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When you talk health reform, don’t forget quality and IT, in that order

In my previous post, I was perhaps a bit too critical of Maggie Mahar in her hosting of last week’s Health Wonk Review. I noted that there was not a word about health IT in that rundown, but that’s not her fault. A host can only include what’s submitted, and apparently nobody, myself included, who contributed to HWR bothered to submit a blog post about health IT this time around.

But I continue to be troubled by this fixation so many journalists, pundits, commentators, politicians and average citizens have on health insurance coverage, not actual care. I blame most of the former for the confusion among the populace. People within healthcare know that you can’t talk about reform without including the serious problems of quality and patient safety, and people within reform know that IT must be part of the discussion even if they don’t always say so.

I would like to draw your attention to a story of mine that appeared on InformationWeek Healthcare this morning, about a report on care integration from the esteemed Lucian Leape Institute. The report itself did not say a lot about IT, but the luminaries on the committee that produced the paper are aware of the importance.

I was lucky enough to interview retired Kaiser Permanente CEO David M. Lawrence, M.D., who told me there has been “little attention” paid to the importance of a solid IT infrastructure in improving care coordination and integration. “What you now have is too much data for the typical doctor to sift through,” Lawrence told me.

That’s exactly the message Lawrence L. Weed, M.D., has been trying to spread for half a century, as I’ve mentioned before. And that’s pretty much how longtime patient safety advocate Donald M. Berwick, M.D. — also a member of the Lucian Leape Institute committee that wrote the report — feels. Berwick hasn’t always advocated in favor of health IT in his writings and speeches, but he has told me in interviews that the recommended interventions in his 100,000 Lives Campaign and 5 Million Lives Campaign are more or less unsustainable in a paper world.

Isn’t about time more people understand that widespread health reform is impossible without attention to quality and that widespread quality and process improvements are impossible without properly implemented IT?

 

 

October 29, 2012 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 gets hung up on insurance

The last edition of Health Wonk Review prior to the Nov. 6 presidential election falls into the familiar big-media trap of portraying the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, as being only about health insurance and of effectively equating health insurance to healthcare. Let me repeat: insurance is not the same thing as care, and having “good” insurance does not guarantee good care.

This installment of HWR is awfully heavy on the insurance aspects of the ACA in the context of politics the election, which is not surprising, though host Maggie Mahar of the HealthBeat blog does at least consider comparative-effectiveness research, thanks to a contribution on the esteemed Health Affairs Blog.

My post, which includes the infographic from the movie “Escape Fire” showing how medical harm essentially is the No. 3 cause of death in the U.S., is almost an afterthought, but at least Mahar also includes an entry from Dr. Roy Poses about medical harm in clinical trials.

There’s nary a word on health IT, which really is a shame in the context of the election, especially given that several Republican members of Congress, including Sen. Tom Coburn, M.D. (R-Okla.), have publicly questioned whether “meaningful use” so far has led to higher utilization of diagnostic testing and thus higher Medicare expenses.

By the way, Healthcare IT News is currently running a poll that asks: “With four GOP senators calling on HHS to suspend MU payments, would health IT remain bipartisan if Romney became president?” The poll is on the home page, but even after voting, I couldn’t find the results. In any case, I personally believe health IT has enough bipartisan support for MU to continue.

I also believe that no matter who wins the presidency, Congress probably will remain divided for the next two years, with Democrats holding onto the Senate and the GOP retaining control of the House, so I don’t expect any controversial legislation to pass. A Romney administration possibly could put a hold on future MU payments or revise the Stage 2 rules, but never underestimate the power of the hospital  and physician lobby.

 

October 28, 2012 I Written By

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

Medical harm explained, in graphics and Farzad style

INDIAN WELLS, Calif.—Still think the United States has the “best healthcare in the world?” You clearly haven’t been paying attention.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal ran this excellent commentary from Johns Hopkins surgeon Dr. Marty Makary about how the broken culture of medicine is harming people. An excerpt:

I encountered the disturbing closed-door culture of American medicine on my very first day as a student at one of Harvard Medical School’s prestigious affiliated teaching hospitals. Wearing a new white medical coat that was still creased from its packaging, I walked the halls marveling at the portraits of doctors past and present. On rounds that day, members of my resident team repeatedly referred to one well-known surgeon as “Dr. Hodad.” I hadn’t heard of a surgeon by that name. Finally, I inquired. “Hodad,” it turned out, was a nickname. A fellow student whispered: “It stands for Hands of Death and Destruction.”

Makary went into a discussion of checklists, à la Gawande, and reporting of adverse events. “Nothing makes hospitals shape up more quickly than this kind of public reporting,” he said. Yep, a little shaming can be good for consumers. And shocking.

Now playing in a fairly small number of theaters and available on DVD, on demand and through iTunes is a new movie called “Escape Fire,” which takes its title from the Don Berwick book of the same name. I have not been to see it yet — soon — but the trailer is compelling. So is this graphic, which the movie’s producers are circulating on social media:

 

Still think we don’t have a problem with patient safety in this country? Not only haven’t you been paying attention, you also haven’t heard Dr. Farzad Mostashari tell the heart-wrenching story of accompanying his mother to an emergency department shortly after he joined the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology in 2009.

He couldn’t get answers about his mother’s condition from anywhere in the department, and not because the doctors and nurses didn’t want to do the right thing. “The systems are failing them,” Mostashari said Wednesday at the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) CIO Forum, where I am now.

Even as a physician, he felt like he would be imposing on the doctors and nurses on duty if he requested to look at his mother’s paper medical record to see what might be wrong. “There was something rude about trying to save my mom’s life by asking to see the chart. That’s messed up,” Mostashari said.

Yes, yes it is. And Mostashari later told me he shared that story for me, because I had told him right before he went on stage about the suffering my dad needlessly suffered in a poorly managed hospital in my dad’s last month of life. Journalists don’t often say this, but thank you, Farzad.

As it turns out, the CIO of the health system that owns the hospital that mistreated my dad is here. I introduced myself and gave a brief synopsis of what happened, in a non-confrontational way. I intend to follow up. The hurt of losing my dad is still fresh, but I feel inspired by the media soapbox I have.

I want to honor my dad’s legacy in a positive way. I want to help this hospital fix its terrible processes and toxic culture so others won’t have to suffer the way he did.

October 18, 2012 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: October Surprise edition

The newest installment of Health Wonk Review is up, courtesy of David Williams at the Health Business Blog, and my recent post about politicians perpetuating the myth that the U.S. has the “best healthcare in the world” is featured prominently. If you’re looking for anything else even vaguely related to health IT in this edition of HWR, you might be disappointed, but Williams offers a nice sampling of opinions on other topics that arose during the first presidential debate last week as well as a few ideas that could be considered part of overall health reform.

Speaking of health reform and politics, this morning I received a plea to donate money to the Romney campaign from the nutbars over at Docs4PatientCare. As a rule, I do not give money to any political candidates or to PACs because I want to maintain as much objectivity as possible for someone who occasionally calls people “nutbars.” Why do I say this about D4PC? A year and a half ago, I wrote this:

D4PC 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.

Today’s pitch, from Michael Koriwchak, M.D., who calls himself the HIT expert of the group, said, “ObamaCare came along with its promise to destroy our health care system.” I would love to know who made that promise, and why anyone thinks we have such a great “system” now. (Prominent Republican Mike Leavitt, HHS secretary in the Bush administration, has often said we do not have a healthcare “system,” but rather a poorly run, inefficient, dangerous healthcare “sector.”)

“Every dollar you give brings us a step closer to victory in November and the opportunity to replace ObamaCare with doctor-driven improvements to our health care system,” Koriwchak adds. Do we really want “doctor-driven” improvements when physicians won’t admit that they make far more mistakes than any advanced nation should tolerate? I want data-driven improvements.

“The voices of physicians who care for patients every day are now heard in Washington. This may be the last opportunity for you to take back control of your health care. Do you want your health care decisions to be made by you and your doctor, or by an indifferent bureaucrat in Washington?” Koriwchak concludes.

With all due respect, that argument has been beaten to death for years. No bureaucrat in Washington is going to be making care decisions any more than a bean counter at a private insurer does. And patients can’t “take back” control of their care because they don’t have much control now as long as defenders of the status quo in the medical establishment won’t let patients see their own health records and act like physicians are infallible.

Koriwchak kills the little credibility he has left by saying he has “participated in conversations” with several members of Congress and includes the nutty Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who famously formed her views against the HPV vaccine based on what some random woman told her after a debate last year during the GOP primary season.

“She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter. The mother was crying when she came up to me last night. I didn’t know who she was before the debate. This is the very real concern and people have to draw their own conclusions,” Bachmann said, without offering a shred of scientific evidence. But if you repeat a lie often enough, people start to believe it. Right, Dr. Koriwchak?

October 12, 2012 I Written By

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

Most ‘sentinel events’ caused by poor communication

LOS ANGELES—I’m on the west coast now, first for the  USC Body Computing Conference here Friday, and then for the annual Health 2.0 conference up in San Francisco Monday and Tuesday.

Friday there was a lot of talk of healthcare reform. One interesting — and plausible — idea I heard for the first time is that the new Medicare policy of denying reimbursements for preventable readmissions within 30 days of discharge for patients with heart attack, heart failure or pneumonia might have an unintended consequence: We’ll start seeing a lot of readmissions on or after Day 31.

The new policy is one of the many aspects of true reform in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act beyond the controversial insurance expansion. And there seems to be a loophole that you can be sure  a lot of hospitals will seek to exploit. Even if they don’t, it is hard to change patient behavior, so it’s likely many will come back to the hospital for the same condition, even if it’s not within 30 days.

More importantly, I heard some statistics presented by Stanford dermatology resident Michelle Longmire, M.D., about medical errors: 7o percent of all sentinel events in U.S. healthcare facilities — and there were 8,859 such events voluntarily reported to the Joint Commission between 1995 and the first quarter of 2012, meaning that many times more probably occurred —result from breakdowns in communication. Half occur during patient handoffs such as shift changes, specialist consultations and transfers to other wards or facilities, Longmire said.

I am convinced all the buffoonery that took place while my dad was hospitalized prior to his death was due to communication problems, poorly designed work processes and a culture of covering one’s posterior in an error-prone organization.

This happens far too often, yet some politicians who want to repeal “Obamacare” keep trying to convince the ignorant masses that American healthcare is just in need of a few tweaks.

At the Republican National Convention in August, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said the following: “”Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to end the debacle of putting the world’s greatest healthcare system in the hands of federal bureaucrats and putting those bureaucrats between an American citizen and her doctor.” PolitiFact.com generously rated this as “half true.” However, PolitFact itself noted that the World Health Organization rated U.S. healthcare as 37th of 191 countries in terms of “overall performance.” The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says we spend more on healthcare as a share of gross domestic product than any of the other 33 OECD countries. If that’s the “world’s greatest,” I’d sure hate to be worst.

Last week, during the first presidential debate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the very same Gov. Romney who championed near-universal health insurance coverage with an individual mandate in his home state — a plan first hatched by the conservative Heritage Foundation as an alternative to the Clinton healthcare reform proposal in 1993 — said this:

Look, the right course for — for America’s government — we were talking about the role of government — is not to become the economic player picking winners and losers, telling people what kind of health treatment they can receive, taking over the healthcare system that — that has existed in this country for — for a long, long time and has produced the best health records in the world.

Without getting into what the role of government should or should not do, our health records suck, Our record on producing healthier people is not so wonderful, either. So no matter what Romney meant by “best health records in the world,” he was lying.

I couldn’t help thinking he was playing to this crowd:

 

Now, this cartoon makes it seem like Obamacare is so wonderful. It’s not. As I’ve said before, having insurance does not mean you will get good care. Having “good” insurance that requires very little out-of-pocket for the patient doesn’t guarantee good care, either, nor does being a VIP. Recall the case of James Tyree, who died from a medical error at a prestigious teaching hospital he was on the board of. The late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) suffered a similar fate despite having “Cadillac” insurance coverage.

I’m going to repeat what is fast becoming my mantra: It’s quality, stupid.

UPDATE, Oct.8: Here’s a summary of what actually is in the Affordable Care Act, and when each provision takes effect, courtesy of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

 

October 7, 2012 I Written By

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

Podcast: This time, I’m the interviewee

In a rare turn of events, I’m the one being asked the questions on a podcast by Sivad Business Solutions, which hosts regular audio discussions on a variety of business topics. I give kind of a high-level view of health IT and offer my very strong opinions on patient safety and healthcare reform. There’s an interesting discussion about EHRs being designed to maximize reimbursements rather than assure safety.

Interestingly, we recorded this via Skype. I like the audio quality, if not the nasal quality of my own voice, more than usual that day.

Hopefully the embedded audio works. If not, click here.

September 18, 2012 I Written By

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

Podcast: Carrie Handley on patient empowerment with an iPad

Did you happen to catch my story in MobiHealthNews on Thursday about Carrie Handley, the IT consultant-turned-cancer patient? She got frustrated with first a misdiagnosis and then the hassle of lugging around a binder full of paper records that she had to go to multiple sites to collect to assure continuity of care during her treatment and surgeries. So Handley digitized all her records.

Initially, she transported the information on a USB drive, but that got lost in a doctor’s lab coat. Then, her son brought over an iPad. The tablet provided the right balance of portability and shareability. In this interview, Handley, a resident of Waterloo, Ontario (you know, the home of BlackBerry maker Research in Motion), describes the process and shares her thoughts in general on mobility in healthcare.

We wouldn’t have connected if she hadn’t read my tribute to my dad last month. After reading Handley’s story in the e-mail she sent me, I knew we had to do this podcast to help spread the idea that communication can help foster the kind of patient-centric care that eluded my dad, that initially eluded her and that probably eludes millions of people every year.

This Sunday is Father’s Day. I miss my dad terribly. But I take comfort in knowing that I’m doing a small part to raise awareness of multiple system atrophy (MSA) — the rare neurodegenerative disease that killed him — and perhaps advancing the cause of patient safety ever so slightly.

Podcast details: Interview with health IT consultant and cancer survivor Carrie Handley about mobility in healthcare. MP3, mono, 128 kbps, 26.7 MB. Running time 29:13.

June 14, 2012 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 reform is so much more than insurance

The headline above shouldn’t surprise regular readers or anyone who knows me. I’ve been saying for a couple of years to anyone who asks me about “Obamacare” or any other aspect of healthcare reform—and many people who haven’t asked—that the public debate and media coverage have been about insurance reform, not care reform, and health insurance is not the same thing as healthcare. I’ve publicly chided the national media, too.

Maybe that is changing. Last month, attorney Philip K. Howard, chairman of advocacy group Common Good (an organization working to “fill the substance void in the 2012 election by offering new solutions to fix broken government”), wrote in The Atlantic that no matter what the Supreme Court does with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, healthcare still will remain inefficient and expensive. “The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, strives for universal coverage. While it encourages pilots for more efficient delivery systems, the overall effect is to exacerbate the unaffordability of American health care. In this sense, the upcoming Supreme Court decision on constitutionality is just a side skirmish,” Howard said.

In other words, as I’ve been arguing for two years, the insurance expansion of this supposed comprehensive “healthcare reform” legislation is simply throwing more money at the same problem. Having insurance doesn’t assure you good care, nor will it by itself even reduce overall costs. It just shifts costs. There was more reform in the HITECH section of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, in the form of the $27 billion incentive program for “meaningful use” of electronic health records than there is in the part of the ACA being widely debated in this election year.

That’s why, as I pointed out Friday, I was happy to see that investigative journalism organization ProPublica has started a Facebook community for people to share stories of patient harm. And today, the New York Times discussed actual healthcare quality in one of its Sunday editorials (h/t Jane Sarasohn-Kahn). The Times highlighted efforts at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and hospital alliance Premier, saying, “It is a measure of how dysfunctional the system has become that these successful experiments — based on medical sense, sound research and efficiencies — seem so revolutionary.” Indeed.

By the way, my recent, controversial post arguing that faxing should be considered malpractice isn’t a new thought I’ve had. I just rediscovered my January 2011 commentary in Columbia Journalism Review about media coverage of telephone-based “telemedicine.” I ended the piece by advising fellow journalists to “start asking the health-care organizations you cover why they still rely on old-fashioned telephones and fax machines.” Malpractice or not, legal or not, it’s more than a decade into the 21st century, yet we still view healthcare through a 20th-century lens.

Or, as I also like to say, it’s quality, stupid.

June 3, 2012 I Written By

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

Facebook community for reporting patient harm

Kudos to investigative journalism organization ProPublica (yes, some journalists still have integrity today) — and a hat tip to HealthLeaders for bringing it to my attention — for setting up a Facebook community for people to report stories of patient harm. I’ve just shared the story of my dad’s torturous final month. I’m glad that a news organization with wide reach beyond the healthcare and technology industries cares about real stories, not distractions related to insurance coverage and partisan politics.

The group now has 661 members. There really should be 1,000 times as many. Please join and share your own stories, then help get the word out about the poor state of U.S. hospital care. (Note that I only accept Facebook friend requests from people I know personally.)

June 1, 2012 I Written By

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

NPR examines hospital quality problem

I knew my dad was not alone in experiencing poor hospital care. Thousands of people are harmed in hospitals every week. Yet, some politicians and pundits still insist America has the “best healthcare in the world.”

Just this morning, NPR helped dispel this myth with a report on the myriad problems with U.S. healthcare—including the quality problem. Read and listen here. And share with your friends both inside and outside the healthcare industry. Share my dad’s story. Share your own stories. Let’s make this priority No. 1. Too many people die and suffer unnecessarily  in this country.

May 21, 2012 I Written By

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