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.

March for people

My daughter and I marched yesterday.

She decided to come home from college for the weekend, planning to leave Saturday night. I decided not to go to the Seattle Womxn’s march, but do the Port Townsend one and asked her to join me.

We went out to breakfast and then to our small downtown. I no longer have television and look at news sites daily though a bit erratically, so neither of us had a pink hat. I wore my Mad As Hell Doctors t-shirt, my lab coat from working at the National Institutes of Health with the National Cancer Institute Patch, my Rotary name badge and pins gathered from going across the country trying to get medicare for all, single payer health care, from 2009 until now.

to womxn'smarch 089.JPG

Four bus loads went from our county to the Seattle march. We heard that the Bainbridge ferry was FULL. That is, they couldn’t not take any more walk on people. Another thirty people or more flew to the Washington DC march. And in Port Townsend, my guess is that we still had 200-300 people, women, men and children, people in wheelchairs, babies, gay, lesbian, straight, bi, trans, that marched from a small park downtown to the Haller Fountain. Galetea, naked statue at the fountain, sported a pussy hat.

to womxn'smarch 104.JPG

Our local organizer spoke and our House Representative, Derek Kilmer.

to-womxnsmarch-139

Older women spoke about demonstrating over and over in their lives. A friend of mine called me up to help her sing Holly Near’s Singing for Our Lives, making up new verses on the fly. They invited people to speak.

to womxn'smarch 152.JPG

I spoke: “I am one of your local doctors. I want to be able to treat anyone who comes to my clinic. We are one nation: health care for all. No discrimination: medicare for all.”

to womxn'smarch 157.JPG

to womxn'smarch 114.JPG

to womxn'smarch 150.JPG

Home then, and tired. My daughter has decided she wants to learn guitar, to play while people sing. I taught her basic chords and basic strumming. We sang Jamaica Farewell. She picks it up immediately, after all of those years of viola. And she will take one of my father’s guitars back to college.

And this is amazing: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/21/world/womens-march-pictures.html?smid=fb-share

Blessings all around.

Physicians for a National Health Care Program: http://www.pnhp.org/

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/successful/

Bruise, muscle and bone

I asked an older patient recently, “What is a bruise?”

She thought about it and said, “I don’t know.”

A bruise is blood, bleeding. Old blood changes color and is reabsorbed by the body as it heals. But where does that blood come from?

Any tissue in the body can bleed. Even a tooth, if broken into the center.

So what is bleeding for MOST bruises?

Muscle. Muscle, muscle, muscle, tendon, ligament, fascia, occasionally bone if broken and internal organs can bleed as well.

Somehow we entirely fail to teach this, at least in the US.

If you fall, or like my mountain biking daughter, hit something, your body will bleed. I tried to train the mountain bike team to carry an ace wrap and use it any time they hit something hard with an extremity. I pretty much failed. Why do I want an ace wrap and why use it immediately?

Trauma or hitting something hard causes bleeding. The more the muscle and tissue bleeds, the more swollen it gets. Usually the peak of bleeding and swelling is at about 48 hours after the injury. By then the body is sending immune system cells and repair cells to fix the trauma. It is swollen, red, hot, inflamed and painful! If we ace wrap our ankle or foot or elbow immediately, the bleeding stops faster. Wrap it, ice and elevate to keep the bleeding down. The torn muscles are held in their normal position, the bleeding stops more quickly, there is less swelling, less redness, inflammation and pain!

Our acronym is RICE:
Rest
Ice
Compression
Elevation

There are things that you can’t ace wrap: don’t ace wrap your neck or ribs and if it’s bad trauma to the head, neck, chest or abdomon, go to the emergency room! But even then, ice and compression help. First check airway, breathing and circulation, that the heart is beating if you happen on a trauma. But then try to use pressure on bleeding.

Do not put heat on a bruise for that first 48 hours. Why? It bleeds more and swells more. The exception may be if you do much more exercise than usual without a localized injury: hydrate, stay away from alcohol and a hot tub or hot bath may help. The hydration and hot water help the muscles relax and wash out the CK, creatine kinase, the protein from tiny muscle traumas that make us “stiff”.

The I in RICE used to mean ibuprofen as well. However, ibuprofen and aspirin and naprosyn are all blood thinners, so they may help with pain and inflammation, but may make the bruising worse. Acetominophen is not a blood thinner and also doesn’t do as much for inflammation, but it may be a better choice. It does help with pain.

In her third year of mountain bike racing, the Introverted Thinker had a quarter size bruise on her knee after a race.

“Are you going to do anything about that bruise?” I asked.

“No, it’s small.” she said.

“Ok.”

Two hours later: “Mom? Would you look at my knee?” Now the bruise is the size of an orange.

“Hmmm. What are you going to do about that?”

“I think I might ace wrap it and ice it and put it up for a while. Where is the ace wrap?”

Good plan. It didn’t get any bigger.

I see the handouts from the emergency room given for back pain and they are terribly misleading. It shows the spine and talks about the discs. 99% of the back pain I see is NOT a disc: it is the six layers of back muscles, and complex web of tendons, muscles and ligaments that hold the spine together and let us move in very complex ways. I pull my Netter Anatomy out daily in clinic and show people the six layers of back muscles.

What happens after a muscle is torn and bruised and bleeding? The muscle cramps up to stop the bleeding and attempt to keep from being torn more. No, I don’t like muscle relaxers much as medicines and they are useless long term. For sleep only right after injury. I am not talking about major trauma, but back pain and injuries.

If the muscle heals in the cramped position, it won’t work right any more. It can form scar tissue. It takes about six weeks for a muscle or ligament or tendon tear to heal and during that time we need to gently stretch the muscles without tearing them, so that they heal in the right position. Once they are healed in a scarred position, it’s more work to rehabilitate them, but it can be done. Physical therapy, massage therapy, chiropractor, acupuncture, but the most important work is done BY the patient, not TO them. I can’t fix it with pills. Yes, it is work.

You can bruise bone too. Ow. The surface of the bone is living cells and the bones are continually torn down by osteoclasts and rebuilt by osteoblasts. The bone can be bruised without breaking. Again, 6 weeks to heal, little kids faster and 90 year olds kind of slow.

Take care of your muscles, ligaments and tendons, and they will take care of you.

 

I took the photograph on the first Mad as Hell Doctors tour for health care for all in 2009. I will be marching again today:  WE ARE ONE NATION! HEALTH CARE FOR ALL! NO DISCRIMINATION!  MEDICARE FOR ALL!

 

Slow medicine

I am practicing slow medicine, just like the slow food movement.

It took a year to set up my clinic, because I wanted time with people more than anything. And how could I do that?

Low overhead, of course. The lower the expenses, the more time I would have with patients.

I did math and based it on medicare. I estimated what medicare would pay. I dropped obstetrics, can’t afford the malpractice and anyhow, the hospital was hostile by then. That cuts malpractice by two thirds. And I chose not to have a nurse, because people are the most expensive thing. Just me and a receptionist. And a biller once a week and a computer expert who rescues us when we kill another printer or need new and bigger computer brains for ICD 10.

My estimates were on target except that it took three times as long to build up patient numbers as I thought. Ah. Oops. I was advised to borrow twice what I thought I needed and that was good advice, because I had not counted on my sister dying or my father dying or me getting sick for a while…. but so far the clinic remains open.

Slow medicine. I schedule an hour with a new medicare patient or anyone new and complicated. People who say they aren’t complicated are lying, but we schedule 45 minutes for them. And for the really complicated, we have 45 minutes for follow ups. Most visits are 25 minutes: the only visit that is less is to take out stitches.

What does slow medicine allow? In the end it allows people to speak about things that they don’t know they need to talk about. A friend dying. Fears about a grandchild. Family fighting. The dying polar bears. The environment. This difficult election. And sometimes I think that freedom to speak about anything is the most theraputic part of the visit.

I had one woman last year who established care. Complicated. I think she was in her 70s. And the medical system had made mistakes and hurt her. Delayed diagnosis, delayed care. But she was laughing by the end of the visit. She stood in the hall and said, “This is the first time I can remember laughing in a doctor’s office. This is the first time in years that I can remember leaving with hope. And you haven’t DONE anything!”

….anything, except give time and listen.

Fraud in Medicine: Heartwood

Here in my neck of the woods, people are continuing to quit medicine. Two  managers who have worked in the clinics eaten by the hospital are leaving on the same day, after 30 years. And another woman doctor, around my age, is retiring from medicine. She is NOT medicare age.

Meanwhile, the Mayo Clinic is publishing articles about how to turn older physicians into “heartwood”.

http://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(15)00469-3/fulltext

“As trees age, the older cells at the core of the trunk lose some of their ability to conduct water. The tree allows these innermost cells to retire…. This stiffened heartwood core…continues to help structurally support the tree…. Here a tree honors its elderly cells by letting them rest but still giving them something meaningful to do. We non-trees could take a lesson from that.” Spike Carlsen

Oh, wow, let’s honor the elderly. Even elderly physicians. Instead of what, killing them? Currently we dishonor them, right?

But what is the core of the issue? Skim down to “Decreased patient contact”:

“Already, many physicians are choosing to decrease their work to less than full-time, with resultant decreased patient encounters and decreased institutional revenue. Prorating compensation to match full-time equivalent worked will aid in financial balance, but the continued cost of benefits will remain. However, when that benefit expense is compared with the expense of recruiting a new physician (estimated by some to approach $250,000 per physician), the cost of supporting part-time practicing physicians becomes more attractive.”

Ok, so the core of the matter. “Decreased institutional revenue” and the employer still has to pay BENEFITS. NOTHING ABOUT THE QUALITY OF CARE FOR PATIENTS.

Again, the problem is still that you can’t really “do” a patient in twenty minutes, and that full time is really 60 or more hours a week. To be thorough, I  have to absorb the clinical picture for each patient: chief complaint, history of present illness, past medical history, allergies, family history, social history (this includes tobacco, drugs and alcohol), vital signs, review of systems and physical exam. And old records, x-rays, pathology reports, surgical reports, laboratory reports. I fought with my administration about the 18 patient a day quota. I said: ok, I have a patient every twenty minutes for 4 hours in the morning, a meeting scheduled at lunch, four hours in the afternoon. When am I supposed to call a specialist, do refills, read the lab results, look at xray results, call a patient at home to be sure they are ok? The administration replied that I should only spend 8 minutes with the patient and then I would have 12 minutes between patients to do paperwork. I replied that they’d picked the Electronic Medical Record telling us that we could do the note in the room. I could, after three years of practice. But it nearly always took me twenty-five minutes. I would hit send and our referral person had so much experience that she could have the referral approved before my patient made it to the front desk. BUT I felt like I was running as fast as I possibly could all day on a treadmill. Also, the hour lunch meetings pissed me off. I get 20 minutes with a patient and they get an hour meeting? Hell, no! I set my pager for a 20 minute alarm every time I went into a meeting and I walked out when it buzzed. I needed to REST!

After a few weeks of treadmill, I dropped a half clinic day. But of course that didn’t go into effect for another month and I was tired and ran late daily. And every 9 hour clinic day generated two hours of paperwork minimum: nights, weekends, 5 am when I would not get interrupted and could THINK. Do you really want a doctor to review your lab work when they are really tired and have worked for 11 hours or 24 hours? Might they miss something? It might have been best if I had been quiet and just cancelled two people a day, since the front desk knew I was not coming out of any room until I was done, but I argued instead.

The point is, you would like to see a doctor who listens and is thorough. You do not actually want a medical system where there all these other people who read your patient history forms and enter them in to the computer and your doctor tries to find the time to read it, like drinking from a fire hose. If we want doctors and patients to be happy, then doctors need time with patients and we need to off the insurance companies who add more and more and more complicated requirements for the most minimal care. One system, one set of rules, we’ll fight over the details, medicare for all.

Fraud in medicine: why “help” won’t help

This article:  Doctors wasting over two thirds of their time doing paperwork showed up on Facebook yesterday.

The problem is that “hiring people to help with paperwork” will not help.

Why? We’ve already done that and it’s a huge mess.

For example: I was referred to an Ear Nose and Throat Specialist at one of the Seattle Mecca hospitals. I had to travel two hours and then in the waiting room I was given a four page patient history to fill out. I filled it out. I had been referred by a Neurologist, who sent a letter and note. After I filled out the forms, HIPAA and “you will pay if your stupid insurance won’t” and address and consent to be treated and yada yada…. I waited.

At last I was shown to a very luxurious room. There a medical assistant asked me many of the same questions that I’d filled out on the form and which were already in the letter and note from the neurologist. She typed these into the EMR- electronic medical record. Then she left. And I waited.

At last the distinguished otolaryngologist entered the room. He said, “I see that you are here for chronic sinus infections.”

“No.” I said. “I am not.”

Silence.

“I see that you did not read anything I filled out and I am a physician and I drove two hours to see you.”

Silence. “Um.” he said. “Uh, why are you here?”

“Strep A sepsis twice and we want to know if my tonsils should be removed.”

Right. So… all that paper you fill out before the physician saw you? Yeah, like, my impression is that physicians don’t read it until after you leave. And maybe mostly don’t EVER read it.

I plan to find out the next time I have to see a specialist. I will write “you don’t read this anyhow, so I am not filling this shit out” on page 2 and see if the specialist notices. Bet you money they don’t. Though when they yell at their staff for not entering my medication allergies or the review of systems, they might notice.

So… I am a primary care physician. What do I do?

A new patient has one form: name, address, insurance information, hipaa and “you pay if your insurance doesn’t”.

I do the health history myself in the room entering it in the first visit, which takes 45 minutes to an hour. WHOA! INEFFICIENT! Nope. Actually it is brutally efficient. For four reasons:

One — I enter it myself and ask the questions myself and I am really fast at it.

Two — now I know the person, because I went over all of it: complaint, history of present illness, past medical history, social history, allergies, review of systems, and I ask people to bring all their pills including supplements to the first visit and I enter them too. And I look at the bottles. I don’t like vitamins with 6667% of the Recommended Dietary Allowance of any vitamin, lots of vitamins now have herbs in them too and I would not recommend taking cow thymus, labeled as bovine thymus.

Three — Now I don’t have to spend time reading forms filled out in the waiting room or a history entered by someone else, because I don’t have time to do that anyhow. I did it all in the visit. I will still have to read old records and any labs or xray results or consult notes or pathology reports and hey, where do you think the waiting room paperwork falls in that priority list? Yeah, like never.

Four — I hand people a copy of the note as they leave and ask them to read it and to bring corrections if I got it wrong. They go from thinking that I am a drone staring at the laptop to saying, “Hey, she typed nearly everything I said (and she has three spelling errors).”

Because the truth is that medicine is really complicated now and it just doesn’t help to have more people “do the paperwork”. I have to read the notes and labs and reports myself, because I am the physician.

There are three things that WOULD help:

1. One set of rules. Hello, the insurance companies, all 500ish of them send us postcards and emails every week saying “Hey, we’ve changed what we cover, meaning we cover less and we have new improved and more complicated prior authorization rules! Go to our website to read all about it.” Guess how often I have time to do that. NEVER NEVER NEVER. I read medicare’s rules. So medicare for all, single payer is partly to have ONE SET OF RULES. I can memorize miles of rules, but not if they are changing in 500 companies every week. Shell game. Also, prior authorization means “your insurance company is making your doctor fill out paperwork in hopes that they can delay or refuse the care your doctor thinks is best for you.”

2. One electronic medical record. Right now there are about 500 of them too and none of them talk to each other so we are all “paperless”. Ha. It’s worse than ever, because we get 100 pages or 200 or 300 of printed out electronic medical record for every single new patient. I need two more big file cabinets for my “paperless” office. Hong Kong did it in 9 months. What, are we wimps? Make a decision.

3. Standardization of lab and xray and home health and physical therapy and nursing home and rehab and hospital order forms. Because every stupid lab form is different: not only arranged differently but also the lab panels are different, the requirements for what that lab wants to fill the order is different and the results are arranged differently on the page. Hello. Stupid, right? Any efficiency expert would laugh.

And that’s how we could really help doctors help patients.