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Demystifying Medicine One Month at a Time

Category: patient experience (page 1 of 30)

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.”

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.

Doximity

Have you heard of Doximity? There’s no reason why you would, unless you’re in the medical world.

Think of it as LinkedIn for doctors and other health care pros. Launched in 2011, Doximity now claims that more than 70% of U.S. physicians are members. If it’s true, that’s a pretty impressive number/captive audience.

They started an authors’ program, where medical pundits offer monthly columns.

My focus has always been on demystifying medicine for non-medical audiences, but I want to see if I can broaden the audience a bit.

My first column was a topic I’ve broached here before: how hospitals go quiet on weekends, which seems nonsensical to me. You can read it here.

The second monthly column just went up; it’s an exploration of why so much dialysis in the U.S. for people with end-stage renal disease (i.e. kidney failure) is of the variety known as “hemodialysis” as opposed to “peritoneal dialysis.” HD mostly involves patients going to centers three times a week for 3-4 hour sessions–which makes maintaining employment darn near impossible.

PD occurs at night, at home, and interestingly it works better (fewer side effects and better longevity) and it’s cheaper overall. So why do only 10% of dialysis patients use it?

In a word, money.

But the good news is that’s changing. Expect to see a significant increase in peritoneal dialysis in the next 5 years–from 10% of patients with end-stage renal disease, to 20% or more. You can read about it here.

End of Life Rallies

Let’s say your loved one is at the end of life. She’s 84, with advanced cancer that is no longer treatable.

A decision has been made to put her in hospice–which is a level of care more than an actual location. [Most hospice actually occurs at home.]

The patient waxes in and out of consciousness, sometimes lucid, but mostly not.

While no one is ready for her to die, this end-of-life process brings some solace–it’s what your loved one has indicated she wants, and the time at home without aggressive, often fruitless, medical treatment, allows other friends and family members to make visits and share stories.

One afternoon, she perks up and asks for a sandwich. This is surprising, because she’s barely eaten anything in the last ten days. But we get her that sandwich!

She nibbles at it, happy, but doesn’t eat much of it.

That afternoon, she’s talkative and engaged with others in a way that she hasn’t heretofore seemed able to muster.

Is she making a comeback? Healing from her illness?

More likely, this is what is called “rallying,” and while there’s ample anecdote of its occurrence in situations like this, we have very little understanding of it.

How does it happen? As a recent NYTimes article stated:

Physiologically, experts believe that the mind becomes more responsive when a hospice patient is taken off the extensive fluids and medications such as chemotherapy that have toxic effects. Stopping the overload restores the body to more of its natural balance, and the dying briefly become more like their old selves.

It’s deceiving because we think our loved one is getting better. And while she’s more like her old self, unfortunately, it’s not bound to last. Which is why it can be upsetting for some.

Spiritually, some suggest that the dying loved one is simply readying for transition–making sure that earthly concerns will be attended to in her absence and that final goodbyes may be uttered.

I’ve seen it–and especially in elders afflicted with dementia, it can be heartening to see them rally and seem to know what’s going on–accepting their impending death, and engaging with their loved ones before drifting off.

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