Sunday, February 22, 2015

Dr. Topol's bad day

Dr. Eric Topol is a cardiologist, author, editor-in-chief of Medscape, and genomics professor. In 2009, he was named one of the 12 Rock Stars of Science by none other than GQ magazine.

But even rock stars occasionally have a bad day. After blogging for almost 5 years, I sometimes have trouble thinking of things to write about. This apparently happened to Dr. Topol the other day. He published a Medscape article with an accompanying video about how doctors are being squeezed by many outside forces that require them to do things they don't want to do.

It was kind of a rambling discourse in which he suggested that doctors should offload the responsibility to do these "more mundane aspects of care" to the patients. He thinks this would make medicine more exciting "the way it used to be."

Dr. Topol offered this cartoon to illustrate the outside forces that are squeezing doctors.

Genomics is a focus of Dr. Topol's research, but I don't think a lot of doctors are concerned that they lack knowledge about it.

His post created a lot of controversy prompting Medscape to take down all of the comments.

With great foresight, one physician, Dr. Kristin Held, preserved her comment with a screenshot which I have thoughtfully provided for you below.

What do you think she really wanted to say with the start of her second paragraph? Could it have been "How about growing a _ _ _ _ of _ _ _ _s?

Like Dr. Held, I have no idea which of the "mundane aspects of this new world" Dr. Topol had in mind to offload on the patients. Of the 16 forces squeezing doctors that he illustrated, I don't see many of them being taken over by patients. They already control patient satisfaction and what's written on Yelp. Maybe they can cover the lack of genomic knowledge too.

It's sad that an influential doctor like Topol is so lost in the woods. However, the bright side is that gave me something to write about.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Don't trust the abstract; read the whole paper


Above are the results and conclusion from an abstract of a paper called "Single-Incision Laparoscopic Cholecystectomy: Will It Succeed as the Future Leading Technique for Gallbladder Removal?" It appears online in the journal Surgical Laparoscopy, Endoscopy & Percutaneous Techniques.

It is another great example of why you need to read the entire paper and not just the abstract.

The methods section says that the study involved 875 patients with prospectively collected data. Don’t be fooled by prospectively collected data. This research is retrospective.

Here are some issues.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Medicare is changing the way it pays surgeons

Starting in 2017, Medicare will end global payments for operations. The current payment scheme combines preoperative, operative, and postoperative care into one fee. When the change occurs, each of those events will have to be billed separately—otherwise known as “unbundling.”

I missed this news when it first appeared late last year and thank one of my blog followers who calls himself Artiger for bringing it to my attention. An Advisory Board piece summarized the situation.

After analyzing a number of claims, Medicare came to the conclusion that it was paying for duplicate services. What a revelation! I could have told them that without a claims analysis.

For many years, certain surgical specialists have been delegating preoperative evaluations for “medical clearance” and postoperative management of everything but the incision to internists and hospitalists. Since the global fee was meant to include pre-and postop care, Medicare was indeed paying twice for the same service.

Representatives of the American College of Surgeons expressed concern that sicker patients would need more in-hospital postoperative visits thereby incurring more bills. [If they receive more care, maybe they should pay more.] They also worried that since postoperative care was covered under the global fee, patients might forgo office visits after surgery because of increased costs.

The unbundling of the global fee may have other unintended consequences. Since preoperative and postoperative care reimbursement will be separated from the fee for the operation itself, surgeons will be paid less for performing surgery.

Most surgeons would rather operate than make rounds and may look to perform more surgery to make up for the loss of income. This could end up costing Medicare more money.

With global payments, there is no incentive for a surgeon to keep a patient in the hospital longer than absolutely necessary. When the payment method changes, the exact opposite will exist. And surgeons who aren’t very busy might schedule more postoperative office visits to make up the difference caused by the reduction in the surgical fee.

This might all become moot anyway because Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell has proposed that 30% of Medicare payments be converted to a non-fee-for-service model by the end of next year rising to 50% by the end of 2018.

According to a news@JAMA article, doctors may be given incentives to join Accountable Care Organizations. Quality indicators such as readmissions and infections currently applied to hospital fees might be imposed on doctors too. More bundled payments for acute care illnesses may be created. [This of course is the exact opposite of the plan to unbundle global surgery fees. I'm getting confused].

One thing I'm sure of is that none of this is making me regret that I retired.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Cautionary tales about the matching process

Within the next two weeks, anxious fourth-year medical students will submit their residency choices to the National Residency Matching Program. I have written many posts about how to investigate residency programs and the workings of the match.

Here are a couple of stories about deception and disappointment. The first appeared as an anonymous comment on a post I wrote about how to rank surgical residency programs.

I am the spouse of a surgical resident halfway through their residency. When I hear of the idea of "vetting" the residency program as med school graduate, it makes me laugh and cringe. It's not really possible.

We were extremely concerned about not getting stuck in a malignant or toxic program. But these people must have been aware of how bad the program was, we thought the place had the happiest, friendliest people. What a facade.


Monday, February 9, 2015

Don't jump to conclusions about that JAMA surgical readmissions paper

On February 3, JAMA published a paper online about readmission rates after surgery. The focus of most tweets was on the most common cause for readmission—surgical site infections (SSIs)—in 19.5% of readmitted patients.

At first glance, this suggests that infection rates after surgery were 19.5%, but that is not so. The paper said that 19.5% of the readmissions were caused by infections.

Of 498,875 total operations reviewed, only 30,270 (6.1%) were readmitted for any reason, and only 5576 (1%) of all patients were readmitted for SSIs.

According to the full text of the paper, the authors had two main points:

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Overactive bladder: Is it a "disease"?


According to the Urology Care Foundation, the official foundation of the American Urological Association, 33 million Americans suffer from overactive bladder (OAB). That's 30% of all men and 40% of all women in the United States. The foundation estimates that the actual number is much larger because many people who have overactive bladder problems are embarrassed and do not seek care.

This represents a nearly twofold increase since 2001 when a paper written said 17 million people had the problem.

Its' not clear how either of the two sources cited above obtained their information.

Maybe you didn't know that there are two kinds of OAB. "Dry" is the one where the patient is able to get to the bathroom on time. "Wet" is the form that is accompanied by leakage of urine also known as the urge incontinence.

Here is something else you probably didn't know. The disease was virtually unknown before 1997.

Friday, January 30, 2015

It's that time of year again

Hopes are high; everyone is prepared; all the talk is over. The big day is finally here.

No, it's not about the Super Bowl. It's about the American Board of Surgery In-Training Examination (ABSITE).

Every year at the end of January, all surgical residents take a five-hour, 250 question multiple-choice test. For some, it can be a watershed moment because their very careers may be on the line.

I have written about the use of the ABSITE as a criterion for resident promotion. Whether you think it should be or not it is used that way—sometimes as the only criterion. You can bet that in a few weeks, some residency programs will post notices saying they are looking for a categorical PGY-2 or 3 due to an "unexpected" vacancy for July 2015.

Another attending surgeon and I used to take in-house call the night before the examination so that all of the residents could take the test after a decent night's sleep.

Now the test may be given on different days so that the entire group does not have to take it at once.

One difficult situation I faced as a program director was when I had a good clinical resident who just could not do well on a multiple-choice examination. I had to decide whether keeping a resident who scored at the 10th percentile was worth the gamble. Scoring in the 10th percentile or less on a regular basis means that the resident has a good chance of failing the written board examination.

Of course, the very nature of percentiles is that 10% of those who take the test will finish in the 10th percentile or below. Also, the failure rate of the written board examination has hovered around 25% for many years.

The problem for programs is that the Residency Review Committee for Surgery mandates that 65% of a program's graduating residents must pass both parts of the board examination on the first attempt.

Of the many things I do not miss about practicing medicine during this turbulent era, the palpable level of anxiety surrounding the buildup to the exam and waiting for the dreaded results to come back rank high on the list.

I wish all residents who are taking the test the best of luck. I hope you were reading all along and not trying to cram a year's worth of studying into the week before the test.

May you all score above the 50th percentile.