Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Shared Decision-Making is a Two-Way Street

There is one word in ACO that stands out to me – Accountability. Physicians are held to be accountable for coordinated patient care. Likewise, patients must be equally accountable for their own health and personal decisions. The success of our future ACOs may depend upon the mutual interplay between these two circumstances. Negligence on either side will necessarily result in failure. The effort to reduce health care costs starts and ends with the patient – under the guidance and support of a focused and committed family physician.


Education: Simple education – the distribution of information and materials – will not be sufficient. Education is useless without empowerment. Even the greatest teacher will struggle to connect with a lackluster and disengaging lesson plan. Patients must become owners of their own health and outcomes must be linked as much to medical care, as personal choice. Presently, the Institute of Medicine is working to develop guidance for just such an educational venture.


As it stands, CMS has mandated that all marketing of ACOs must be approved by their internal office. Considering the, as of yet, purposefully vague definitions of ACOs – this is a misstep. In commentary to CMS head Donald Berwick, the AMA offered that, “The requirement that CMS approve all ACO marketing materials is an unprecedented, unnecessary, inappropriate, and unworkable requirement.” Wow. That is harsh and bold language. But, I believe that speaks to just how important it is that robust patient education be featured on the nature of their role within ACOs.


Think of shared-accountability as an analogy to a car owner. Most patients aren’t necessarily the best drivers or caretakers of their own car. Everyone that owns a car must get some regular maintenance, inspections, and repairs – this keeps the automobile running well (hopefully). The provider of these services is usually a specialist in that area of car care. However, between these visits, it is up to the owner to ensure the car is maintained. It would be ludicrous if someone were to suggest putting water in the gas tank – yet Americans struggle coming to terms with the right type of fuel to keep their own bodies running and energetic.


Some cars look nice, others are maintained well – and these are always perceived as reflections on the owner. No one looks to the Jiffy Lube guy that changed the oil as being responsible for the well-tuned car. He is certainly an important, and necessary part of the process. But it is the owner’s responsibility to see through the spectrum of car and maintenance. Why, then, do we often view health care and our own bodies in such a different light? Why can’t a physician be viewed as a specialist mechanic that is ready for a quick tune-up, or even an overhaul every once in a while?


At any rate, I certainly understand and appreciate that our bodies are much different from our cars. However, I do believe that the relationships and care can be viewed in parallel. Doctors can teach us how to drive our cars - perhaps even read us the owners manual – but then hand over the keys and let us drive solo for awhile. That is true accountability.


Take the Accountability out of ACOs, and the Care Organization will falter. But, this accountability falls as much on the role of the provider, as it does the patient. Be vigilant that our patient population not fall into complacency, or expect anything less than a working and actively cooperative relationship with their family physicians.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Do ACOs Stack the Deck Against Private Practice Family Medicine?

ACOs have been shopped as possessing flexible application along the spectrum of clinical practice. Indeed, comments by CMS administrators have explicitly contended that the model was created to allow all physician practice groups – large to small – to have the opportunity to join in the shared savings program. However, once you dig into the regulations behind the rhetoric, it quickly becomes apparent that small private practice is meant to quickly sink, and private practice in general may barely be able to swim. It is beyond clear that the specifics of the ACO rules and regulations are outside of the scope of outpatient medicine, if not exclusionary to the private practice setting altogether.

1) Start-Up Cost

The cost of starting an ACO is the first preventive hurdle – and it is quite a big hill. While CMS conservatively proposed an estimated cost between $1,700,000 - $1,800,000, the American Hospital Association (AHA) sees it more in the range of $5,315,00 - $12,000,000. And those are just estimated start-up costs, they do not take into account annual maintenance requirements. Needless to say, this is well beyond the scope of most private practice settings.
Robert Jeibenluft recently suggested in the New England Journal of Medicine that, “provider networks that do not achieve meaningful clinical integration will probably not receive shared savings from Medicare, and most will ultimately fail”1

2) Quality Measure Reporting

ACOs will be required to measure and report along 65 specific quality metrics. This is an all-or-nothing approach, and each ACO has no flexibility in reporting. Most importantly, there is some concern that it will be impossible to meet all 65 requirements outside of the hospital setting. For example, among the discussed quality measures to report include hospital readmission numbers and assessment of the nine hospital-acquired conditions. How does a large scale family practice setting adjust to these requirements?

A flood of comments were submitted to CMS regarding these concerns. While the regulations are still a product of the proposed rule, it is to be seen how CMS will respond. At this stage in the game, awareness is fundamental. While the ACO model has been marketed well from a national standpoint – and it is gaining traction and popularity – it is important to recognize this is not necessarily an all-inclusive or all-applicable solution. Sure, the big hospitals have the chance to buy into the shared-savings program. But, let’s just hope it doesn’t drive out the little guy at the heart of medicine – the private practice family physician.

1. Leibenluft, Robert F. J.D. (2011) ACOs and the Enforcement of Fraud, Abuse, and Antitrust Laws. New England Journal of Medicine, 364: 199-101.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

An Appetite for Authority: Psychological Subtleties of Choosing a Specialty

I recently had an interesting conversation with three fellow medical students over a jar of nutella. Two were MS IVs training at a major academic medical center (one budding peds oncologist, one future family physician), and the third was a canadian medical student. I am an osteopathic medical student comitted to pursuing primary care. The conversation started with romantic pursuits, Harry Potter, what to dip into the nutella, but soon evolved into a dynamic discussion about medical specialization, and why we do choose to do it.

Many people believe that the temptation to super-specialize is driven solely by salary…specialties pay more than primary care; they get you out of debt quicker and may allow for a cushier lifestyle. These are undoubtedly key factors for many students choosing a career path in medicine. However, money is an easy scapegoat. When salary is taken out of the equation, much more complex issues of personal investment, ego, and authority begin to surface.

The Canadian medical student in my nutella conversation was quick to remind us that our neighbors to the north don’t pay specialists much more than primary care physicians. Yet, in her view, young Canadian doctors still overwhelmingly prefer to specialize. People want to be experts. It's human nature. The pride that comes with knowing you could be the leading authority on something, and that people would come from all over the world (or all over the hospital) to hear your opinon is incredibly enticing to students. The high salary that specialists get in America is icing on a cake that already looks deliciously prestigious.


As we overdosed on chocolate hazelnut and the jar became pretty unappetizing, our conversation shifted from what’s enticing about specialties to the other side of the coin – what psychological factors turn students off of primary care. The future pediatric oncologist hit the nail on the head. She was telling us about her current sub-internship, working under general pediatricians on complex cases. Each of her patients saw a minimum of seven consults, sometimes up to nine or ten. In most cases, her attending knew exactly what the endocrine guy or the genetics department was going to say. Even as a medical student, she could predict how these consults were going to go, and yet, the culture of a medical center with limitless resources is to cover all bases, gather as many cooks into the kitchen as possible. It made the generalist’s job seem a less important. Even though he was supposed to have the final say on the treatment plan, my friend described a shifted power dynamic that made her attending the low man on the totem pole, a triaging traffic cop. “This is why I’m glad I want to specialize,” she explained. She didn’t work this hard to not be the authority on anything.


Primary care is not for everyone. This friend is going to be a fantastic pediatric specialist, and a caring physician. It would be incredibly short-sighted for me to claim that all students who choose to specialize are motivated by pride and ego. But it would also be na├»ve to discount these factors in ourselves. Choosing a field of medicine is a complex process that is ideally driven by geunine interest and passion, but often heavily affected by financial and lifestyle concerns, as well as the desire to validate the years of work we have put in to achieve our goals. There is nothing wrong with wanting to practice at a prestigious institution, garner respect from colleagues and be valued as a prominent physician. From time to time, however, it is important to step back and ask ourselves how much the desire to impress others is affecting the choices we make. A primary care physician might never be world’s leading expert on nutella allergies, but family doctors are the authority on their patients. The best ones take ownership of this more subtle authority, even in a kitchen full of cooks.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Redesigning Residency... the pilots

12 + 4 + 4 + 3 = 23 years. From grade school through college and medical school to residency, that's how long it takes to become a family medicine doctor right now. How about changing the 3 at the end to a 4? Asking that question to various classmates interested in family medicine, I've received a range of answers from "WHAT! No way!" to "ah, 1 more year, what's that in the long scheme of things?" to "That's a great idea!"

A 4 year residency program is just one of the 14 different innovations considered by the P4 project (Preparing the Personal Physician for Practice). P4 is a 6-year pilot project started in 2007 in which 14 family medicine residencies across the country are participating. These residency programs range from university-based to community-based and urban to rural. Each residency program is experimenting with some new innovation to improve family medicine training with the goal of preparing residents with real life skills for practice.

Okay - great, so let's get down to the nitty gritty. What are these innovations that are being considered? As I first mentioned, a number of programs are experimenting with either a mandatory or an optional fourth year of training. These programs generally encourage or require residents to choose a "track" or a "focus" that is either incorporated throughout the four years or is focused upon during the fourth year. For example, Middlesex FMRP in Connecticut requires each resident to complete four years while JPS in Texas and Waukesha in Wisconsin have optional 4th year tracks.

Tufts, on the other hand, is focusing on training its residents predominantly in the outpatient setting, since that's where the majority of family medicine actually practice. Meanwhile, University of Colorado is focusing explicitly on teaching its family medicine residents about the Patient Centered Medical Home. University of Missouri-Columbia is allowing 4th year students at its school who are decided on family medicine to start intern-like rotations, because, honestly speaking, the 4th year of medical school (unless really intentionally designed not to be by self-motivation) is generally speaking a waste of time. That's just to name a few of the 14 innovations (not selected by any favoritism but randomly).

We are now more than half way through the 6 year innovation period. The question is then: what are we doing with this P4 information? Do we want all family medicine programs to be 4 years long? Or do we want to start eliminating the 4th year of medical school? Or do we want to be more intentional about where are residents are training and what they are learning?

These are all questions that are being studied and analyzed. This month's issue of Family Medicine, STFM's academic peer-reviewed journal, focuses specifically on these questions. As we approach another RC review (the committee that determines residency guidelines), what changes do we want to make as the future of family medicine so that we can better train physicians to be prepared to serve their future patients? Better yet, what can we as family physicians do to advocate to the ACGME and to the American public about the needs of family medicine training?

Medicine IS Politics

As I sit here cramming in a few last hours of study before sitting for my American Board of Family Medicine exam tomorrow, my smart phone repeatedly lights up. The #saveGME campaign is underway.

While I should keep studying, I cannot. Over the past several days, I have been reading articles and blog posts about the most recent spin in the deficit reduction “circus”—cut GME dollars out of the Medicare and Medicaid budgets. Neither of these issues has gotten traction in the mainstream media, and I know why. None of the journalists had the knee jerk reaction I did to the news: how will we train new doctors? While it is bad enough that most Americans, many of them eager to cut “entitlement” programs, don’t appreciate that about a quarter of our insured population is covered under government insurance (http://www.gallup.com/poll/125417/americans-reliant-government-healthcare-2009.aspx), a.k.a. “socialized medicine”, I presume even fewer residents—doctors in training, a.k.a “medicine’s future”—realize that their paycheck and much of the funding that keeps their training program up and running, comes from the Medicare and Medicaid budget. And if you are in a primary care program, one that is unable to generate tons of income from your services due to a flawed, procedure-based reimbursement system, you are especially dependent on these government funds.

And if the money dries up, the programs close. The vulnerability of primary care programs has been outlined in other blog posts here and elsewhere. The pre-existing shortage of primary care physicians is well known. Heck, the ACGME even titled its 20th report last year “Advancing Primary Care” (a title that sounds ironic at this moment), and mandated the U.S. increase its proportion of primary care physicians from the current 32% to at least 40%, the critical point at which health outcomes improve and costs decrease.

Despite this, GME funds are on the table.

So as the baby-boomers age, and the generation known as “the first to not outlive their parents’ life expectancy” enter adulthood and pile on their chronic, life-style-induced diseases, and as a morally just health reform law requires more Americans be given affordable health insurance, the roster will bloom with patients. These patients will be sick; they will have multiple disease processes, limited resources, and will demand increasingly complicated and expensive technology in their treatments. And if the GME cuts go through, and specialty programs survive by simply doing more procedures to generate more income for them and more debt for the American public, and the primary care programs shrink instead of grow, our nation’s health will suffer deeply.

The AAFP is mobilizing its members to contact their representatives. It has been lobbying members of Congress for a GME primary care carve-out that would send some funds directly to community-based primary care training programs (currently 100% of GME dollars are distributed to hospitals, who then decide which programs to fund), and it has iterated several more demands to the President directly. But it can do more. In my mind, the fact that most Americans, and most residents, don’t know that Medicare and Medicaid dollars are the key funding source for training all the doctors in this country is not acceptable. We need to use the media better and educate the public on how healthcare is delivered in this country. I think if they knew, they would be outraged.

Tomorrow I will be tested on knowledge that will allow me to say I am Board Certified in Family Medicine. Sadly, out of hundreds, there may only be a single question that tests my knowledge on the politics of medicine. And that’s too bad—because these days, medicine is all politics.

Friday, July 8, 2011

GME Funding for Family Medicine Residencies Must Be Preserved.. Now!

In a letter from the ACGME to the American Board of Medical Specialties, American Hospital Association, American Medical Association, Association of American Medical Colleges, and Council of Medical Specialty Societies, the ACGME warns of consequences that could occur due to proposed cuts in Medicare Graduate Medical Education (GME) funding. GME funding is the main source of financial stability for residency programs that train this country's medical interns and residents - the pipeline of production for physicians.

These cuts would threaten:
  • The availability of residency positions to produce new physicians
  • Access to care for the Medicare population
  • Access to care for the underserved, underinsured, and uninsured
  • Community-based primary care residency programs which produce primary care physicians that typically serve in rural and other underserved areas
  • The distribution of primary care residency slots in multi-specialty institutions towards more lucrative sub-specialty training which reimburse the institution more for procedural rather than preventive care
  • Residency training in general with the possibility of support from industry (insurance companies, pharma, etc) and/or implementation of tuition for residency training
  • Entering clinical practice after one year of internship to repay student debt resulting in the undereducation of practicing physicians
The Association of American Medical Colleges provides a variety of resources explaining the importance of GME funding, including their advocacy to increase the amount of funding for GME in order to prevent/slow down a shortage of physicians. This includes a letter to President Obama sent on 5 July 2011 urging the President to preserve GME funding.

The American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine took it a step further by initiating a member-driven action alert. This alert allows members and non-members to submit emails and letters to their representatives in an effort to generate more than the usual auto-generated email response from our elected officials.  The AACOM also submitted a joint letter with the American Osteopathic Association to Congress opposing cuts to GME.

The American Academy of Family Physicians focus in on primary care, asking its members to take action on its Speak Out Grassroots Advocacy site by contacting legislators to specifically preserve primary care.
"The deficit reduction conversations continue. Lawmakers are re-thinking Medicare’s Graduate Medical Education (GME), and at this critical time, they should be reminded of primary care’s importance. Our representatives have an opportunity to change this program so that it encourages the innovations in primary care training that will help build a workforce our communities can count on."
So, where is the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics?

Currently on the homepage of the AMA, they are worrying about the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) as well as a decrease in Medicare payments for diagnostic imaging.   It seems like CMS is starting to do the work that the RUC should be doing to decrease overvalued services?  Apparently this is more important than worrying about cuts to GME.  The AAP does not seem to be worrying about much of anything.  The ACP has submitted a letter to the President and Congress urging for a debt ceiling agreement which addresses GME, but nothing really focused on GME.

The AOA had no problem leading the way as one of the first medical organizations to take action.  The ACP continues its support for primary care, though it is easy to tell they do so very cautiously to keep its medicine sub-specialty members content.  Will the AMA step up at the sake of losing support from its specialty members to help save funding for primary care?  Or will they issue a blanket statement asking to preserve GME funding in general while still knowing that the preservation of GME funding does not necessarily mean the preservation of primary care training.  It may mean the shifting of more training towards specialties that get paid more for procedures...  who funds the RUC again?  Who makes money off of coding books with codes for procedures for which the RUC makes recommendations to CMS for reimbursement rates?  I digress...

Any cuts to GME that do not preserve funding specifically for primary care could be catastrophic, especially for programs that can barely get by with the current level of funding.  GME cuts that do not preserve or increase primary care residency funding will continue the current shift in our physician workforce that favors specialization and does not value primary care.  It is at times like these when I am most thankful for choosing a family medicine residency in the military - a health care system that actually appreciates and values primary care as its foundation for health care delivery.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Are We Providing Health Care, or Just Delivering Health?

As a medical student I have come to appreciate two core goals of Health Care:

1) Health: The delivery of medical knowledge, assessment or treatment to a patient

2) Care: The compassionate approach to any patient

As a medical student I have also witnessed clinical medicine practiced across a spectrum of situations. Taking my time to reflect on these experiences, I am not certain we are meeting our goals. Too often I have watched a flurry of attendings rush from bed-side to bed-side, witnessed residents spend far more time in front of a computer screen than holding a patient’s hand. I am not arguing the nature and necessity of our modern system, rather I hope to ask a major question:

Do we get so caught up in the delivery of our health care, that we sometimes neglect the care itself? Are we providing health care, or simply delivering health?

Allow me to frame this in another way. Have you considered the definition of the word “care”? One that I rather like defines care as a “watchful attentiveness”. How often are you watchfully attentive to your patients? What can be said about the nurses, residents or staff working with you?

At the same time that medical advances allow immediate, efficient, and direct monitoring of patients, these same technologies can so easily disrupt our watchful attentiveness. New systems, with built in redundancies and alerts have the potential to incentivize complacency and interrupt the patient-physician relationship. I often overhear residents or attendings say, “Don’t worry about the patient in room 246 until the lab results come back. There is nothing we can do until then.” The consequence of this attitude represents a negligence to the value and importance of physician compassion.

Nothing we can do? What happened to kind words, reassurance, and the offering of a comforting hand? Sure the electronic record may show normal cardiorespiratory monitoring, no new nursing communications, and no updated lab results – but there still exists a patient, sitting in a hospital bed. Possibly alone, likely insecure, and almost definitely in need of your care.

Again, I am not arguing that our current system is ineffective in delivering health, nor am I contending the decisions of my peers and superiors. I have a profound respect for the urgencies and constraints of our modern health system. But I believe that, in any area of life, self-reflection is necessary for growth.

Somewhere along our medical journey, as we agreed to see more patients then we could handle, and developed advanced technologies that separate patients from caregivers – we may have lost sight of a simple fact. Fifty percent of our mission as physicians delivering health care is to provide that care to our patients. To be watchfully attentive over them. Consider – are we providing health care, or just delivering health?