Friday, January 29, 2016

Cooperation vs Competition in Health Care

I've long admired the Cleveland Clinic, so I hope this paragraph from a New York Times article on how drug shortages force rationing decisions, turns out to be incorrect:
The Cleveland Clinic has an advanced compounding room where workers swaddled in disposable gowns, bouffant caps and blue gloves mix up remedies from raw ingredients. During a shortage of papaverine, a drug used for surgery on blood vessels, the clinic produced its own version. When other hospitals began asking about it, Dr. Snyder said he had to tell them, “It’s a franchised recipe we can’t give out.”
 If "franchised recipe" means the Clinic wants to keep its way of producing papaverine secret, it's hard to see how that policy could be ethically justifiable.When a clinician or institution has figured out how to help patients in a better way, the new approach should be shared with others. The overarching goal of the health system is improved health for the entire population. We encourage competition to stimulate local improvements, but once achieved, those improvements must be shared. Competition in health care is justified when it serves population health.

The Cleveland Clinic already has a reputation for clinical excellence. Sharing its "franchised recipe" will enhance the respect the Clinic receives. As such, sharing the recipe would be both good ethics and good strategy. Truly a win/win outcome.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Medical Scribes and the Patient-Doctor Relationship

I'd heard and read about the practice of bringing "scribes" into the exam room to allow the doctor to relate to the patient rather than to the keyboard. But I hadn't experienced the phenomenon until last week. 

Prior to my appointment I was told that the physician I was about to see (my primary care physician has been ill, and I was seeing a physician I'd never seen before) worked with a scribe. Would that be OK with me? It was. The medical issue involved my big toe and foot, and didn't feel enormously personal.

The photo (it isn't me) shows the scribe interacting with the laptop but clearly in the patient's line of vision. At my appointment, when I looked at the scribe he was looking at me - we made eye contact. He said nothing verbally or via facial expression, but was clearly a third person in the office. Since the focus of the examination was my foot - not a very personal exposure - and the questions weren't about intimate matters, I didn't mind having a non-clinical stranger in the room. But if either of those conditions were different, I would not have wanted the scribe to be present.

The impetus for using scribes is directly related to the electronic health record and the incentives from Medicare (and others) for using the EHR. If physicians are doing the entry, it's either during the appointment or after. Entering the notes during the appointment is more efficient, but leads to the common patient complaint that "the doctor is treating the computer instead of me." But entering the notes after the appointment requires additional time that is not reimbursed and makes the working day longer. 

During my years of psychiatric practice I regarded myself as a devoted clinician. I loved my patients. But from residency on I generally made my notes during the appointment. I found that if I waited until the end of the day I'd forgotten things, and after a busy day of appointments I felt burdened by the additional time requirement. I didn't resent staying later to see a patient with an urgent problem, but I did resent writing notes rather than heading home to be with my family.

I can't believe that voice recognition technology can't make it possible for doctors to dictate notes while seeing patients. It could be done in a way that helped the patient to understand our thinking. From residency on I always wrote my notes with the assumption that the patient would read them. The discipline this imposed was useful. As an example, it helped me in relating to people with paranoia. I didn't write "Mr. Jones is paranoid and delusional," but rather "Mr. Jones believes extra-terrestrials have implanted a chip in his brain. He understands that I do not share this view. We discussed why I believe taking anti-psychotic medication would help him in his life..." 

I found that people with paranoia appreciated that I recognized the possibility that (in this example) extra-terrestrials might be causing mischief, but that I found this extremely unlikely. We could frame using medication as a hypothesis - "whether or not there is a chip in your brain, I believe that you will sleep better and be less afraid after a few weeks..." rather than as the equivalent of "you're crazy and I'm sane so you should do what I say..."

Writing notes with the patient in the office allowed for discussion of what should be said. With someone I'll call Mr. Jones, it had taken quite a bit of time to elicit a clear picture of how much alcohol he used and how alcohol might be affecting his mood and his physical health. I explained why I thought it was important for his primary care physician to know about his alcohol use. We sat together in front of the terminal to compose my note. Mr. Jones baulked at the word "alcoholism," but accepted "alcohol problem." This wasn't just a piece of collaborative writing and editing - it was an integral part of the treatment process.

It seems to me that the burgeoning of medical scribes is a workaround pseudosolution for a broken health care system. Adding a third party to the appointment is better than burning out our physicians - an all-too-frequent occurrence. But the real fix would be a combination of more realistic expectations for documentation and improved electronic health record technology. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Boredom as a Health Hazard/Uber as a Cure!

A recent New York Times article featured a photo of Carol Sue Johnson, 73, in her rear view mirror, setting out as a Uber driver. Apparently, an increasing number of older folks are doing gigs for Uber and Lyft.

The main reason is to supplement their income and savings. The average retirement savings for Americans in their 60s is under $200,000. Extra income isn't just for luxuries. And driving for Uber or Lyft is self-scheduled, with no financial penalty for doing a smaller number of hours, appealing features for drivers of all ages. 

But what impressed me most in the New York Times article, and another piece in Time, is how often the older drivers cited the human interest provided by meeting passengers. This makes sense. When I'm in a taxi I often ask drivers about their experience hearing about life's troubles from their passengers. I not infrequently end up telling them that I'm a psychiatrist and that, in a way, they are too. 

Musing on this topic got me thinking about the phrase "bored to death." A search of medical literature led me to a 2010 publication - "Bored to Death" - that reported on the famous Whitehall study of British civil servants. Those who reported higher levels of boredom had poorer health and increased risk of death in subsequent years. The authors speculated that boredom "is almost certainly a proxy for other risk factors." These could include social isolation, poor eating habits, and increased use of alcohol. 

In short, the familiar cliche - "bored to death" - has literal as well as metaphoric truth!

Carol Sue Johnson and the cohort of older Uber/Lyft drivers may well be improving their health by the dual mechanisms of improving their finances and diminishing the risk of boredom.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Mindfulness, Clinical Outcomes, and Patient Safety

Two months ago, when I wrote a post about using the walking we clinicians do in the course of the working day as opportunities for  meditation, I wondered if it was a harebrained idea or a piece of personal eccentricity. But when I came upon "Use Hand Cleaning to Promote Mindfulness in Clinic" published in BMJ earlier this month, I decided there's something to it.

The author is Heather Gilmartin, a nurse fellow in the Colorado VA system. She makes the excellent suggestion that hand washing, a recurrent act of patient care and self care, can be used as a moment of meditation. Here's the practical summary Ms. Gilmartin presents:
A moment of mindfulness
Focus your attention on your thoughts and emotions. Stay present and accept whatever arises, just as it is, without reacting.
Set an intention—be it listening with intent, choosing your words mindfully, or acting with compassion in your next encounter.
Smile to acknowledge this act of kindness to yourself and to your patient.
Alcohol based hand rub
Pause, take a breath, and notice the sound and feel of hand rub being delivered to your palm.
Be present in the moment and experience the sensation of rubbing the foam/gel into your wrists, hands, and fingers until the product evaporates and leaves you clean.
Soap and water
Pause, take a breath, notice that you are turning on the faucet, and regard the feeling of water flowing from your wrists to your fingers.
Be present in the moment and experience the sensation of rubbing soap into your wrists, hands, and fingers, and then washing it all down the drain.
The VA system disseminates innovations well. I anticipate the potential for an epidemic of meditative moments arising from Ms. Gilmartin's modest but well articulated proposal!

Via her article I read an empirical study of the simple idea of using recurrent components of our days as opportunities for "mini-meditative-moments." College students were instructed to wash dishes in their usual manner or to do the ordinarily mindless chore in a mindful manner. The group that meditated as they scrubbed showed increased positive emotion and decreased "nervousness." (The article is at:
"Washing Dishes to Wash the Dishes: Brief Instruction in an Informal Mindfulness Practice.")

Reading the two articles emboldens me to out myself for another practice I've built into my day. I'm vigilant about brushing my teeth twice a day. If tooth brushing takes one minute, in a year it adds up to 12 hours. If it takes two minutes, it's a full day. That's a lot of time to devote to an uninspiring chore. I've taken to applying what Ms. Gilmartin recommends for hand washing to those moments of tooth brushing. It's an N of 1 experiment, but I believe it makes a contribution to overall well being.

I believe that most participants in the US health "system" would agree that the "system" is a mess. There's a massive outpouring of proposals for fixing the broken "system." We need to seek mega-solutions. But micro-improvements, such as what Ms. Gilmartin proposes in her BMJ article, are steps all of us in health care can and should take as part of the larger movement of creating an ever-more ethical environment of care.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

A Surgeon Explains and Defends Simultaneous Surgery

In the continuing discussion sparked by the Boston Globe Spotlight Team's reporting on simultaneous surgery, Dr. Alexander Langerman, a head and neck cancer surgeon from Vanderbilt, wrote an informative piece explaining and defending how he conducts the practice. I, as a non surgeon, found his description of the clinical aspects of the practice very informative, and I encourage you to read his article here.

I was especially happy with Dr. Langerman's discussion of informed consent:
If you’re a patient, in your first visit with a surgeon, ask about the plan for your case, the surgeon’s strategies for trainees, and the way the surgeon handles his or her surgical schedule. I encourage you to get to know any residents who may be involved in your operation; they are a highly valuable second set of eyes who have already completed college, medical school, and often years of training so their ideas, questions, and participation elevate care. I would argue you do not need to require the absence of trainees or the continuous presence of the surgeon but rather a well-thought-out plan that has your best interests in mind.
If you are a surgeon or part of a surgical team, discuss your plan with your patients. You should let them know whether a trainee will be participating in or handling a portion of the procedure, and you should let them know if you are going to be out of the room.
If Dr. Langerman's surgical colleagues had all followed his wise guidance, the practice of simultaneous surgery would not have had the shocking impact it had when the story broke.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

New Massachusetts Regulations on Simultaneous Surgeries

Two weeks ago I posted about the practice of simultaneous surgeries. It had been the focus of a Boston Globe Spotlight series. Two days ago, the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine - the body that regulates medicine on behalf of the state - ruled that surgeons must record when they leave and reenter the operating room. Nurses currently do this. At many hospitals, surgeons don't.

Simultaneous surgery raises two central questions: What is its impact on patient safety and surgical outcomes? And, what is the impact on patient and public trust of physicians and hospitals?

Dr. James Rickert, president of the Society for Patient Centered Orthopedics, correctly identified informed consent as the central ethical issue:

“I know that surgeons don’t think this is an important issue, so they assume that it’s not important to patients. However, this thinking is wrong. Patients want to know that their surgeon is the individual who actually operated on them, and I think they have a right to this information. We are talking about situations where patients are completely vulnerable and, by definition, there is a risk of death or severe bodily injury.”
I learned from an op ed piece in today's Boston Globe that the American College of Surgery has created a committee to develop policy about simultaneous surgery. The committee includes proponents and opponents of the practice.

There's an important lesson about health system ethics in all of this. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes multiple components of civil society to promote an ethical health system. With regard to the practice of simultaneous surgery, the Boston Globe Spotlight Team brought the issue to a wider public. Individuals, like the author of the op ed I cited (Nancy Brinker, founder of the Susan Komen breast cancer charity) pitched in thoughtfully. A professional association - the American College of Surgery - is working on evidence-based guidelines for how the practice should be handled. Another professional organization - the Society for Patient Centered Orthopedics - nailed the fact that meaningful informed consent must be part of the process.

We tend to think about ethics in terms of individual conscience and behavior. But just as we have come to see quality of care as a system responsibility and errors as not simply the result of individual "bad apples," we must understand health system ethics as the responsibility of organizations as well as individuals. To improve the ethics of the health system we depend on ethical health organizations as well as vigilant individuals.