Archive for the ‘Residency’ Category

The Hahnemann Disaster

Though the news at first stayed local in Philadelphia and the northeast, it’s gaining traction nationwide. ZDoggMD is on it. Bernie Sanders held a rally.

What happened? The venerable Hahnemann University Hospital, the main teaching hospital for Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, is bankrupt and will soon close its doors after more than 170 years as a safety-net hospital serving inner city patients.

Why should we care? After all, there are other teaching hospitals in the immediate area with capacity to absorb the patients, and they had several months’ warning to prepare.

We should care for many reasons, but I’ll start with the plight of the 570 residents and fellows who are being displaced from their jobs. Getting a residency position in the first place is a perilous process – there aren’t enough spots for all the graduating medical students who want them. Only 79% of the more than 38,000 applicants in 2019 snagged a first-year or internship position in a residency program.

So the Hahnemann residents – the “Orphans from HUH”, as they’ve started to call themselves – are scrambling on their own to find new jobs at a time when most residents are thankfully settling in to the new academic year. There’s no organized program to help them.

Even for the residents who’ve already found new positions, there are other boulders in the road. To begin with, they haven’t been released yet. They can’t start their new jobs and the Medicare funding for their positions is still tied up in bankruptcy court.

They’re still at work, wandering around a nearly empty Hahnemann with only a handful of patients left. The ER isn’t admitting any new patients and will shut down completely on August 16. The labor-and-delivery ward has closed. The new interns aren’t gaining any real experience and will be lagging behind their peers wherever they go.

“Doctors have been writing notes to update plans of care and people have come in as part of the liquidation to take away their computers,” a third-year internal medicine resident named Tom Sibert, MD, told Medscape reporter Marcia Frelick last week.

Tom Sibert? Any relation? Why yes; he’s my son. You can understand, I’m sure, why I went into full-blown mama lion fury when the Hahnemann situation blew up, and why I was beside myself with worry until he locked in an acceptance to an excellent program where he’ll finish his training.

At risk for deportation

I’m still indignant and angry, though, over the chaos that reigns for the rest of the Hahnemann orphans. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, 55 of them hold J-1 visas and could be deported if they can’t secure a position in an accredited program within 30 days of the hospital’s closure. Interns are in an especially tough position if they hold a “preliminary” spot in medicine or surgery without a guaranteed residency position to follow. The ACGME, the accrediting organization for residency programs, says it is “acutely aware of the uncertainty and stress”, but “is not directly involved in resident or fellow placement or decisions related to funding.”

Residents and fellows who can’t secure a position near Philadelphia will face moving expenses, penalties for breaking their leases, and possibly the substantial cost of obtaining a license in another state. The Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECGME) is offering some help. But for many residents and fellows – whether international or American graduates – who may be the sole supporters of their families, and often are heavily in debt from student loans, these costs will be devastating.

Residency programs across the country need to pick up the phone and help these residents find new positions. Too many are taking the attitude that their programs are already full and it’s not their problem. The ones that are stepping up – like UCLA and Creighton – deserve our gratitude. The others should realize that the Hahnemann residents are innocent victims who need help. They should realize also that their hospitals aren’t immune from the financial stresses that finally broke Hahnemann – more about that in a moment.

Meanwhile, Drexel University announced that about 40 percent of the 800 physicians and clinical staff will lose their current jobs, including 245 physicians who’ve received severance notices. Tower Health is working with Drexel to try to place employees in affiliated community hospitals, and is planning to increase its residency positions, but does not offer all the accredited programs it would need to accommodate all the Hahnemann personnel.

How did this disaster happen?

You can be sure it didn’t happen overnight. Hahnemann has been on shaky financial footing for decades. Tenet Healthcare Corp. acquired Hahnemann in 1998 following the bankruptcy of Allegheny Health Education and Research Foundation, but couldn’t make a financial go of it either.

In January 2018, Tenet sold the hospital to the private American Academic Health System LLC, an affiliate of Paladin Healthcare. Though new CEO Joel Freedman had prior experience in turning distressed hospitals around, this spring he announced that Hahnemann was losing $3-5 million a month and began layoffs. The official decision to close was announced on June 26.

Hahnemann’s payer mix was always its biggest problem, with more Medicare and Medicaid patients than its competitors. The bulk of admissions came through the emergency department, and it attracted few of the elective surgical cases that provide key revenue for successful hospitals. No rescue offers have come from the state or federal governments, and a bailout seems unlikely.

If you follow healthcare financial trends, the Hahnemann bankruptcy comes as no surprise. Hospitals are going bankrupt by the dozen. The Health Care Services Distress Research Index has experienced “record or near-record highs in each of the past eight quarters”, and is up 305 percent since 2010, which is when the rest of the economy started to turn around after the Great Recession. Since January 1, Becker’s Hospital Review reports that 12 other hospitals in addition to Hahnemann filed for bankruptcy. Dozens of others undoubtedly are in distress due to “reimbursement challenges”, the cost of new electronic health records, and dwindling inpatient volumes.

Just for clarity – no hospital or medical practice can stay afloat on what CMS pays, regardless of what Bernie Sanders thinks. Private insurance payments make up the difference. When private insurance payments shrink, patients can’t pay their high deductibles; and when outpatient centers pick up a growing share of revenue-generating surgical procedures, hospitals are at risk for failure – even teaching hospitals that you might think are too big or too important to fail.

Meanwhile, it’s likely that Hahnemann will be razed and some more profitable enterprise – a hotel, perhaps, or condominiums – will rise where a hospital once stood. The diaspora of its residents and fellows is just beginning.

Once again, it’s Physician Anesthesiologists Week, and it’s a great time to celebrate our specialty’s many successes and accomplishments.

But we’re wasting an opportunity if we don’t also take this week to consider the state of the specialty today, and what it could or should mean to be a physician anesthesiologist 20 or 30 years from now.

There is no question that a seismic shift is underway in healthcare. Look at how many private anesthesiology groups have been bought out by—or lost contracts to—large groups and corporations; look at how many hospitals have gone bankrupt or been absorbed into large integrated health systems. Mergers like CVS with Aetna are likely to redefine care delivery networks. Where does a physician anesthesiologist fit into this new world?

An even better question to ask is this: Is your group or practice running pretty much as it did 20 years ago? If so, then my guess is that you are in for a rude awakening sometime soon. One of two scenarios may be in play:  either your leadership is running out the clock until retirement and in no mood to change, or your leadership hasn’t yet been able to convince your group that it can no longer practice in the same expensive, antiquated model. As one academic chair said ruefully, at a recent meeting, “They’re like frogs being slowly boiled. They just don’t feel what’s happening.”

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In the interests of full disclosure, I acknowledge with delight that I have a non-time limited board certificate from the American Board of Anesthesiology (ABA), issued before the year 2000. I can just say “no” to recertification.

The more I learn about the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) and its highly paid board members, the more disillusioned I’ve become. It’s easy to see why so many physicians today have concluded that ABMS Maintenance of Certification (MOC) is a program designed to perpetuate the existence of boards and maximize their income, at the expense primarily of younger physicians.

Lifelong continuing education is an obligation that we accepted when we became physicians, recognizing that we owe it to ourselves and our patients. That is not at issue here. We have an implicit duty to read the literature, keep up with new developments, and update our technical skills.

The real danger of MOC is this:  It is rapidly evolving into a compulsory badge that you might soon need to wear if you want to renew your medical license, maintain hospital privileges, and even keep your status as a participating physician in insurance networks. If physicians don’t act now to prevent this evolution from going further, as a profession we will be caught in a costly, career-long MOC trap. The only other choice will be to leave the practice of medicine altogether, as many already are doing.

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This column ran first in the online magazine for medical students, “in-Training”

In case you were wondering — robots won’t replace anesthesiologists any time soon, regardless of what the Washington Post may have to say. There will definitely be a place for feedback and closed-loop technology applications in sedation and in general anesthesia, but for the foreseeable future we will still need humans.

I’ve been practicing anesthesiology for 30 years now, in the operating rooms of major hospitals. Since 1999 I’ve worked at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, a large tertiary care private hospital in Los Angeles.

So what do I think today’s medical students should know about my field?

A “lifestyle” profession?

For starters, I have to laugh when I hear anesthesiology mentioned with dermatology and radiology as one of the “lifestyle” professions. Certainly there are outpatient surgery centers where the hours are predictable and there are no nights, weekends, or holidays on duty. The downside? You’re giving sedation for lumps, bumps, and endoscopies a lot of the time, which can be tedious. You may start to lose your skills in line placement, intubation, and emergency management.

Occasionally, though, if you work in an outpatient center, you’ll be asked to give anesthesia for inappropriately scheduled cases on patients who are really too high-risk to have surgery there. These patients slip through the cracks and there they are, in your preoperative area. Canceling the case costs everyone money and makes everyone unhappy. Yet if you proceed and something goes wrong, you can’t even get your hands on a unit of blood for transfusion. To me, working in an outpatient center is like working close to a real hospital but not close enough — a mixture of boredom and potential disaster.

The path I chose is to focus on high-risk inpatient cases. I especially enjoy thoracic surgery, with the challenges of complex patients and one-lung ventilation. You can bring me the sickest patient in the hospital setting — where I have all the monitoring techniques, resuscitation drugs, blood products, bronchoscopes, and anything else I might need — and I’ll be perfectly happy. The downside: a practice like mine tends to be stressful and tiring, and I never know the exact time that the day will end. Hospitals that offer Level I trauma and high-risk obstetric care are required to have anesthesiologists in house 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There’s no perfect world.

What type of person is happy as an anesthesiologist?

Even though women comprised 47% of the US medical school graduates in 2014, only about 33% of the applicants for anesthesiology residency were women. I’d be interested to hear from all of you as to why fields such as pediatrics and ob-gyn tend to be so much more attractive to women, because I genuinely don’t understand it. But I do have a few thoughts as to the type of person who is happy or unhappy as an anesthesiologist.

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We’ve run amok with wearing gloves in the hospital.  And by “we” I mean every healthcare worker in sight.  I see people putting on gloves before they’ll give a patient a clean warm blanket.  This is not only ridiculous, it’s actually harmful.  Here’s why.

We learned the hard way in the 1980s, during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, that the HIV virus and other potentially lethal microorganisms are carried in blood and body fluids. The Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization developed the concept of “universal precautions”, which applies during all patient-care activities that may involve exposure to blood, body fluids, mucous membranes and non-intact skin.  Observing “universal precautions” means that you always wear gloves in those situations because you may not know ahead of time if a patient carries HIV, hepatitis, or any other infectious disease.  You don’t want to get infected yourself, or inadvertently infect another patient.

But when did “universal precautions” come to mean that you have to wear gloves before you touch your patient at all?

The downside of hand hygiene campaigns is that they discourage us from normal human contact with our patients.  If you’re worried that the hand hygiene police will detect a deviation from protocol and report you to your hospital’s Infectious Disease authorities, there’s an easy way to avoid the problem. Steer clear of the patient.  And with the advent of the ubiquitous electronic health record, doctors and nurses are under tremendous time pressure to complete all the required data entry fields and move patients through the system.  When you think about it, not touching the patient saves time that could be more efficiently spent at the computer keyboard.  There’s a win-win situation, you might think.  But is it really?

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