Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Ron Dellums: Loss of a great leader and a job for the rest of us

On July 30, 2018, Ron Dellums, one of the giants of our era, died of cancer. As the obituaries in the New York Times and Washington Post make clear, he was a major progressive voice, inside and out of Congress, for many years. He was elected, largely on an anti-Vietnam war platform, in 1971 from “one of the most liberal districts” in the nation, Oakland and Berkeley, CA, and served until 1998. Over the decades he fought for women’s rights, civil rights, civil liberties, inclusion, anti-corporatism, fairness and equity, labor, and environmental goals. ‘He championed a progressive mantra: Stop war. Cut military spending. Help people. Address the nation’s social problems.’ He was a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, and in 2007 was elected to a term as Mayor of the city of Oakland.
‘“So here comes this black guy from the Bay Area,” he told The Progressive magazine when he left Congress, “talking about peace, feminism, challenging racism, challenging the priorities of the country, and talking about preserving the fragile nature of our ecological system. People looked at me as if I was a freak. And looking back, I think that the only crime we committed was that we were 20 years ahead of our time.”

But, quite amazingly, neither the Times nor the Post obituaries, nor his extensive updated Wikipedia entry mention the issue that is the one that first comes to mind for progressives in the health care arena: his early and continuing support for a national health system, which he agreed was the most logical, effective, and cost-effective means of providing for the health care needs of the American people. The “Dellums Bill”, which was first introduced in 1972 and re-introduced at every session in which he served in Congress, would have created a national health system (not just a national health insurance plan) and was far more expansive than simply Medicare for All, although Mr. Dellums also supported that, and its current iteration, HR 676. Dellums’ United States Health Service Act actually proposed a comprehensive and rational health care system, with neighborhood health centers, larger multispecialty centers, local hospitals, regional hospitals, and referral centers, all joined to each other, all run by elected boards of consumers, and all funded by public funds. It would have been – and still would be – terrific for the health of the American people, and for controlling costs, to have such a system in place. Of course, it would not have been nearly as profitable for providers (which mainly means hospitals, but also doctors and others), insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, device manufacturers, and other profiteers. So, of course, it never occurred. But Congressman Dellums continued to be a beacon for universal health care, and we should be ever thankful for his leadership in this arena.

Ron Dellums championed universal health care before Bernie Sanders was the spokesperson for it, although both supported each other, and remained a staunch advocate for it. Today we are still far from this goal, although the ACA did significantly expand access. Although its opponents have not succeeded in repealing it, they have done what they could to make it less effective in covering everyone, including removing the individual mandate, removing funding for many of its programs (such as navigators), limiting access to the individual marketplace (although as many people signed up in 2017-18 with only six weeks to do it as in 2016-17 with 12 weeks, attesting to its popularity), and other reactionary efforts. But the ACA was not universal health care, nor was it an effective way of controlling costs. It expanded coverage, but did not redesign the health system the way the Dellums Bill would have.

With control of the government in the hands of Republicans, including not only the self-designated populist and reality TV figure who is President, but a Congress and state governments in the hands of a GOP who manifest no semblance of humanity. As noted accurately by Thomas Frank in The Guardian
‘Republicans are a known quantity. Their motives are simple: they will do anything, say anything, profess faith in anything to get tax cuts, deregulation and a little help keeping workers in line. Nothing else is sacred to them. Rules, norms, traditions, deficits, the Bible, the constitution, whatever. They don’t care, and in this they have proven utterly predictable.’

Certainly they don’t care about the American people’s health, which is suffering worst in the reddest counties in the US, those that have also suffered the worst from stagnant wages coming from the pro-corporate policies of the GOP, as well as environmental degradation. We need to continue to work to change these policies, to un-elect Republicans, to elect people who stand for progressive change and not pro-Wall St status quo like the DNC.

While we will not be able to re-create him, we need more people who seek to be like Ron Dellums.

Stop war. Cut military spending. Help people. Address the nation’s social problems.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Administration closes the National Guideline Clearinghouse: Bad for our health!

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has closed the National Guideline Clearinghouse (NGC), which was housed in its Agency for Health Research and Quality (AHRQ), by pulling its funding. If one goes to the NGC website, it actually says that there is no longer funding for it. The NGC provided a major resource for consensus information, and closing it is a tremendous loss, not only for the physicians and other medical providers who depended upon its recommendations, but for the health of the American people. It is also, sadly, a loss for the patients of physicians and other medical providers who did not heed, and even opposed the existence of these guidelines. This is because  they will now have the cover that comes from the absence of the NGC when they do things that are not supported by the best evidence available.

Wait, wouldn’t my doctor want to use the best evidence available? Can’t I depend on her/him doing this? Do I have to become a medical expert?

You – we would all – hope that our doctors would use the best evidence available. This is not necessarily the newest stuff, for the obvious reason that it is new, and thus less tested. Frequently, when a test or intervention is new, it looks good, but later, when more people have been exposed to it and more data are available, negative information may emerge. (Sometimes this is because serious side effects may appear to a new drug because so many more people are using it; sometimes it is the result of straight-up fraud, as in the case of Theranos – see The Political is Personal: Corporate power, social isolation, and the health of the nation -- Part 2, April 22, 2018.) Conversely, the oldest tests and treatments are not necessarily the best either – a doctor who does not keep up after his or her training is also going to be way behind.

And guidelines are, of course, guidelines, not laws – they are meant to guide the practitioner to help make the best decisions by summarizing and presenting the evidence, for the whole population and for significant “sub”-populations. For example, older people may have a greater benefit from – or be at greater risk of harm from – a certain treatment than younger people. This could be from a different physiology (kidneys, for example, don’t function as well at cleaning out poisons in older people) or from a different risk/benefit profile (perhaps a bad outcome usually takes longer to appear than the life expectancy of a person; a 20-year lag time for something bad has a different meaning for a 50 year old than an 80 year old).

Not all guidelines have the same strength of evidence behind them. Sometimes the evidence is very strong, coming from multiple randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that are consistent with each other; at the other extreme, they can come from the opinions of a group of experts in the field who are gathered for the purpose of creating a guideline. However, in any case, the guidelines presented should be those for which the strongest evidence exists. The website for NGC still has available the inclusion criteria for the guidelines that used to exist there. The physician is always able to do something different if the recommendation is for some (good) reason not appropriate for a particular patient. But s/he should know, or be able to find – on the NGC, say – what the guidelines are for a particular course of action (test, treatment, etc.). Until just recently, they could. Not now. Which raises the question: why is it gone?

I, of course, do not know the answer, so am forced to speculate. There is some cost to maintaining the guidelines and doing the research, and many people do not like cost, but so much more is being spent on arguably less important things (if one considers the health of the people important; I do). Some people, versions of libertarians, do not like anything that even suggests government mandates, but I know few libertarians who advocate suppressing the truth. Some people are not surprised at any actions taken by the current administration and its executive departments, particularly those that seem to take on science, as has happened with climate change and the use of fossil fuels, but those seem, ultimately, to be based on money and the opportunity for profit. Thus, destroying pristine areas for fossil fuel exploration (the Arctic, the tar sands) and transport (the Keystone pipeline), as well as of the world’s climate from burning them, makes people money. Rich and powerful people.

So maybe that is where we should look for the closure of NGC. The fact is that if there are guidelines there is a rebuttable presumption that, barring differences in the individual patient that are relevant, they should be followed. If the evidence shows that a particular diagnostic test or a treatment (drug, device, etc.) is usually better, it is going to hurt the pocketbooks of the manufacturers of alternative drugs or devices or tests. And it can also hurt the pocketbooks of actual doctors if they make their money doing something that is no more effective than, or even less effective than, doing something cheaper or easier – especially if that is done by someone else. Sometimes the issue is standardization; it saves money for a hospital (and can improve quality) if only one or two types of, say, artificial joints are used. But this hurts (obviously) the manufacturers of the other brands, and perhaps is a negative for those surgeons who have learned how to use the non-preferred brands (see Atul Gawande, “Big Med”, New Yorker, August 13, 2012). It is even a bigger issue when the evidence demonstrates that the costly surgical option doesn’t work, or doesn’t work as well as, a much cheaper non-surgical option that exists. Well, then, you are threatening someone’s income – just like renewable energy threatens the income of companies that produce and sell fossil fuels.

But would doctors actually do such a thing? Resist a cheaper and more effective alternative because it would cost them money? You betcha. Not always, of course, and not all doctors, but it has happened. “In the late 1990s,” the New York Times observes in its excellent editorial on the subject,  “when it [AHRQ] endorsed nonsurgical interventions for back pain, the back surgeon lobby waged an attack that resulted in huge funding cuts and placed a permanent target on the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (A.H.R.Q.), the agency that houses the database.”[1] They attacked the existence of the Agency because they didn’t like (REALLY didn’t like, since it would hit them in the pocketbook!) the evidence.

Yup. It happened. I remember it. It was shocking to me (I must have been more naïve!). I lived in San Antonio at the time, and a San Antonio congressman, Henry Bonilla, was leading the charge against AHRQ, to the embarrassment of the non-back-surgeon San Antonio medical community. But they were, and are, a rich and powerful lobby. And they are still doing thousands of surgical interventions for back pain of the type that AHRQ recommended against in the ‘90s. And making a lot of money on it. Maybe you had such a procedure? Did it help? I hope so. If you are trying to decide, for this or any other complicated treatment (surgery, cancer treatment, etc.) and wanted to know what was recommended for your problem, you could have gone to the NGC website and looked it up. Not now.

One issue with the evidence, of course, is that it depends upon what research was done, and on what populations. And diagnostic and treatment plans that make money for doctors and hospitals are only of use to them if they get paid, and paid well, so they are less likely to be done to poor and uninsured or underinsured people. Maybe this is one time when not having good insurance is a health benefit!

But it shouldn’t be. We should all be covered for necessary diagnosis and treatment. And whether providers or manufacturers can make money should not be a criterion for recommending it. And now we have less access to finding out what the recommendations are.

[1]By the way, how did Fox News cover this story? I could only find one link, to Fox Vegas, which used the CNN coverage, which was quite critical of the elimination of NGC. National Fox didn’t seem to think it worth covering.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Physician frustration and "burnout": A wider breadth of practice helps!

Physician burnout is a topic that is much-discussed in the medical community. It’s not a very good term; most people have stressed, sad, or overworked days or weeks, but it is the one that we seem to be stuck with. It is true that many physicians are often not happy, feel overworked and stressed and unable to spend enough time with their families. Most important, perhaps, they feel that this leaves them unable to do as good a job caring for their patients as they would like to. The main factors are workload, both in terms of the number of people that they have to see in a day, and ever-increasing “administrative” work. A big part of this is charting on an Electronic Health Record (EHR). While this modern method of charting allows quick retrieval of much important information and makes it possible to maximize billing, it is very time consuming.

Primary care doctors, such as family physicians, have among the highest rates of “burnout”, exceeding 30% in some studies and rising to nearly half in younger physicians . A recent study by Young, Burge, and colleagues showed that family doctors spend more time entering data into EHRs than they do face-to-face with patients! Patients are justifiably upset when their doctor spends more time looking at the computer screen than they do looking at them, and it is bad for the physician-patient relationship. However, the charting still has to be done, so those doctors who are not spending time on the EHR during the encounter are staying late to do it after office hours or doing it from home on evenings and weekends, which also contributes to frustration. Studies also show that a higher percentage of female physicians report experiencing “burnout”, likely because in many or most families it is still the woman who bears the burden of household and family responsibilities, even when she has a full-time and demanding job such as a physician.

There are a variety of reasons why family and other primary care physicians are particularly vulnerable to burnout. Reimbursement per visit is lower than for most other specialties, which means there is less money to hire people or buy systems to make things more efficient. Since most physicians are employed, primarily by large hospital systems, rather than in private practice, the system drives the work, not the doctor. Of course, the logic for paying primary care physicians less is, well, non-existent, but there are many non-logical justifications, most of them based upon the tradition of “subspecialist have always made more money” and are self-serving.

One conceit is that the work of subspecialists is “harder” or “more complex” and thus justifies greater reimbursement. This is not always, or even usually, true. As I have previously discussed on this blog (e.g., Can you be "too strong" for family medicine?, March 19, 2013), the work of a family doctor is particularly complex. For each patient, the family physician takes care of, or co-manages, all of a patient’s medical – and psychological and social – issues, as opposed to just one, as subspecialists do. In terms of the day’s schedule, a family doctor sees a wide variety of patients: a person with a new acute illness can be followed by one with several chronic diseases, then a well-child, then a sports injury, then a pregnant woman, etc. I have documented this in an “AAFP One-Pager” published in the American Family Physician in December, 2014.[1]

But, because subspecialists get higher reimbursement, their employers are happier and likely to spend more money supporting them. Some (ignorant but not rare) health system administrators wonder why a family doctor cannot see more patient in a given time, like, say, orthopedic surgeons do. The orthopedist sees someone referred for a specific problem, after x-rays or more extensive (and expensive) tests like MRIs have been done, often after the patient has been seen by another professional such as a physician’s assistant, does a quick exam of the particular area and decides if surgery is needed or not, and has someone else arrange it. It is, of course, the surgery, not the clinic visit, that earns the surgeon money. The family doctor is, as noted above, addressing all of a patient’s chronic and acute medical problems, as well as the social and psychological problems, and often has to fill out forms such as disability, FMLA, etc. even when another doctor (say, that orthopedist) is doing the procedure, because those subspecialists are “too busy” (ie., earning, directly for themselves or for the health system and then indirectly for themselves, too much money per unit of time).

It is, thus, unsurprising that those specialties that are the highest-paid (e.g., orthopedic surgery) and especially those with the highest income-to-work ratios (e.g, radiology, dermatology, anesthesiology) have little difficulty recruiting new doctors, while the lower-paid specialties, like family medicine, have much more. After all, the indebtedness from medical school –typically hundreds of thousands of dollars (which usually requires annual payments of far more than the average American’s total salary) is the same whatever specialty you enter. The higher revenue generated by subspecialists allows them – or the hospital systems that employ them -- to pay for non-physicians to do a variety of tasks, both clinical (nurse specialists and physician’s assistants) and documentation (scribes, coders, etc.) The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) suggests that the root cause of family physician burnout is inadequate team-based care, but the fact is that the members of those teams have to be paid, and the greater the physician reimbursement the more team members there can be.

Given all this, one could reasonably worry that family doctors will no longer be happy doing all the breadth of care that defines the potential of the specialty, such as continuing to deliver babies, or take care of their patients in the hospital, or make home visits. After all, if they are stressed out “just” seeing patients in the clinic, wouldn’t this make it even worse? Take more time? Increase burnout and stress? To me, that would be a bad thing; one of the terrific things about primary care doctors, reasonably defined as “doctors for you” (rather than for a specific condition) is that they can see you, and care for you, in all settings.

Which is why it is gratifying to read the results of a paper just published in the Annals of Family Medicine by Weidner, Phillips, Fang, and Peterson called “Burnout and Scope of Practice in New Family Physicians”. Contrary to what one might fear, it turns out that, at least among younger physicians, having a wider scope of practice – specifically caring for patients in the hospital, delivering babies, and doing home visits – is associated with a lower rate of self-perceived burnout. This is heartening – maybe being able to function at their highest level, care for people in all the settings in which they seek care, provide real continuity, do good medicine is part of the answer. Some of this may be because the breadth of care, the different kinds of problems to care for, the possibility of being there for your patient in whichever venue their care is delivered, the caring for the whole patient, is why people chose family medicine in the first place, rather than a (higher-paid) specialty where you care for only a few diagnoses or do a few procedures over and over again. 

Yes, doctors, even the lower paid specialties, make very good salaries compared to most Americans, and so it is hard for people who have lower-paying jobs, are afraid of losing their jobs, or have no jobs at all to feel too sorry. Yet it is in the interest of their health that their physicians are able to feel satisfaction with their work, most importantly to be able to do the best that they can to take care of a person’s medical needs. Medical care can be made more efficient than it is, especially in eliminating the ridiculous lack of communication between doctors, hospitals, and patients that characterizes our fragmented non-system. All workers feel more satisfaction and do a better job when they have the ability to exercise some discretion and not simply work on an endless assembly line. Medical care especially cannot be reduced to an assembly line, because you are a person, not a widget.

Our medical system needs to cover everyone, communicate within itself effectively, and be flexible enough to meet the needs of all people.

[1] Freeman J, Petterson S, Bazemore A., Accounting for complexity: aligning current payment models with the breadth of care by different specialties. Am Fam Phys 2014 Dec 1; 90(11):790. PMID 25611714

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