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Editorials

Last 50 Editorials

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

In Defense of Eminence-Based Medicine
Screening for Obstructive Sleep Apnea in the Transportation Industry—
   The Time is Now
Mitigating the “Life-Sucking” Power of the Electronic Health Record
Has the VA Become a White Elephant?
The Most Influential People in Healthcare
Remembering the 100,000 Lives Campaign
The Evil That Men Do-An Open Letter to President Obama
Using the EMR for Better Patient Care
State of the VA
Kaiser Plans to Open "New" Medical School
CMS Penalizes 758 Hospitals For Safety Incidents
Honoring Our Nation's Veterans
Capture Market Share, Raise Prices
Guns and Sleep
Is It Time for a National Tort Reform?
Time for the VA to Clean Up Its Act
Eliminating Mistakes In Managing Coccidioidomycosis
A Tale of Two News Reports
The Hands of a Healer
The Fabulous Fours! Annual Report from the Editor
A Veterans Day Editorial: Change at the VA?
A Failure of Oversight at the VA
IOM Releases Report on Graduate Medical Education
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

 

For complete editorial listings click here.

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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Monday
Feb132017

In Defense of Eminence-Based Medicine

An internal memo to the members of the Society for Truculent Underappreciated Practitioners of Inpatient Doctoring

Brigham C. Willis, MD, MEd

Department of Medical Education and Division of Cardiovascular Intensive Care
Phoenix Children's Hospital
Phoenix, AZ USA

 

To arms, august compatriots! Our very way of life is threatened by the hordes of barbarians at our gates. Armed not with pitchforks and torches, but with Cochrane reviews, “multicenter randomized controlled trials”, the Interwebs, and “tablet computers”, they besiege our traditions and values, and threaten our place in the hierarchy of medicine. In no uncertain terms, they want to remove us from our place of reverence, from our position of respect, and replace us with guidelines, pathways, and protocols. To do nothing is to perish. We must stand together, and fight this tide, or be swept away in the tidal wave of journals and statistical analyses buffeting our land. Join or Die!

For generations, we have preserved our careers and medicine itself by strictly honoring a system based on “eminence-based medicine” or “EBM”. This is the practice of making the same sound decisions with increasing confidence over an impressive number of years (some of the barbarians have even mocked and disregarded this definition, co-opting “EBM” for their own purposes and replacing “sound decisions” in the true definition with “mistakes”. The nerve.) Upon what else does our hallowed practice rest than this? Imagine the disorder and chaos if students or lowly interns were allowed to question the decisions we, the wise practitioners, make. I have seen enough patents with pyemia or blood rot in my time to know how to treat them, thank you very much. I don’t need some unwashed whelp of a trainee waiving a New England Journal article in my face, saying I am giving too much or too little fluid to the patient. I once took care of a septic patient and gave them absolutely no fluid, and they survived. So much for the so-called “evidence”. There is no amount of evidence that can replace intuition and sound clinical acumen. As many of you likely can affirm, a true clinician can almost feel the right thing to do. A challenge to this as the basis of medicine is akin to advocating a change from the “art of medicine” to the “science of medicine”. Blasphemy!

I am sure each of you have experienced some form of this assault. In fact, the medical literature today is full of direct attacks on eminence (1-3). The threat is becoming more acute by the day, as even the lowliest trainee has access to the entire world’s archive of medical literature in their pocket. To survive, we must arm ourselves and fight back. We must have at the ready an armamentarium of weapons and tools to stem the tide, and turn back the latter-day Visigoths who fling their regression analyses, critical appraisal tools, and “levels of evidence” at our battlements. What follows is an attempt to codify some of those tools, and help all of our eminent practitioners to soldier on in the fight.

  1. “Harrumph and eye roll”. When confronted with what seems like sound evidence that counters the way you have treated something for many years, simply roll your eyes in a dramatic way, make a “harrumph”-ing sound quite loudly, and say something like “Well, balanced salt solutions may make physiologic sense, but normal saline has worked for me for many years.” The italics imply rhetorically stressing the avenue of attack chosen by the challenger, and throwing it back at them in a mocking, or sarcastic way, and then reminding them of how much more experience you have than they do. While seemingly basic and perhaps puerile, it is astounding how effective this technique can be. But the “harrumph” you throw in must be emphatic, and said with conviction. This technique rests entirely on how invested in it you can be.
  2. “My specific patient is different”. These evidence cultists always want to assume that their numbers and ratios always apply to everyone. It is relatively simple to find some minor clinical difference between the particular patient under discussion and the participants in whatever trial your foe is citing. For example, when challenged on your management of a ventilated patient, you can say, “Well, in that trial, they didn’t specifically analyze the subgroup of patients with influenza and CHF, did they?” or “the secretions of influenza in a patient with CHF are clearly unique”. Defenses like this usually put them on their heels, as they will either have to go back to the trial itself to check, or admit that they are not quite sure.
  3. “In my experience…” No matter how much evidence is presented, it is always possible to unearth the musty contents of your own shadowy past. Ill-defined and utterly unverifiable, your “experiences” with individual patients, if described colorfully and in detail, can easily counter dry references to impersonal literature reports. It can also refute arguments of physiology. If you have seen something before, your eye-witness account is much more reliable than some “deep understanding of physiologic principles”.
  4. Question the quality of the training of the evidence-hound. No matter what they say or how many “facts” they can cite, one can almost always cast aspersions on their training in some way. “When I was at Harvard...” is a near-perfect oratory introduction to asserting your proper place.
  5. Point out some minute problem in the design of the study being quoted. Although somewhat unsavory, as it may require stooping to the tactics employed by our attackers, it is always possible to take issue with some aspect of any given study. “I can’t believe they used a Kolmogorov–Smirnov test, when they clearly should have used Pitman’s permutation test. The results of this study are suspect to say the least.” This should require quite a bit of investigation by the whelp, by which time you should be safely ensconced in the doctor’s lounge.
  6. Cite a report that supports your viewpoint. Again somewhat unsavory, but even when someone states that 3 randomized control trials (RCTs) have shown that a certain treatment is “clearly” superior to how you have been doing things, you can almost always cite a trial that does support you (“while it is interesting that those investigations show that digitalis is not effective in heart failure in general, Jones et al. showed that it reduced readmission rates in the Congo when given to patients with CHF due to parasitic disease...”). Always remember to end the discussion with “so clearly the jury is still out on this subject.”
  7. Lean heavily on the axiom that “lack of evidence of efficacy is not evidence of lack of efficacy”. This is very powerful and can be carried quite far. No matter how many trials show that a treatment doesn’t work, this single sentence irrefutably ends discussion in most cases.
  8. Utilize physiologic smoke screens. Delve deeply into your medical school texts, and have at the ready in depth discussions of biochemical and physiologic pathways. Learn to describe how they interact in such detail that no one can really follow what you are getting at, but throw in enough polysyllabic words and pathway intermediates and you are untouchable, no matter how much evidence is tossed around. In today’s world, most trainees’ education in biochemistry, physiology, and anatomy has been short-shrifted to a stunning degree by the addition of silly classes on biostatistics, ethics, diversity, professionalism, and other such drivel, so you can be generally assured they will have no comeback for this defense.
  9. “Cookbook medicine”. Throw out derogatory terms such as “cookbook medicine” and wax nostalgic for the times when doctors truly “thought” about their patients and cared about them. This is particularly effective when you can question the humanity of your foe, asserting that “statistics and numbers can never substitute for the human being in the bed in front of you. You would do well to remember that.” Followed up with a moving patient story where your attention to detail and the history of that individual patient made all the difference, and where your diagnosis and treatment plan flew in the face of the naysayers, and you are safe.
  10. Parachutes. Go nuclear, and question evidence itself. This is obviously high-risk, but can be very effective. Building on the excellent article utilizing the example of the parachute as a preventative treatment for high-altitude falls that has never been verified in a RCT (despite the fact that there are case reports of parachute-less high-altitude falls resulting in subject survival) (4), make the point that medicine is more than evidence. Rub their nose in the fact that true doctors can see the value in treatments that are of “obvious” value, even without evidence.
  11. Question the work ethic or integrity of the evidence bearer. No matter what they say, find some fault with their daily routine, or pre-rounding attention to detail, or accuracy of information they provided about the patient. Proceed to vociferously point out their deficiencies, making sure that everyone in ear shot is aware of what is happening, and intimate that anything they say is suspect.
  12. Trump them. If all else fails, utilize the debate technique made so famous by the current president. Previously known as “vehemence-based medicine” (5), simply raising the volume of your opinion and employing an attitude that your opponent is a complete and utter moron will shut down any opposition. With this technique, if employed correctly, any amount of logic or number of facts will wilt in the glare of your intensity and scorn.
  13. Eloquence and elegance based argumentation. Much to the chagrin of the attackers, it is still well-accepted that “brilliant oratory,…a year round suntan, [and/or] a silk suit” (5) can overwhelm the senses of most of the sandal-wearing hippies who worship at the altar of evidence. Keep your style impressive and tighten your bowties!

Be strong, my brothers and sisters! While some furtive attempts have been made to fight back and harness the power of our eminence (6), we are clearly in danger. In the face of this growing threat, our ability to wield our eminence may falter. We hope that the techniques described herein will serve you well in our struggle. Let not these heathens question our place or sacred way of life. Stand tall, and continue to be the face of “EBM”.

References

  1. Bhandari M, Zlowodzki M, Cole PA. From eminence-based practice to evidence-based practice: a paradigm shift. Minn Med. 2004 Apr;87(4):51-4. [PubMed]
  2. Kros JM. Grading of gliomas: the road from eminence to evidence. J Neuropathol Exp Neurol. 2011 Feb;70(2):101-9. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  3. Pincus T, Tugwell P. Shouldn't standard rheumatology clinical care be evidence-based rather than eminence-based, eloquence-based, or elegance-based? J Rheumatol. 2007 Jan;34(1):1-4. [PubMed]
  4. Smith GC, Pell JP. Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials. BMJ. 2003 Dec 20;327(7429):1459-61. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  5. Isaacs D, Fitzgerald D. Seven alternatives to evidence based medicine. BMJ. 1999 Dec 18-25;319(7225):1618. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  6. Hay MC, Weisner TS, Subramanian S, Duan N, Niedzinski EJ, Kravitz RL.Harnessing experience: exploring the gap between evidence-based medicine and clinical practice. J Eval Clin Pract. 2008 Oct;14(5):707-13. [CrossRef] [PubMed]

Cite as: Willis BC. In defense of eminence-based medicine. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2017;14(2):69-72. doi: https://doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc019-17 PDF 

Friday
Dec022016

Screening for Obstructive Sleep Apnea in the Transportation Industry—The Time is Now

Stuart F. Quan, M.D.

 

Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders

Brigham and Women’s Hospital

and

Division of Sleep Medicine

Harvard Medical School

Boston, MA USA

and

Asthma and Airway Disease Research Center

University of Arizona College of Medicine,

Tucson, AZ USA

 

On September 29, 2016, a New Jersey Transit train failed to slow down and stop at the station in Hoboken, New Jersey. The resulting crash injured a number of passengers and killed a young mother who happened to be near the crash site. Subsequently, it was learned that the train engineer who apparently had blacked out was diagnosed as having severe obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) (1). Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. Over the past few years, there have been several other well-documented incidents of train, truck and bus crashes resulting from their operators falling asleep from OSA. In 2013, a Metro-North commuter train derailed outside of New York City because of excessive speed approaching a curve, the train engineer reported being “dazed” and was subsequently found to have OSA (2). Four passengers were killed and numerous others were injured. In another well-documented accident in 2013, the driver of a Greyhound bus fell asleep. The bus ran off the road, rolled on its side and injured 35 passengers. The driver had been told to get tested for OSA, but did not have the study done. A subsequent court-ordered polysomnogram showed OSA (3). In another incident in 2009, a truck-tractor semitrailer operator failed to notice slowing and stopped cars in front of him and collided with a passenger vehicle. This led to a series of rear end vehicle collisions resulting in 10 fatalities. The cause of the accident was operator fatigue related in part to OSA (4). These well-publicized incidents are only a few of the sleepiness/fatigue related accidents caused by unrecognized OSA in the transportation industry.

One of the most common symptoms attributed to OSA is daytime sleepiness which can be uncontrollable and unpredictable. Numerous studies have demonstrated that persons with OSA have an increased rate of motor vehicle accidents with up to a 4.9 fold higher risk (5). Accidents involving only a single vehicle are particularly frequent suggesting that the crashes are caused by the operators having fallen asleep. Truck drivers are at even greater risk, most likely because they are disproportionately male, middle aged and overweight, all of which are risk factors for OSA. Over a ten year span from 2004 to 2013, it has been estimated that 3,133 to 8,952 deaths and 77,000 and 220,000 serious injuries have resulted from sleepy operators of commercial motor vehicles, many of whom most likely had undiagnosed and untreated OSA (6).

Given the severe consequences of unrecognized OSA on public safety and the high prevalence of unrecognized OSA among operators of trains, buses and commercial trucks, the imperative to screen and treat these persons for OSA is high. The advisory boards to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) have recommended that commercial truck drivers be screened for OSA if their body mass index is > 40 kg/m2, or >33 kg/m2 and have 3 or more conditions or findings associated with OSA, but adoption of these recommendations has not occurred (7). More recently, the Department of Transportation, Federal Railroad Administration and the FMCSA have taken the first steps to mandate screening and treatment of rail and commercial motor vehicle operators for OSA by soliciting public comment (8). Airline pilots are already screened. However, there is substantial opposition from the trucking industry and drivers themselves, the latter because of potential job loss. However, such a screening program in one large trucking company has demonstrated a 5 fold reduction in accident rates in drivers who were adherent to CPAP treatment for OSA (5).

With the development of relatively simple to use ambulatory devices that can identify most persons with OSA, screening for OSA can be done easily and cost-effectively. In the vast majority of cases, referral to a sleep lab is not necessary. Persons diagnosed with OSA can be treated with several different modalities and are able to return to work. Employers may actually experience a reduction in their costs related to fewer accidents and improved employee health. Thus, there is no reason to delay requiring OSA screening programs for all persons working in occupations where public safety is at risk. For regulators, policy makers, and the various industries affected, the time is now. Failure to act places the responsibilities for the ensuing economic costs, injuries and deaths on your shoulders.

References

  1. Marsh R, Shortell D. NJ. Train Engineer in Crash had Undiagnosed Sleep Apnea. CNN. October 17, 2016. Available at: http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/17/us/njt-engineer-sleep-apnea/ (accessed 12/2/16).
  2. National Transportation Safety Board. Metro-North Railroad Derailment. October 24, 2014. Available at: http://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/accidentreports/pages/RAB1412.aspx (accessed 12/2/16).
  3. Five Passengers hurt in 2013 Greyhound Bus Crash Win $6 Million Settlement Attorneys Say. WCPO Cincinnati. http://www.wcpo.com/news/local-news/hamilton-county/cincinnati/five-passengers-hurt-in-2013-greyhound-bus-crash-win-6-million-settlement-attorneys-say (accessed 12/2/16).
  4. National Transportation Safety Board. Truck-Tractor Semitrailer Rear-End Collision Into Passenger Vehicles on Interstate 44. September 28, 2010. http://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Pages/HAR1002.aspx (accessed 12/2/16).
  5. Tregear S, Reston J, Schoelles K, Phillips B. Obstructive sleep apnea and risk of motor vehicle crash: systematic review and meta-analysis. J Clin Sleep Med. 2009;5 (6):573–81.[PubMed]
  6. Burks SV, Anderson JE, Bombyk M, et al. Nonadherence with Employer-Mandated Sleep Apnea Treatment and Increased Risk of Serious Truck Crashes. Sleep. 2016 May 1;39(5):967-75. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  7. Miller E. FMCSA Medical Review Board Issues Sleep Apnea Guidelines. Transport Topics. August 24, 2016. Available at:  http://www.ttnews.com/articles/basetemplate.aspx?storyid=42963&page=1 (accessed 12/2/16).
  8. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. U.S. DOT Seeks Input on Screening and Treating Commercial Motor Vehicle Drivers and Rail Workers with Obstructive Sleep Apnea. March 8, 2016. Available at: https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/newsroom/us-dot-seeks-input-screening-and-treating-commercial-motor-vehicle-drivers-and-rail-workers (accessed 12/2/16).

Cite as: Quan SF. Screening for obstructive sleep apnea in the transportation industry—the time is now. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2016;13(6):285-7. doi: https://doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc132-16 PDF

Monday
Nov282016

Mitigating the “Life-Sucking” Power of the Electronic Health Record

An article in PulmCCM discussed “life-sucking” electronic health care records (EHR) (1). It is in turn based on an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine on the work time spent by physicians (2). The latter, funded by the American Medical Association, observed 57 physicians in internal medicine, family medicine, cardiology, and orthopedics over hundreds of hours. The study revealed that physicians spend almost two hours working on their electronic health record for every one hour of face-to-face patient time. Interestingly, physicians who used a documentation assistant or dictation spent more time with patients (31 and 44%) compared to those with no documentation support (23%).

The PulmCCM goes on to list some of the reasons that the EHR requires so much time:

  • The best and brightest minds in software design don't go to work for Epic, Cerner, Allscripts, and whoever the other ones are.
  • There's a high barrier to entry for competition now that most major health systems have implemented the big-name systems.
  • The vendors can't easily improve the front-end design's user-friendliness (like web pages and consumer software have) because it rests on clunky, proprietary frameworks built in the 1990s and which can't be substantially changed for stability reasons. Think Microsoft Office, but way worse.
  • Software designers are congenitally incapable of accepting the reality that a user would be better off the less they use the product, and designing it that way. They think their EHR is super cool, and can't fathom that it actually sucks to use.

Let me add another possibility. Those who demand implementation of the EHR see documentation as being most important because of the bottom line. It if comes at the price of physician efficiency so be it-as long as it does not hurt payment. Physicians are not paid for the required increased documentation much of which is unnecessary, redundant and, in some cases, downright silly (3). Furthermore, the concept that this improves patient outcomes largely seems to be a myth (4). Those manuscripts that report improved “quality” of care usually have examined meaningless surrogate metrics that often have little or even inverse relationships with patient outcomes (3). For example, high patient satisfaction seems to come at the price of increased mortality (5).

What is the solution-charge for the time. As it now stands, there is no downside to demanding pointless documentation. Third party payers can deny payment when something like the rarely beneficial family history is omitted. There should be a charge for seeing and caring for the patient and another “documentation fee” that is based on time. That would mean that a 20 minute office call would not be billed at 20 minutes but at the 1 hour of physician time the visit really consumes. Those physicians who use a documentation assistant or dictation can pay for these services by seeing more patients. Only in this way can the trend of wasting physicians’ most precious resource, their time, be mitigated.

Richard A. Robbins, MD*

Editor, SWJPCC

References

  1. PulmCCM. Life-sucking power of electronic health records measured, reported, lamented. November 25, 2016. Available at: http://pulmccm.org/main/2016/outpatient-pulmonology-review/life-sucking-power-electronic-health-records-measured-reported-lamented/ (accessed 11/28/16).
  2. Sinsky C, Colligan L, Li L, et al. Allocation of physician time in ambulatory practice: a time and motion study in 4 specialties. Ann Intern Med. 2016 Sep 6. [Epub ahead of print] [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  3. Robbins RA. Brief review: dangers of the electronic medical record. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2015;10(4):184-9. [CrossRef]
  4. Yanamadala S, Morrison D, Curtin C, McDonald K, Hernandez-Boussard T. Electronic health records and quality of care: an observational study modeling impact on mortality, readmissions, and complications. Medicine (Baltimore). 2016 May;95(19):e3332. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  5. Fenton JJ, Jerant AF, Bertakis KD, Franks P. The cost of satisfaction: a national study of patient satisfaction, health care utilization, expenditures, and mortality. Arch Intern Med 2012;172:405-11. [CrossRef] [PubMed]

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

Cite as: Robbins RA. Mitigating the “life-sucking” power of the electronic health record. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2016;13(5):255-6. doi: https://doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc125-16 PDF

Friday
Nov112016

Has the VA Become a White Elephant?

As I write this Dennis Wagner is publishing a series of articles in the Arizona Republic describing his quest to find out if care at VA hospitals has improved over the last 2 years (1). To begin the article Wagner describes the fable of the King of Siam who presented albino pachyderms to his enemies knowing they would be bankrupted because the cost of food and care outweighed all usefulness. A modern expression derives from this parable: the white elephant.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has prided itself on being a leader in healthcare. It is the largest healthcare system in the US, implemented the first electronic medical record, and more than 70 percent of all US doctors have received training in the VA healthcare system (2). This year the VA is celebrating the 70th anniversary of its partnership with US medical schools. Beginning in 1946, the VA partnered with academic institutions to provide health care and to train physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals. “We are extremely proud of the long-standing, close relationships built over the past 70 years among VA and academic institutions across the country” said VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald. “These partnerships strengthen VA’s healthcare system, and provide high quality training for the nation’s healthcare workforce. We cannot do what we do without them.” On this Veterans Day these appear to be empty words.

To understand the VA wait list scandal and why it will be difficult to fix, it is important to understand the history of the VA academic affiliations. The VA initially affiliated with medical schools in 1946 because it had trouble attracting enough quality physicians to staff its hospitals. These affiliations led to the formation of "dean's hospitals" (3). These were VA hospitals closely affiliated with medical schools and made the VA hospitals teaching hospitals. The medical school faculty was in charge of patient care and teaching and the dean's committee oversaw it all. Not surprisingly, these dean's committees were largely despised by the non-physician directors of the VA business offices. In the mid-1990's they persuaded Veterans Health Administration undersecretary, Kenneth W. Kizer, to place them in charge of the VA hospitals as hospital directors. The dean's committees were dissolved, freeing the directors from any real local oversight. This set the foundation for the VA to return to 1945 and a culture that makes it difficult to attract sufficient numbers of quality physicians.

The inability to attract physicians is largely responsible for the widely publicized VA wait time crisis. Although the VA blames their inability to recruit on pay below what the private sector pays, this is only part of the story. VA administrators have repeatedly attempted to direct patient care leading to physician job dissatisfaction and poor morale. Rather than quality healthcare, the VA developed a list of largely meaningless metrics that substituted for quality. These so called "performance-measurements" were favored by VA administration in no small part because of the bonuses they generated for the administrators. This created a cycle of increasing numbers of measurements to generate increasing bonuses. Physicians were often pressured to remind patients to wear seat belts, not keep guns in the home, etc. leaving insufficient time to deal with real and immediate healthcare problems. In retrospect, even Kizer himself called the expanding number of performance measurements "bloated and unfocused" (4).

At first VA administrators tried to deny the problem of delayed care due to insufficient staffing. Next VA Central Office tried to make all VA clinics walk-in clinics, essentially shifting the problem to the physicians. When caught in lies about short wait times, VA Secretary McDonald fired a few administrators in Phoenix and then tried to minimize the problem (5). When announcing their progress on the problem, the VA touts the number of people it has hired but usually does not specify the number of physicians or other healthcare providers. Now the VA has decided to let nurses and pharmacists pick up the slack. The VA has proposed removing physician supervision of nurse practitioners and has begun using pharmacists for primary care (6,7).

A number of medical groups have opposed the increased authority for nurses (8). Neither nurses nor pharmacists have the length of training of physicians (9).  However, objections by the AMA and other groups are likely to fall on deaf ears. Unless the VA can recruit physician which seems unlikely without reform, what other choice do they have? It is unclear if the VA and courts will hold these less experienced and lower skilled practitioners to the same high standards they have held physicians. However, given that the VA administrators are knowingly replacing physicians with less skilled practitioners, this would seem reasonable.

Wagner's series in the Arizona Republic seems to suggest that the VA's lack of transparency makes it difficult to determine if care at VA hospitals have improved over the last 2 years (9). The conclusion from the series appears to be that the VA has not. This is not surprising given that no real reform has taken place and McDonald appears not to be in control of the VA. For example, two short years ago McDonald was proposing to downsize the VA administration (10). Like so many reforms, this seems to have fallen by the wayside under opposition from VA administration. In fact, Wagner implies that VA administration may actually have grown beyond what was already a bloated bureaucracy (9).

President-elect Trump has been critical of the VA and McDonald. It seems likely he will be gone this January but the VA administrators will remain. Hopefully, McDonald's replacement will do better in reforming the VA. If not, it might be time to view the VA as what it has become, a white elephant whose cost outweighs all usefulness. Consideration should be given to replacing the VA with care in the private sector. Although care will be more expensive, it is better than no or poor care which is what the VA patients are receiving now.

Richard A. Robbins, MD*

Editor, SWJPCC

References

  1. Wagner D. Seven VA hospitals, one enduring mystery: What's really happening?. Available at: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-investigations/2016/10/23/va-hospitals-veterans-health-care-quest-for-answers/90337096/ (accessed 10/27/16).
  2. Department of Veterans Affairs. VA celebrates 70 years of partnering with medical schools. Available at: http://www.va.gov/opa/pressrel/includes/viewPDF.cfm?id=2747 (accessed 10/27/16).
  3. Department of Veterans Affairs. Still going strong - the history of VA academic affiliations. Available at: http://www.va.gov/OAA/videos/transcript_affiliation_history.asp (accessed 10/27/16).
  4. Kizer KW, Jha AK. Restoring trust in VA health care. N Engl J Med. 2014 Jul 24;371(4):295-7. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  5. Rein L. VA chief compares waits for veteran care to Disneyland: They don’t measure and we shouldn’t either. Washington Post. May 23, 2016. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/05/23/va-chief-compares-waits-for-veteran-care-to-disneyland-they-dont-measure-and-we-shouldnt-either/ (accessed 10/27/16).
  6. Department of Veterans Affairs. VA Proposes to grant full practice authority to advanced practice registered nurses. May 29, 2016. Available at: http://www.va.gov/opa/pressrel/pressrelease.cfm?id=2793 (accessed 10/27/16).
  7. Galewitz P. VA shifts to clinical pharmacists to help ease patients’ long waits. Kaiser Health News. October 25, 2016. Available at: http://khn.org/news/va-treats-patients-impatience-with-clinical-pharmacists/ (accessed 10/27/16).
  8. Rein L. To cut wait times, VA wants nurses to act like doctors. Doctors say veterans will be harmed. Washington Post. May 27, 2016. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/05/27/to-cut-wait-times-va-wants-nurses-to-act-like-doctors-doctors-say-veterans-will-be-harmed/ (accessed 10/27/16).
  9. Robbins RA. Nurse pactitioners' substitution for physicians. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2016;12(2):64-71. [CrossRef]
  10. Krause J. MyVA re-org likely set to downsize VA workforce, a lot. DisabledVeterans.org. Jan 28, 2015. Available at: http://www.disabledveterans.org/2015/01/29/myva-reorganization-likely-set-downsize-va-workforce-lot/ (accessed 10/27/16).

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

Cite as Robbins RA. Has the VA Become a White Elephant? Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2016;13(5):235-7. doi: https://doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc108-16 PDF 

Sunday
Sep042016

The Most Influential People in Healthcare

Recently Modern Healthcare released their annual 2016 listing of the most influential people in Healthcare (1). Leading the list is President Barack Obama for his Affordable Care Act. The list consists of a monotonous list of bureaucrats, politicians, large healthcare chain CEOs, insurance company CEOs, health interest organizations (American Hospital Association, America's Health Insurance Plans Healthcare, etc.), professional organizations (American Medical Association, American Nurses Association, etc.), nongovernmental healthcare interest organizations (Joint Commission,  National Quality Forum, etc.) and vendors (Epic, McKesson, etc.). From the Southwest the list includes at least 11 hospital chain CEOs including 1 from Arizona, 3 from Colorado and 7 from California.

Striking is the lack of influential healthcare professionals who made the list. Only two are leading academicians-Atul Gawande, a surgeon and author at Harvard, and Robert Wachter, an internist and pioneer in the hosptialist movement at University of California San Francisco. John Noseworthy (Mayo Clinic) and Ronald DePinho (MD Anderson) were noteworthy academicians prior to becoming hospital CEOs. Underrepresented are deans at major medical colleges (e.g., Talmadge King, Skip Garcia), influential researchers and clinicians (e.g., Marvin Schwarz, Stuart Quan), influential training organizations (e.g., American College of Graduate Medical Education, American Board of Internal Medicine), and even editors of prominent medical journals (e.g., Jeff Drazen at the New England Journal, Howard Bauchner at JAMA).

Every year I am offended by the domination of this list by bureaucrats, politicians and businessmen and the lack of true healthcare professionals. However, the list reflects the reality that political and business interests direct medicine. Everything from my interaction with a patient, documentation through in an electronic healthcare record, and diagnostic testing and prescribing based on the which tests and drugs are least expensive for a particular insurance plan are influenced by these non-medical interests. Unfortunately, what is lost is the interests of the patient and the role of doctors and nurses as patient advocates.

Medicine has too often become a series of meaningless metrics leading to expensive but poorer care because of these political and business interests. Furthermore, the practice of medicine is becoming increasingly unpleasant and unrewarding for the doctors and nurses. The domination of these non-medical interests has led to an explosion in non-professional administrators who consume 40% of the healthcare dollar and to a large extent annoy providers leading to their dissatisfaction with their professions (2). For example, Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Sloan Gibson, recently touted improvements made by the Phoenix VA (3). According to Gibson the Phoenix VA had a net increase of 758 employees in the past 2 years with an additional 23 doctors and 48 nurses. That calculates out to 91% of their hires being something other than physicians and nurses. It is unclear what these people do but hopefully something more than demand that providers fill out forms which they shuffle leading to ever larger administrative bonuses. Otherwise, those new hires will quickly leave and the shortage of providers that created the VA scandal in the first place will not improve. Incidentally, Gibson's boss, Robert McDonald was number 36 on the list.

What can we do? Unfortunately, there would appear to be no quick fixes. Most of us are just trying to get by caring for our patients and doing the best we can. It will take education of the public to what is going on and how their healthcare dollar is spent. Ultimately, it will be patients that can demand the changes that are needed. Although the solutions may be difficult, one way we might be able to detect improvement is when fewer bureaucrats, politicians and businessmen make Modern Healthcare's most influential list.

Richard A. Robbins, MD*

Editor, SWJPCC

References

  1. Modern Healthcare. 100 Most Influential People in Healthcare 2016. Available at: http://www.modernhealthcare.com/community/100-most-influential/2016/ (accessed 9/3/16).
  2. Robbins RA. National health expenditures: the past, present, future and solutions. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2015;11(4):176-85. [CrossRef]
  3. Wagner D. Top VA brass says Phoenix hospital is off critical list, cites improvements. Arizona Republic. September 1, 2016. Available at: http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-investigations/2016/09/01/va-deputy-secretary-touts-phoenix-hospital-improvements/89666526/ (accessed 9/3/16).

*The opinions 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.

Cite as: Robbins RA. The most influential people in healthcare. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2016;13(3):123-4. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc089-16 PDF