Sunday, February 02, 2014

Talking Heads

February, in case you haven't noticed, is "Heart Month" full of associations with Valentine's Day, love, peace and tranquility.  It's also a month to sell cardiovascular health care.

Everywhere you look these days are advertisements for the latest and greatest heart care, finest heart care facilities, touching stories of the latest cardiovascular intervention saving a life at this medical center or that.  Go ahead.  Type in "heart" as your Google alert phrase to see what I mean. 

Heart month, you see, is business month for most medical centers since the cardiovascular disease product line is sold more often than any other in medicine.  But what is good for the business of medicine is not always good for the reputation of physicians.  As one surgeon has wisely pointed out, physicians are devalued when breathless claims of magical health care delivery promised on TV can't be delivered. 

Most doctors say little about the problems inherent to this advertising trend.  We see no problem with advertisements for the latest drug or procedure on TV or the radio.  That's because doctors are becoming comfortable with their new subliminal marketing role for their new employers and as figureheads to quality.  

I worry that we doctors, overburdened with our new reality of declining pay, seemingly bottomless administrative meetings, data entry, coding requirements, and the million other regulatory changes that are detracting from direct patient care, are becoming comfortable (and worse, complacent) in our new role as talking heads.   We pretend that really there's no problem with "innovations" to care, when deep in our souls we know otherwise.    I get that we're all in survival mode right now, and perhaps this is why I'm concerned.

Recently the Wall Street Journal discussed the business case for using lower level providers in lieu of physicians.  The article discussed the "clash on proposed oversight" that exists when a less costly nurse anesthetist is substituted for a fully-trained anesthesiologist.  These capable nurse anesthetists don't want oversight.  They feel they can do their job just fine, thank you.  After all, they're the one's at the patient's side most of the time as the anesthesiologist flits in an out of several operating rooms instead of sitting in just one.  Is this the best quality for the individual patient to have a person with only two years' experience working independently?  Probably not.  Is it fiscally innovative for both doctors and hospitals to do anesthesia this way?  Absolutely.   Consequently, I wonder if tomorrow's "Top Doctor" will be a much-heralded clipboard-carrying oversight manager of an army of lesser-trained health care providers.

Perhaps these changes are inevitable given the realities of American health care delivery today.  In our rush to get more work done faster than ever, we use physician extenders to see patients first, then make cameo appearances at the patients bedside, more for PR (and billing purposes) than real clinical discovery.  Is this quality?  It seems that in our new world of upcoming Press Ganey patient satisfaction surveys linked to hospital payments, inpatient medicine is evolving to PR.  During the brief patient interactions, doctors had better smile, look good, and wash their face and hands lest the facade of quality fade.  After all, good doctor, big screen TVs, marble foyers, and extensive menu selections at the bedside can only get your hospital so far.  Yet if this trend is allowed to go to its next iteration, will image consultants be the next recertification requirement for physicians?

I wonder….

Sadly, conflicts such as these are only the tip of the iceberg.   For instance, instead of insisting that information technology giants and bureaucrats correct he horrible data entry requirements imposed by today's electronic medical records, many of us have succumbed to hiring costly scribes.  We justify the benefits of these scribes because they allow us to see and touch more patients, while not admitting that we have thrown up our hands to the root problem that created this mess in the first place.  Likewise, when physicians allow their administrators to purchase cheaper, inferior equipment or allow maintenance contracts to lapse in the name of "alignment" of doctors' and hospitals' financial interests, who are we serving?  Or as personnel ranks are slashed from hospital payrolls and patient wards consolidated, are our patients being served best? Can a nurse used to caring for post-surgical patients really manage a cardiac patient as well?

The list goes on and on.  While employee-physicians are losing our autonomy and ability to provide direct one-on-one patient care in all cases, there's a growing need to educate those who don't have a clue about patient care in hopes of improving that care without compromising its quality (if that is possible).  Perhaps more than ever, doctors are needed to fulfill a leadership role in the education of all factions involved in patient care - from administrators to ancillary care providers - about what is needed for their patients and when.  Doctors need to push to dismantle what is broken and organize those systems that work.  Being railroaded by a system that has changed way too soon and way too fast thanks to forces outside our control won't help anyone.

But before we embark on this seemingly impossible task, physicians will first need to ask themselves a very important question, one that strikes to the very core of being a doctor: will we dare to speak up as advocates for our patients and as advocates for each other as doctors, or will we just become a talking head?

Given what's transpired to our health care system so far, I'm not sure I really know the answer.



betsy said...

Nurse anesthetists will soon have to have a doctorate to practice.

Nurse practitioners, as well.

Whether this will make them more qualified-who knows.

Keith said...

Well said Wes,

But we are all aceding our leverage to large institutions that seem more concerned about making sure we click the right boxes on our computer screens than what level of care we practice.

I am struck by the fact that no one seems to look at whether my clinical decisions are correct or if they are cost effective, but they sure look to make sure that all those boxes are checked and that we shove enough extraneous garbage into our documentation to make sure it complies with coding criteria.

Abdul Saadi said...

Great analysis but I am afraid we are going to go that road regardless. The health care system is getting more and more complex. More technology is coming our way. Our collective efforts research and applications of it has led to increased life expectancy and a lot of relief from pain and uncertainty. That however still comes with a hefty price tag and will require " the army of physician extenders you mentioned. All I hope for is a day where we do things appropriately and efficiently with an intuitive technology not the archaic stone age software that we are currently plagued with