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Editorials

(Click on title to be directed to editorial, most recent listed first)

Mild Obstructive Sleep Apnea: Beyond the AHI
Multidisciplinary Discussion (MDD) in Interstitial Lung Disease; Some
   Reflections
VA Administrators Breathe a Sigh of Relief
VA Scandal Widens
Don’t Fire Sharon Helman-At Least Not Yet
Questioning the Inspectors
Qualitygate: The Quality Movement's First Scandal
What's Wrong with Expert Opinion?
The Tremendous Threes! Annual Report from the Editor
Obamacare and Computers-Who Is to Blame? 
HIPAA-Protecting Patient Confidentiality or Covering Something Else?
Are Medical Guidelines Better Than Flipping a Coin?
Who Will Benefit and Who Will Lose from Obamacare?
Smoking, Epidemiology and E-Cigarettes
Treatment after a COPD Exacerbation
Executive Pay and the High Cost of Healthcare
Choosing Wisely-Where Is the Choice?
The State of Pulmonary and Critical Care in the Southwest
Doxycycline and IL-8 Modulation in a Line of Human Alveolar 
Epithelium: More Evidence for the Anti-Inflammatory Function 
   of Some Antimicrobials
What to Expect from Obamacare
The Terrific Twos! Annual Report from the Editor
Maintaining Medical Competence
Interference with the Patient–Physician Relationship
Guidelines for Starting Today’s Private Practice
The Emperor Has No Clothes: The Accuracy of
   of Hospital Performance Data 
Getting the Best Care at the Lowest Price
A New Paradigm to Improve Patient Outcomes
A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing
VA Administrators Gaming the System
Will Fewer Tests Improve Healthcare or Profits?
Identification of a Biomarker of Sleep Deficiency—
   Are We Tilting Windmills?
Competition or Cooperation?
Follow the Money
Happy First Birthday SWJPCC! 
The Hefty Price of Obstructive Sleep Apnea 
Mismanagement at the VA: Where’s the Problem? 
Why Is It So Difficult to Get Rid of Bad Guidelines?
Changes In Medicine: Job Security 
Changes In Medicine: The Decline Of Physician Autonomy 
Changes in Medicine: Fellowship
Changes in Medicine: Residency
Changes in Medicine: Medical School
The Pain of The Timeout 
Guidelines, Recommendations and Improvement in Healthcare
COPD, COOP and BREATH at the VA
SWJPCC: The first three months
Why Start A New Pulmonary/Critical Care Journal? 

 

The Southwest Journal of Pulmonary and Critical Care publishes editorials related to manuscripts in the Journal as well as areas of interest to the pulmonary, critical care and sleep communities. In general, editorials are written by the editors or are invited. However, the Journal will consider editorials written by others. Before submitting, a potential author of the editorial should contact the editor.

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Friday
Jul252014

Mild Obstructive Sleep Apnea: Beyond the AHI

Joyce Lee-Iannotti MD

James M Parish MD

Division of Pulmonary Medicine (Dr Parish) Center for Sleep Medicine Department of Neurology (Dr Lee-Iannotti), Center for Sleep Medicine

Mayo Clinic Arizona

Scottsdale, Arizona

A common conundrum faced by sleep medicine practitioners is how to manage the large group of patients with mild sleep apnea. Many patients are referred for sleep evaluation, with symptoms thought to be due to obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Often polysomnography demonstrates only mild sleep apnea, and the clinician and patient are faced with the dilemma of whether to use continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy or an oral appliance. In making this important decision the clinician incorporates the commonly used definition of mild sleep apnea as an apnea-hypopnea index of between 5 and 14 apneas or hypopneas per hour of sleep.  Moderate sleep apnea is defined as 15-29 events per hour, and severe is 30 and above events per hour. These arbitrary thresholds originated in the early 1980s when knowledge of this condition was in its infancy and little was known about the long term health effects. The definition was based on the finding of apneas, defined by the complete cessation of airflow for at least 10 seconds. The concept of hypopnea and respiratory-effort related arousal (RERA) came later and with frequently changing definitions that have been the subject of significant controversy throughout the last 30 years.  Many sleep centers include these RERA’s in the definition of respiratory disturbance index, which is incorrectly used interchangeably with AHI. While the sleep literature has demonstrated the untoward effects of moderate to severe sleep apnea, there has been considerable debate about the clinical significance of mild sleep apnea, that is, an AHI between 5 and 15.

The current paper by Quan, et al (1) is a significant contribution to the literature in sleep medicine addressing this important clinical question. This paper reports data drawn from the APPLES study, a large multi-center, well-conducted study designed to determine if CPAP therapy improves sleepiness, mood disorder, or cognitive function in patients with OSA, that has subsequently produced several important publications (2-6). As part of the study, extensive data was obtained on each of these neurocognitive parameters including the Epworth Sleepiness Scale, Stanford Sleepiness Scale, Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression, Profile of Mood States, and Sleep Apnea Quality of Life Index, all validated questionnaires used frequently in the sleep literature. In this part of the study, 199 patients with an AHI>5 but <15 were compared to 40 patients enrolled in the study, but with and AHI<5. The mean AHI was 10 per hour in the mild OSA group, and was 3 per hour in the non-OSA group.  Size of the study was statistically large enough to determine significant differences. Remarkably, there was no significant difference in any rating of sleepiness, mood, or quality of life between the two groups. This study produces an important challenge to the traditional thresholds of disease severity, and raises the question of whether mild sleep apnea based on AHI alone is a disease, and whether it truly requires treatment. Since many patients seen at sleep medicine clinics fall into this category, this is an extremely important question to address.

Several previous studies have attempted to elucidate the issue of mild sleep apnea. Barnes, et al (7) in a randomized controlled trial of CPAP in mild OSA (defined in their study as an AHI 5-30 events per hour) reported that CPAP improved self-reported symptoms of snoring, restless sleep, daytime sleepiness, and irritability, but did not improve objective measure of sleepiness (multiple sleep latency test) or any test of neurobehavioral function, quality of life, mood scores, or 24-hour blood pressure. Weaver, et al (8) reported results from the CATNAP study, a randomized, sham-CPAP controlled study of self reported sleepy patients with mild OSA (defined as AHI 5-30 events per hour) that CPAP significantly improved scores on the Functional Outcomes of Sleep Questionnaire. Both of these trials differ from the current study by defining mild OSA as an AHI up to 30 per hour, whereas the major controversy involves those patients in the AHI 5-15 range. The CATNAP study also selected patients who complained of excessive sleepiness.

The findings from this study emphasize the need to differentiate “obstructive sleep apnea” from “obstructive sleep apnea syndrome.”  Obstructive sleep apnea has been traditionally defined solely by the AHI, whereas OSA syndrome incorporates the subjective and clinical components to the diagnosis (sleepiness, mood disturbance, fatigue, etc.) An abnormal AHI in the mild range without symptoms may not warrant  treatment with CPAP, whereas an excessively sleepy patient with an AHI of 7 would require at least a trial of CPAP with close monitoring. Fatigue, although traditionally associated with mood disorders, is a common symptom in sleep medicine and may be a manifestation of untreated sleep apnea. Future studies could incorporate a fatigue scale (e.g. Fatigue Severity Score) as an adjunct to the Epworth sleepiness score to assess the importance of fatigue as a symptom of OSA.

The current study has an important limitation in that subjects were enrolled based on a referral to a sleep center for some clinical indication related to OSA, and therefore do not represent the general population. It would be possible that individuals drawn randomly from the general population would have lower scores on these tests than a group of subjects referred to a sleep center, which would result in the mild OSA group having significantly different scores on these tests than the general population. In addition the no-OSA group in this study included only 40 patients, and it is possible that a larger group of true no-OSA patients without symptoms causing referral to a sleep center would yield a slightly different result. However, if the untoward effects of mild OSA are indeed significant, it should be relatively easy to find significant abnormalities in mood, sleepiness, and quality of life, and the inability to demonstrate differences in this study group leads one to conclude that the differences, if they exist, are likely to very small.

Besides the mood and quality of life effects of sleep apnea, cardiovascular disease is known to be a significant consequence of obstructive sleep apnea (9).  Stroke, heart failure, myocardial infarction, and atrial fibrillation are known to occur more commonly in untreated OSA than in normal individuals (10). There have been several studies on the cardiovascular effects of mild sleep apnea. The Sleep Heart Health study found a small but significant increase in cardiovascular disease in mild sleep apnea (11).  In another study, Buchner et al (12) found CPAP reduced the risk of subsequent cardiovascular events in patients with mild to moderate (AHI 5-30 per hour) OSA. Therefore, the clinician must look at not only at the AHI, but the larger picture inclusive of presenting symptoms and cardiovascular and cerebrovascular risk factors when deciding on treatment.

Ultimately, this paper challenges the sleep community to look beyond the AHI and improve management algorithms for patients with mild obstructive sleep apnea, with or without symptoms. We propose that an obstructive sleep apnea score be developed, similar to the CHADS-2 score used to determine the need for anticoagulation in patients with non-valvular atrial fibrillation as a means of secondary stroke prevention (13). The “OSA score” could incorporate the AHI, the Epworth sleepiness scale, a quality of life score, a fatigue severity scale, and known cardiovascular and cerebrovascular co-morbidities. A point system could be generated to determine the need for CPAP or alternative therapies.

Hence, this study is likely to be a sentinel study in the sleep medicine literature. Further research in how to “score” patients who need treatment is needed in order to provide best value in management of sleep apnea.

References

  1. Quan SF, Budhiraja R, Batool-Anwar S, Gottlieb DJ, Eichling P, Patel S, Wei Shen, Walsh JK, Kushida CA. Lack of impact of mild obstructive sleep apnea on sleepiness, mood and quality of life. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2014;9(1):44-56. [CrossRef]
  2. Kushida CA, Nichols DA, Quan SF, et al. The Apnea Positive Pressure Long-term Efficacy Study (APPLES): rationale, design, methods, and procedures. J Clin Sleep Med 2006;2(3):288-300. [PubMed] 
  3. Quan SF, Chan CS, Dement WC, et al. The association between obstructive sleep apnea and neurocognitive performance--the Apnea Positive Pressure Long-term Efficacy Study (APPLES). Sleep 2011;34(3):303-14B. [PubMed]
  4. Kushida CA, Nichols DA, Holmes TH, et al. Effects of continuous positive airway pressure on neurocognitive function in obstructive sleep apnea patients: The Apnea Positive Pressure Long-term Efficacy Study (APPLES). Sleep 2012;35(12):1593-602. [PubMed]
  5. Quan SF, Budhiraja R, Clarke DP, et al. Impact of treatment with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) on weight in obstructive sleep apnea. J Clin Sleep Med. 2013;9(10):989-93. [PubMed]
  6. Batool-Anwar S, Goodwin JL, Drescher AA, et al. Impact of CPAP on activity patterns and diet in patients with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). J Clin Sleep Med. 2014;10(5):465-72. [PubMed] 
  7. Barnes M, Houston D, Worsnop CJ, et al. A randomized controlled trial of continuous positive airway pressure in mild obstructive sleep apnea. Am J Resp Crit Care Med. 2002;165(6):773-80. [CrossRef] [PubMed] 
  8. Weaver TE, Mancini C, Maislin G, et al. Continuous positive airway pressure treatment of sleepy patients with milder obstructive sleep apnea: results of the CPAP Apnea Trial North American Program (CATNAP) randomized clinical trial. Am J Respir Crit Care Med 2012;186(7):677-83. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  9. Newman AB, Nieto FJ, Guidry U, et al. Relation of sleep-disordered breathing to cardiovascular disease risk factors: the Sleep Heart Health Study. Am J Epidemiol. 2001;154(1):50-9. [CrossRef] [PubMed] 
  10. Somers VK, White DP, Amin R, et al. Sleep Apnea and Cardiovascular Disease: An American Heart Association/American College of Cardiology Foundation Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association Council for High Blood Pressure Research Professional Education Committee, Council on Clinical Cardiology, Stroke Council, and Council on Cardiovascular Nursing In Collaboration With the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute National Center on Sleep Disorders Research (National Institutes of Health). J Am Coll Cardiol. 2008;52(8):686-717. [CrossRef] [PubMed] 
  11. Shahar E, Whitney C, Redline S, et al. Sleep-disordered breathing and cardiovascular disease: cross-sectional results of the Sleep Heart Health Study. Am J Respir Crit Care Med 2001;163:19-25. [CrossRef] [PubMed] 
  12. Buchner NJ, Sanner BM, Borgel J, Rump LC. Continuous Positive Airway Pressure Treatment of Mild to Moderate Obstructive Sleep Apnea Reduces Cardiovascular Risk. Am J Resp Crit Care Med. 2007;176(12):1274-80. [CrossRef] [PubMed] 
  13. Gage BF, Waterman AD, Shannon W, Boechler M, Rich MW, Radford MJ. Validation of clinical classification schemes for predicting stroke: results from the National Registry of Atrial Fibrillation. JAMA. 2001;285(22):2864-70. [CrossRef] [PubMed] 

Reference as: Lee-Iannotti J, Parish JM. Mild obstructive sleep apnea: beyond the AHI. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2014;9(1):40-3. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc099-14 PDF

Tuesday
Jul152014

Multidisciplinary Discussion (MDD) in Interstitial Lung Disease; Some Reflections

Thomas V. Colby MD*

Michael B. Gotway MD

Lewis J. Wesselius MD

 

Departments of Pathology*, Radiology, and Pulmonary Medicine

Mayo Clinic Arizona

13400 E. Shea Blvd.

Scottsdale, AZ 85259

 

Multidisciplinary discussion (MDD) has been used in many disciplines in medicine, notably in thoracic oncology for some two decades (1).  MDD at a multidisciplinary conference (MDC) formalizes activities that have also gone under the label of case conferences, tumor boards, etc. and this practice is time- honored in medical practice.  In the setting of interstitial lung disease (ILD), especially the idiopathic interstitial pneumonias (IIPs) and IPF MDD conducted by a “multidisciplinary team” (MDT) and is now the “gold standard” for diagnosis in this clinical setting (2) and is recommended in the 2011 guidelines for IPF and the 2013 guidelines for IIPs (3, 4). 

Clinical-pathologic correlation, clinical-radiologic-pathologic correlation and clinical-radiologic correlation have been integral to the study of interstitial lung disease since early work of  Heitzman (5), Carrington and Gaensler (6) and many others. This represents the conceptual framework on which the Fleischner Society:  “…an international, multidisciplinary medical society for thoracic radiology, dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the chest” founded in 1969 (7).

The emphasis of MDD in the setting of ILD derives primarily from the study of Flaherty et al (8).  Flaherty et al studied the kappa statistic for intra-observer agreement among expert clinicians evaluating ILD and showed that the kappa significantly improved as more clinical, radiologic and pathologic information was added, suggesting that clinicians had become more confident of their diagnoses with this process. 

In theory, MDD results in a consensus diagnosis based on all the appropriate evidence discussed in a single setting allowing a dynamic intercourse and engagement among the physicians involved.  It allows the physicians to “look each other in the eye” and assess the confidence in the interpretations presented.  It also enables all participating physicians to reassess and change their opinions on the basis of new information and ongoing discussion.  Many of the positive aspects of MDD include the following:

  • Dynamic interaction with exchange of ideas
  • Engagement of the physicians involved; improved self-esteem
  • Physicians can gauge the confidence of others’ opinions/diagnoses (e.g., the radiologic or pathologic diagnosis)
  • Physicians can reassess and reinterpret their findings and change their diagnoses
  • Educational value for involved physicians (for example, surgeons can appreciate the radiologic findings in terms of where to biopsy; pathologists can appreciate the pathologic findings relative to HRCT)
  • Educational value for training fellows and junior staff
  • Encourages evidence-based approach
  • Increased homogeneity and consistency in managing ILD
  • Development of a group ethos with associated improved morale
  • Continuous feedback regarding diagnoses
  • Forum for developing research ideas
  • Forum for discussion and recruitment to clinical trials
  • Pooled group clinical experience with broad perspective on ILD (for example, radiologic findings inform the pathologic findings and vice versa)
  • An MDD diagnosis might be considered a more defensible diagnosis than individuals’ diagnoses
  • The belief that collective thought is better than individuals’ diagnoses

As in any human interaction, theory does not always translate into practice and there are number of issues that  arise with MDD.  Negative and potentially negative aspects of MDD can summarized as follows:

  • Physician and allied health staff time
  • Physician and allied health staff cost
  • Difficulty in coordinating schedules to attend an MDD
  • Too many (unselected) cases for discussion
  • Lack of a defined protocol and administrative structure for the MDD
  • How individual findings should be weighted in terms of final diagnosis
  • The effect on the group of individuals’ personalities and stature
  • Discourages independence of thought and problem-solving strategies especially for trainees
  • Lack of a clear trail as to exactly how a final diagnosis was reached (individual opinions may be lost)
  • The “groupthink” phenomenon (to maintain harmony and conformity a group decision may in fact be dysfunctional)
  • Over-confidence by the clinician in a diagnosis reached by MDD
  • Lack of data on inter- and intra-observer correlation for MDT diagnoses
  • When no consensus diagnosis is reached, who is the final arbitrator?
  • The phenomenon of “diagnosis drift” (see below)
  • The difficulty in validating MDD/MDT diagnoses
  • MDD is a luxury of an academic practice and not practical in routine clinical practice
  • Medico-legal liability of group members for a group decision

The MDD process for ILD has not been uniformly defined.  Should this be a free-for-all?  Should there be a defined protocol?  The algorithm for the diagnosis of IPF in the 2011 guidelines is a good guide (3).  To some extent, the observations/opinions presented in an MDD are subjective and thus an MDD diagnosis is simply a collection of subjective judgments.  MDD is influenced by individual personalities and there is no question that an “eminence factor” may be at play; a very eminent radiologist may intimidate a relatively inexperienced clinician and the result might be skewed toward the radiologic interpretation.  Cultural factors may also be at play since in some societies age and experience are venerated.  There are no guidelines if a consensus is not reached, and it would be folly to assume that consensus would be reached after every MDD session. When there is no consensus, who is the final arbiter?  We believe the clinician caring for the patient should be the final arbiter. 

Participation in an MDD may leads to something that can be called “diagnosis drift.”  An example of this follows.  The differential diagnosis for IPF includes chronic hypersensitivity pneumonitis, which may show certain radiologic features that suggest that diagnosis.  When such cases are discussed in an MDD, pathologists then become sensitive to similar findings histologically and over time, tend to raise the differential of chronic hypersensitivity pneumonitis more often in the absence any validated confirmation of this practice.

How can MDD be improved?  Given the time, expense, and logistical issues, we think it is unrealistic to expect a MDD for all ILD or IPF cases and that cases for MDD should selected, particularly those where there appears to be discrepancy between the clinical, radiologic and/or pathologic findings. The availability of an electronic medical record (EMR) allows ready access to medical information that may obviate need for MDD in individual cases, although the give and take of discussion is lost.

An attempt should be made to better define the process and the roles of the participants.  We suspect that in most MDDs there is a de facto definition of the process and the roles, but some attempt could be made to formalize this.  Some additional suggestions include:

  • Be cognizant of the pros and cons discussed above
  • Better defined process with roles and leader clarified
  • Preselection of cases to improve efficiency; not all ILD cases need to be discussed
  • Include only individuals necessary for a given case (efficient use of staff and their time)
  • Consider MDD “overreading” by an experienced group since many community practices will not find MDD to be feasible
  • Use of teleconferencing
  • Record of the MMD process/decisions
  • Continuous reassessment and improvement of the MDD process

And as a final thoughts…..remember that an experienced clinician effectively goes through the process of MDD in the clinical evaluation of an individual patient, appropriately consulting radiologists, pathologists, and other colleagues as needed to reach a management decision……but how is that experience gained…?...The educational value of MDD should not be forgotten.

References

  1. Powell HA, Baldwin DR. Multidisciplinary team management in thoracic oncology: more than just a concept? Eur Respir J 2014;43(6):1776-1786. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  2. Wells AU. Histopathologic diagnosis in diffuse lung disease: an ailing gold standard. Am J Respir Crit Care Med 2004;170(8):828-829. [CrossRef] [PubMed] 
  3. Raghu G, Collard HR, Egan JJ, Martinez FJ, Behr J, Brown KK et al. An official ATS/ERS/JRS/ALAT statement: idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis: evidence-based guidelines for diagnosis and management. Am J Respir Crit Care Med 2011;183(6):788-824. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  4. Travis WD, Costabel U, Hansell DM, King TE, Jr., Lynch DA, Nicholson AG et al. An official American Thoracic Society/European Respiratory Society statement: Update of the international multidisciplinary classification of the idiopathic interstitial pneumonias. Am J Respir Crit Care Med 2013;188(6):733-748. [CrossRef] [PubMed] 
  5. Heitzman ER. The lung: Radiologic-pathologic correlations. Mosby, 1973.
  6. Carrington CB, Gaensler EA. Clinical-pathologic approach to diffuse infiltrative lung disease. Monogr Pathol 1978;19:58-87. [PubMed] 
  7. Fleischner Society Website. [cited 2014 Jul 1]; Available from: http://fleischner.org/
  8. Flaherty KR, King TE, Jr., Raghu G, Lynch JP, 3rd, Colby TV, Travis WD et al. Idiopathic interstitial pneumonia: what is the effect of a multidisciplinary approach to diagnosis? Am J Respir Crit Care Med 2004;170(8):904-910. [CrossRef] [PubMed]

Acknowledgements

The authors thank the Fleischner Society members attending the 2014 Leuven meeting and the following physicians for thoughtful discussion and input:  Jeffrey Galvin, David Hansell, David Lynch, Mathias Prokop, Jay Ryu, and Johny Verschakelen.

Reference as: Colby TV, Gotway MB, Wesselius LJ. Multidisciplinary discussion (MDD) in interstitial lung disease; some reflections. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2014;9(1):32-5. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc097-14 PDF

Sunday
Jun082014

VA Administrators Breathe a Sigh of Relief

On May 30, Eric Shinseki, the Secretary for Veterans Affairs (VA), resigned under pressure amidst a growing scandal regarding falsification of patient wait times at nearly 40 VA medical centers. Before leaving office Shinseki fired Sharon Helman, the former hospital director at the Phoenix VA, where the story first broke, along with her deputy and another unnamed administrator. In addition, Susan Bowers, director of VA Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN) 18 and Helman’s boss, resigned. Robert Petzel, undersecretary for the Veterans Health Administration (VHA, head of the VA hospitals and clinics), had resigned earlier. You could hear the sigh of relief from the VA administrators.

With their bosses resigning left and right, the VA leadership in shambles and the reputation of the VA  soiled for many years to come, why are the VA administrators relieved? The simple answer is that nothing has really changed. There for a moment it looked like real reform might happen. Even President Obama in announcing Shinseki's resignation said the "There is a need for a change in culture..." (1). Shinseki’s resignation would indicate that any action to change the culture is unlikely. Sure a few administrators, like Helman, will lose their jobs, perhaps a few patients will get outsourced to private practioners, but nothing is being done or proposed to change the VA culture. A new interim VA secretary was named and his tenure is likely to be lengthy since no confirmation appears to go unchallenged in the US Congress, and who would want the job?

I was at the VA, when then undersecretary for VHA, Kenneth Kizer, made the fundamental change that resulted in the present mess. Kizer had come to the VA with a program he called the “prescription for change” (2). Indeed, Kizer made several changes but the one that really counted was that the chiefs of staff, doctors who ran the medical services in VA hospitals, were replaced by the head of the Medical Administration Service, usually a business person. This made the VA director the monarch over their own little kingdom, and we all know “it’s good to be the king”. Furthermore, we all know that power corrupts and now with absolute power, the VA director was absolutely corrupted. The hospital directors eliminated any sources of potential opposition. Physicians who did not “play ball” could suddenly find themselves as a target of an investigation (3). After being found guilty by a kangaroo court, their names would be turned over to the National Practioner Databank as bad doctors making it difficult to find a job outside the VA. Those cooperative physicians were rewarded, often for limiting the care of patients. In other words, putting the VA administrators’ interests before the patients’ (4). Lastly, the long-standing relationship with the Nation’s medical schools was destroyed (remember VA dean’s hospitals?). It was argued that the medical schools used the VA to serve their needs. Although this had some truth, it is part of the two-way street that makes cooperation possible. No VA administrator wanted a bunch of doctors and academics telling them what to do.

After eliminating any possible oversight from the physicians or the medical schools, an insulating administrative layer had to be placed between the hospitals and VA central office. Therefore, the Veterans Integrated Service Networks or VISNs, were created. Although ostensibly to improve oversight and efficiency (2), only in Washington would they believe that another layer of bureaucracy would do either. As more and more patients were packed into the system, the numbers of physicians and nurses decreased (5). Not surprisingly, wait times became longer and there was no alternative but to hide the truth. The administrators, the VISNs and VA Central office were all complicit in these lies. Their bonuses depended on it and even when it was discovered by the VA Office of Inspector General (VAOIG) nothing was done.

Congress, who supposedly also provides oversight, was swift to propose action that does not change the VA culture and accomplish little. In this election year Congressional cries to throw those VA bums out have been consistent and loud. However, plenty of clues were available to know that the wait time data was false. First, the concept that you can cut the numbers of physicians and nurses and improve wait times defies common sense. Second, the VAOIG had repeatedly reported that wait times were being falsified. Helman had already been accused of this when she was the director at the Spokane VA (6). This week the Senate passed a bill allowing veterans to see private doctors outside the VA system if they experience long wait times or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility; make it easier to fire VA officials; construct 26 new VA medical facilities and use $500 million in unobligated VA funds to hire additional VA doctors and nurses (7). The VA already is able to do the first two, and as the present crisis illustrates, funds can be diverted away from healthcare. It seems likely this is exactly what will happen unless additional oversight is provided.

Kizer and Ashish Jha authored an editorial on this crisis in the New England Journal of Medicine this week (8). They made three recommendations:

  1. The VA should refocus on fewer measures that directly address what is most important to veteran patients and clinicians-especially outcome measures.
  2. Some of the resources supporting the central and network office bureaucracies could be redirected to bolster the number of caregivers.
  3. The VA needs to engage more with health care organizations and the general public.

All these recommendations are reasonable. Outcome measures, not process of care, should be measured (9). Paying bonuses to administrators for clinicians completing these process of care measures should stop. Many of these measures serve mostly to increase administrative bonuses and not improve patient care. By giving administrators supervisory authority over physicians, healthcare providers were forced to complete a seemingly endless checklists rather than serve the patients' interests.

Bureaucracies should be reduced. VA's central-office staff has grown from about 800 in the late 1990s to nearly 11,000 in 2012 (8). VISN offices have reflected this growth with over 4500 employees in 2012 (10). This diversion of funds away from healthcare is the source of the present problem.

The VA needs to re-engage with the medical schools and with its patients. Reestablishment of the Dean's Committee or other similar system that provides oversight of the VA hospital directors and administrators may be one method of achieving this oversight. The association of the medical schools with the VA served the VA well from the Second World War until the 1990s (11).

Poor pay and micromanagement of physicians to perform meaningless metrics makes primary care onerous. Appropriating funds might improve the salary discrepancy between the VA and the private sector but will not fix the micromanagement problem. The VA may find it difficult to recruit the needed physicians and nurses unless a more friendly work environment is created. How do we know that any appropriated money will be spent on healthcare providers and infrastructure unless additional oversight is put in place? Without oversight the VA positions will become VA vacancies and the VA hospitals will become administrative palaces. Local oversight by VA physicians, nurses and patients is one method of ensuring that appropriated monies are actually spent on healthcare.

VA health care is at a crossroads. New leadership can help the VA succeed but only if the administrative structure is fixed changing the VA culture. Until this occurs the same administrative monarchs will continue to rule their realms and nothing will really change.

Richard A. Robbins, MD*

Editor

Southwest Journal of Pulmonary and Critical Care

References

  1. Cohen T, Griffin D, Bronstein S, Black N. Shinseki resigns, but will that improve things at VA hospitals? CNN. May 31, 2014. Available at: http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/30/politics/va-hospitals-shinseki/ (accessed 6/7/14).
  2. Kizer KW. Prescription for change. March 1996. Available at: http://www.va.gov/HEALTHPOLICYPLANNING/rxweb.pdf (accessed 6/7/14). 
  3. Wagner D. The doctor who launched the VA scandal. Arizona Republic. May 31, 2014. Available at: http://www.azcentral.com/longform/news/arizona/investigations/2014/05/31/va-scandal-whistleblower-sam-foote/9830057/ (accessed 6/7/14).
  4. Hsieh P. Three factors that corrupted VA health care and threaten the rest of American medicine. Forbes. May 30, 2014. Available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/paulhsieh/2014/05/30/three-factors-that-corrupted-va-health-care/ (accessed 6/7/14).
  5. Robbins RA. VA administrators gaming the system. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care 2012;4:149-54. Available at: http://www.swjpcc.com/editorial/2012/5/5/va-administrators-gaming-the-system.html (accessed 6/7/14).
  6. Robbins RA. VA scandal widens. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2014;8(5):288-9. Available at: http://www.swjpcc.com/editorial/2014/5/26/va-scandal-widens.html (accessed 6/7/14). 
  7. O'Keefe E. Senators reach bipartisan deal on bill to fix VA. Washington Post. June 5, 2014. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2014/06/05/senators-reach-bipartisan-deal-on-bill-to-fix-va/ (accessed 6/7/14).
  8. Kizer KW, Jha AK. Restoring trust in VA health care. N Engl J Med. 2014 Jun 4. [Epub ahead of print]. Available at: http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1406852 (accessed 6/7/14). [CrossRef]
  9. Robbins RA, Klotz SA. Quality of care in U.S. hospitals. N Engl J Med. 2005;353(17):1860-1. [CrossRef]
  10. VA Office of Inspector General. Audit of management control structures for veterans integrated service network offices. March 27, 2012. Available at: http://www.va.gov/oig/pubs/VAOIG-10-02888-129.pdf (accessed 6/7/14).
  11. VA policy memorandum no. 2: policy in association of veterans' hospitals with medical schools. January 30, 1946. Available at: http://www.va.gov/oaa/Archive/PolicyMemo2.pdf (accessed 6/7/14).

*The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, or California Thoracic Societies or the Mayo Clinic.

Refence as: Robbins RA. VA administrators breathe a sigh of relief. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2014;8(6):336-9. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc077-14 PDF

Monday
May262014

VA Scandal Widens

On Memorial Day, which honors those who died in service to the country, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of Inspector General (OIG) is investigating medical facilities in at least 26 cities (1). The scandal started in Phoenix where Sam Foote, a retired VA physician, alleged that up to 40 patients in Arizona died awaiting care in a network where some veterans could not get appointments for more than a year. Foote claimed that Phoenix VA officials were misrepresenting wait times to collect bonus checks while maintaining "secret lists" of patients. These accusations resulted in the suspension of Sharon Helman, the Phoenix VA hospital director, along with her associate director and another unnamed senior administrator. Dennis Wagner in an article in the Arizona Republic listed many of the accusations made against various VA hospitals outside of Phoenix (1). These include:

  • Chicago: Germaine Clarno, president of a federal employee union, said secret lists and falsified wait times had been an "everyday practice" at the Hines VA Hospital, and complaints of data fraud were ignored. Hellman was previously at the Hines VA director prior to coming to Phoenix. Clarno also said the inspector general conducted an inquiry, but targeted tangential issues. "The problem is the government covers up for the government — the OIG is a bed partner of VA administration." The OIG had investigated the Phoenix VA in late 2013 but Robert Petzel, then undersecretary for Veterans Healthcare Administration, said the OIG found no evidence to support Foote's claims (2). Petzel later resigned and the White House has nominated Jeffrey Murawsky who previously served as director of VA Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN) 12 which oversees the Hines VA and who directly supervised Helman (3).
  • Walla Walla, WA: VA auditors who visited the Walla Walls VA, where Helman previously served as director prior to coming to Hines VA, identified improper and inconsistent patient-scheduling practices, according to the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. A psychiatric nurse, who won a whistle-blower settlement after being terminated, told NBC News that intimidation and retaliation were commonplace at the medical center.
  • San Antonio, Texas: Dr. Joseph Spann, who retired in January after 17 years with the VA, told federal investigators that physicians were regularly asked to alter the "request date" for medical procedures to hide backlogs for tests. Spann attributed the practice to pressure to meet performance measures that reward administrators bonuses. When told local VA officials had conducted a review and denied the allegation, Spann said, "Central Texas (VA) investigating itself is just worthless." Raymond Chung who was the previous Chief of Staff at the Phoenix VA came to Phoenix from San Antonio.
  • Cheyenne, WY: Congressional investigators uncovered an e-mail written by a nurse to other VA employees describing techniques for "gaming the system" by falsifying appointment records to meet goals set by bosses. The nurse was suspended after the e-mail was made public. The director of the Cheyenne VA is Cynthia McCormack who previously was chief of nursing at the Phoenix VA.
  • Fort Collins, CO: OIG investigators in December found that medical clinic staffers were trained to make it appear veterans were getting appointments within 14 days, per department guidelines, even though waits were longer. McCormack supervises the Fort Collins clinic.
  • Albuquerque: U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., called for an investigation after allegations that  wait-time records were falsified Phoenix. Phoenix and Albuquerque are both supervised by Susan Bowers, the VISN 18 director.

As the above illustrates, the connections between these administrators is striking. Beginning several years ago, according to internal VA records, VA central office in Washington realized medical centers around the country were finding ways to manipulate the numbers. The VA had for several years been the subject of congressional inquiry and criticism not just due to long waits for care, but because of mismanagement but no action was taken.

Although Congress, VA central office in Washington and the local VISNs are all charged with overseeing the VA hospitals, the task of supervising this large, complex bureaucracy is daunting and appears to have been inadequate. A system needs to be put in place where healthcare providers who care for veterans and veteran patients who use the facility have a role in the oversight of their local VA hospital.  Creation of a hospital board of directors consisting predominately of healthcare providers from the facility and veterans might be able to provide the supervision that this ever widening scandal suggests is needed.

Richard A. Robbins, MD*

Editor

Southwest Journal of Pulmonary and Critical Care

References

  1. Wagner D. Delayed care, fraud point to ailing VA health system. The Arizona Republic. May 25, 2014. Available at: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/investigations/2014/05/25/va-medical-care-woes/9564605/ (accessed 5/26/14).
  2. Wagner D. VA: We found no evidence to support allegations in Phoenix. The Arizona Republic. April 30,2014. Available at: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/2014/04/30/phoenix-veteran-hospital-deaths-investigation/8518721/ (accessed 5/26/14).
  3. O'Dell R, Nowicki D, The Arizona Republic. May 16, 2014. Available at: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/05/16/top-va-health-official-resigns-under-fire/9182311/ (accessed 5/26/14).

*The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado or California Thoracic Societies or the Mayo Clinic.

Reference as: Robbins RA. VA scandal widens. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2014;8(5):288-9. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc070-14 PDF

Sunday
May042014

Don’t Fire Sharon Helman-At Least Not Yet

Several developments have occurred over the past few days regarding prolonged wait times and secret lists at the Phoenix VA and its embattled director, Sharon Helman. President Obama has asked for an investigation and several Arizona Senators and Representatives have called for investigations and/or asked for the resignation of Helman and her administrative team (1,2). On 4/30/14, Dr. Robert Petzel, VA undersecretary for health, testified that an administrative team visited Phoenix soon after the controversy erupted and found “no evidence of a secret list… [or] patients who have died because they [were] on a wait list." (3). On 5/1/14 CNN posted an interview with Sharon Helman and her Chief of Staff, Dr. Darren Deering, who denied the allegations. Dr. Sam Foote, who made the original allegations, accused Helman and Deering of lying (4). CNN apparently confirmed Foote’s story with several sources inside the VA including a second physician, Dr. Katherine Mitchell (5). Later the same day, Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, suspended Helman and two others (5).

This all sounded very familiar (6). In 2012 the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report on the accuracy of the Veterans Healthcare Administration (VHA) wait times for mental health services (7). The report found that “VHA does not have a reliable and accurate method of determining whether they are providing patients timely access to mental health care services. VHA did not provide first-time patients with timely mental health evaluations and existing patients often waited more than 14 days past their desired date of care for their treatment appointment. As a result, performance measures used to report patient’s access to mental health care do not depict the true picture of a patient’s waiting time to see a mental health provider.”

After the 2012 OIG report came the inevitable Congressional hearing (8). Although misrepresenting actual wait times has been known for many years, there has been inadequate action to correct the practice according to the VA OIG. Sen. Patty Murray, then chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said the findings showed a "rampant gaming of the system." (8). A review of the OIG’s website revealed multiple instances of similar findings dating back to at least 2002 (6). In each instance, unreliable data regarding wait times was cited and no or inadequate action was taken.

The providers at the VA should not necessarily view this as not good news. The VA has usually sought to refocus blame away from the administrators to “lazy” or “poor” doctors. My guess is that we will soon see a number of accusations about Drs. Foote and Mitchell in an effort to administratively circle the wagons. VA administrators usually seize on such opportunities to control physicians. Remember the computer fiasco from several years back when an information technology administrator lost a computer with confidential patient information (9)? This not only resulted in information technology being placed in charge of the electronic healthcare record but a number of restrictions were placed on physician use of data. Furthermore, administrators can now not only regulate a physician’s salary but “black ball” physicians by false accusations through sources such as the National Practioner Data Bank (NPDB). Not surprisingly, physicians are reluctant to speak out when their livelihood can be threatened.

Clearly, the present system is not working. Firing Sharon Helman will solve nothing at the present other than giving some politicians the opportunity to congratulate themselves on weeding out a bad apple in this election year. Furthermore, firing Helman could be an attempt to hide a systemic problem by offering Helman as the “fall guy”. So instead of redoing the OIG investigations and the Congressional hearings which have accomplished nothing in the past, how about doing something else? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Have Helman investigated by an independent source, not the OIG. Examine other VAs for similarly misrepresenting patient wait times. Over thirty years at the VA taught me that if wait times are being "gamed" by one VA, the times are also likely being "gamed" by others.
  2. Create a National Healthcare Administrator Data Bank similar to the NPDB with all the same safeguards and checks and balances available to physicians. Helman apparently had a history of misrepresenting data (10). It seems unlikely that she would have been hired if this was publically known.
  3. Provide adequate oversight. The local Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN), VA Central Office in Washington, and Congress is not providing the oversight needed. Create a hospital board of directors consisting predominately of a majority of healthcare providers from the facility and Veterans (not to be appointed by the director) to provide oversight.
  4. Quit hiring more administrators while reducing the number of doctors. Inadequate numbers of providers is the root cause of prolonged wait times and has been present for a number of years (6). The numbers of administrators, nurses and doctors should be transparent and publically available.
  5. Quit paying administrators bonuses for work done by doctors. This only encourages cheating on reports (6,7). If administrators need a bonus, reward them for achievements in administrative efficiency or similar administrative goals. Both the criteria for and the amount of the bonus should be transparent and publically available.
  6. Scrap the VISN system. These local collections of administrators are another source of waste and appear to add no real oversight or patient benefit.

The optimist in me hopes the situation at the Phoenix VA and possibly other VAs is thoroughly investigated. If Helman is the “bad apple” many would like to portray-then fire her. If her actions are more a result of a systemic problem-then fix the problem.  However, the cynic in me fears that Helman will be sacrificed without a thorough investigation and no change will occur.  In that case I will again be writing about an investigation of VA administrators "gaming the system", probably in 2016.

Richard A. Robbins, MD*

Editor

Southwest Journal of Pulmonary and Critical Care

References

  1. Wagner D. McCain, Flake call for Senate probe of Phoenix VA. The Arizona Republic. April 23, 2014. Available at: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/arizona/politics/2014/04/23/mccain-flake-call-senate-probe-phoenix-va/8061141/ (accessed 5/1/14).
  2. Harris C, Wagner D. Phoenix VA officials deny there's a secret wait list; doctor says they're lying. The Arizona Republic. April 29, 2014. Available at: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/2014/04/29/phoenix-va-director-congressman-call-for-removal/8447131/ (accessed 5/1/14).
  3. Wagner D. VA: We found no evidence to support allegations in Phoenix. The Arizona Republic. April 30, 2014. Available at: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/2014/04/30/phoenix-veteran-hospital-deaths-investigation/8518721/ (accessed 5/1/14).
  4. Bronstein S, Griffin D, Black N. Phoenix VA officials deny there's a secret wait list; doctor says they're lying. CNN. May 1, 2014. Available at: http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/30/health/veterans-dying-health-care-delays/ (accessed 5/1/14).
  5. Wagner D. Second VA doctor blows whistle on patient-care failures. The Arizona Republic. May 1, 2014. Available at: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/investigations/2014/05/02/second-va-doctor-blows-whistle-patient-care-failures/8595863/ (accessed 5/1/14).
  6. Robbins RA. VA administrators gaming the system. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care 2012;4:149-54.
  7. VA Office of Inspector General. Review of Veterans’ Access to Mental Health Care. 1.http://www.va.gov/oig/pubs/VAOIG-12-00900-168.pdf  (accessed 5-1-14).
  8. Vogel S. VA mental health system sharply denounced at hearing. Washington Post. April 25, 2012. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/va-mental-health-system-sharply-denounced-at-hearing/2012/04/25/gIQAXG3mhT_story.html (accessed 5/1/14).
  9. Lee C, Goldfarb ZA. Stolen VA laptop and hard drive recovered. Washington Post. June 30, 2006. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/29/AR2006062900352.html (accessed 5/1/14).
  10. Corbin C. Arizona VA boss accused of covering up veterans' deaths linked to previous scandal. Foxnews.com. April 24, 2014. Available at: http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2014/04/24/arizona-va-boss-accused-covering-up-veterans-deaths-linked-to-previous-scandal/ (accessed 5/1/14).

*The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, or California Thoracic Societies or the Mayo Clinic.

Reference as: Robbins RA. Don't fire Sharon Helman-at least not yet. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2014;8(5):275-7. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc060-14 PDF