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Slams on Berwick are getting pathetic

The slams on Dr. Donald Berwick, frankly, are getting pathetic.

Today, Fox News medical contributor Dr. Marc Siegel dismissed Berwick as a “basically a policy wonk” who “hasn’t really practiced since 1989.” Siegel tried to score points with sound bites. “This guy has more quotes than Yogi Berra, and let me tell you something, these quotes are an indictment on people that want clinicians to make decisions,” Siegel said on Fox this afternoon.


According to Siegel, comparative effectiveness “doesn’t work in the real world.” Well, sure, that’s the point of clinical decision support. Best practices are for common conditions, and clinical decision support is to help physicians either follow best practices in the case of common conditions or, just as importantly, diagnose and treat ailments that they don’t often see. (Read Dr. Atul Gawande’s best seller,  “Complications,” for a description of the chaos that ensues when physicians see rare cases.)

Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly tried to feign fairness by saying of President Obama’s recess appointment that installed Berwick as CMS administrator last year, “lots of presidents do it.” But she later said that that Berwick “loves” the British National Health System, trying to paint Berwick as a socialist. Once again, this isn’t about socialism or capitalism or any other ism that has unfortunately been the focus of “health reform” in this country. It’s about trying to improve the quality of care. (It’s not about insurance, no matter how many politicians or pundits say so.)

Defending Berwick was Dr. Cathleen London, a family practitioner at the Weill Cornell Iris Cantor Women’s Health Center in New York City. London took issue with Berwick’s opponents relying on sound bites to make their thin arguments. (Siegel smugly laughed this off.)

When Kelly again tried to tie Berwick to the NHS, London said, “He likes that we do evidence-based medicine, that the British have NICE that actually oversees what the NHS should cover and shouldn’t.” Yes, the British National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) is an independent advisory board that helps the NHS make coverage decisions. You know, the same way any insurance system, public or private, has to decide what and what not to cover.

To his credit, Siegel praised Berwick’s work at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement for helping to reduce deaths in hospitals. “He’s apparently very well liked among patient safety advocates,” Kelly added.

London noted that former CMS Administrator Tom Scully, a George W. Bush appointee, is a fan of Berwick. Still, Siegel continued on his argument that comparative effectiveness is restributive in that it takes healthcare away from some people. “You’re not going to be able to pay for very expensive care,” Siegel said.

Why exactly would we want very expensive care in cases where less expensive but equally effective treatments are available? Is it because of the public perception that more expensive care automatically means better care? It sounds like Siegel is either trying to perpetuate that myth or protect the profits of pharmaceutical and device manufacturers. But then he made the salient point that “insurance is overused” and that healthcare reform, which he derides as “ObamaCare,” did little to address that problem.

All that says is that both sides of the political debate are wrong, and the Senate Democrats are cowards for not standing up for better care.

March 23, 2011 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

The Onion nails healthcare for slow EMR adoption

Satirical newspaper The Onion (“America’s Finest News Source”) is on its game once again. Many of you probably have already seen the story from last week, headlined, “Quick-Lube Shop Masters Electronic Record Keeping Six Years Before Medical Industry.” (I tweeted about it over the weekend and some other healthcare blogs have posted it.)

An excerpt:

“We figured that a basic database would help us with everything from scheduling regular appointments to predicting future lubrication requirements,” said the proprietor of the local oil-change shop, Karl Lemke, who has no special logistical or programming skills, and who described his organizational methods, which are far more advanced than those of any hospital emergency room, as “basic, common-sense stuff.” “We can even contact your insurance provider for you to see if you’re covered and for how much, which means we can get to work on what’s wrong without bothering you about it. The system not only saves me hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, but it saves my customers a bundle, too.”

“In other words, we’re so pathetic that a bunch of young joke writers in NYC who almost never go to the doctor have noticed,” the insightful Michael Millenson notes via email.  Millenson also points out that this is not the first time The Onion has made light of quality problems in hospitals. He referred to a 2005 article with the headline, “‘Employees Must Wash Hands’ Signs Top Iraqi Hospital Wish List.” The story said, “‘We appreciate the bedding, laundry-sanitization equipment, window glass, penicillin, needles, wall-repair materials, and so on, but without clean hands, none of these mean anything.’ Al-Obaidi said the importance of hand-washing could not, unlike doctors and nurses, be overstressed.”

Yes, we’re so pathetic that a bunch of young joke writers who almost never go to the doctor noticed six years ago that hand-washing in hospitals can save lives. Yet, clinicians in the U.S. routinely slip up in this department. (Paging Don Berwick yet again!)

March 22, 2011 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

More reasons why CMS needs Berwick

On Jan. 28, Ron Pollack, executive director of the liberal advocacy group Families USA, introduced President Obama at a Families USA event by saying, “Numerous presidents over many decades tried to secure health reform legislation that would move us toward high-quality, affordable healthcare for all Americans. You, Mr. President, actually achieved it.”

The crowd ate it up.

During the contentious debate over health reform in 2009 and 2010, countless lobbyists, pundits and politicians touted “quality healthcare” as a reason to pass the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Some called for the same “Cadillac” health plans that members of Congress provided for themselves. Many opponents of the legislation countered by saying the U.S. already has the “best healthcare in the world.”

The problem was not one of philosophical differences. The problem was a misunderstanding of a basic fact: health insurance is not the same thing as health care.

Still, politicians keep making the same mistake over and over, and the mass media keep giving them a free pass.

Anyone in the healthcare industry knows that the United States does not have the best healthcare in the world. We have the most expensive care in the world. (Another myth often passed off as truth is that more care and more expensive care automatically equals better care.) Having a “Cadillac” health plan won’t assure you better care, either. Just ask the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), who, as a member of Congress had such a plan, but still likely died as a result of a surgical error last year.

Another such episode occurred last week. James C. Tyree, chairman and CEO of financial services firm Mesirow Financial, died Wednesday at the University of Chicago Medical Center at age 53. Though Tyree had stomach cancer and pneumonia, the official cause of death was an intravascular air embolism, the result of an improperly removed catheter. That’s one of the National Quality Forum’s so-called “never events.”

As the chief executive of a financial firm, Tyree no doubt had the resources and the insurance to get what some people might call “good, quality care.” He also happened to be on the board of the U of C Medical Center, the very same institution that was so proud of being named one of U.S. News and World Report’s best hospitals in America. Yes, even at the “best” hospitals, mistakes happen, and they happen to people with money and connections.

This is yet another reason why CMS needs someone with a long record of quality improvement, even at institutions with supposedly sterling reputations. Someone like Don Berwick.

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read the defense of Berwick that I wrote last week so you understand why politics is hijacking better healthcare in America.

March 20, 2011 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

Spring training for Health Wonk Review

 

The sun is shining here in Chicago and the mercury is supposed to hit 60 degrees today for the first time in months. That could mean only one thing: Spring is in the air, and hope springs eternal, even for the star-crossed Cubs. Though it’s still spring training, noted Yankees fan Glenn Laffel of the Pizaazz blog is in midseason form as he hosts this week’s Health Wonk Review, with an all-star lineup of contributors.

My impassioned defense of Don Berwick makes the big-league roster among the sluggers (health policy), while health IT gets its due respect as a disruptive force by being categorized as the base-stealers.

Of note, longtime HIT blogger Shahid Shah, known as the Healthcare IT Guy, talks security. “I hear a lot of naive talk about how systems are secure because ‘we use SSL encryption’ or ‘we’re secure because we have a firewall.’  Anybody who’s been security and privacy work for more than a few months would know how false those statements are,” he writes. To continue the baseball analogy, it’s like a pitcher making a couple of light tosses over to first to keep the base runner honest, then leaving the next pitch out over the middle of the plate.

And now back to an afternoon of watching basketball, er, I mean, answering e-mail or something. o:-)

 

March 17, 2011 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

Berwick political saga is a tragic attack on better healthcare

President Barack Obama has made plenty of mistakes in his first two-plus years in office, but none may be more serious for the future of America than his decision to install Donald M. Berwick, M.D., as a recess appointment to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in July 2010.

Berwick really is a great choice to head CMS, but the underhanded nature of the recess appointment has provided fodder for all kinds of uninformed ideologues and assorted nut jobs to attack Obama’s healthcare reform efforts. Just as CMS is gearing up to release widely anticipated proposed regulations for Accountable Care Organizations, we get the sad news that that Berwick’s days are numbered.

After refusing to allow Berwick to testify before the Senate last year, Obama renominated Berwick on Jan. 26. Newly empowered Republicans went on the attack. “The White House’s handling of this nomination—failing to respond to repeated requests for information and circumventing the Senate through a recess appointment—has made Dr. Berwick’s confirmation next to impossible,” the widely respected Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said, according to American Medical News.

On March 4, Politico reported that Senate Democrats had given up on the nomination, despite the fact that Berwick had the support of the Medical Group Management Association, the American Hospital Association, the American Public Health Association and, notably, the Republican-leaning American Medical Association and America’s Health Insurance Plans.

How did this happen?

As I wrote last November when Republicans proposed de-funding of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, a key element of real reform in the widely misunderstood “healthcare reform” legislation (the main misunderstanding is that insurance is not the same thing as care):

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, widely referred to as “healthcare reform” and mocked by some as a government takeover of healthcare, aka “ObamaCare,” is not popular in Republican circles. That’s no secret.

It’s also well known that, in their drive to repudiate everything Obama, many Republicans, giddy over their victory in last week’s midterm election, have said they want to repeal the PPACA in its entirety, throwing out the baby with the bathwater. (You know, our healthcare system is wonderful the way it is, so we didn’t need any changes in the first place.)

What really got me was the news that some of the more conservative and libertarian elements of the GOP are specifically threatening to pull the $10 billion in funding already authorized for the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, a CMS program created by the PPACA. This is a center that CMS Administrator Dr. Donald Berwick has called “the jewel in the crown” of the reform bill, and Berwick has unfairly been labeled a socialist, granny-killing pariah by some right-wing zealots who have no idea of his life-saving work at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement.

The new Republican-majority House of Representatives could not make a bigger mistake than defunding the Center for Health Innovation. For years, conservatives have complained of Medicare’s plodding bureaucracy impeding innovation—you know, the very thing the program is intended to foster.

What the PPACA does is allow CMS, via this new innovation center, to try new ideas without having to make sure their experiments are budget-neutral from the start. (The requirement for budget neutrality is why Medicare pay-for-performance and pay-for-prevention initiatives have never really gotten off the ground.) And CMS no longer has to be content with small demonstrations. Instead, the Center for Medicare Innovation is authorized to run wider-scale pilots and then seek congressional appropriations to ramp up any program that proves successful in producing better care for less money.

That’s how you bend the cost curve, a favorite term in policy circles. Killing the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation would just perpetuate the ugly status quo.

That commentary drew five responses on the site, four of which were negative. And every last one of the negative comments were written anonymously. The only commenter to list a name also happened to be the lone supportive response.

I am in no way surprised. Politically motivated lies abound about Berwick, and few of the critics want to be held accountable for misleading the public.

The week before last, I was somewhat critical of the Lucidicus Project and Jared M. Rhoads, who hosted the most recent Health Wonk Review. He did a fine job hosting HWR, but in scanning some earlier posts on the Lucidicus site—hewing closely to confused, angry, misguided ideology of the tea party—I noticed something that got my blood boiling.

On Jan. 27, Rhoads wrote that Berwick was “on a one-way path,” a path that leads to socialism and a government takeover of healthcare. “Without free-market solutions on the table, the one-way march to an NHS-like system will continue. Berwick has just one solution in mind for the problems created by government: more government.”

He also wrote, “Berwick is openly enamored of the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS) model, in which the government essentially makes decisions for people about the care that they receive, and in which patients can be penalized for attempting to pay for additional care out of their own pockets. The system is characterized by bureaucracy, rationing, and redistribution of wealth and resources.”

At least give Rhoads credit for not cowardly hiding behind a cloak of anonymity.

Yes, it is true that Berwick has publicly spoken of his admiration for the NHS, but it was more about the British decision to make quality improvement a key element of healthcare than it was about a desire to bring an entirely government-run system to the United States. In my post about that edition of HWR, I asked if Berwick hadn’t done more to prevent needless deaths and adverse events than pretty much anyone else alive today.

That’s the same question I asked in an e-mail to the anti-reform (read “crackpot”) group called Docs4PatientCare. Why do I say crackpot? The Atlanta-based organization contacted me last fall with links to a series of videos, including one from group representative Scott Barbour, M.D. According to the original pitch to me, “Utilizing quotes from Dr. Berwick, Dr. Barbour exposed that, ‘He is not interested in better health care. He is only concerned about implementing his socialist agenda.’”

In another video, Docs4PatientCare Vice President Fred Shessel, M.D., said of Berwick, “This is a man who has made a career out of socializing medicine and rationing care for the very young, the very old and the very sick. It is a backdoor power grab. It is dragging our country down the road to socialism and we should resist it.”

I responded to this pitch with a short question: “Berwick isn’t interested in better care? Do you know anything about his work at IHI?” I never got a response. Docs4PatientCare seemingly was trying to hoodwink media that don’t know any better and/or care more about politics than facts.

Here are the facts, from another piece I wrote last year:

A longtime champion of patient safety, Berwick co-founded the Institute of Healthcare Improvement in 1989 and led it until he became CMS administrator by virtue of a controversial “recess appointment” in July 2010, preventing the Senate from questioning him about his views. At IHI, Berwick created and championed the 100,000 Lives Campaign, an effort to prevent that many deaths in an 18-month period by getting thousands of U.S. hospitals to follow simple, preventive safety measures voluntarily. The program later turned its focus to nonlethal adverse events and became the 5 Million Lives Campaign. Berwick is a pediatrician who also holds a master’s degree in public policy.

In kicking off the 100,000 Lives Campaign in December 2004, Berwick made the following audacious challenge to American hospitals: “I think we should save 100,000 lives. I think we should do that by June 14, 2006. 9 a.m.” At that appointed hour 18 months later, he announced that the campaign had prevented 122,300 unnecessary deaths. Berwick was careful not to make IT a prerequisite for participating in either campaign, but he’s come to see the benefits of EMRs and clinical decision support. Now, as head of CMS, he effectively leads the “meaningful use” incentive program. Though the Stage 1 rules were mostly done by the time he took the reins, you can be sure Berwick will be pushing for true quality improvement in subsequent stages of meaningful use.

The key word in the above passage is “voluntary.” There were no mandates when the private-sector IHI encouraged hospitals to do what is right for patients.

Months later, Berwick has indeed been pushing for true quality improvement in meaningful use. I’ll have more on that later in the week.

March 14, 2011 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

Poll for new national coordinator is rather laughable

Leave it to those in the ivory tower of Modern Healthcare to screw up something as simple as an unscientific poll about who should be the next national coordinator for health IT.  The poll lists a whopping two dozen names, ranging from the obvious—Dr. John Halamka, Dr. Paul Tang, current deputy national coordinator Dr. Farzad Mostashari—to the dark horse—Dr. Robert Hitchcock of T-System, Paula Gregory of the “Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicince” (sic)—and even a few laughable listings.

For one thing, Dr. David Brailer is on the list. The first national coordinator (2004-06) left Washington because he wanted to be with his family in San Francisco. He’s currently running a $700 million equity investment firm and couldn’t possibly want to get back into the political game, could he? Besides, he’s a Republican. Dr. William Hersh, CMIO of Oregon Health and Science University, would make a good choice, but he’s already said he doesn’t want the job.

Another choice is current CMS Adminstrator Dr. Donald Berwick. Dirty politics is about to force him out, and if that happens, you can bet he won’t want to be within 400 miles of Washington. (Hey, that just happens to be the distance to his home in the Boston area.) I’m really steamed about the Berwick situation, and am preparing  a separate post that hopefully will go up tomorrow.

Modern Healthcare also includes Janet Marchibroda, who’s identified as chief healthcare officer of IBM. Sorry, but Marchibroda, former CEO of the eHealth Initiative, left IBM last year. My sources tell me she’s now working at ONC, serving as de facto chief of staff to current coordinator Dr. David Blumenthal. (Blumenthal, as you no doubt know, is leaving in April.)

Missing from the long list of names is Johns Hopkins CIO Stephanie Reel, who won in a landslide the equally informal, unscientific poll that HIStalk ran a couple weeks ago. HIStalk did report, though, that Allscripts effectively stuffed the ballot box. Also not included is Blumenthal’s predecessor, Dr. Robert Kolodner, but he doesn’t want to go back, either.

I’m not going to run another survey here (hey, I doubt I have the readership to make it worthwhile anyway), but I’m curious if people think a non-physician could or should be national coordinator.

March 10, 2011 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

Health Wonk Review: Reform edition

Though I don’t really think the “historic,” recently enacted legislation on health insurance is true “reform,” the latest edition of Health Wonk Review, hosted by Rich Elmore at Healthcare Technology News, focuses on this subject. (Elmore has several images of pigs flying. I’ll have more later on why I don’t think this is such a landmark event.)

My column in FierceHealthIT about the implications for health IT with Don Berwick being chosen to head CMS is one of the posts reviewed. I guess that makes me a wonk.

April 1, 2010 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

My take on Berwick heading CMS

Here’s what I have to say, in FierceHealthIT, about Dr. Don Berwick being named CMS administrator: http://www.fiercehealthit.com/story/cms-chief-berwick-will-embrace-it-long-it-improves-quality/2010-03-29

Your feedback is appreciated.

March 29, 2010 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

CMS update

Everybody is looking for information about Charlene Frizzera. You can stop. The bottom line is that CMS will not be making a bio available.

CMS spokesperson Peter Ashkenaz informs me that Frizzera’s role as acting administrator is, just that, purely administrative. Until a permanent CMS administrator is in place, Frizzera, the chief operating officer and a career professional, will essentially be “making sure the trains run on time,” according to Ashkenaz.

As seems to be traditional when the incumbent party loses the White House, one of President Obama’s first acts in office was to halt all pending Bush administration regulations for internal review. That means no federal department or agency will be issuing any new rules or finalizing anything in the works until the Obama administration says so, and that won’t happen in CMS until Obama has his choice in place.

Now who is going to head CMS on a permanent basis? Al Kamen wrote last Friday in the Washington Post that quality guru Don Berwick, Robert Berenson of the Urban Institute and current Medicare Payment Advisory Commission Chairman Glenn Hackbarth are under consideration.

CMS had no comment on that rumor.

January 21, 2009 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

‘Modest’ feedback

A couple of months ago, I posted, “A modest proposal,” my observations about a session on clinical decision support from the American Medical Informatics Association annual meeting. In it, I argued that medical informatics needed a rock star of sorts to help humanize the issue of clinical decision support and communicate the benefits of such technology to the general public.

I got three comments on that post—actually pretty high for this blog—as well as several e-mails. One correspondent said we need more than a rock star, we need the whole band. I passed that comment on to Dr. Bill Bria, CMIO of Shriners Hospitals for Children, who was part of the panel at the AMIA meeting, who told me that he once led an all-physician rock band called the Straight Caths. It still may take the Rolling Stones or perhaps an entire Woodstock to make some of the changes American healthcare needs. Then again, Thursday is Elvis’ birthday.

One non-physician wrote: “That was terrific. Thanks! Except, while I don’t disagree, maybe if they learned to speak English, too, it would help.” Actually, Joan Ash of the Department of Medical Informatics and Clinical Epidemiology at Oregon Health and Science University made a similar point in said AMIA session.

CareGroup Healthcare System CIO Dr. John Halamka, himself a rock star in health IT circles for his incredible ability to juggle so many responsibilities (and perhaps for his Johnny Cash wardrobe), pointed me to one of his blog posts about his idea for ASP-style “decision support service providers”

One vendor executive wrote: “Its a shame that these guys seem to believe that CDS just means medication decision support when there are many other steps that use and benefit from DS.” This writer said there should be more of a focus on diagnosis decision support. The e-mail also included a quote from Dr. Donald Berwick: “Genius diagnosticians make great stories, but they don’t make great health care. The idea is to make accuracy reliable, not heroic”

Just think, a well-implemented clinical decision support system could finally give Cuddy a reason to fire House. I think about that every time I watch that show. It’s sad that trial and error can produce such great television.

January 6, 2009 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.