don’t take that kind of discount insurance’ said the woman at MD Anderson [Cancer Center]” when Stephanie Recchi called to make an appointment for Sean; they needed to come up with $48,900 cash up front – and that was just the down payment!). So all estimates about the burden on the uninsured need to be augmented by the impact on the under-insured.
Dr. McCanne’s incisive comment on the two articles notes that while “We have said over and over again that Medicaid, as a welfare program, will never have the political support to fund it adequately. The burden of the additional load of Medicaid patients will surely find the health care resources strained beyond the capacity of willing providers, especially when you consider that California already is not meeting the costs of providing care to this vulnerable population…

"Here's an amazing fact: Low income patients do not have the money to pay for health care. (What an intuitive stroke of genius!) What they need is an affordable system that removes financial barriers to care while ensuring adequate financing of our entire health care delivery system, thereby removing health system disincentives to providing essential care for this vulnerable population. Make that for all of us.”

All of the nonsensical billing and collecting issues that are so horrifyingly reported on by Brill do not need to occur. The simple answer is that there should be a single, posted, price for each item or service and everyone is billed at and pays (or their insurance pays) the same amount. This is the situation in Canada, where fees for physicians are negotiated annually with the provinces and hospitals operate within a global budget. Probably fewer millionaire hospital administrators, but of course creating them should not be the goal of the money we spend on health care.

No poorly-insured, well-insured, uninsured, Medicaid-insured or Medicare insured. Just everyone covered. Simple, clean, elegant, and effective.

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