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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Right Call; Wrong Reason

There were several news stories last week that reported that Pfizer had abandoned its efforts to have its Lipitor brand of atorvastatin made available over the counter, without a prescription. I was never a big fan of OTC statins (more on that later) but I was struck by the reason that Pfizer put out:

The study did not meet its primary objectives of demonstrating patient compliance with the direction to check their low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) level and, after checking their LDL-C level, take appropriate action based on their test results. 

Left unstated (and unclear) in this is exactly what the appropriate action was supposed to be. I guess they were implying that patients were supposed to check how they responded to the drug and then figure out if they should keep taking it, change the dose or seek professional advice about next steps.
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Good Enough?

There are a few themes that permeate this blog – the impact of new technology on medical practice, evidence-based care, health care financing, and a patient-centered approach to care delivery. The recent dust-up over the release of surgeon-specific outcome data touches almost all of them.

ProPublica, a not-for-profit organization devoted to investigative “journalism in the public interest” got the ball rolling last week with the publication of their “surgeon scorecard.” They compiled 5 years of Medicare data (2009-2013) on 8 generally elective surgical procedures: Knee and hip replacement, laparoscopic cholecystectomy, lumbar spinal fusion (broken out by anterior and posterior approach), “complete” prostatectomy, TURP and cervical spinal fusion. For each one, they identified a list of principal diagnosis codes associated with a hospital re-admission within 30 days of the surgery that could reasonably be interpreted as complications of the index surgery. For example, if a patient had undergone knee replacement and was admitted within 30 days with a principal diagnosis of “infection due to prosthesis” then that “counted” as a complication of surgery. Details of the methodology were provided online. The complication rates were adjusted by patient age, gender, and a few other variables, and their user-friendly tool allows for easy look-up of complication rates by surgeon or hospital.

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Talking About Death

A few recent experiences have me thinking about death.

The first was hearing a story on the radio about how physicians “manage” their deaths. The gist of it was that physicians are more likely to die at home without aggressive life-extending interventions than the general public. The implication was that more people would have a “better” death, more in accord with their own wishes, if frank discussions about end of life care were more common.

I didn’t think too much about the story, which registered only a “no kidding” in my mind when I heard it, until I thought about it in the context of two deaths that touched me this past week.

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Rethinking a No-Brainer

What does someone having a heart attack look like? I think the New York Times captured what many of us probably have in mind, when they published this picture as part of a recent series on advances in cardiovascular care:

Nash_Blog_ImageMark Makela for The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/21/health/saving-heart-attack-victims-stat.html

Here is the iconic middle-aged guy, in extremis, pointing to his chest, with a team of health care professionals at the bedside. There are also signs of initial management – he has ECG electrodes on his chest, an IV in his left arm, what looks like monitor/defibrillator pads on his right chest and below his left arm and, of course, an oxygen mask.

What is wrong with this picture?
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The New Paradigm

A recent FDA advisory panel recommended the approval of 2 new agents in a novel class of cholesterol lowering drugs known as PCSK-9 inhibitors. What makes this remarkable is that these drugs illustrate all the promise and pitfalls of modern pharmaceutical development.

First, a little science. The target of the new drugs – a protein named proprotein convertase subtilisin/kexin type 9 (PCSK-9) – was discovered in 2001. Two years later, investigators reported that “gain-of-function” mutations in the gene that codes for PCSK-9 were associated with familial hypercholesterolemia and high rates of atherosclerotic vascular disease. Mutations of the gene that led to reductions in the function of PCSK-9 were associated with low LDL-cholesterol levels, and a lower incidence of vascular disease. That made the compelling case that PCSK-9 had a counter-regulatory function in LDL-cholesterol metabolism, so that interfering with its function would lead to lower cholesterol levels.

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Crowdsourcing CPR

I have written previously about the potential impact of mobile apps and ubiquitous computing on health and healthcare delivery, but I admit I did not see this one coming. The current issue of The New England Journal of Medicine has a report from a research group in Sweden that developed a system – and tested it in a randomized controlled trial – to use smartphones to alert CPR-trained bystanders when there was a nearby cardiac arrest. This figure from the paper describes how it works:

Image1

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Yelp!

I have written previously about some “aha moments” that I have had as a clinician, when something that I knew was coming seemed to arrive with a thud in my own practice. I had another one of those moments a couple of weeks ago.

I was finishing up with a new patient, and had explained to him and his wife my assessment and recommendations, and had answered a bunch of questions they had.  I was frankly feeling pretty good about how the encounter had gone and as he was walking out of the exam room he said (more or less): “thanks doc; I’m glad I came to see you, and I am going to give you a really nice review on Yelp.” He was not kidding.

I didn’t know quite what to say immediately, but I ended up thanking him (somewhat awkwardly, I suspect) and then recovered enough to tell him that while I would – of course – appreciate a nice review on Yelp, I wanted him to know that he might be getting a patient satisfaction survey in the mail, and I would really appreciate it if he filled it out and sent it back in. Encounter over. New world order in place.

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Memorial Day

Last year I pointed out that Memorial Day was slipping in our collective consciousness from a day of solemn remembrance of those who died in the service of our country to just another “vacation Monday” or the marker of the start of the Summer season.

A recent experience reinforced for me just how important it is for us to make sure we never lose the deeper meaning of the day.

My wife and I traveled to Washington, DC a couple of weeks ago to witness the “arsenal of democracy” flyover. The event included over 50 WWII warplanes, and coincided with the 70th anniversary of “V-E (Victory in Europe) Day” – the defeat of Germany by Allied Forces. As an airplane buff, I found the flyover stirring. It was an historic opportunity to see the “warbirds” aloft, flying in formation, instead of on the pages of history books or on static display in a museum.

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