Listen More

My first posting on this blog explained why I chose to name it “Auscultation.”  I wrote that I wanted to promote a conversation, and that listening was essential to doing so. I went on to write: “With an obvious nod to my being a cardiologist, I believe auscultation has long been an act that defines us as physicians and connects us in a profound way with our patients. The act of leaning in, touching the patient, listening, concentrating, and interpreting is a powerful metaphor for the entire clinical encounter: getting close to the patient and listening.”

It is therefore no wonder that I was really pleased to read “The Physical Examination and the Fifth Maneuver” by Thomas Metkus in a recent issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. The piece appeared in the “fellows in training and early career page” in the Journal, which regularly features articles by trainees about their experiences, and was a mature and robust defense of the importance of developing auscultatory skills. Metkus alludes to Osler’s model of physical diagnosis, the first four maneuvers of which are inspection, percussion, palpation and auscultation. The fifth – and arguably most important – is cognition, the intellectual exercise of putting it all together.

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More Ammunition

I have never been a fan of dietary supplements. In fact, I have spent many hours trying to talk my patients out of taking nearly all of them. My reasons for doing so are based on both my conservative approach to medical therapies in general, and on my skepticism about these products in particular. A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine gave me more ammunition to oppose their use.

Here’s what I mean by a “conservative approach” to medical therapies. I believe that there should be a good reason, backed by good evidence, to take any medication – prescribed or over the counter. Since every medication (or supplement, herb, vitamin, mineral, etc.) carries some risk of adverse side effects, and costs some money, I have never ascribed to the “it can’t hurt” school of thought. “Why not?” has never seemed to me a compelling reason to recommend or prescribe anything. There is a profound lack of reliable evidence supporting the use of the vast majority of OTC supplements that patients take.

This is of course compounded in the common scenario where people are taking multiple prescribed medications or OTC products, in which there is also a real risk of unanticipated interactions among compounds.

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No Kidding

I tend to “batch read” medical journals. I usually set aside some time on Sunday mornings, after the New York Times and before the Giants kick-off to skim the cardiology journals that I still get. This past Sunday I saw something in Circulation that caught my eye.

The title of the article was “Medication initiation burden required to comply with heart failure guideline recommendations and hospital quality measures” and it was apparently deemed important enough by the editors to have an accompanying editorial called “Rethinking the focus of heart failure quality measures.” Both were authored by luminaries in the field. The punch-line? Lots of patients admitted to the hospital with heart failure need to start one or more new medications to meet guideline recommendations and hospital heart failure quality measures. This is, of course, hard to pull off, because of the challenges associated with “managing polypharmacy” and “heart failure transitional care.”

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Improving the Evidence

All good physicians want to do the right thing. They want to recommend effective therapies to their patients that will improve outcomes or alleviate symptoms. It is widely accepted that the best way to discover new effective therapies is through the use of clinical trials. Among clinical trials, the reference standard is the randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial, which is designed to minimize bias in the selection of therapies or the interpretation of results.

I have written before about the limitations of clinical research in advancing medical practice. As I have said, it is literally impossible to study every clinically relevant question, and it is also impossible even in theory to use randomized controlled trials as the methodology for many of the questions that can be studied.

A recent article in the New York Times highlighted another challenge to the paradigm of clinical trials as the engine for improving medical practice. The piece was about a change in policy at the National Institutes of Health, being implemented by Michael Lauer, the “newly appointed deputy director for extramural research.” In the interest of full disclosure, I have known Mike for many years (we were cardiology fellows in the same program at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital in the late 1980’s) and you would be hard-pressed to find a nicer, smarter or more upstanding guy.
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Who’s in Charge Here?

I spent a couple of hours today discussing a topic that has become increasingly important in the world in which we live, and which would have completely mystified an earlier generation of physicians. The subject was “attribution.” Simply put, how should one decide which patients “belong” to which doctors? On a more technical level, what algorithms should be employed to connect patients, or episodes of care for those patients, or specific quality measures pertaining to those patients, to particular physicians?

Here’s why this is a hot topic. CMS is moving rapidly to alternative payment models. Medicaid is transitioning to a capitated system. Commercial payers are entering into “risk” arrangements with providers. All around us, fee for service is losing sway and is being replaced by a spectrum of new ways to pay for care. In the “old world” of fee for service, whoever provided the service got the fee. There was no mystery about how the dollars should flow. In the “new world” all that changes. In many instances, payments are linked to quality measures. So, for example, physician groups or integrated health systems may be subject to penalties or earn bonuses depending on how “their” patients do. Too many readmissions? Penalty. Excellent blood pressure control? Bonus. Simple enough in theory but complicated in practice.
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Leadership Development

One of the things that I am most proud of about the North Shore–LIJ Health System is our institutional commitment to leadership training. There are lots of examples, but the best I know of are the “high potentials program” for administrators and the “leadership development program” for physicians. Both accept a fraction of nominated individuals, and provide a variety of support services, classroom training and mentorship to participants. Not surprisingly, the programs get rave reviews and the graduates are sprinkled in leadership roles throughout the organization.

I was recently asked to address a group of about 50 participants from both programs as part of a series called “executive forums,” in which a senior executive tells his “personal leadership story” and does a Q&A with the attendees. Sounds good except – because of some crossed lines of communication – I didn’t realize that was the expectation until I had little or no time to prepare. As it turned out, I am glad I didn’t have more time.
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Guide for the Perplexed

It is clear that the way that health care gets paid for in the United States is undergoing rapid change. What is not at all clear, at least not to me, is exactly what the payment model will look like in the future, or how far off that future is. Although everybody agrees with Yogi’s assessment that “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” this exercise seems particularly challenging because of the wide variety of “alternative payment models,” likelihood that they will co-exist, and the prevalence of regional differences.

It is because of this complexity that I found a recent paper in the Annals of Internal Medicine to be helpful. It is a simple “field guide” to different payment models that starts with distinguishing the “unit of payment” (e.g., per unit of time, per episode of care, per beneficiary, etc.) and then uses these to review efforts at payment reform over time.

I found this helpful in keeping all of these things straight in my head, and I liked the way it started from “first principles.” I think it is worth the read.

What do you think?

Live, from NY…

Back in June, I wrote that “I support the public reporting of validated survey data from real patients” and I am now proud to report that our Medical Group is actually doing it.

Last week we went live with patient satisfaction scores and patient comments on our “find-a-doc” website. Here’s how it works. We contract with a nationally recognized company to send surveys to patients who have seen one of our physicians for an outpatient visit. If we have the patient’s email address, we have the survey sent electronically; if not, it is mailed to a random sample. The survey asks patients about a wide variety of issues associated with the visit, and includes 10 questions specifically about the interaction with the physician. Patients are also asked to add a comment.

We then post the average score that each of our physicians has received, along with a breakdown of the score by individual question, as well as the comments. More details are available here, but a few are worth mentioning.

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The Future of Medical Practice

I had the opportunity last week to talk and learn about the future of office-based medical practice. The occasion was my participation in a panel discussion sponsored by a manufacturer of equipment for medical offices. A professional facilitator conducted a day-long interactive interview of 6 panelists, strategically selected from non-competing health care markets across the country. We talked about what was going on nationally, regionally and in our own organizations in order to provide a context for the sponsor’s strategic planning.

Much of what we talked about centered on the transition from “volume to value,” the catch-phrase for the movement away from fee-for-service to some form of quality-based payment system. The content of the discussion reminded me of the saying that “the future is already here, it’s just not distributed evenly yet.” Physician leaders from west-coast organizations described a landscape of capitated payments and “accountable care” that we talk a lot about but have not yet lived in a significant way. A representative of an institution in Boston spoke of a more highly consolidated provider community. Those stories were interesting, but not entirely novel. Here are a few things that were:

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This is a Very Bad Idea

I was stunned when I saw this headline in the New York Times last week: “Court sides against FDA in ‘off-label’ drug promotion case.” In case you missed it, here is the lede:

The maker of a prescription fish-oil pill won an early victory Friday against the Food and Drug Administration over its right to publicize unapproved uses of its drug.

The gist of the story is that the pharmaceutical company successfully claimed that restricting its ability to promote off-label use with (in the words of the court) “truthful and non-misleading information” violated its First Amendment right to free speech.

Let me be clear here. I am all for maintaining the longstanding prerogative that physicians and other licensed prescribers have to prescribe approved medications for unapproved indications.  That’s not what this is about.

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