Monthly Archives: December 2014

Reflecting on Medicine in 2014: Sailing Rough Seas and Finding Uncharted Waters Ahead

As we close out on a tumultuous 2014 in healthcare, many physicians are looking forward to a better and more stable 2015. For most of us, 2014 has been marked by significant change. Many healthcare providers have seen their jobs and their patient care roles transform completely. Physician autonomy has diminished and regulation and mandated electronic paperwork has more than doubled. Many physicians find that they are spending far less time caring for patients and a greater proportion of their available clinical time is now being spent interfacing with a computer—both at work and at home on personal time.

During the last year, we have all been affected by the rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), changes in reimbursement, as well as the implementation of a new billing and coding system (ICD-10). For many of us, it also marked a year of transition to system wide electronic medical record systems such as Epic and the growing pains associated with such a major upheaval in the way in which medicine is practiced.   Many practices have continued the trend of “integration” with larger healthcare systems in order to remain financially viable. The American College of Cardiology estimates that by the end of 2014, nearly 60% of all physician members have integrated with hospital systems and this number is expected to rise even further in 2015—ultimately defining the death of private practice as we know it.

Why have these changes occurred?

Ultimately, I believe that the changes to the way in which healthcare is delivered has come about due to 3 distinct reasons:

 1. Declining Reimbursement

Currently reimbursement continues to fall. Multiple government budgetary “fixes” have led to much uncertainty and instability in medical practices (much like seen in any small business with financial and market instability). In addition, the implementation of the ACA has resulted in the expansion of the Medicaid population in the US—now nearly 1 in 5 Americans is covered under a Medicaid plan. Traditionally, Medicaid plans reimburse at levels 45% less than Medicare (which is already much lower than private insurance payments). While the Obama administration did provide a payment incentive for physicians to accept Medicaid, this incentive expires this week. Many practices are becoming financially non viable as overhead costs are risking to more than 60%. As for the ACA, many exchanges have set prices and negotiated contracts with hospital systems—leaving many practices out of network. Both patients and doctors suffer—longtime relationships are severed due to lack of access to particular physicians.

2. Increasing Administrative/Regulatory Demands

With the implementation of the ICD-10 coding system, now physicians are confronted with more than 85, 000 codes (previously the number of codes was approximately 15,000). In addition, “meaningful use” mandates for payment have resulted in increasing documentation requirements and even more electronic paperwork. In addition, the implementation of new billing and coding systems has required increasing staff (more overhead) as well as intensive physician training. Sadly, the new coding system that has been mandated by the Federal government includes thousands of absurdities such as a code for an “Orca bite” as well as a code for an “injury suffered while water skiing with skis on fire”.

3. Electronic Medical Record Mandates

Federal requirements for the implementation of Electronic Medical Records and electronic prescribing have resulted in several negative impacts on practices. While in theory, the idea of a universal medical record that is portable and accessible to all providers is a noble goal, the current reality in of EMR in the US is troubling. There are several different EMR systems and none of them are standardized—none of them allow for cross talk and communication. Many small practices cannot afford the up front expenditures associated with the purchase and implementation of the EMR (often in the hundreds of thousands of dollars).   In addition, the EMR has slowed productivity for many providers and resulted in more work that must be taken home to complete—not a good thing for physician morale. Finally, and most importantly, the EMR often serves to separate doctor and patient and hinders the development of a doctor-patient relationship. Rather than focusing on the patient and having a conversation during an office visit, many physicians are glued to a computer screen during the encounter.

So, What is next in 2015?

While I have probably painted a bleak picture for Medicine in 2014, it is my hope that we are able to move forward in a more positive way in 2015. I think that there are several very exciting developments that are gaining momentum within medicine and healthcare in general.  Innovation and medical entrepreneurship will be critical in moving healthcare forward in 2015.  Physicians must continue to lobby for the tools and freedoms to provide better patient care experiences for all stakeholders in the healthcare space.

2015 begins with much promise. I am excited to see what we as healthcare professionals will be able to accomplish in the coming year. We must continue to put patients first and strive to provide outstanding care in spite of the obstacles put before us. While 2014 provided challenges, we must rise above the fray and continue to advocate for a better healthcare system in the US today and in the future.

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Obama’s Latest Bait and Switch for Docs: Medicaid Payments to be Cut by 40%

As we enter year two of the Affordable Care Act, we have seen many issues arise during implementation.  Through both executive order and executive memorandum, President Obama has unilaterally changed the law more than 100 times in order to advance his own political agenda.  When it became important to publicize enrollment and increased coverage of the uninsured, the President and the ACA provided for an increased payment scale for patients with Medicaid.  With the rapid increase of Medicaid insured patients due to the implementation of the ACA, the administration utilized the increased payments as an incentive to attract more physicians to participate in Medicaid programs.  According to the New York Times, the ACA has resulted in the largest increase in Medicaid covered patients in history–now nearly 20% of all Americans are covered under this plan.  Attracting physicians to cover Medicare patients has been critical in order to meet the demand for access to care and  to adequately cover the newly insured.  Now, unless changes are made this week, Medicaid reimbursements will be cut once again leaving many physicians to wonder if they can continue to treat the increasing numbers of Americans covered thru these programs.

Traditionally, Medicaid has reimbursed physicians at rates significantly lower than Medicare–making practices with large numbers of Medicaid patients financially non viable.  As the ACA was rolled out, a provision provided for significantly better Medicaid payment rates to physicians in order to help provide larger networks of care for the newly insured.  Now, there looms an automatic payment rate cut of nearly 43% for Medicaid payments to primary care physicians–many of these are the same physicians who agreed to expand Medicaid within their practices in order to meet demand.  According to Forbes, traditional Medicaid reimbursement averages just 61% of Medicare reimbursement rates (which is often significantly lower than private insurance rates).  In addition, many Medicaid patients require a disproportionate amount of time and resources from the office–doctors are caught between a “rock and a hard place”–between a moral obligation to treat these patients and a desire to avoid financial ruin.  These patients tend to be sicker, have multiple medical problems and have suffered from a long time lack of preventive care.

Finances are not the only piece of the Medicaid puzzle. Government regulation and paperwork and processing often delays payments to physicians and impacts their ability to run a financially sound business.   Interestingly, a study from 2013 published in Health Affairs suggested that while physicians welcomed an increase in reimbursement rates as incentive to treat Medicaid patients that quicker payment times, reduced paperwork and simplified administrative processes would also need to be a part of any type of reform.  (of course, none of these items were included in the incentive package).

Many primary care physicians stepped up to answer the call for increasing coverage of Medicare patients when the ACA was initially rolled out.  Now, these same physicians are contemplating the need to drop these patients from their clinics with the pending change in reimbursement.  As mentioned above, in addition to lower reimbursement rates, the Medicaid program requires an enormous amount of administrative work in order to file claims and these claims are often paid very late–those running a small practice are forced with more work for less pay and often have to make difficult budgetary decisions in order to  payroll for their staff each week.   While the administration touts the swelling numbers of Medicaid covered patients–nearly 68 million currently–I suspect access to quality care will soon become an issue.  Just as with every other manipulation of the ACA over the last two years, legacy and political agendas have taken precedent over what really should matter–providing quality medical care AND prompt, easy access to care for the formerly uninsured.  In an effort to tout swelling numbers of “covered” Americans, the Obama administration has failed to anticipate the impact of short term financial incentives for primary care physicians to accept increasing numbers of Medicare patients.  Even in states such as California, officials are bracing for a large number of physicians who have announced that they will likely drop out of Medicaid plans if the planned cuts are implemented as scheduled.

It is time for the Obama administration to stop playing political games with our healthcare.  If the mission of the ACA is to provide affordable quality healthcare for all Americans, then we need to ensure that there are quality, dedicated physicians available to provide that care.  The Medicaid “bait and switch” is just one example of our President’s shortsightedness and lack of connection to those dedicated physicians who work tirelessly to ensure that ALL patients have access to care (regardless of insurance type).  It is my hope that the new Congress will engage with the physician community and find real solutions to the US healthcare crisis–and no longer allow the President to place his perceived legacy over the healthcare of those Americans who are in need.

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Image adapted from The Peanuts comic strip by Charles Shultz

The Land of Oz: Engaging Viewers or Selling Snake Oil?

Dr Mehmet Oz, also known by many as America’s Doctor, is a very influential face within American medicine.  An accomplished cardiac surgeon and Columbia University faculty member, Dr Oz has impressive academic credentials.  However, in the last year, Dr Oz has received significant criticism for claims he has made about non traditional medical treatments on his nationally syndicated television show where he has called many of them “revolutionary” or “miracle cures”–many of his statements are without scientific merit and have no basis in traditional evidence based medicine.  Much of this culminated with his voluntary testimony in front of the US Congress this past summer.  During the hearing, Dr Oz was blasted for making sensationalized, misleading statements.  While I believe Dr Oz genuinely cares about helping others improve their health, I do think that he used poor judgement when speaking about these non traditional treatments.

This week, a study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) examined the claims that have been made by Dr Oz and The Doctors syndicated television shows.  In the study, investigators randomly chose 40 episodes of each program and then attempted to find medical evidence for claims made about 80 separate treatments.  What they found was astonishing–only 50% of the therapies had either a study or case report to support the claims that were made by the television doctors.  More concerning was the fact that of the 80 recommendations from the Dr Oz Show, the data supported the claims only 46%.  In fact, nearly 15% of the time the best available evidence actually contradicted the claims that were made by Dr Oz on his show.  The Doctors television program did slightly better with evidence supporting their recommendations 64% of the time.   The investigators concluded that most recommendations from medical talk shows lacked adequate evidence to support their use and that television doctors do not provide adequate information on each treatment and do not disclose any potential conflict of interest.

This particular study has significant implications for both patients and physicians.  As physicians we are constantly confronted by patients who come into to the office to discuss treatments that they may have heard about on television.  We must not only be aware of these therapies but we also have to better educate patients and help them decide if any of the “Dr Oz treatments” are right for them and their disease process. Patients are bombarded with medical recommendations from television which are commonly sensationalized and oversold by television doctors and other well known personalities.  We must caution patients that when phrases such as “miracle cure” and “revolutionary treatment” are used on television when a particular disease or medical problem is discussed that the advice given is more than likely too good to be true.

As a physician that regularly appears on television to provide insight and commentary for medical stories and new medical developments, I am always careful to provide information that is based in fact.  Media personalities have a responsibility to report the truth–when giving opinion, we must be clear that we are in fact, making a statement of opinion that is based on fact and the best available medical evidence.  As physician journalist, I have an even greater responsibility to choose my words carefully–it is part of the American culture that TV appearances give on camera experts increased credibility and believability. While I believe that Dr Oz as well as the physicians who appear on The Doctors syndicated shows have the best of intentions, I do think that their zeal for ratings and viewers may lead to making less than accurate claims.  These shows have great potential–they bring medical issues to the forefront and actually help to engage patients in their own medical care.  We know that patient engagement is critical to improving outcomes–and these types of shows can play an important role.  Rather than reporting on non traditional therapies that have not been studied by randomized controlled clinical trials, television doctors such as Mehmet Oz could make a much larger impact by focusing on ways to prevent disease and reduce obesity among his viewers.  For now, viewers must continue to question medical claims made by Dr Oz and other television doctors.  And physicians who play prominent roles in the media must choose their words carefully and ensure that accurate, data driven information is provided to viewers–leave the snake oil at home.

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The Supreme Court Tackles Social Media: The First Amendment and the Rule of Law on the Internet

Social Media and the internet have often been compared to the “Wild West” at times when it comes to the posting of ideas, opinions and beliefs.  There has been very little regulation of what is posted and how it is utilized–which may actually be a good thing.  However, many of us have learned (often the hard way) that many posts on Facebook, Twitter or other social media sites can be taken out of context and misinterpreted by the masses whom the information may not have been intended for.  As physicians who are active on social media we have even more to consider when taking to the internet.  We must be very careful to choose our words for posts wisely and make sure that we leave very little open to interpretation.  We must be mindful of the legal implications of what we say and do online and must be mindful of patient confidentiality issues as well as standards for professional conduct.  Medical boards across the country have developed guidelines for physicians on social media and academic papers have been published on the subject in the Annals of Internal Medicine.  Now, even the nation’s highest court is venturing into the regulation of social media and the intricacies and legal implications of both the subjective and objective interpretation of online posts.

This week, the Supreme Court will be hearing arguments concerning the classification of social media posts as “free speech.” Unlike face to face interactions, cyber interactions can often be interpreted many different ways.  Social media posts can lack context, facial expression and inflection.  Last year a man was sent to prison for posting threats to harm his estranged wife on Facebook.  His posts were absolutely violent and inappropriate in nature and–when simply read out loud–conveyed a sense of intent.  While no crime was committed and no act of violence occurred the defendant was prosecuted and convicted based on a Federal statute involving the criminality of the interstate communication of threats to harm others.  The defendant argued that he was simply writing a “rap” on his Facebook page, expressing his feelings and had no real intention of harming his wife or acting on any of the perceived threats.  However, the interpretation of these comments by the estranged wife and others constituted a criminal offense and resulted in his imprisonment.  While I do not in any way condone this type of online behavior and speech, I do think that it may greatly influence rules the internet “playground” in the future.

Because of its national attention and the fact that arguments will be held in front of the nation’s highest court, this case will have lasting impact on social media and the classification of what is considered free speech in cyberspace.  As outlined in an article published in the New York Times earlier this year, at issue is whether or not posts on social media should be interpreted “objectively” or “subjectively”.  If you interpret the threatening words objectively, you may conclude that the threat is real and that most reasonable individuals would see this as an imminent danger–however, as the counsel for the defendant argues, if you subjectively interpret the words you may be convinced that it was simply the musings of an artist creating a poem or a rap song in response to a life crisis and posed no danger.

Regardless of the outcome of this Supreme Court case, it should serve as a wake up call to all of us who are active on Social Media.  We must continue protect our rights to free speech and expression on the internet.  However, we must also be mindful of our words and how they may be interpreted by others.  Social media is an important tool for all of us to use in order to positively impact others and influence opinion–certainly free speech is protected but we must take care not to abuse these protections.  The individual involved in the criminal case–regardless of intent–showed poor judgement in his public posting and is now dealing with the consequences of his decisions.  However,  I certainly hope that the Supreme Court carefully considers the impact of any opinion they may render in this case. The internet and social media must remain a place for creative expression and innovation–too much regulation and any limits to our right to free speech in cyberspace would have serious negative consequences for all of us.  This case should serve to remind us of one important fact–As physicians and healthcare professionals active on social media, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard of online behavior and continue to remain professional in all that we do online.

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