tech fan

We went downtown yesterday, walked, to the Kinetic Sculpture Race. They dress like clowns, but I have way more respect for the people at Kinetics than the US Senate.

There is a Maker Fair too, with the Robotics teams out and fundraising. The balls in the caught my eye. But it’s the very small tech fan that I admire. She is fascinated.

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I hope she has the opportunities. We need women in tech, in the Senate, in the House, in the Presidency.

fraud in medicine: navigating your failing healthcare system

Navigating health care in the United States is challenging and challenged. Currently the 800+ insurance companies, each with multiple “products”, the 500+ electronic medical records that don’t talk to each other, the increasing volume of information and the decreasing number of physicians make getting care very challenging. Here are some steps to help you navigate.

1. Get your records and keep copies.

Get the disc of any radiology studies: MRI, xray, CT scan, echocardiogram. Keep them. Hand carry to your visit with the specialist. Yes, I know your doctor said they’d be sent and I know the specialist’s office said they’d get them, but I have two friends so far this week in two days who traveled 2 hours or more to a specialist who DID NOT HAVE THE STUDIES. Do NOT give your only copy to the specialist. Demand two. Either get them on different days or just pay for the second disc.

A clinic closed in our area a year ago. It was in three counties, 3400+ patients. The physician owner was not paying the bills, including the electronic medical record. We couldn’t get records, the emr company wouldn’t release them. Gone. Thirteen people called to be new patients with me the day the clinic closed and we took five new patients a week for 6 months. You need a copy of your records.

2. In the specialist’s office or ER, do NOT give your records to the receptionist.

Hand them to the physician only. Hand them copies, you keep copies. “When will you be getting back to me?” That is, if it’s two hundred pages of complicated records, when does the physician think they can read (some) of them? The real truth is that WE CANNOT READ ALL OF THE OLD RECORDS. We don’t have time. We have to sleep. We read what we can and there are MOUNTAINS of old records that we haven’t read. I have files of old records and I pull them for visits so we can look up specific things. I have asked patients to go through and find specific things: find me the MRI report of your back.

Because what is really happening in many offices is that the information is being scanned but not read. Truly. I think this is dangerous. I had a patient who had five specialists and me. I was sending updates to his rheumatologist, with letters, asking questions and not getting a word back. Finally the patient went for the two hour trip to see the specialist, who called me: “I had not read any of your notes! I didn’t know what was happening!” I saw RED. Oh, so my letters and the ER notes and the other specialist notes that I faxed to you MYSELF about a very sick, very complicated medicine WERE NOT READ? I wanted to scream at her, but I didn’t. I just said, “We really need your help and I have been trying to keep you informed.” Through gritted teeth. Then later I kick and hit my heavy bag. And at that point the specialist was finally helpful. It still makes me furious just to think about it, so I have to work on forgiveness once again.

In my office, if a physician (me) has not read it, it has not been scanned. There will NOT be surprises in the scanned chart. The unread old records are filed alphabetically and when I have a time turner, I will have time to read them all, right? And then in a visit, the person asks if I got their mammogram report. I have to LOOK, because I sign off on about a billion different pieces of paper a day and I really don’t remember the names of all the people who had normal mammograms. I don’t try to remember that: I know who has an abnormal one, because I am worrying about them.

3. Make a record trail that you can quote.

When you call the physicians office, get the name of each person you speak to. Write it down. Have them spell it. Ask how soon you will be called back. Ask what you should do if you do not get a call back. (That being said, every physician has to prioritize the calls. It’s sickest first, not first come first served. If your call really is an emergency, then you should be in an ambulance, not calling your doctor.)Our local mental health was in such disarray, understaffed, underfunded, that my instructions to non-suicidal patients were: “Call every day, be polite, and call until they make you an appointment. Do not wait for the call back. Call daily, they just don’t have enough staff.”

If you fax them the missing notes, keep a copy of the fax proof. Call after your fax the missing records. Ask if they received them and then write down the name of the person you spoke to, date and time. I put a computer message in the chart for 99% of the phone calls I have with patients. I may miss 1% because I get interrupted or a really sick patient arrives or another phone call or whatever. Ask when the physician or his assistant will be calling you back about the records or better yet, make an appointment: “He did not have the records, so I would like an appointment as soon as possible now that he has them.” This forces your physician to look at the old records, because the patient is coming in. I do not read old records before a new patient shows up. I used to, but then people no show for a one hour new patient visit and I feel used, abused and grumpy. So I don’t touch the old records until you show up. After two one hour new patient no shows we tell the person they need to find another physician. Two strikes on the new patient visit and they are out.

4. Hospital.

If a person is really really sick, family or friends should be there. Ask questions. Who is each person who comes in the room? Do they have the clinic notes? Don’t assume they do, I am not on our hospital’s EMR because it costs 2 million dollars. The inpatient hospitalist doctors almost never call for my notes. I fax my notes anyhow and call them, but the information gap is BIG ENOUGH TO DRIVE THE MOON THROUGH. Really. I am sorry to burst the electronic medical record bubble, but we have 500ish different EMRs in the US right now and they do not talk to each other, so every patient arrives accompanied by 2 years of paper records (or more), 200 pages or more. I joke that they need a bigger doctor because the paper is too heavy for my 130 pounds. And many many times, the hospital medicine list is wrong. It is old. It’s out of date. The person is sick as hell in the emergency room and they don’t remember that their lisinopril dose was changed three weeks ago. One person in the room with the sick person and keep a notebook and write down what the physicians and nurses say, time, date. Then if they start contradicting each other, ASK.

5. In clinic

Give your doctor the whole list right away: my foot hurts, my chest is really bad when I try to run up the stairs, there’s this thing on my arm and is my cholesterol too high? Don’t discuss one thing in detail and then bring up the next. I have long visits, but I can’t do justice to that list in one visit and I have to prioritize. This requires negotiation: the chest pain has my attention. You may be focused on your foot, but the number one killer is heart, so your doctor will worry about your heart first.

If the doctor asks you to bring in all your pills, bring them all in. There are three different types of metoprolol and five strengths of each. Do you know the type and strength of every drug? I want to see your vitamin bottles because vitamin B1 can cause neuropathy from too high doses and yes, they can sell high doses. I want to see the supplements: why are you taking bovine thymus/testicle pills? By the way, if the doctor actually looks at the supplements, keep that doctor. Most don’t.

6. Be careful out there. Good luck.

Templates and the death of medicine

One of the many problems that are killing medicine in the US and especially primary care is templates.

Templates are a nightmare.

Why?

In a template, for back pain, there is a list of questions and in some there is also a list of answers. The “provider” asks the questions on the list and then checks off the answers. This is absolutely terrible brainless stupid failure of medicine. Because the most important answer that the patient gives is the one that does not fit the routine pattern of back pain or ear pain.

For example, I saw a woman for a new patient visit for back pain. Years ago. Half way through the questions about back pain I say, “How long have you been hoarse?”

She stops. She has to think about it. “Three months.”

“Continuously or does it come and go?”

Again, thought. “Continuously.”

On with the back pain. But she gets TWO referrals, one to an otolaryngologist. I ask other voice and throat questions.

When she returns she thanks me. Continuous hoarseness is worrisome for vocal cord cancer. You have to rule it out. She did not have vocal cord cancer. She did have vocal cord polyps and was going to have laser surgery.

But as a physician or “provider” you have to PAY ATTENTION. And ignoring the thing that doesn’t “fit” or isn’t relevant or isn’t on the god damned template — just don’t do it.

Another new patient. Back pain. Routine, routine, routine, one in four people get it in their lives. All the questions indicating that it’s musculoskeletal, not a disc, 99% are not discs, until:

“Sometimes my leg goes numb from the knee down.”

I stop. “How often? The whole leg?”

“Whole leg, yes.” She doesn’t know how often.

“If that happens I want to see you right away. Call.”

…because that is not a disc and it’s not musculoskeletal. And people say that but usually it can’t be confirmed on exam.

She calls. “Both legs are numb from the knee down.”

“Get in here.”

On exam she is not only numb but the muscles of her feet and ankles are weak and the reflexes don’t work right. I call neurology, anxious. “MRI from her head to her tailbone.”

She has multiple sclerosis lesions, more than one, in her brain. And a normal brain MRI from a few years before when she also had weird symptoms….

So it is NOT the template, the routine questions, that diagnose odd things in medicine. It’s the off hand comment, the puzzle piece that doesn’t fit, the symptom or sign that I notice and that gets my attention.

I hate the templates when we first get an electronic medical system. It sucks. It generates unreadable generic sentences: “The patient has ear pain. The quality of the ear pain is sharp. The ear pain has gone on for 6 weeks. The level of the ear pain is high.” Etc. Ok, that patient sounds like a robot. I quickly figure out how to type into the stupid boxes and avoid the templates as much as possible. I also start offering additions to the templates. “Ok, add this to quality of ear pain: It feels like being kicked over and over with the metal pointed tip of a cowboy boot.” Also to tachycardia: “It feels like a salmon is swimming upstream in my chest.”

See patients for one thing only. That would have really helped the hoarse woman, right?  Do the template. Do 10, 15, or 20 minute visits. The best doctors are rebelling and quitting, especially in primary care, because this is killing medicine. Why see people for one thing only? MONEY. MONEY MONEY MONEY. No. I like to work in medicine and I like to dig down, pay attention, listen and watch for the little details that stick out, the puzzle pieces that don’t fit….

….because that is what real medicine is. Not template robot medicine.

Random confuse the engine search

A friend and I are using Facebook to message this am and she says she hates that Facebook is mining for advertising all the time. I said we should do a random confuse the engine search every day. Something silly! I searched enamel zebra hamsters first…. And it’s fun to watch the internet try!

What silly search would you use to confuse the big data mining on the internet? Go wild! Confuse your feed!

fraud in medicine: prior authorization I

Prior authorization is where, in the insane United States medical system, the doctor orders a test or medicine. The insurance requires “prior authorization”, that is, the doctor or their office have to call or go on line to fill out forms to get the prior authorization. Otherwise the test or therapy or medicine or even surgery will not be covered by the insurance and the patient eats the bill. Over 60% of bankruptcies in the US are now over medical bills*.

In most doctors’ offices, the prior authorization is done in the back rooms. Employees are on the computer or on the phone trying to obtain the permission, the code number, the magic words that will help the patient. This is a HUGE business and a scam as well. Physicians for a National Health Care Program estimated in 2011 that it costs at least $82,975 PER PHYSICIAN PER YEAR to have a person calling.* Now, there is a person on the other end receiving that call or going over the forms. That person is paid with your insurance premium. Is that health care? It seems more like a barrier to health care. Let’s look at an example.

I do my prior authorizations in the room with the patient. I only have a front desk person, no back room people, and anyhow, if I do it face to face with the patient, I can charge the insurance company for the call. It is face to face counseling and coordination of care. I don’t get paid well for this, but it’s worth it for the patient education.

Yesterday I called for a patient. The insurance company first has a recording that tells me it is recording this conversation. I am too, in the chart note. Then it reminds me I could do all this on line. Well, that is sort of true. I could, but every insurance company has a different website, they all require logins and passwords and it would take me hours to learn them all. Nope, not doing that. After the message it says: “Please enter the physicians NPI number.” I do. Then it leads me through choices: confirm the patient is insured, check the status of a prior authorization, appeal a prior authorization, initiate a prior authorization. That one.
At 3 minutes 50 seconds, I get a human. We are on speaker phone.
“This is Rex. You are calling for prior authorization?”
“Yes. This is Dr. Lizard. Mr. X is in the room.”
“Please spell the doctor’s name.” They are not used to doctors calling.
“Please give the NPI number.” (ok, we typed that in. But every time you are transferred, you have to give all of the information again. I am not kidding.)
“Please give your clinic address. Please give your clinic phone number. Please give your clinic tax ID number. Please give your clinic fax number.”
I do.
“Please give the patient id number. Please give the patient name. Please give the patient date of birth.”
Ok.
My patient is looking amazed. This is how insurance companies treat the doctors who call them? Yep.
“What medicine are you authorizing?”
“A compounded testosterone.”
“Please list the ingredients.”
Crap. didn’t think of that. “Ok, we want to authorize an fda approved one.”
That is entered. “What are the instructions for the patient?”
“What is the dose or strength?”
“What is the diagnosis?”
“He has a condition from birth with no testosterone.”
I have to spell the condition for Rex.
“What is the ICD 10 code?”
I give that.
“Have you measured a testosterone level?”
“Yes. It’s zero. His body doesn’t make testosterone. Since birth.”
My patient is rolling his eyes.
“The form will be sent for review and you should get a fax within 24-72 hours regarding the authorization. Here is a number for tracking.”
“Thank you, we are recording this phone call as face to face counseling and coordination of care in the chart.”
Phone call is 13 minutes and 50 seconds. That is a fast one, actually. Most are 25-30 minutes and I fought for an hour once when a patient’s prescription coverage was cancelled.

I wish that every doctor in the country would do one prior authorization on the phone once a week with the patient in the room. The doctors’ heads would blow off. They might finally see what the current system is doing and how the insurance companies throw more and more and more barriers up to refuse people care.

And how is it a scam? One way is that the patient calls the insurance. The insurance has people who only talk to patients. That person says, “Have your doctors office call for a prior authorization.” The patient calls the doctor’s office. The doctors office calls the insurance, but they are talking to a different branch of the insurance company. That branch tells the doctors office “We don’t cover that.” The doctors office calls the patient, who then thinks that the doctor’s office has screwed up the prior authorization.

How do I know that? With the person in the room, the insurance tells me “No.” I have had patients say, “Your company told me yesterday that all I needed was for the doctor to call!” The insurance person replied, “I only talk to doctors. It is another part of the company that talks to patients.” I have also had an insurance person say “Take me off speaker phone, I am only allowed to talk to physician’s offices, not to patients.” Riiiiiight. I took him off but put him right back on. My patients are outraged and furious: at the insurance, not me. The insurance companies are doing brilliant business plan triangulation and I hope whoever thought it up and whoever allows it as a business plan roasts in hell. No, instead I hope that they wake up and realize how many people they are hurting and I hope that they turn and work to heal a broken sick system.
*http://www.pnhp.org/new_bankruptcy_study/Bankruptcy-2009.pdf
http://www.pnhp.org/sites/default/files/docs/Bankruptcy_Fact_Sheet.pdf
**http://www.pnhp.org/news/2011/august/us-doctors-administrative-costs-4-times-higher-than-in-canada
http://www.pnhp.org/news/2014/august/adventures-in-prior-authorization

I took the photograph at Lake Matinenda in August 2015. It is of a storm. A storm is here in medicine: people versus the corporations who prey on us. We need to heal the system and heal the fear and greed.