My Week in Words

Here’s a word cloud look at my last week, which was entirely telephone or virtual (video) visits given the COVID-19 pandemic. I took a compilation of all my notes, minus names and protected information of course. Many words did not fit, and I had to adjust the relative size of some words to include the most relevant ones.

More COVID-19 Coronavirus Thoughts

Photo of crown
Christian IV’s crown in Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Social distancing is strange when it hits home. The last time we had kids and grandkids over for dinner, about a month ago, we tended to hold back giving the usual hugs. Three people were in the medical profession and two lived 5 miles away from the nursing home in Kirkland that had the big outbreak. It was like an Agatha Christie whodunnit murder mystery and we were all suspects!

At work we’ve been careful to conserve supplies for quite a while, particularly to help out for the places that really need them.

When wearing a gown I couldn’t swipe my badge to log in and out of the computer as my badge was under the gown (if over then it risked touching the patient if I was examining them). I had to pull the reader to me. Face ID doesn’t work with a mask. Last month I saw a new patient, who happened to have a cold, so we both wore masks. Neither of us really saw what the other looked like. More recently most everyone wears masks.

I often check a patient’s throat when doing a routine exam, but would skip it if not really needed to avoid having to be relatively close while they may be actively exhaling in front of me. When I do a physical exam on men, I’d think twice about telling them to turn their head and cough!

We’ve quickly changed how we practice medicine. We try to screen patients to prevent potentially sick patients from coming in. It doesn’t always work. They may have already had an appointment to follow up on their diabetes, and not mentioned that they had a cough. A phone screener may have asked if they went to South Korea or Italy or had known exposure, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have exposure to someone sick that has yet to be diagnosed, and more recently travel history no longer matters. I documented any personal protective equipment (PPE) I used (mask, mask with eye shield, gloves, gown). That way if I later find out my patient was infected, I could look at what protection I wore. Because of equipment shortages I could not wear everything for every patient I see.

I purchased scrubs for the first time a few weeks ago. When I worked in the hospital many years ago, they provided them to us. Working in the clinic it was not considered acceptable attire for doctors. Because of the pandemic, administration authorized us to wear them. When I would get home, they would go straight to the washing machine, and I would head to the shower as a decontamination routine. We never made so much use of our LG Sidekick pedestal washer!

We’re heading towards doing telemedicine in a much bigger way. That protects our patients from being exposed coming in, and it protects health care workers, and other patients, from being exposed to sick patients. Various legal restrictions and how we are reimbursed has limited this, but now the government as temporarily removed many

restrictions and the government and private insurances are starting to pay for virtual healthcare. I was 17 minutes late the first time I did a case by phone. I was waiting for my nurse to check her in before I realized that I was supposed to call her! I also quickly realized that I needed to use my speaker phone as I could not type efficiently holding the phone with one hand. I’m now set up to do video visits from work or home, but it has been a challenge for many patients. The easiest way is to use a smart phone (iPhone or Android) and download the Epic MyChart app as we use Epic as our electronic medical record
(EMR). Then we can connect on our end using the Haiku app and have a secure video conference call. But some patients don’t have smart phones, and for those that do they often don’t understand that they need to download the app, and that there are a few steps they have to do on their end to actually connect. Some try to connect through MyChart on a browser, but that often doesn’t work. A couple of people couldn’t download the app because they didn’t remember their password for the app store. Another video app we’ve used, that is preferred by our legal department, is less intuitive and I’ve only been successful with it a few times. Occasionally we run into bandwidth issues and sound or video quality is not good. I’m not sure where the problem is, but I suspect it’s on the patient end as I’m connecting to a fast internet and Wi-Fi. When it works, though, it’s generally a good experience for patients and myself. Patients can show me a rash or swollen ankle. For both sides of a video conference, it’s helpful to have a good light source from the front. If it’s from the back one’s face is in the shadows. Try just using the rearview camera to get an idea of what you’ll look like (and what’s behind you!) beforehand. Although I think visits in person tend to be best, it’s certainly safer doing it virtually. Patients appreciate that, as well as the convenience.

People generally know that this pandemic has been hard on healthcare workers. What many people probably don’t realize is that in a healthcare organization a lot of others play important supporting rolls. As I serve on an informatics committee and am a Physician Builder, I’ve had a chance to see some of what’s going on. To place an order for a brand- new test, for example, some analyst had to build the functionality into our electronic medical record. There are many new workflows that were needed, including for telemedicine, and in the beginning the analysts were told we needed them yesterday.

Once a week I work with a family medicine resident to teach them geriatric medicine. I spoke with one last month that I wasn’t sure what was going to happen with her rotation since both I and my colleague were moving towards stopping seeing patients in the clinic. After she spoke with one of the faculty, they suggested she observe me doing telemedicine as I have a reputation for being good with computers. But how could I have her watch yet keep the recommended 6 feet of social distance? I did a test where I chatted with her over one of the apps and I was able to share the screen but then she went on vacation. I’m still trying to figure out a way that I can have a resident remotely do a video chat with the patient and myself. Not all the software we are using allows group video chats. Plus, I want it to be meaningful education for the residents.

I think this experience has brought increased camaraderie among doctors and others in healthcare, like serving together during war. Fortunately we have had less cases than expected in Washington so far, and we’ve not faced dire circumstances in my clinic.

Although it’s unpleasant to consider, on the plus side, this has finally got me to stop procrastinating and pushed me to get my estate plan and medical directive done.

Medical Pricing Transparency via Non-Transparent Rule

copyright 2015 Daniel Ginsberg PhotographyHidden in a 700-page draft regulation to improve patient’s access to their electronic medical records is a proposal to require doctors, hospitals, and other healthcare providers to publicly reveal the prices they have negotiated with insurers. This rule, tied to the 21st Century Cures Act, would set the stage for eventually making prices publicly available. Although price transparency may be a good way to help lower medical costs, it’s ironic that there is a lack of transparency when it comes to the proposed rule. I challenge you to read the Title, Summary, or Actions section and realize that it includes such a major change (hint – in the PDF document it’s on page 7513 of the Federal Register under Price Information).

On the face of it, making prices readily available sounds like a no-brainer, but I think it’s more complicated than that, and there may be unforeseen consequences. The rule is long and complex, and I don’t have the few days it would probably take me to really understand it, but let me play devil’s advocate. Some of the comments posted say that medicine is the only industry that hides the cost. To a certain extent that’s true, but this rule could go beyond just saying the price consumers pay. If you go to a restaurant they won’t reveal how much they paid for the the ingredients. If you book through a 3rd party website, they don’t tell you how much, if any, they pay them for the referral. When you buy a car the dealer usually doesn’t tell you if the automobile manufacturer is giving them a rebate. From the point of view of a business, the consumer shouldn’t get to know their internal costs as that’s secret competitive information.

What mitigates that argument is that the price of healthcare has gotten out of control. Despite being better educated about the matter than most, when it comes to getting healthcare for their own family I suspect most physicians struggle to understand their bills just like everyone else.

When it comes to pay, doctors are a commodity. For a given surgical procedure or office visit of a certain complexity, they are paid the same amount as mandated by Medicare or Medicaid, as negotiated with insurance companies, or their list price for the unfortunate cash patient. Just like any profession, some doctors are better than others. If you want to hire a top lawyer or an A list actor, you have to pay top dollar.  But that’s not so with much of healthcare. The price doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of the care.

Hospital systems mitigate that somewhat. They can negotiate higher prices with insurance companies and with large employers by demonstrating that they provide higher quality care and/or lower cost care, or because patient perceive them as providing superior care and they demand that that can get care from them. What will happen if the rule goes into affect and patients can easily compare prices? I don’t know, but potentially they might choose the lowest cost without regard to quality. That could lead to systems competing on price, cutting corners to do so, and ultimately lowering quality.

The lowest price might actually not be the path to cost savings. Imagine two surgeons. One of them charges $5,000 for a knee replacement, and operates on 60% of the patients seen for knee arthritis, treating the rest successfully with injections and physical therapy, which on average costs $1,000. The other charges $7,000, and operates on 50% of the patients seen and treats the rest successfully with the same conservative measures. Besides the physician fee, the hospital system charges $10,000 for the surgery. In this example, treating 100 patients would cost $940,000 for the first surgeon, and $900,000 for second. So even though the second surgeon charges 40% more than the first, on average the doctor ends up being cheaper when it comes to managing knee arthritis.

I’m inclined to support more transparency in healthcare pricing, but I don’t know how much of an impact it will have, and there may be unintended consequences.

Don’t expect to see published prices anytime soon. Even if the proposal goes forward, following a public comment period that ends May 3, it’s likely to be tied up in legal challenges for quite a while.

National Guideline Clearinghouse Goes Kaput

Although the practice of medicine has existed for thousands of years, it substantially improved with the implementation of the scientific method. Experiments and research studies improved diagnosis and treatment. Now so much information is published that no person can read everything unless, possibly, it’s limited to an extremely narrow subspecialty.  In addition, different studies can come up with opposing results, and it can be difficult to make sense of all the available information.

To remedy that, various groups have published guidelines to help clinicians decide what to do. For example, new guidelines for high blood pressure were recently published. The American Diabetes Association just updated their guidelines for Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes.

So how does one find out about existing guidelines, other than doing a web search or coming across it in a journal? Well in 1998 the National Guideline Clearinghouse was created. It formed a collection of guidelines that met minimum quality criteria. By June 2018 there were more than 2000 guidelines listed that could be searched by specialty. In July of 2018 all of that information became unavailable on the website because of federal government budget cuts.

The website was originally created by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), in partnership with the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Association of Health Plans (now America Health Insurance Plans).

In the last year of operation, the National Guideline Clearinghouse’s budget was about $1.2 million dollars. This is only about 1% of the money spent globally on developing guidelines, and an even much lower percentage of the cost of medical care. The guidelines can improve care and save money, but only if people can find them. Both my company’s electronic health record and my county medical society’s website have the National Clearinghouse Guidelines integrated to reach them with a click. I’m sure we’re not the only ones who routinely used it.

Perhaps a better repository can and will be built, but in the meantime I think the government should fund the National Guideline Clearinghouse and bring it back online.  This was not a case of trimming fat from the national budget, but a self-inflicted stroke where the government cut off the blood flow (money) to a portion of our collective brain. We’re the worse for it.

Remote Globe Puppy

crowned.tamed.raced

The New York times just ran a story about how Mongolia uses a system for their mail where each address consists of three words. A clever British start-up company What3Words divided a map of the world into 57 trillion pieces, each 9 square meters (about 10 x 10 feet), and assigned a 3 word combination to each one.

I checked the address of my office, and it’s crowned.tamed.raced. Given that each address takes up such a small area, I honed in on the map to where the actual rooms in my building are. Here are some of the address I came up with: remote.globe.puppy, patio.thin.ropes, living.quit.exit, castle.lofts.roses, famous.learns.cheek, and minds.agent.former.

I would say that as a geriatrician, living.quit.exit is a pretty good description of what I do, but from a marketing perspective, I’d have to go with remote.globe.puppy.

A High Tech Call Schedule

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Typical of many physicians, I have to take turns being on call. This mostly involves taking calls in the evening, at night, and on weekends for my patients, or those in my call group. I belong in a group with 6 other internal medicine doctors. We no longer have to go to the hospital to admit patients, since that is now done by dedicated hospitalists, but may answer calls about patients in our practice that show up in the emergency room, or are in a nursing home and having issues, or have significantly abnormal laboratory results that come back after hours.

My group takes call a week at a time, and the schedule is made each December for the following year. Each person in the call group submits a list of days they do not want to be on call, and the person making the schedule does their best to accommodate everyone. If someone needed to make subsequent changes, they would need to check the schedule and try and find someone to switch, or others would take their call in the event of a personal or family emergency. The call schedule was 12 pages of a printed calendar with the call person written for each day.

Last year the person making our schedules retired and I took over the duty, with the agreement that the schedule would be computer based. I created a Google Calendar, for the call schedule. I assigned each person their own color and created the schedule, after working it out on paper first to make sure I accommodated preferences, made the schedule as fair as possible in terms of amount of call and holiday coverage, and trying to spread out call.

Google_calendar

I sent out invitations through Google Calendar. Now everyone in the call group can see their schedule on their computer. They can also use an app on their phone, as shown below. If changes need to be made to the schedule they notify me or our office administrator to make changes to the calendar. Everyone in the group then automatically gets the updated version if they check their calendar.

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Recently I added a new twist. Having purchased the Amazon Echo, I added my Google Calendar to the app. Now I can ask Alexa what’s on my schedule, and she will read who is on call!

 

 

Epic SmartPhrases

If you do not use the electronic medical record Epic Hyperspace, this article is probably of no interest to you.

I previously wrote that I have done a lot of customizations to Epic. In this post I’ll explain how I use SmartPhrases. These are text, ranging from one word, to multiple pages of material, generated by typing the name of the SmartPhrase, preceded by a period.

My approach is to be modular in creating SmartPhrases, as I’ll demonstrate below. I also don’t like to pull in information into my note, such as past history, labs, etc. as the information is already in Epic and it just clutters up the note (I do bring in much of the information for physicals because I think that’s the one time it’s useful to have everything in one note. If acting as a specialist and doing a consultation I might do the same.) Unless I’m doing a physical, which has its own scripts, my baseline script is .soap which looks like this: Continue reading “Epic SmartPhrases”

Pierce County Medical Society Website Launch

Pierce County Medical Society LogoI’m proud to announce that today the Pierce County Medical Society (PCMS) went live with a newly redone website. I’ve been working on it for over a year.

There is a lot to see on the site. I’ve created a video that gives a tour of the site. It’s aimed at members, who see a link after logging on, but most of the content is useful for the general public, including how to use the Physician Search section to find a doctor in Pierce County.

Dangers of a Transparent Medical Record

Over the years there has been a push to allow more patient access to their records. Patients in our system that have signed up for MyChart with our electronic medical record Epic, can see most of their test results shortly after they are back, even if not yet reviewed by the physician who ordered them.

To avoid patients misinterpreting or reacting badly to the results, certain tests, such as HIV and pathology, are not automatically released. Although releasing the results automatically acts as a safeguard for abnormal results that may have been missed by the physician, it also opens the possibility of patients inappropriately acting on the results.

I’ve had patients make changes in their medications after seeing their results, and without even discussing it with me until their next visit. One patient who saw that his sleep study showed he had sleep apnea, borrowed a friends extra CPAP machine, adjusted the settings based on his research on the internet, then tried it out for 2 weeks!

As the saying goes, a little knowledge can be dangerous. Patients should use the information in their charts to inform them, and help ask educated questions, but not to replace their physician. There is often a lot more to making a diagnosis and deciding on a treatment than just looking at test results.

ifttt Medical Applications

I’ve started using the new web service ifttt. It stands for If This Then That. It allows one to use the internet to create various tasks in a If This Than That structure. The This part is what they call a Trigger. It’s the event that has to happen to trigger the task. Triggers can be such things as every time you add a video to your YouTube favorites or every time a photo is tagged with your name in Facebook.

If a task is triggered, then an Action is done. For example every time you add that YouTube favorite, an email is sent to your friend saying you found another YouTube gem, or you get a text message to your phone when you get a photo tagged in Facebook.

These Triggers and Actions come from what they call Channels. This includes such things as Facebook, Twitter, email, and phone calls. They currently have 41 Channels, and growing. This gives enormous possibilities.

Finally one can share created Tasks, in what they call Recipes, that others can download.

I created some recipes with medical tasks in mind. I wrote reminders to take one’s medications. This can be done with a text message or phone call. You could use it for yourself, or set up an account for a friend or family member that needs help remembering to take their pills. You can find the recipes at: http://ifttt.com/people/ginsberg.