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Demystifying Medicine One Week at a Time

Category: patient experience (page 1 of 29)

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.

Costs of Care Redux: Extremis Edition

It’s not new to GlassHospital readers, but coverage of outrageous health care bills in the United States is having a bit of a moment.

At least two major news sources, NPR and Vox, are running series in which people who have received bills for health care that seem outrageous can share them with investigative journalists and get help.

Based on the success of her book An American Sickness, doctor/journalist/editor Elisabeth Rosenthal and Kaiser Health News are working with NPR to produce one of these stories for web and radio every month.

Story #1 told of a urine test (screening for drugs) that was billed at $17,850. This is not a joke.

Story #2 compared the difference in price between the same CT scan performed at a hospital vs. a freestanding radiology center. [Hint: hospitals are MUCH more expensive places to get tests done.] The same CT scan of a man’s abdomen performed at a local hospital was billed at thirty-three times the price of the outpatient center.

The most recent story featured a disabled Oklahoma librarian, who had surgery on her arthritic foot. When she had sticker shock at the charge of more than $115,000 for her surgery and three day hospital stay, she did a smart thing and asked for an itemized bill. The most outrageous finding? A charge of $15,076 for four tiny screws implanted in her foot.

The moral of these stories is a) hospitals and laboratories can egregiously mark up their prices, without warning, clarity, or fairness; b) if you are faced with such a bill, you simply MUST ask for an itemized list of charges if you want any hope of contesting them.

If you think charges for actual care can be outrageous, how about being charged for NOT getting care?

Vox tells one woman’s story of fainting, going to a nearby Emergency Department, then declining to be treated. Why did she decline? Fear of an exorbitant bill.

So what happened?

After being given an ice pack and a bandage, she declined treatment, went home, and subsequently received a bill for $5,751.

Minister of Loneliness

U.K. Minister of Loneliness Tracey Crouch

The United Kingdom has appointed a Minister of Loneliness, according to several news reports this month.

In announcing the appointment, British Prime Minister Theresa May said

I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones — people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with,

As more people live longer than ever, loneliness is compounded by physical infirmities that make social interactions difficult.

As a doctor, I consider loneliness a genuine risk to good health, even if the title of said minister reminded me of Monty Python’s famed “Ministry of Silly Walks.” (Apparently, I was not alone in this thought.)


@GlassHospital

“The Future, Mr. Gittes. The Future!”*

The announcement of the proposed takeover of Aetna (a health insurer) by CVS (a drugstore chain calling itself a “pharmacy innovation company”) has become a big news story. What does it mean for U.S. health care? More importantly, how will it impact us as individual patients (what some like to call “customers”)?

I don’t know.

I’m not sure anyone has clarity on this yet. We’ll have to wait and see if the deal goes through, and then how the behemoth merged company brings efficiency or monopolistic pricing to the market.

Or both.

But if you want some other visions of the health care future, think about a hospital without patients as is detailed in this article from Politico.

Mercy Virtual, which opened in 2015, calls itself “the world’s first and only facility of its kind.” The 125,000 sq. foot building houses health professionals who remotely monitor and consult for dozens of hospitals and ICUs. It’s all done telephonically, er, remotely, errr, virtually.

[Another article in that same Politico issue makes the case against hospital beds, on the basis of bed rest being counterproductive for nearly every medical condition we treat. I used to get frustrated watching people ‘decondition’ while laying around in bed. It’s a serious problem, especially in the elderly.]

Which leads directly to another future question: is the age of the virtualist upon us? Yes, as predicted in a recent JAMA column by Dr. Michael Nochomovitz, who makes the case for a medical specialty devoted to care of patients through technology.

It may be the way of the future, but it sure makes performing physical exams harder.

These times. They are a changin’.


*Chinatown. Noah Cross (played by John Huston) to private investigator J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson). 

Solid Reporting on Liquid Gold

A thousand or more cups of urine arrive most nights by express mail to Comprehensive Pain Specialists clinics. The samples are tested for narcotics and other drugs, both legal and illegal. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)

In a beautifully reported investigative piece, Fred Schulte and Elizabeth Lucas of Kaiser Health News detail the explosive growth of the urine drug testing industry in the U.S.

We’ve written about this once before (more than 4 years ago!), but the growth of the industry fueled by taxpayer dollars (Medicare payment for drug testing) appears to be continuing unabated.

In this new piece, Schulte and Lucas do an expose on an outfit called Comprehensive Pain Specialists, a physician-owned outpatient pain management practice with 54 clinics across 10 states in the southeast U.S.

Let me be clear that CPS is not being singled out for malfeasance — rather, the point of the article is that they are emblematic of a huge surge in Medicare spending for expensive urine drug tests — many of which may be unnecessary.

Ay, there’s the rub. From the piece:

     …there are virtually no national standards regarding who gets tested, for which drugs and how often. Medicare has spent tens of millions of dollars on tests to detect drugs that presented minimal abuse danger for most patients, according to arguments made by government lawyers in court cases that challenge the standing orders to test patients for drugs. Payments have surged for urine tests for street drugs such as cocaine, PCP and ecstasy, which seldom have been detected in tests done on pain patients. In fact, court records show some of those tests showed up positive just 1 percent of the time.

The other thing that has government watchdogs and other observers worried is that for many pain specialists, the lion’s share of their revenue is earned by these drug tests. Remember, reasons to order these tests are twofold:

  1. Make sure patients ARE taking the drugs that you are prescribing (therefore suggesting that said drugs are not being diverted–e.g. sold on the street).
  2. Make sure patients AREN’T taking drugs of abuse (which for many pain clinics is a violation of the clinic-patient ‘pain management contract’).

As one government attorney was quoted:

“We’re focused on the fact that many physicians are making more money on testing than treating patients,” said Jason Mehta, an assistant U.S. attorney in Jacksonville, Fla. “It is troubling to see providers test everyone for every class of drugs every time they come in.”

The excellent bar graph attached below is included with the KHN story– and clearly demonstrates the trend. What are your thoughts?

 

 

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