Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Healthcare Reform Misconception - Costs are rising because of the avarice and greed or just unregulated “bad guys,” including drug and technology com

Each of these deserves some approbation and bears some responsibility at the margin, but these are not the major reasons why costs are rising. But it seems that politicians, the media and so many others seem to believe what’s convenient rather than what is accurate.

The real culprits are: 1) the poor coordination of care of those with chronic illness resulting in excess visits to specialists, excess tests, unneeded procedures and even hospitalizations, 2) overuse [often as a result of #1] of expensive drugs, devices or procedures when they are not needed or truly necessary or when a generic drug, older device or no procedure at all would be more than adequate and appropriate, 3) a wide divergence in the use of medical care and technologies based on geographic region with no evidence that those who receive “more” have better health or longer lives 4) an aging population [older people get sick more often and consume more medical care]; and 5) physicians/patients/relatives who are unwilling to accept the inevitability of death and insist on “one last try.”

6) A big driver of high costs is preventable errors. We know that at least 100,000 people die annually of safety lapses like developing a hospital-acquired infection, drug errors, or procedural errors. Many more are harmed. This lack of quality greatly adds to costs.

7) One of the biggest drivers of increasing costs over time will be our own behaviors along with a lack of preventive medicine or wellness programs. We are a nation that is obese, has poor nutrition, lacks exercise, and is over-stressed. We have dangerous habits of smoking, drinking and driving, and not wearing seat belts. Too many of us do not get immunized to common yet often lethal infections such as influenza, nor do we practice good dental hygiene. We avoid basic screenings to detect high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or cancer. Unfortunately, many government policies actually aid and abet us in maintaining these behaviors.

Add these together and our costs are higher than most other developed countries.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Misconception - Universal coverage for all Americans will reduce costs

Unfortunately that is not the case; indeed it will create substantial added expenditures. Today we spend about $7500 per capita for medical care each year. That is built into our insurance whether it is commercial or Medicare along with co-pays and deductibles. In my view it is unfortunate that Congress has not done much to address the high and rising costs of medical care in the reform bills.

America is the only country in the developed world that does not have some system to ensure everyone of at least basic medical care coverage - shame on us. The bills in Congress now will mean that another 30 million individuals will have some form of insurance – this is certainly good. And those with pre-existing conditions will no longer be denied coverage. And that is certainly good as well. But offering coverage to all will cost someone, you and me, in taxes since the newly insured will presumably now expend the same $7500 each.

Certainly it is true that access to a physician for basic medical care will mean fewer visits to the ER, less hospitalizations, and better overall health for the individual. This will mean better medical care, a healthier population and it will reduce the cost of care some but there are still substantial real costs for getting medical care to 30 million of those not insured today. To think otherwise is to ignore reality.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Misconception – Healthcare reform will fundamentally improve how we receive care going forward.

This is also not at all likely except for those who do not now have medical care insurance. For the rest of us, medical care delivery will change but it will change not because of reform but because of some fundamental societal and demographic reasons along with a marked change in the types, severity and chronicity of illnesses that is occurring right now. The combination of an aging population and our non-healthy lifestyles (obesity, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, stress and smoking) are leading to epidemics of diabetes and heart failure plus increased numbers of cancers, kidney disease and others – diseases that are lifelong, complex and expensive to treat. What reform may do is protect those of us with “pre-existing conditions” to be able to purchase insurance and do so at a reasonable premium cost. And it may put an end to lifetime limits on insurance and the practice of “rescission” or dropping a person once they develop a serious illness. But the care itself and its delivery to us will probably not change much as a result of reform.

Here is some of what will change in the coming years irrespective of healthcare reform: There will be more people with chronic complex illnesses and these will require more drugs, more technologies, more testing, more imaging, more procedures and more hospitalizations – all of which will cost more money. There will be more hospital beds constructed, more operating rooms built, more intensive care units. At the same time there will be more and more that can be done as an outpatient as or with less invasive approaches than current surgery. There will be a need for newer pharmaceuticals and medical devices; these will be expensive but capable of reducing the cost of care if used wisely. Smaller hospitals will merge into systems to access credit markets so as to purchase technology and to enlarge physical plant. There will be greater use of eMedicine – telemedicine consults, moving medical information from site to site digitally rather than by courier, telediagnosis techniques such as digital weight or blood sugar recordings from home to the doctor’s office for review daily, and electronic submission of prescriptions and with it alerts to the doctor as to allergies or drug-drug incompatibilities.

These are but a few of the changes that are coming in the delivery of healthcare during the next five to fifteen years.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Misconception – The remarkable medical scientific advances are rapidly made available to the care delivery system.

We should so hope but often that it is just not the case.

Laparoscopic surgery took medicine by storm 20 years ago but some new technologies of great value are slow to be adopted, such as simulation for teaching procedures rather than learning by practicing on the patient. Sometimes it is because the old way is “the way we have always done it” and sometimes it is because those holding the purse strings just do not appreciate the underlying value. Laparoscopic surgery got patients out of the hospital faster with fewer sequela and was endorsed by surgeon, patient and administrator alike.

Simulation – although it will markedly improve safety and quality and even shorten training times – is often perceived as just a “cost” by hospital executives and hence not worthy of investment.

Simulation was key to saving the US Airways plane last January. The captain had practiced landing with no power multiple times in the company simulator. That was crucial since there was no time 3000 feet above New York City to pull out the manual and read up on what to do. Simulation has come late to medicine but now there are many new technologies to teach students, residents and even expert physicians and surgeons. Everything from practicing drawing blood [instead of practicing on your classmate], to using an endoscope for colonoscopy [instead of learning on a patient], to very sophisticated approaches to surgery for the experienced practioneer. This is a revolutionary change in medical education and training and a very disruptive technology. It means that the trainee does not “practice” on a patient until he or she has proven competent on the simulator. For some this might take many trial runs; for others it might be much easier to master. No matter, the test is competency; not “how many times did you practice?” As a patient, you might want to know if the surgical resident assisting the attending surgeon has completed his simulation requirements; don’t be afraid to ask. And for the hospital executive, it is worth noting that simulation can actually shorten the training time required since the simulator is always available whereas the “right” patient may not be admitted until next week or later. And it means much improved patient safety since no one gets to touch a patient until competency has been demonstrated; safer care saves a lot of money.

Simulation is coming but still not fast enough given its value to trainee and patient alike.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Video Conference with Becton Dickinson – The Future of Medicine

I was recently invited to present my thoughts on the Future of Medicine, based on my book of the same name, to the worldwide medical affairs group at Becton Dickinson, the giant medical device and diagnostics company headquartered in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. Their senior vice president for medical affairs, Dr David Durack, requested that I review the basic megatrends developing as a result of the scientific advances from genomics, stem cells transplantation, vaccines, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, imaging, operating room technologies and the digital medical record. From these I proposed five basic megatrends that will significantly impact medical care moving forward – the development of custom tailored medicine; much more attention to preventive care; markedly improved ability to repair, restore and replace organs, tissues and even cells; greater safety for patients: and, finally, digital medical information instantly available anytime and anyplace.

BD had me present via videoconferencing which eliminated the need for travel yet allowed them to see me and my slides and I could see/hear them concurrently.

Their group asked many very challenging questions after my presentation and presented some excellent concepts. They suggested, for example, that in addition to positive trends that will improve medicine, I might also consider negative trends and their impact. Examples were government instability in many developing countries, climate change, and the current financial challenges. Each could and probably already has created major adverse consequences for the delivery of medical care worldwide. Another area of interest was the implication of privacy on the development of genomic information; would having genomic data determined on yourself lead to insurance denials or higher priced premiums? A real concern of many despite the legislation that passed last year to limit this possibility. And what was the scientific basis for the use of complementary medicine approaches such as acupuncture, meditation and massage? Here we discussed acupuncture for osteoarthritis, the nausea of chemotherapy and low back pain; massage for neonates in the intensive care unit and mind body approaches combined with diet, exercise and support groups for those with coronary artery disease.

The final question was what would I write differently if doing the book over again? For that one I had an answer – updates of course and some added sections on pharmaceuticals, diagnostics and nanomedicine/biomaterials. But The Future of Medicine only dealt with medical advances, not the myriad problems of getting the new approaches to the patient. There are all too many problems with the delivery of health care today and, to compound them, there are some very powerful forces that will lead to delivery changes in the coming years no matter what happens with health care reform. This bog attempts to address these.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Misconception - “Health care reform” will improve the delivery of care and offer us better care opportunities.

In fact, healthcare reform is not about healthcare; it is mostly about paying for medical care for the uninsured and only somewhat about the rising costs of medical care. I use the term medical care here to emphasize that today American “healthcare” is all about treating disease and injury and very little about promoting wellness and preventing illness. The reforms being proposed are about addressing the financing of medical care but not the quality, the safety or the way that healthcare will be delivered nor who will deliver it given the coming shortages of professionals at all levels. Certainly it is important to assure access to care for everyone but don’t let that confuse you into thinking your healthcare delivery will be improved. It will not.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Misconception - Healthcare reform will have an impact on the advances in medical science.

This sounds logical but there are frankly amazing advances in medicine that are around the corner no matter what “reform” occurs. These advances are related to our national commitment to basic science and to engineering and computer science developments and their translation to clinical care. The National Institutes of Health, research organizations such as our medical schools, the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries and the medical device industry are constantly bringing forth new knowledge and new approaches to care. Among them are advances in genomics, stem cells, transplantation, vaccines, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, imaging modalities, OR technologies and the digital or electronic medical record. [For more of this subject see “The Future of Medicine – Megatrends in Healthcare.”] The reforms being discussed will have little or no impact on the development of these advances; rather they are coming and they will have a major impact on the care we will receive in the near future.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Common Misconceptions About Healthcare Reform

American medicine must change - and the change will be both substantial and difficult to achieve but change is critical if we are to have a well functioning healthcare system that affords all of us safe, quality care at a reasonable cost in a customer-focused manner.

Today there are many misconceptions about healthcare reform - misconceptions about who will have access, how much it will cost, who will pay the bills, whether it will benefit those who currently have insurance, whether there will be good preventive care and good coordination of chronic illnesses, whether individuals will still be able to lose their insurance if they change or lose their jobs, whether Medicare benefits will be reduced, whether it will include rationing and whether there will be "death panels." Indeed the misconceptions like these and others are rampant and need to be addressed in a realistic, nonpartisan manner. I propose to explain what must change and why and then to dispel the misconceptions with straight forward factual information so that you can be properly informed. In the process I will explain the need to balance rights such as access with responsibilities such as leading a healthy lifestyle. Beginning with this post, I plan to review the common misconceptions, one or two at a time, entering a new post very few days until completed.

Misconception - America has the best healthcare in the world.
Sorry, but this is just not true. As stated before, we have a medical care system not a healthcare system meaning that we focus on disease and pestilence but not health promotion and disease prevention. We do spend more per capita than any other country but our quality does not measure up to what we spend. We have a higher infant mortality rate [6.9 per 1000 live births] than many countries [e.g., Japan – 2.8, France – 3.9] and our lifespan [77.9 years] has not kept up [Japan – 83, Switzerland – 82]. We have lifesaving vaccines available but they go unused by nearly 20% of infants. We are overweight with only about one-third of us at a healthy weight. About 20% of us still smoke. Regular exams are simply not regular and screenings for preventable or reversible problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and cancer are all too often not obtained. In short, the American healthcare system responds, and responds fairly well, to illness and trauma but is not focused on preventive medicine as the numbers above document. Further we do not have coordinated care for those with complex, chronic diseases like heart failure and cancer. These diseases cannot be treated appropriately with our current helter-skelter approach with independent physicians referring to each other as the situation warrants instead of a well-coordinated system for addressing all of the patient’s needs in an organized manner with multidisciplinary teams.

We have incredible resources in people, technology and infrastructure but we do not bring them to bear on the problems of healthcare delivery in an effective manner. This needs to change.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Mammograms as a Stalking Horse for Issues in Healthcare Reform

As we watch the reform movement in Washington, we see and hear so many misconceptions. A current one relates to mammography. A few weeks ago guidelines were published in the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine stating, in effect, that women between ages 50 and 75 with no history of breast cancer in their family and normal mammograms to date could probably switch from annual to biannual exams. And women between ages 40 and 50 probably did not need to get mammograms as had been previously recommended unless they had certain high risk circumstances. These recommendations were made by an expert, non-partisan panel with no apparent conflicts of interest in the guidelines. The recommendations were made based on careful examination of all of the relevant data on the benefits and risks of mammography to detect early breast cancer. With a lifetime risk of breast cancer being about 9%, women need unbiased advice on what to do to detect cancer early when it is most curable. But they also need advice on when a testis not needed or can lead to unnecessary biopsies, anxieties and expense.
These newly released guidelines from the Preventive Services Task Force ignited some firestorms. The first was from various advocacy groups who have worked for years to assure that women could access mammographic screening programs annually and have the procedure paid for by insurance. Women have begun to understand the importance of routine screening and often set their exam dates by their birthday other annual event. This relatively easy approach to remembering to get a needed test has been useful but might be lost with biannual exams and this worries many advocacy groups. Second, many women chimed in saying that they developed breast cancer at a young age and it was only for the mammogram that it was found at an early stage and hence was cured. A third group, the many providers along with the manufacturers of mammographic equipment, see that reducing the frequency of mammograms will substantially impact their businesses and profits. Some smaller breast evaluation centers might go out of business altogether if procedures drop by 50% as would happen if the guidelines were fully followed. None of these groups want new guidelines that will encourage fewer women from having routine mammograms at the same schedule as formerly advised. But that was only part of the problem with the new guideline recommendations.
Those who want to defeat the current healthcare reform proposal in Congress are using these new guidelines as their "proof" that reform will mean rationing. To them, it represents the “heavy hand” of government making decisions rather than the patient or her physician. This is an excellent approach to raise high levels of concern especially in a population of individuals that tend to vote and tend to contact their elected representatives in Congress. In fact the Task Force did not suggest that insurance standards be changed although one could surmise that insurers might decide to limit reimbursement if the accepted guidelines so suggested. And so the secretary of Health and Human Services felt compelled to state that this would not impact insurance and Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland offered the first proposed amendment to the Senate health reform bill to prevent just such a possibility.
These firestorms erupted rapidly when in fact the new guidelines are just a reasonable attempt by a group of nonpartisan experts to offer women and their physicians the best current evidence as to what is most efficacious and least risky so that they, and they alone, can make rational decisions about care.
Truth is that medicine needs more and more efforts to assure that the care of patients is based on solid evidence. All too much of medical care is based on what we learned in medical school years ago, what we read about recently or what our personal experiences have been. This must change and guidelines from well respected unbiased experts can make a big difference in improving the quality of care.

Praise for Dr Schimpff

The craft of science writing requires skills that are arguably the most underestimated and misunderstood in the media world. Dumbing down all too often gets mistaken for clarity. Showmanship frequently masks a poor presentation of scientific issues. Factoids are paraded in lieu of ideas. Answers are marketed at the expense of searching questions. By contrast, Steve Schimpff provides a fine combination of enlightenment and reading satisfaction. As a medical scientist he brings his readers encyclopedic knowledge of his subject. As a teacher and as a medical ambassador to other disciplines he's learned how to explain medical breakthroughs without unnecessary jargon. As an advisor to policymakers he's acquired the knack of cutting directly to the practical effects, showing how advances in medical science affect the big lifestyle and economic questions that concern us all. But Schimpff's greatest strength as a writer is that he's a physician through and through, caring above all for the person. His engaging conversational style, insights and fascinating treasury of cutting-edge information leave both lay readers and medical professionals turning his pages. In his hands the impact of new medical technologies and discoveries becomes an engrossing story about what lies ahead for us in the 21st century: as healthy people, as patients of all ages, as children, as parents, as taxpayers, as both consumers and providers of health services. There can be few greater stories than the adventure of what awaits our minds, bodies, budgets, lifespans and societies as new technologies change our world. Schimpff tells it with passion, vision, sweep, intelligence and an urgency that none of us can ignore.

-- N.J. Slabbert, science writer, co-author of Innovation, The Key to Prosperity: Technology & America's Role in the 21st Century Global Economy (with Aris Melissaratos, director of technology enterprise at the John Hopkins University).