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Demystifying Medicine One Month at a Time

Wallet X-Ray

Have you ever heard the term ‘wallet biopsy?’

A wallet biopsy is what occurs in U.S. health care when you or a loved one show up with a medical complaint to seek treatment.

From the emergency department to the inpatient hospital, to the doctor’s office or the procedure suite—at any location where an American might receive health care, you’re subject to a wallet biopsy.

Health care is a business. An expensive one. And the beast has to be fed—not only to keep the lights on, but also to buy the latest equipment and pay the folks that provide the care.

In a recent piece for Kaiser Health News, journalist Phil Galewitz updates us on how the U.S. practice of wallet biopsy has morphed into wallet x-ray.

The idea is longstanding: grateful patients (with financial means) have always looked for ways to share their good fortune with the medical establishments (and professionals) that have treated them.

Galewitz’ piece suggests that the practice of seeking out potential donors has ramped up in intensity: large health care enterprises (often university-based or affiliated) are performing financial background checks on patients they deem to be potential donors—and then aggressively wooing them.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this—it just smells a bit fishy. And it implies that if you’re not a grateful patient, or in financial position to be one, that you may wind up getting a bit less…er, attention? Fewer amenities? Less TLC?

Check out the article, which also ran in the NY Times, and let us know what you think of the specialty of wallet radiology.

Biggest Health Stories of 2018

Happy New Year, GlassHospital readers.

The year’s end provides the opportunity to reflect on the year that was.

These few stories stuck out as some of the most impactful of the year–and what they portend for the future:

1. Gene editing: In November, at the International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, Chinese biologist He Jiankui shocked the world with his announcement that he had manipulated at least two embryos to change a trait (or more??) in twin baby girls. The reaction was mostly critical, including calls for a moratorium on the use of CRISPR gene-editing in humans.

The upshot: stories like this will be with us for the foreseeable future. While the power of CRISPR to remedy harmful genetic conditions seems hopeful and fantastic, there’s a whole history of eugenics movements that should guide us to avoid the hubris of selecting for ‘desirable’ traits in humans.

2. #ThisisOurLane: Also in November, an NRA staffer (to this point unknown) tweeted a response to an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine recommending that doctors ask patients about gun use and safety as a health measure. The tweet infamously suggested, “someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane.” This was met with a firestorm of response from doctors across the spectrum, particularly those that care for gunshot victims (ER docs, surgeons, etc.) who tweeted under the hashtag #ThisIsOurLane.

The upshot: It’s hard to quantify the cumulative impact of the conflict, which is sure to go on, but the Justice Department did just ban bump stocks.

3. Bill of the Month: NPR, in conjunction with Kaiser Health News, started a monthly series examining outrageous and inexplicable health care bills. It’s been one of their (repeatedly) biggest stories of the year, as exemplified by the (insured!) Texas teacher who faced a $108,951 hospital bill after treatment for a heart attack (he was taken by ambulance to an out-of-network hospital–hardly the time, it seems, to price compare).

The good news: His bill was lowered to $332 after the glare of national media attention.

Alex says, “I ALWAYS look to GlassHospital for keen insights.”

# This is Our Lane

Dr. Judy Melinek

The American College of Physicians recently released an updated position paper on “Reducing Firearm Injuries and Deaths from Gun Violence in the United States.”

The College’s recommendations center around the notion that gun violence should be treated as a public health epidemic, and that it’s well within the purview of doctors and other health professionals to ask their patients about firearms—namely, do you own them, and if so, are they safely stored? Are they kept in a place where your children can’t get to them?

This makes sense to me, but I’m a doctor. I don’t hunt, nor have I ever owned a gun.

The College’s position makes some very uncomfortable—it’s not a medical issue, they say. This is about personal behavior. Choice. Individual rights.

The NRA sent a tweet in response to the position paper:

Told to “stay in our lane,” doctors have loudly declared #ThisisOurLane, and now have a Twitter handle and thousands upon thousands of tweets stating that it’s medical professionals who care for gunshot victims. Many sent pictures of themselves spattered with blood from taking care of gunshot victims in emergency rooms and operating suites.

One doctor, a forensic pathologist and medical examiner in Oakland, tweeted back to the NRA:

Understandably, Dr. Melinek’s tweet went viral, and she was interviewed the world over—from Africa to Australia—even on Amanpour.

Dr. Melinek was kind enough to speak with me—our interview occurred recently for #MedicalMonday on KWGS-Public Radio Tulsa, and drew a tremendous response.

Like Dr. Melinek, I find it frustrating that the NRA’s strong advocacy has had such a chilling effect on research into gun safety and gun violence in the U.S.

Shutting down attempts to gather more detailed information is a bully tactic of someone or something afraid of truth. How can people make informed decisions without really knowing the effects of gun ownership and use?

Advocate for gun rights all you want. But let the research be done.

Questioning a Health Care Sacred Cow

If you’ve worked in U.S. health care for any length of time, you’ve no doubt lived through a period of impending ‘inspection’ by the Joint Commission at your hospital or health care organization. Stress levels amongst all staff inevitably rise in the runup.

Everyone needs to look sharp, have their protocols down, and most importantly, where to find organizational policy information if it’s not available by quick memory retrieval.

One of the 800 lb. gorillas of the U.S. health care world, the JC (as it’s known) audits, inspects and accredits nearly twenty-one thousand U.S. health care enterprises.

I was always under the impression that the JC had a complete monopoly in its market–that is, if your health care organization wanted to be accredited (the vital ‘seal of approval’ for your organization’s public relations and safety standards, but also key for reimbursement through CMS) than you had to play ball with them.

In 2012, one of the hospitals at which I worked decided to go in a different direction, choosing instead to work with the accrediting agency DNV, which has its origins in the world of Norwegian shipping. For real. As in, ocean liners need a ton of regulation and safety standards so that they don’t run into each other and sink. We’re always comparing health care to airlines, right? Maybe it’s not such a big stretch after all.

Like most of my physician colleagues who’d lived through years of JC audits, we were a bit flabbergasted: “You mean the JC actually has competition?” As it turns out, the JC only controls a mere 80% of the market. Turns out it’s only a 785 lb. gorilla.

Even though this whole issue is a little bit “inside baseball,” I wrote an essay about it for NPR. My reasoning was that there’s always value in questioning monolithic conformity. And I had been really surprised to learn that there was actually competition to the JC.

Now comes a study in BMJ, led by Harvard researcher Ashish Jha. The study compared more than 4000 U.S. hospitals and the outcomes generated for 15 common medical conditions and six common surgical conditions between the years 2014-2017 in a Medicare population data set of more than four million patients.

What did the study find?

Interestingly, there was no statistical difference in 30-day mortality or readmission rates in the patients that were seen at JC-accredited hospitals vs. those at hospitals accredited by ‘other independent organizations.’ There was a slight but not statistically significant benefit in mortality and readmission rates for JC-accreditation vs. hospitals reviewed and accredited by state survey agencies.

The study raises the reasonable question: if there aren’t patient outcome differences in hospitals accredited by JC vs. those accredited by either state review (government) or other independent agencies (other privates), then should the JC enjoy such a massive industry dominance?

After all–many health care leaders cite the JC’s regulatory and inspection processes as burdensome, and argue that the whole preparation game and citation-fixing business is expensive and distracting from the core hospital mission: taking care of people.

Other JC critics cite the fact that the organization is less than optimally transparent, electing to keep its inspection reports private, despite the fact that many health care enterprises flagged for violations are able to stay accredited.

Congress has even begun an investigation into possible lax oversight.

Apparently Jha’s work has struck a chord, as there was some notable media coverage about the BMJ piece. For one, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about it, which it kept in front of its paywall, while noting that hospitals pay on average $18,000 for an inspection and annual fees of up to $37,000 to the Commission.

Cardiologist and prolific blogger John Mandrola also wrote an opinion piece titled “Joint Commission Accreditation: Mission Not Accomplished.” In his piece, Mandrola compares JC accreditation to medications or surgery that fail to live up to evidence-based standards and subsequently fall out of practice. He concludes, “If the JC’s brand of accreditation can’t show benefit, than it too needs to be de-adopted.”

Having learned that there’s an emerging marketplace of agencies equipped to inspect hospitals and health care enterprises it seems there’s an opportunity here: Perhaps the agency offering the greatest value in terms of cost, reporting, and public accountability will triumph against a behemoth that seems too complacent and entrenched in its ways.

Medical Marijuana: Not Up to the Standard

This year Oklahoma voters made a clear choice to legalize medical marijuana, joining thirty other states that permit cannabis for medicinal use.

Unsurprisingly, immediately in the vote’s aftermath, patients began asking me to ‘prescribe’ medical marijuana licenses, as the new law stipulates users must have as a precondition for legal purchase. The new law does not, however, specify qualifying diagnoses for which medical marijuana might be clinically indicated.

My answer thus far has been, “Not now. Likely never.”

This has not been a popular response. One patient looked at me as if I’d put a lump of coal in his Halloween bag.

I’m not a fan of medical marijuana for several reasons. The main issue is the lack of proven medical efficacy. I know there are thousands of anecdotes from people whose pain or anorexia has been diminished by marijuana–and I’m genuinely glad for them. But I’d like to see better powered controlled trials of cannabis products head-to-head with accepted therapeutic agents. Having the FDA weigh in on marijuana’s safety and efficacy would also go a long way toward legitimizing pot’s medicinal use.

Another major problem is smoking the stuff. If we had proven, standardized dosing of edibles, I’d be more supportive of medicinal use. But smoking anything–tobacco, marijuana, vapor juice–is not a healthy practice, and one I counsel patients to avoid. I hear the arguments about the purity of pot and how it’s ‘more natural’ than manufactured tobacco products. The bottom line is that inhaling burning plant matter into your lungs is a terrible idea–regardless of the herb.

If voters want to legalize marijuana for recreational use, I have no objection–provided we put in place a legal framework to make sure that people don’t get hurt. Standardized dosing and measures to assure product consistency would be integral. And we’d need adequate enforcement to make sure that people aren’t impaired when at work or in other situations in which their marijuana use could jeopardize others.

Putting doctors in the middle of what amounts to a political, legal, social, and economic debate steers the medical profession in a race to the bottom–and let’s face it–our profession has enough problems already without being the gatekeepers of grass.

Remember that marijuana is still scheduled by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a Class I narcotic, defined as having “no accepted medical use and high potential for abuse.” So even though medical weed is now legal in my state, I have no interest in violating or abetting violations of federal law.

In fact, as it turns out, since I work at a university, our legal counsel is of the opinion that no provider in our system shall recommend marijuana, since our institution has numerous federal grants and funding streams and must therefore comply with all federal rules and regulations.

Some have suggested that given our national opioid epidemic, marijuana can serve as a safer alternative for pain control. Since most cannabis is homegrown, and where legalized a tax revenue source–this does make medical marijuana a more appealing alternative to propping up the seemingly ubiquitous heroin/fentanyl drug cartels.

This argument makes pot part of a harm reduction strategy, which I’d be more supportive of if the evidence were stronger.

Right now I see the pot economy as a Wild West with hundreds of entrepreneurs and medical professionals looking to stake claims in this new quasi-legal economy.

Get back to me when we have more state/federal legal congruence and clarity on the stuff’s true medical benefits.

This essay originally appeared as a Doximity Op-(m)ed.

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