Readers who teach may find these two cases useful. But I think they'll be interesting for most thoughtful adults.
CASE I. Many years ago I wrote a hypothetical case for a session on rationing for medical students.
You are a primary care physician at a not-for-profit health maintenance organization (HMO) that serves 500,000 members, paid for by capitation, a monthly premium paid to the HMO by the members’ employer, Medicaid, or Medicare. The premium revenues create a budget to care for the entire HMO population.
Susan Jackson, a 28 year old office worker, consults you about headaches. For the past month she has had frequent headaches at the end of the work day. The headaches are much less frequent on the weekends. She describes the headaches as a dull, mild to moderate pain, that feels like tightness or a band around her head. She is otherwise healthy. Her neurological examination is normal. She identifies clear stressors at work.
You explain that this is a classical pattern for tension-type headaches and give practical advice on what to do. You predict that the headaches will improve as Susan learns to master the stressors and to build more relaxation into her day. Susan thanks you, but says that a friend who had headaches received an MRI, which showed a tumor that required surgery. With some urgency she says “unless you can guarantee that there is no possibility whatsoever that I have a tumor, I want an MRI. What harm can an MRI do?”
You know that the likelihood of a tumor is vanishingly low, and that established standards of care do not recommend imaging studies in a situation like Susan’s. There is no medical contraindication to getting an MRI, but you know that it would cost between $1500 - $2000, which would come out of the budget for the HMO population. You reflect on what to do, and how to explain your thinking about the MRI to Susan.CASE II. Today I read the following case on the excellent "Costs of Care" blog:
Doc, I need an MRI
By Patricia Czapp, MD
“Doc, I need an MRI for my back.”
I recognized the voice immediately and turned to greet one of my favorite patients, Mr. P. There he was, smiling, leaning on his walker.
Mr. P visits me several times a day in my primary care office that is essentially in his living room. The practice itself, sized fewer than 1,000 square feet, is on the first floor of a high-rise apartment building that houses disabled and low-income adults.
My team and I provide primary care to the residents of the building (a public housing unit) and the surrounding community, a diverse population that has in common these characteristics: social isolation, low health literacy and low general literacy, a high prevalence of behavioral health problems, and limited transportation.
We came to practice in the building because our health system, Anne Arundel Medical Center, several years ago noted a high number of ED visits from individuals of one address. We visited the address to meet the residents of the building and their landlord, the local housing authority.
We found a population of individuals who were aged beyond their years, suffering from preventable complications of chronic disease and for whom a visit to the hospital met medical as well as nonmedical needs…individuals like Mr. P.
Mr. P is a man living a marginalized existence. He thrives when people take the time to listen to him, touch him, and show him that they care. For many decades , he found this comfort in the ED. When his landlord agreed to try an experiment with us, we came to practice in his building. Mr. P was one of our earliest patients.
We provide a low-cost alternative to meet his needs and do so with kindness, tolerance and generosity.
“What happened to your back, Mr. P?” I asked. “Did you fall or hurt yourself”?
“No Doctor, I Just woke up, got out of bed and it hurt real bad for a while. I could hardly stand up. ”
Rather than lecture him about the lack of medical necessity for an MRI, I accompany him to his modest apartment where we review the condition of his bed and mattress and suggest alternative ways to use pillows to support his back. Mr. P beams, “Thank you so much.” And then shuffles toward the Community Room.
If we had not been there to intercept Mr. P, he would have dialed 911. It shocks many to learn that individuals use the ED for nonmedical needs. But for some, this is the only way they feel human.
Our practice has been open for two years. In that time, we have experienced a significant decrease in medical 911 calls, ED visits, admissions and readmissions of residents of the apartment building. They have an alternative now to the ED, and we meet their social needs in their living room – one visit at a time, sometimes multiple times a day…
“Doc, I need a CT scan for my head.”
Patricia Czapp, MD was contestant of “The Best Care, The lowest cost: one idea at a time” – a collaboration between Costs of Care, Healthcare Financial Management Association, Strata Decision Technologies, and Yale-New Haven Health.
"Tension headache" works well with medical students and residents. It ends with a resource allocation dilemma. Ms. Jackson wants a guarantee of absolute certainty, which is virtually never possible. The MRI is not required for good clinical care, but if it cost $15-$20, not $1,500-$2,000, should it be covered because of her understandable anxiety? And, however one thinks through the dilemma, what should the primary care physician actually say to Ms. Jackson?
The second case is a beautiful example of ministering to one's patient - clinical practice as a calling. It's invites learning about "hotspotting" - meeting the real needs of people who are "overutilizing" expensive medical care. Mr. P was suffering, but ED visits were not the best pathway to relief. Dr. Czapp's remarkable practice has the potential to reduce costs even as it provides vastly better care for the population she serves.
Political candidates continue to bash their opponents by accusing them of health care rationing. Cases like these allow us to understand how cost reduction and frank rationing can be conducted in an ethically admirable, clinically sound manner.