Posts Tagged ‘Obamacare’

Dr. Sandeep Jauhar, a cardiologist, believes with good reason that many physicians have become “like everybody else:  insecure, discontented and anxious about the future.”  In a recent, widely-circulated column in the Wall Street Journal, “Why Doctors Are Sick of Their Profession,” he explains how medicine has become simply a job, not a calling, for many physicians; how their pay has declined, how the majority now say they wouldn’t advise their children to enter the medical profession, and how this malaise can’t be good for patients.

Dr. Jauhar gets it right in many ways, but the solutions he recommends miss their mark completely.

I was 100% in accord with Dr. Jauhar when he argued that “there are many measures of success in medicine:  income, of course, but also creating attachments with patients, making a difference in their lives and providing good care while responsibly managing limited resources.”

The next paragraph, though, I read with astonishment.  Does Dr. Jauhar really believe that publicizing surgeons’ mortality rates or physicians’ readmission rates can be “incentive schemes” that will reduce physician burnout?  Does he seriously think that “giving rewards for patient satisfaction” will put the joy back into practicing medicine?

If so, I’m afraid he doesn’t understand the problem that he set out to solve.

The truth behind “quality” metrics

There is no question that some physicians are inherently more talented, more dedicated, and more skilled than others.  In every hospital, if you speak to staff members privately, they’ll tell you which surgeon to see for a slipped disk, a kidney transplant, or breast cancer.  They’ll tell you which of the anesthesiologists they trust most, and which cardiologist they would recommend to someone with chest pain.  But none of these recommendations are based on simplistic metrics like readmission rates or even mortality rates.  They are based on observations over time of the physicians’ ability, integrity, and conscientiousness–all of which are tough to quantify.

Let’s take, for example, a common operation such as laparoscopic cholecystectomy:  removal of the gallbladder using cameras and instruments inserted through small incisions in the abdomen.  This is a procedure which most general surgeons perform often, with few complications.

When complications occur, there are almost always factors involved other than surgical error.  Patients with diabetes are more likely to develop wound infections, for instance.  Surgery on patients who have had prior abdominal operations may take longer and could cause bleeding or damage to other internal organs because of scar tissue.  Morbid obesity and advanced age are risk factors too.

The surgeon whose mortality rates are higher, or whose patients are more likely to be readmitted to the hospital, may be dealing with a much different patient population from the surgeon with the lowest rates.  An inner-city hospital may admit more patients as emergency cases, in more advanced stages of disease.

It’s difficult for statistics to reflect accurately the dramatic differences among patients that affect surgical outcome.  A noncompliant patient who doesn’t fill prescriptions and follow instructions is more likely to have problems, independent of the experience and skill of the surgeon.  Trying to distinguish among surgeons with “outcomes data” will only result in more surgeons refusing to operate on high-risk patients.

Read the Full Article

Wait. Who’s burned out?

How the Affordable Care Act is worsening physician burnout, and why women physicians may be at even higher risk

To the literal-minded, burning out is the fate of light bulbs and matches.  But whether you read the popular press or medical journals today, you’re likely to find writers who are deeply concerned about “physician burnout”.

What defines “physician burnout”, and who exactly is suffering from it?  Is burnout an actual clinical syndrome, a slang term connoting fatigue and boredom, or a hazy combination of the two?  Which medical specialties have the highest rates of burnout, and are men or women physicians more susceptible?  The more you read, the more you realize how much pop psychology and sloppy language are clouding an important issue.

A perfect example of murky logic comes to us courtesy of Dr. Danielle Ofri, who wrote a recent piece for Time called “The Epidemic of Disillusioned Doctors”.  She claims that young women physicians who work in salaried primary care positions are more “resilient” than other doctors, and less likely to become disillusioned about medicine.

Now disillusionment and burnout aren’t identical concepts.  You can be quite disillusioned about the politics of medicine, and pessimistic about the future of private practice, while you take care of your patients every day with dedication and enthusiasm.

But in Dr. Ofri’s view, disillusionment and burnout are twin states of mind, and they are the harbingers of medical errors, substance abuse and depression.  The doctors she considers least likely to suffer such problems are those in her own demographic subset.  “The newer generation of female, salaried, primary-care doctors have the most optimistic outlook on medicine,” she writes.  “This bodes well for patients.”

Wait a moment.  May we see the data to back up this claim?  The source that Dr. Ofri refers to is a 2012 publication from The Physicians Foundation, a nonprofit organization that surveyed more than 13,000 physicians.  The survey addressed professional satisfaction and morale, among other issues, and reached conclusions rather different from Dr. Ofri’s.

“The majority of female physicians, employed physicians, and primary care physicians, though less pessimistic than their male, practice owner and specialist peers, are nevertheless pessimistic about the medical profession and express low levels of morale,” the report concluded, wryly noting that younger physicians “simply may not have practiced long enough to become disaffected.”

Read the Full Article

New research just out in the journal Psychology and Aging says pessimists live longer and healthier lives. If this is true, then contemplating the future of anesthesiology ought to make us immortal, because our professional prospects don’t look bright.  As we teach residents to do what we’ve always done, shouldn’t we ask ourselves honestly if we’re training them for a future that doesn’t exist?

Especially here in California, it seems likely that our predominantly MD-provided, fee-for-service practice of anesthesiology will not survive indefinitely, and perhaps not for long.  We can blame the reelection of President Obama and the passage of the Affordable Care Act if we like, but the reality is that market forces were eventually going to catch up with us whether or not Mitt Romney went to the White House.

In a way, we’re the victims of our own success; we’ve made anesthesia so safe that everyone thinks there’s nothing to it. But that’s exactly the point.  Technology has indeed made anesthesia much safer.  When I started learning anesthesia, pulse oximetry and end-tidal CO2 monitoring were new to the market, unproven, and scarce. Now they’re everywhere. We fear the difficult airway less now that we have video laryngoscopes readily at hand.

Since technology is so much better, why do so many of us still believe that every case requires the costly expertise of a board-certified anesthesiologist?  Read the Full Article

A plague on both your houses

When you walked into the voting booth on Tuesday, November 6, did you do so with a feeling of calm certainty that the man who would get your vote for President was unquestionably the best choice, or even the only possible choice?  Did you feel confident that your candidate’s political party fully supports your political views as well as your personal values?

For many physicians, I suspect that the answer to those questions was not a resounding “yes”.  Perhaps more so than in any previous election that I can recall, there were elements in each party’s platform that many thoughtful physicians might have a hard time accepting.  The extreme left and right wing contingents within the Democratic and Republican parties argue for wildly different policies, but does either of them truly represent the best interests of our profession or our patients?

Read the Full Article

The unsolved problem of MD + PR

In my hospital’s preoperative area, upright on her bed, sat an unhappy middle-aged lady who needed an operation to treat complications from her previous bariatric surgery.  She hadn’t lost weight and clearly was feeling discouraged about practically everything.  She was physically uncomfortable, couldn’t even keep down her own saliva because her lower esophagus was obstructed, and was in tears.

As her anesthesiologist, I came to evaluate her prior to surgery.  In fairly short order, I got her a tissue and a warm blanket, listened to her tale of woe, and finished my pre-anesthetic examination.  Nothing special.  At the end, she said,  “You’re so nice.  Were you a nurse before you were a doctor?”


No, I told her, I wasn’t.  Never a nurse; always a doctor.  She looked surprised.

And that little narrative may help to explain why we (physicians as a group) are having so much trouble with public relations, and  with the onslaught and success of mid-level caregivers who want to practice medicine without a license.  Their PR is better than ours because their PR task is easier:  patients already think mid-level health care personnel, especially nurses, are basically nicer and more sympathetic than we are.

Just look at the recent coverage of Hurricane Sandy.  News reporters on radio, TV, print, and online repeatedly and justly praised the heroic efforts that nurses made during the evacuation of patients from dark, flooded hospitals, and showed photos and video clips of nurses hand-ventilating premature infants.  But not once did I hear a mention of the attending physicians and residents who were no doubt working right alongside the nurses, let alone the respiratory therapists, orderlies, and all the other personnel.  Nurses got all the credit in the public’s view.

Anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists represent perhaps the most visible part of the physician/mid-level conflict, but other physicians are at risk as well.  The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) has recently made public its opinion that nurse practitioners shouldn’t run medical homes, but the Affordable Care Act supports independent practice for nurse practitioners–including admitting privileges to hospitals–just as it supports independent practice for nurse anesthetists.

The latest unbelievable turn of events is Medicare’s decision in favor of nurse anesthetists practicing interventional pain medicine without physician supervision.  Just so we’re clear, this means that a nurse anesthetist with no special qualification other than Medicare’s blessing can bill Medicare for performing invasive pain management procedures that physicians ordinarily train to do with four years of medical school, at least four years of residency, and a fellowship.  These are procedures so risky that my hospital wouldn’t consider me qualified to do them despite my MD degree and anesthesiology residency, because I haven’t taken advanced training in interventional pain management.

What are we going to do to turn around this public perception that doctors are curt, mean, and unsympathetic? And that nurses are always better, kinder, and maybe even smarter?  And can do everything doctors can do, just as well?

Read the Full Article