Monday, December 31, 2012

An Information Flaneur's Best Blog Posts of 2012

As a self described Information Flaneur who wanders aimlessly around the Internet and my world searching for what I don’t know that I don’t know, I did not expect to find any rhyme or reason to my 2012 blog posts.  And yet when I read them today on New Year’s Eve to select the Best of 2012, I surprised myself by finding six coherent and recurring overarching themes:

·      American physicians have lost their way and need to undergo intense self-scrutiny
·      American health plans need to reinvent themselves or disappear
·      The digital future of medicine is fascinating and largely unknowable
·      There is an urgent need to bridge the gap between the humanities and the sciences
·      The American preoccupation with Happiness is wrongheaded but extremely important
·      Understanding and explaining the Affordable Act takes a lot of time and energy, but it is worth it

American physicians have lost their way and need to undergo intense self-scrutiny

Some of my closest colleagues found it amusing that I of all people wrote passionately about the need for physicians to embrace humility and win the battle for the soul of American Medicine. “Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose the former and have seen no reason to change” is a Frank Lloyd Wright quotation that I used ironically at the start of one of my diatribes calling for physicians to undergo intense self-scrutiny, and my closest friend said he thought Wright could be speaking for me.
Nevertheless, there is a battle for the soul of American Medicine; I pontificated about it here  and in a three part essay inspired by the English Olympics Opening Ceremony, which celebrated the National Health Service,,   These blogs drew the wrath of many practicing physicians, as did my blog post that attributed much of any personal or professional success to luck

American health plans need to reinvent themselves or disappear
The survival of Obama’s Affordable Care Act has demolished the traditional business model of the American health insurance company, and it has been fascinating to watch them scramble to reinvent themselves.  Some are buying bankrupt delivery systems and others are investing in providers and smartphone applications, but none of these tactics will work unless they can transform their corporate cultures.  Read about the challenges here, here, and here

The digital future of medicine is fascinating and largely unknowable

Like everyone else I read Eric Topol’s book and tried to keep track on Twitter of how digitizing a human being will revolutionize medicine.  I reviewed two books on digital medicine, advised hospital executives to get with it, and wrote a summary of an iMedicine conference organized by medical students

There is an urgent need to bridge the gap between the humanities and science

Two of my favorite quotations are the 19th century neurologist Jean Martin Charcot’s “Theory is good, but it doesn’t prevent things from existing” and Albert Einstein’s “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.”  These two statements summarize the tension between a medical science that thinks it can explain everything and my own experience that an alternative theory of the mind is needed.  I explore these issues in great detail in a five part essay titled Human Understanding, Randomness, Free Will, and Delusions found here,,,, and in a two part essay titled The Humanities vs. Science linked here and

Siri Hustvedt’s elegant book review of Oliver Sacks’ new book Hallucinations convinces me I need to read more of Sacks and re-read some of Hustvedt’s novels to make better sense of this complex subject. (

The American preoccupation with Happiness is wrongheaded but extremely important

Even though I have read at last count 19 books on happiness, I am always a little bit skeptical about the whole enterprise.  I do find it fascinating that bronze medal winners are happier than silver medal winners and that winning the lottery often results in misery, but there is something wrongheaded about pursuing happiness as a goal.  Viewing Stefan Sagmeister’s The Happy Show at an art museum at the University of Pennsylvania inspired me to write a four part blog post on happiness:,,,

My skepticism about the whole subject made me write The Downsides of Trying Too Hard to Be Happy, which can be found here and I just finished reading a new book by Oliver Burkeman titled The Antidote:  Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, which has reinforced and brought focus to my skepticism.  I recommend it highly.

Understanding and explaining the Affordable Act takes a lot of time and energy, but it is worth

I spent much of 2012 running around the country giving keynotes, retreats, and seminars on the Affordable Care Act.  I also enjoyed teaching another graduate class at the Thomas Jefferson School of Population Health on health policy and the structure of the American delivery system.  My best blogs on this subject were on the demise of fee for service payments, the Supreme Court decision upholding the individual mandate, and the Medicaid expansion controversy

At the end of 2012 I was asked to predict what health care journalists should cover in 2013.  My essay can be read here  However, I must warn you that a far better way to understand health care in 2013 is to wander around twitter, read books and newspapers, and go to conferences in fields other than medicine.  Join me in becoming an information flaneur. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Battle for the Souls of American Doctors

We physicians like to think that we are really different from other workers.  We physicians, perhaps thinking back to that medical school application essay we all wrote, really believe that we went into this career to simply help others.  We physicians truly believe that we always put our patients first. 

Because we sincerely believe all of the above, we are shocked when someone like Uwe Reinhardt points out that collectively we act just like any other worker in the economy.  The classic 1986 letters between the Princeton professor Reinhardt and former New England Journal of Medicine editor Arnold Relman highlight the tension between how we think of ourselves and how we act.

Relman thinks physicians are special and he asks Reinhardt the following question:

“Do you really see no difference between physicians and hospitals on the one hand, and ‘purveyors of other goods and services,’ on the other?”

Reinhardt is ready with a long answer that should be read in its entirety.  The short answer is that doctors act like any other human beings.   A portion of his answer includes the following:

“Surely you will agree that it has been one of American medicine’s more hallowed tenets that piece-rate compensation is the sine qua non of high quality medical care.  Think about this tenet, We have here a profession that openly professes that its members are unlikely to do their best unless they are rewarded in cold cash for every little ministration rendered their patients.  If an economist made that assertion, one might write it off as one more of that profession’s kooky beliefs.  But physicians are saying it.” (

I have recently written about the inevitable transition from fee for service payment to global, value-based payment systems, and I was surprised when a primary care physician whom I admire tweeted that he thought the end of fee for service would be the end of primary care.  (

This tension between the ideal of medicine and the economic reality of how medicine is practiced in the United States is perhaps best summarized by Atul Gawande in his famous New Yorker article about McAllen, Texas:

“Here, along the banks of the Rio Grande, in the Square Dance Capital of the World, a medical community has come to treat patients the way subprime-mortgage lenders treated home buyers: as profit centers." (

This morning I was reminded of this battle for the soul of American medicine when I read two articles in the New York Times.   On the front page an article titled “Quiet Doctor, Lavish Insider:  A Parallel Life” describes how a well-respected neurologist at the University of Michigan capped off his successful academic career by cooperating with federal prosecutors to avoid charges in a Wall Street insider stock trading scandal. 

“The riddle for Dr. Gilman’s longtime friends and colleagues is why a nationally respected neurologist was pulled into the high-rolling life of a consultant to financiers and how he, by his own admission, crossed the line into criminal behavior.”  (

The other article in the Times published on the same day was the obituary of Dr. William F. House who invented the cochlear implant. 

“Neither the institute nor Dr. House made any money on the implant. He never sought a patent on any of his inventions, he said, because he did not want to restrict other researchers. A nephew, Dr. John House, the current president of the House institute, said his uncle had made the deal to license it to the 3M Company not for profit but simply to get it built by a reputable manufacturer.

Reflecting on his business decisions in his memoir, Dr. House acknowledged, ‘I might be a little richer today.’” (

A major challenge for 21st century American medicine is to cultivate the culture epitomized by Dr. House and avoid the mistakes of Dr. Gilman.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Is Fee-For-Service Really Dead?

The 21st century challenge for the American health care delivery system is to deliver higher quality care for less money.   Republican and Democratic experts agree that payment reform involving transitioning from fee-for-service to global, value-based systems is necessary for us to achieve that goal.  Accountable care organizations (ACOs) are the new entities that will receive the new global payments and distribute them to the doctors, allied health professionals, hospitals, and post-acute care facilities that care for the patients; Medicare ACOs are being piloted under provisions in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and Commercial ACOs are being developed by private insurance companies, hospitals, and physician groups. 

The ideal payment system would support the ideal value-driven health care delivery system.  Distinguished expert panels convened by the Commonwealth Fund and the Institute of Medicine have described the attributes of a system that would be far superior to our current delivery system:

·      Care would be patient-centered
·      Care would be safe and effective
·      Care would be timely and accessible
·      Care would be efficient with little waste
·      Care would be coordinated among providers and across facilities
·      Continuity of care and care relationships would be facilitated
·      Collaboration among providers would deliver high quality, low cost care
·      Patients’ clinical information would be efficiently exchanged
·      Caregivers would engage patients in ways that would maximize health
·      Accountability for each aspect and for total care would be clear
·      Continuous innovation, learning, and improvement would occur

Although fee-for-service does not have all of the above ideal attributes, it does have a long history of paying for medical care.  Atul Gawande’s fascinating description of how he negotiated for his first salary as an attending surgeon at Harvard includes a brief history of fee-for-service medicine.  He starts with eighteenth century BC Babylon where surgeons got ten shekels for lifesaving operations on citizens and two shekels for the same operation on slaves and ends up with the standardized fee schedule that was developed in the 1980s to replace the “usual, customary, and reasonable fees” that insurance companies did not always find reasonable.  Gawande’s article is a good place to start understanding the strengths and weaknesses of this a la carte approach to paying doctors with its 600 page master fee schedule that lists what 24 different insurers pay for different services that Harvard physicians bill (

Fee-for-service has lasted so long because it does have some advantages.  Conceptually, it is easy to understand because each procedure, service, intervention, or medical device is billed and paid for separately.  Fee-for-service encourages the delivery of care, is flexible enough to work with different sizes and types of physician practices, different types of care such as office visit, operation, procedure, or therapy session, and different sites of care such as office, skilled nursing facility, nursing home, hospital, or out-patient surgery center.  Fee-for-service supports accountability for each separate portion of care, but it falls down in supporting accountability for total clinical care provided by many different providers. (

While the concept of fee-for-service is relatively straightforward, the reality can be quite confusing for both patients and providers.  Fee-for-service payments are constrained by CPT and ICD-9 rules that establish what can and cannot be billed for.  Unlike normal consumer markets, the list price for a service is hard to pin down because the amount paid is negotiated between different insurers and providers.  When a health reporter was told by her physician to obtain an expensive MRI to work up her migraine headaches, she experienced frustration trying to establish just how much the test would cost  (  Her local hospital could not tell her how much it would cost; an academic medical center quoted her a price of $5,315 for an uninsured patient, but could not tell her what the price would be to her insurance company; an independent imaging center told her that the price would be $2,000 to $3,600 for an uninsured patient and about $600 to $1,200 for an insured patient.  She finally got the scan at her local hospital and was surprised to get a bill for $7,468. 

Fee-for-service also makes coordination of care across multiple providers and different settings difficult.  Since the payments are limited to one provider performing one service, this arrangement leads to hospitalized patients receiving different bills from the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, the pathologist, the infectious disease consultant, the radiologist, and the respiratory therapist.

The biggest problem with fee-for-service payments is that it results in overutilization and unnecessary care.  Dr. Gawande’s New Yorker article about McAllen, Texas explained the problem of medical overuse so clearly that President Obama had members of the Senate and the House of Representatives read it during the debate over the Affordable Care Act.  One cardiac surgeon in McAllen said, “Medicine has become a pig trough here.  We took a wrong turn when doctors stopped being doctors and became businessmen.”

“Compared with patients in El Paso and nationwide, patients in McAllen got more of pretty much everything – more diagnostic testing, more hospital treatment, more surgery, more homecare.”  (
Health care policy experts on both the left and the right agree that ending the fee-for-service payment system will be necessary to control health care costs.  The New England Journal of Medicine recently published back-to-back articles with how the two approaches would bend the health care cost curve.  The Republicans responded with the following proposals:

•Medicare premium support replaces defined benefit to be used to purchase insurance
•Convert tax subsidy for employer insurance to predetermined refundable credit
•Transition from fee for service to bundled payments
•High option plan for Medicare
•Regional Medicare plans to encourage greater entrepreneurship
•Health insurance exchanges without “heavy regulation imposed by ACA” (

Not surprisingly, the Democratic health policy wonks came up with a slightly different list of solutions:

•Model of state self-regulation with spending targets where public & private payers negotiate payment rates with providers
•Replace fee-for-service with bundled and global payments
•Medicare competitive bidding for medical devices, lab tests, X-rays, etc
•Insurers should offer tiered plans with lower copays if patient chooses high value providers
•Payers & providers electronically exchange eligibility, claims, etc
•Single-standardized physician credentialing
•Price transparency
•Non physician providers should practice to full extent of their training
•Stark Law extended to prohibit physician self referrals for services paid by private payers
•FEHBP transition to new payment models
•Safe harbor against malpractice if physician uses HIT & EBM guidelines
•Shifting costs to patients & cuts to provider payments are not good ways to cut costs (

Replacing fee-for-service payments with global, value-based payment methods is the one proposed solution that both liberal and conservative health policy experts agree on.  Ken Kizer, MD spoke for most health care policy experts when he stated at a recent American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting, “Payment reform is inevitable.  Fee for service is dead.”  (’re-not-there-y/#more-55492)  Health care experts are attracted to payment reform because of the estimated $200 to $600 billion savings over ten years (

Practicing physicians have not shown the same level of enthusiasm for the elimination of fee-for-service.

“A survey of doctors by Harris Interactive finds that 59 percent of physicians believe that the fee-for-service system encourages them to provide ‘an appropriate level of care.’ Only 15 percent disagreed. Although 37 percent of doctors thought such a system encourages the use of more care or expensive care, 38 percent also said that a fee-for-service system encourages coordination of care. Not surprisingly, the 400 U.S.-based primary care physicians and 600 U.S.-based specialists surveyed, did not favor the idea of a global capitation payment—or a fixed payment per month for all medical services. Nearly 60 percent of the doctors surveyed said that capitation put too much risk on the provider.”

Another problem for health care leaders is managing the transition from fee-for-service to global, value-based payment systems.  Dr. Don Berwick, former head of CMS, describes the transition problem facing leaders who are still paid mostly by fee-for-service arrangements:

They've got one foot on the dock and one foot on the boat and they're drifting apart. One foot is fee-for-service, revenue-driven, grow the volume, do more and more, which is the dock, and the boat is, let's focus on what patients really need and decrease unnecessary care and the liability or harmable (sic) unnecessary care. ( )

Steve Blumberg has described four types of health care leaders when it comes to dealing with the transition away from fee-for-service:

·      Leaders who are acquiring the necessary tools and shifting the culture to deal with new payment systems.
·      Leaders who understand the problem intellectually but have not embraced any solution.
·      Leaders who are just waiting and hoping the problem goes away.
·      Leaders who are trying to get their organizations acquired by others so they don’t have to deal with the problem.

Blumberg’s observations are spot on and match my impressions from talking with health care leaders from all over the country.  I have met executives who belong in each of the four groups, and the smallest number in my experience resides in the proactive first category.

I recently read with interest two reports out of California, which support the uneven preparation of health care to get ready for accountable care organizations that are not paid by fee-for-service.  In San Francisco providers appear to fall into all four categories ( In Fresno, California physicians appear content to remain in fee-for-service arrangements and appear to land squarely in the third category of waiting and not preparing to respond to federal health care reform. (

This gap between the health policy experts and practicing physicians and local health care leaders is worrisome.  Even if Accountable Care Organizations paid by global, value-based payments are inevitable and the best possible solution to the unsustainable cost of American medicine, the reform enterprise will fail or flounder without an enormous cultural change by all the participants in this complicated and important endeavor.