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Editorials

Last 50 Editorials

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

A Labor Day Warning
Keep Your Politics Out of My Practice
The Highest Paid Clerk
The VA Mission Act: Funding to Fail?
What the Supreme Court Ruling on Binding Arbitration May Mean to
   Healthcare 
Kiss Up, Kick Down in Medicine 
What Does Shulkin’s Firing Mean for the VA? 
Guns, Suicide, COPD and Sleep
The Dangerous Airway: Reframing Airway Management in the Critically Ill 
Linking Performance Incentives to Ethical Practice 
Brenda Fitzgerald, Conflict of Interest and Physician Leadership 
Seven Words You Can Never Say at HHS
Equitable Peer Review and the National Practitioner Data Bank 
Fake News in Healthcare 
Beware the Obsequious Physician Executive (OPIE) but Embrace Dyad
   Leadership 
Disclosures for All 
Saving Lives or Saving Dollars: The Trump Administration Rescinds Plans to
Require Sleep Apnea Testing in Commercial Transportation Operators
The Unspoken Challenges to the Profession of Medicine
EMR Fines Test Trump Administration’s Opposition to Bureaucracy 
Breaking the Guidelines for Better Care 
Worst Places to Practice Medicine 
Pain Scales and the Opioid Crisis 
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 

 

For complete editorial listings click here.

The Southwest Journal of Pulmonary and Critical Care welcomes submission of editorials on journal content or issues relevant to the pulmonary, critical care or sleep medicine.

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Entries in physician (5)

Sunday
Jul152018

The Highest Paid Clerk

Physicians are the highest paid clerks in healthcare, but we only have ourselves to blame. At one time charts were often unavailable or illegible and x-rays or outside medical records were often missing. How we longed to have searchable records available. Now we have them but digital medicine has come at a cost. For every hour physicians spend with patients nearly two hours are spent with the electronic healthcare record (EHR) (1). Nurses in the hospital spend nearly as much time with the EHR (2). If a picture is worth a thousand words, the drawing by a 7-year-old depicting her visit to the doctor may say it best with the doctor staring at a computer with his back to the patient (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Drawing by a 7-year-old of her visit to the doctor (3).

The EHR has done some very positive things. It has reduced medication errors; it assembles laboratory and imaging information; it allows visualization of X-rays; the notes are always legible; and although introduction of an EHR results in an initial increase in mortality, there appears to be an eventual reduction (3,4). However, EHRs were not built to enhance patient care but to augment billing. Despite the effort that goes into collecting and recording data, much of the data is unseen or ignored (3). Our daily progress notes have become cut-and-paste spam monsters that are mostly irrelevant and nearly impossible to interpret. The diagnoses can be difficult to locate, the documentation for the diagnosis is often incomprehensible, and the plan is unintelligible. Of course, billings have increased but not due to improved care, but because of the electronic gobbledygook that serves as a record. 

Several other recent examples illustrate that doctors are viewed and being used mainly as clerks. I recently, applied to renew my hospital privileges. This involved completing about a 25-page on-line form to including uploaded documentation of all licenses, board certifications, CME hours, a TB skin test and a DTaP vaccination. For this privilege, not only are medical staff dues paid but a $100 fee needs to accompany the application. Pity the poor physician who goes to several hospitals. In our office every piece of paperwork is scanned into the computer and signed by the physician. This includes the insurance forms, notes from co-managing physicians, the prescriptions that I have written and signed, the pulmonary function tests that I have interpreted and signed, the scored Epworth sleepiness scales that the patient has completed and are included in my note, etc.

A recent court decision may further increase the physician clerical load. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in a 4-to-3 decision ruled that a physician may not "fulfill through an intermediary the duty to provide sufficient information to obtain a patient's informed consent” (5). What this essentially means is that a physician, presumably the operating surgeon, must obtain an informed consent which usually involves signing a piece of paper. However, signing an informed consent form does not assure informed consent and the form’s main purpose is to protect the hospital or surgical center against litigation by shifting culpability to the surgeon. Now a surgeon must not only inform the patient about the operation but must have a form signed to protect the hospital and discuss every adverse outcome and all alternatives, a clearly impossible task. Will it be long before an unintelligible informed consent is required before prescribing an aspirin?

Many physicians, including myself, have resorted to voice recognition software using a template to generate notes due to increasing documentation requirements. Although this seems to decrease documentation time and increase face-to-face time with the patient, a recent article points out that voice recognition makes mistakes (6). Although there is little doubt that this is true, other documentation methods have their problems such as typographical errors, spelling errors, and omissions in documentation. Hopefully, a hullabaloo will not be made over voice recognition mistakes like was made over copying-and-pasting (7,8). Copy-and-paste errors seem to be mostly trivial and the information they contain is mostly for billing and probably does not need repeating in the medical record in the first place.

Physicians have cowered too long to insurer or hospital interests to avoid being labeled as “disruptive”. Many physicians would be happy to carefully proof every note or spend an hour getting the hospital’s informed consent form signed, but only if adequately compensated. Whining about physician lack of autonomy and increased clerical load either in the doctor’s lounge or in the pages of a medical journal will have no effect. The trend of shifting clerical workload to the healthcare providers will likely continue until either physicians refuse to do these clerical tasks or receive fair compensation for their services.

Richard A. Robbins, MD

Editor, SWJPCC

References

  1. Verghese A. How tech can turn doctors into clerical workers. NY Times. May 16, 2018. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/05/16/magazine/health-issue-what-we-lose-with-data-driven-medicine.html (accessed 7/13/18).
  2. Stokowski LA. Electronic nursing documentation: Charting new territory. Medscape. September 12, 2013. Available at: https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/810573_1 (accessed 7/13/18).
  3. Toll E. A piece of my mind. The cost of technology. JAMA. 2012 Jun 20;307(23):2497-8.
  4. Lin SC, Jha AK, Adler-Milstein J. Electronic health records associated with lower hospital mortality after systems have time to mature. Health Aff (Millwood). 2018 Jul;37(7):1128-35. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  5. Fernandez Lynch H, Joffe S, Feldman EA. Informed consent and the role of the treating physician. N Engl J Med. 2018 Jun 21;378(25):2433-8. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  6. Zhou L, Blackley SV, Kowalski L, et al. Analysis of errors in dictated clinical documents assisted by speech recognition software and professional transcriptionists.  JAMA Network Open. 2018;1(3):e180530. [CrossRef]
  7. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Electronic Healthcare Provider. December 2015. Available at: https://www.cms.gov/Medicare-Medicaid-Coordination/Fraud-Prevention/Medicaid-Integrity-Education/Downloads/docmatters-ehr-providerfactsheet.pdf (accessed 7/13/18).
  8. The Joint Commission. Preventing copy-and-paste errors in EHRs. QuickSafety. February 2015. Available at: https://www.jointcommission.org/assets/1/23/Quick_Safety_Issue_10.pdf (accessed 7/13/18).

Cite as: Robbins RA. The highest paid clerk. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2018;17(1):32-4. doi: https://doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc089-18 PDF 

Friday
Oct062017

Beware the Obsequious Physician Executive (OPIE) but Embrace Dyad Leadership 

Obsequious is defined as “obedient or attentive to an excessive or servile degree”. Obsequious comes from the Latin root sequi, meaning "to follow”. An Obsequious PhysIcian Executive (OPIE) is more likely to be servile to the hospital administration than a leader of the medical staff. This is not surprising since they are chosen for a “leadership” position not by the physicians they purportedly lead, but by the hospital administration they serve. OPIEs become the administration’s representative to the physicians and not the physicians’ or patients’ representative to the administration. Their job often becomes keeping the medical staff “in-line” rather that putting the success of the medical center first.

My own views have developed over 40 years of observing OPIE behavior in a multitude of medical centers. Although there are many exceptions, OPIEs often share certain characteristics:

  1. Academic failure. OPIEs are usually academic failures. They are the antithesis of the triple threat who excels as a physician, teacher and researcher. In contrast, they excel at nothing and often are obstructionistic of others’ attempts to accomplishment anything meaningful.
  2. Advanced degrees not pertaining to medicine. Frustrated by their lack of success, they seek advancement by alternative routes such as nontraditional career paths or obtaining degrees outside of medicine, e.g., a master’s degree in business administration (MBA). Though they will argue that they are just serving a need or advancing their education, more likely they are seeking the easiest path for advancement, especially if their past accomplishments are best described as “modest”. Beware the unaccomplished physician with a MBA.
  3. Blame others for failure. Not all ideas, even from good people, are successful. Some are bad ideas destined to failure. When an OPIE’s idea fails, they blame others. Worse yet, they lie about a staff in order to place themselves in a good light. This appears to be one of the root causes of the waiting time scandal at the VA. In contrast, a leader accepts responsibility for failure and proposes a new and hopefully better plan.
  4. Bullying. OPIEs often fail to see two sides to any argument and are usually impatient and short-tempered with any who disagree. Rather that attempting to build a consensus, they attempt to bully those who show any resistance.
  5. Retaliation. If bullying fails, OPIEs seek retaliation. This can be through various means-often denial of resources. For example, one chief of staff sat for over a year on a request for a Glidescope (a fiberoptic instrument used for intubation) in the intensive care unit and then was faultfinding when a critical care fellow did not use a Glidescope during an unsuccessful intubation intubation. OPIEs might limit clinic space or personnel but then disparage the physicians when patients are not seen quickly enough to meet an administrative guideline. Lastly, if all else fails they may retaliate by invoking quality assurance. Quality is often ill-defined and it is all too easy in this day of “patient protection” to slander a good physician.

One of the latest buzzwords in healthcare is dyad leadership, a term that refers to physician/administrator teams that jointly lead healthcare organizations (1). A recent editorial touted the success of the partnership between Will Mayo MD and Harry Harwick at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester (2). My own positive example comes from Mike Sorrell MD, Charlie Andrews MD, and Bob Baker at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. However, simply putting a physician and administrator together in leadership positions does not guarantee organizational success. In fact, if not done correctly, it leads to confusion, resentment, lack of consistent direction and divided organizational factions.

Based on their Mayo Clinic experience, Smoldt and Cortese list five key success factors they believe bring success to a dyad leadership (2):

  1. Common core values. Perhaps the most important factor in a successful dyad is that members of the physician/administrator team have the same core values and goals. Furthermore, these need to be consistent with the staffs' values and goals. Smoldt and Cortese (2) point out that at Mayo Clinic the core value of “the needs of the patient come first” is deeply imbedded. The staff of an organization will primarily deduce leadership core values from their daily actions. Administrative bonuses or increased reimbursement are not necessarily common core values, and if emphasized over patient care, the dyad is doomed to failure.
  2. Willingness to work together toward a common mission and vision. In a medical center, if the administrative leadership and staff can work together toward a vision, it is more likely to be achieved. If leadership becomes too territorial or engages in OPIE behavior, the ideal of leveraging each other’s strengths will be lost. If the staff perceives that the dyad is emphasizing their personal goals and finances over institutional success, the staff will be unwilling to work with or support the dyad.
  3. Clear and transparent communication with each other and the organization. To gain the most from dyad leadership, each member of the team should leverage and build on the strengths of the other. The more time the individuals spend together as a leadership team and with staff at a medical center, the more frequent and open the communication will be. If over time, communication declines, it is probably a sign that the dyad is not working and is often followed by the OPIE behaviors of bullying, lying and retaliation.
  4. Mutual respect. A team works best if its members operate in an atmosphere of mutual respect. If the dyad team does not share or show mutual respect for each other, mutual respect will likely also be lost among the healthcare delivery team. It is especially important for the dyad to remember that respect must be earned, and a big part of earning respect is to show respect for the views and positions of the staff.
  5. Complementary competencies. No one organizational leader is good at everything that needs to be done in a medical center. Employing a dyad leadership approach can expand the level of competence in the top leadership. For example, in a physician/administer leadership team, it is not unusual for the administrator to have better financial skills than the physician. It goes without saying that physicians and nurses have better medical skills in their own scope of practice than an administrative/physician dyad.

Integrated delivery of care is an absolute for a successful medical center. OPIE behavior dooms the medical center. Establishing a physician/administrator dyad leadership team with the right administrator and physician can be a good step towards success.

Richard A. Robbins, MD

Editor, SWJPCC

References

  1. Zismer DK, Brueggemann J. Examining the "dyad" as a management model in integrated health systems. Physician Exec. 2010 Jan-Feb;36(1):14-9. [PubMed]
  2. Smoldt RK, Cortese DA. 5 success factors for physician-administrator partnerships. MGMA Connection Plus. September 24, 2015. Available at: http://www.mgma.com/practice-resources/mgma-connection-plus/online-only/2015/september/5-success-factors-for-physician-administrator-partnerships (accessed 10/4/17).

Cite as: Robbins RA. Beware the obsequious physician executive (OPIE) but embrace dyad leadership. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2017;15(4):151-3. doi: https://doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc121-17 PDF

Friday
Jun302017

The Unspoken Challenges to the Profession of Medicine

More and more, we are practicing in a challenging environment. Job satisfaction for our profession is at an all-time low, burnout at an all-time high and there exists an alarming depression rate. As a profession, we face no shortage of problems. Our medical student graduates await many hurdles and need to be prepared to deal with increasing educational costs, ACGME duty hour changes, declining interest in primary care, health care reform, declining Medicare reimbursement, assaults to fee for service designs, bundled payments, care for the uninsured, medical malpractice, ABIM recertification, and MOC changes, the electronic health record, among many others.

If you are like most physicians, you have found yourself grappling with patients seeking a particular drug especially when that drug is a controlled substance or an antibiotic. You want your patient’s approval of your care and maybe even avoidance of their anger while providing the appropriate care that is based on your best judgment.  The accrediting bodies like American Board of Medical Specialties and ACGME in overall policies require that those seeking board certification have demonstrated “altruism, accountability, excellence, duty, service, honor, integrity and respect for others” (1). A reaction of anger or disapproval challenges our wish to strive toward achieving goals of being altruistic, knowledgeable, skillful, and dutiful. How does a patient review on various internet sites or hospital administrators’ perspectives address essential elements of medical professionalism? Most of us now work for large organizations (2). So we all have an interest in conforming to their wishes. In fact we do not have independent choice in what we do and probably very few docs practice with independent choice. Whether it be medication formularies, patient satisfaction scores or performance measures that seem geared more to justify institutional financial goals than to truly improve patient care. 

Uncertainty has long characterized the practice of medicine despite advances in technology or biomedical knowledge. Medical professionalism is defined by what we do and how we act, by demonstrating that we are worthy of the trust bestowed upon us by our patients and the public. My friend shared with me “I try to use independent judgment but always take into account how much or what to do for a patient, thinking what would seem acceptable to others at work if the patient went home and died, and my care got reviewed”. More and more we are judged by everyone, and not just our peers. The opinions of non-medical professionals who lack insight are taken into account and some of that has to do with the lack of solidarity to our peers in front of the public which diminishes confidence for the whole profession (3). 

Listening to our patients is the first key step in adding critical insight to our decisions. Long term we are expected to be providing fiscally prudent appropriate care to the public. In an era of ever increasing drug abuse we need to focus on making our decisions and behavior based on patient’s best interests and the publics good and not on current organizational financial goals, health trends or other distractions from our profession.  

Medical professionalism requires subordinating your own interest to the interest of the patient’s and public’s health. We have a duty to do right and to avoid doing wrong in principles of beneficence and nonmaleficence. As an example, our profession has been criticized for both under and over prescribing pain medications and antibiotics. Resisting the current trends or an individual’s unsupported drug request in favor of patient and public’s good is what we need to exercise. We need to exercise accountability not just for ourselves but for our colleagues, including intervening and not abrogating our responsibility early in the slippery slope of such behaviors as being chronically late for over commitments for monetary gain, derogatory comments about institution/hospital that degrade trust in our profession to the public, outbursts of anger and inappropriate work place sexual harassment or alternatively false allegations of such type of behavior (4). The Public trust demands that we make appropriate decisions in face of complex environments and often unscientific pressures for the overall care of patient and public if we are to do our part in maintaining a profession (5). We need to continue to strive toward benefiting our patients and subordinating our interests to best meet the needs of our patients and we should stand our ground to pillars of our profession, otherwise maybe we should amend our thinking to accept the fact that we have become corporate or political factotums and not here for a higher calling. Our voices should be united, altruistic and with medical professionalism to maintain public’s trust. Create goals that will prevent burnout and focus lifestyle expectations that realistic and fulfilling in order to avoid the need to rush through the long queues of patients in the waiting room and its associated dissatisfaction (6).  

 

F. Brian Boudi, MD

Phoenix Veterans Administration Health Care System

University of Arizona College of Medicine

Phoenix, Arizona

 

Connie S. Chan, MD

Phoenix Veterans Administration Health Care System

Phoenix, Arizona 

References

  1. American Board of Internal Medicine. Project Professionalism. 2013. Available at:  https://medicinainternaucv.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/project-professionalism.pdf (accessed 6/29/17).
  2. G Hamel, Zanini M.  More of us are working in big bureaucratic organizations than ever before. Harvard Business Review. July 5, 2016. Available at: https://hbr.org/2016/07/more-of-us-are-working-in-big-bureaucratic-organizations-than-ever-before (accessed 6/29/17). 
  3. Pardes H. The future of medical schools and teaching hospitals in the era of managed care. Acad Med. 1997 Feb;72(2):97-102. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  4. Scott KM, Berlec Š, Nash L, Hooker C, Dwyer P, Macneill P, River J, Ivory K. Grace Under Pressure: a drama-based approach to tackling mistreatment of medical students. Med Humanit. 2017 Mar;43(1):68-70. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  5. Relman AS. Education to defend professional values in the new corporate age. Acad Med. 1998 Dec;73(12):1229-33. [CrossRef] [PubMed]
  6. Barkil-Oteo A. Have physicians finally joined the working class? KevinMD.com. November 3, 2016. Available at: http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2016/11/physicians-finally-joined-working-class.html (accessed 6/29/16).

Cite as: Boudi FB, Chan CS. The unspoken challenges to the profession of medicine. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care. 2017;14(6):222-4. doi: https://doi.org/10.13175/swjpcc085-17 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

Saturday
May052012

VA Administrators Gaming the System 

On 4-23-12 the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report of the accuracy of the Veterans Healthcare Administration (VHA) wait times for mental health services. 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.” (1). The OIG made several recommendations and the VA administration quickly concurred with these recommendations. Only four days earlier the VA announced plans to hire 1900 new mental health staff (2).

This sounded familiar and so a quick search on the internet revealed that about a year ago the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a scathing ruling saying that the VA had failed to provide adequate mental health services to Veterans (3). A quick review of the Office of Inspector General’s website revealed multiple instances of similar findings dating back to at least 2002 (4-7). In each instance, unreliable data regarding wait times was cited, VA administration agreed, and no or inadequate action was taken.

Inadequate Numbers of Providers

One of the problems is that inadequate numbers of clinical physicians and nurses are employed by the VA to care for the patients. In his “Prescription for Change”, Dr. Ken Kizer, then VA Undersecretary for Health, made bold changes to the VA system in the mid 1990’s (8). Kizer cut the numbers of hospitals but also the numbers of clinicians while the numbers of patients increased (9). The result was a marked drop in the number of physicians and nurses per VA enrollee (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Nurses (squares) and physicians (diamonds) per 1000 VA enrollees for selected years (10,11).

This data is consistent with a 2011 VA survey that asked VA mental health professionals whether their medical center had adequate mental health staff to meet current veteran demands for care; 71 percent responded no. According to the OIG, VHA’s greatest challenge has been to hire psychiatrists (1). Three of the four sites visited by the OIG had vacant psychiatry positions. One site was trying to replace three psychiatrists who left in the past year. This despite psychiatrists being one of the lowest paid of the medical specialties (12). The VA already has about 1,500 vacancies in mental-health specialties. This prompted Sen. Patty Murray, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs to ask about the new positions, "How are you going to ensure that 1,600 positions ... don't become 1,600 vacancies?" (13).

Administrative Bonuses

A second problem not identified by the OIG is administrative bonuses. Since 1996, wait times have been one of the hospital administrators’ performance measures on which administrative bonuses are based. According to the OIG these numbers are unreliable and frequently “gamed” (1,4-7). This includes directions from VA supervisors to enter incorrect data shortening wait times (4-7).

At a hearing before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs Linda Halliday from the VA OIG said "They need a culture change. They need to hold facility directors accountable for integrity of the data." (13). VA "greatly distorted" the waiting time for appointments, Halliday said, enabling the department to claim that 95 percent of first-time patients received an evaluation within 14 days when, in reality, fewer than half were seen in that time. Nicholas Tolentino, a former mental-health administrative officer at the VA Medical Center in Manchester, N.H., told the committee that managers pressed the staff to see as many veterans as possible while providing the most minimal services possible. "Ultimately, I could not continue to work at a facility where the well-being of our patients seemed secondary to making the numbers look good," he said.

Although falsifying wait times has been known for years, there has been inadequate action to correct the practice according to the VA OIG. Sen. Murray said the findings show a "rampant gaming of the system." (13). This should not be surprising. Clerical personnel who file the data have their evaluations, and in many cases pay, determined by supervisors who financially benefit from a report of shorter wait times. There appears no apparent penalty for filing falsified data. If penalties did exist, it seems likely that the clerks or clinicians would be the ones to shoulder the blame.

The Current System is Ineffective

A repeated pattern of the OIG being called to look at wait times, stating they are false, making recommendations, the VA concurring, and nothing being done has been going on for years (1, 3-7). Based on these previous experiences, the VA will likely be unable to hire the numbers of clinicians needed and wait times will continue to be unacceptably long but will be “gamed” to “make the numbers look good”. Pressure will be placed on the remaining clinicians to do more with less. Some will become frustrated and leave the VA. The administrators will continue to receive bonuses for inaccurate short wait times. If past events hold true, in 2-5 years another VA OIG report will be requested. It will restate that the VA falsified the wait times. This will be followed by a brief outcry, but nothing will be done.

The VA OIG apparently has no real power and the VA administrators have no real oversight. The VA OIG continues to make recommendations regarding additional administrative oversight which smacks of putting the fox in charge of the hen house. Furthermore, the ever increasing numbers of administrators likely rob the clinical resources necessary to care for the patients. Decreased clinical expenses have been shown to increase standardized mortality rates, in other words, hiring more administrators at the expense of clinicians likely contributes to excess deaths (14). Although this might seem obvious, when the decrease of physicians and nurses in the VA began in the mid 1990’s there seemed little questioning that the reduction was an “improvement” in care.

Traditional measures such as mortality, morbidity, etc. are slow to change and difficult to measure. In order to demonstrate an “improvement” in care what was done was to replace outcome measures with process measures. Process measures assess the frequency that an intervention is performed.  The problem appears that poor process measures were chosen. The measures included many ineffective measures such as vaccination with the 23 polyvalent pneumococcal vaccine in adult patients and discharge instructions including advice to quit smoking at hospital discharge (15). Many were based on opinion or poorly done trials, and when closely examined, were not associated with better outcomes. Most of the “improvement” appeared to occur in performance of these ineffective measures. However, these measures appeared to be quite popular with the administrators who were paid bonuses for their performance.

Root Causes of the Problems

The root causes go back to Kizer’s Prescription for Change. The VA decreased the numbers of clinicians, but especially specialists, while increasing the numbers of administrators and patients. The result has been what we observe now. Specialists such as psychiatrists are in short supply. They were often replaced by a cadre of physician extenders more intent on satisfying a checklist of ineffective process measures rather than providing real help to the patient. Waiting times lengthened and the administrative solution was cover up the problem by lying about the data.

VA medical centers are now usually run by administrators with no real medical experience. From the director down through their administrative chain of command, many are insufficiently medically trained to supervise a medical center. These administrators could not be expected to make good administrative decisions especially when clinicians have no meaningful input (10).

The present system is not transparent. My colleagues and I had to go through a FOIA request to obtain data on the numbers of physicians and nurses presented above. Even when data is known, the integrity of the data may be called into question as illustrated by the data with the wait times. 

The falsification of the wait times illustrates the lack of effective oversight. VA administration appears to be the problem and hiring more administrators who report to the same administrators will not solve the problem as suggested by the VA OIG (3-7). What is needed is a system where problems such as alteration of wait times can be identified on the local level and quickly corrected.

Solutions to the Problems

The first and most important solution is to provide meaningful oversight by at the local level by someone knowledgeable in healthcare. Currently, no system is in place to assure that administrators are accountable.  Despite concurring with the multitude of VA OIG’s recommendations, VA central office and the Veterans Integrated Service Networks have not been effective at correcting the problem of falsified data. In fact, their bonuses also depend on the data looking good. Locally, there exists a system of patient advocates and compliance officers but they report to the same administrators that they should be overseeing. The present system is not working. Therefore, I propose a new solution, the concept of the physician ombudsman. The ombudsman would be answerable to the VA OIG’s office. The various compliance officers, patient advocates, etc. should be reassigned to work for the ombudsman and not for the very people that they should be scrutinizing.

The physician ombudsman should be a part-time clinician, say 20% at a minimum. The latter is important in maintaining local clinical knowledge and identifying falsified clinical data. One of the faults of the present VA OIG system is that when they look at a complaint, they seem to have difficulty in identifying the source of the problem (16). Local knowledge would likely help and clinical experience would be invaluable. For example, it would be hard to say waiting times are short when the clinician ombudsman has difficulty referring a patient to a specialist at the VA or even booking a new or returning patient into their own clinic.

The overseeing ombudsman needs to have real oversight power, otherwise we have a repeat of the present system where problems are identified but nothing is done. Administrators should be privileged similar to clinicians. Administrators should undergo credentialing and review. This should be done by the physician ombudsman’s office.  Furthermore, the physician ombudsman should have the capacity to suspend administrative privileges and decisions that are potentially dangerous. For example, cutting the nursing staffing to dangerous levels in order to balance a budget might be an example of a situation where an ombudsman could rescind the action.

The paying of administrative bonuses for clinical work done by clinicians should stop. Administrators do not have the necessary medical training to supervise clinicians, and furthermore, do nothing to improve efficiency or clinically benefit Veterans (14). The present system only encourages further expansion of an already bloated administration (17). Administrators hire more administrators to reduce their workload. However, since they now supervise more people, they argue for an increase in pay. If a bonus must be paid, why not pay for something over which the administrators have real control, such as administrative efficiency (18). Perhaps this will stop the spiraling administrative costs that have been occurring in healthcare (17).

These suggestions are only some of the steps that could be taken to improve the chronic falsification of data by administrators with a financial conflict of interest. The present system appears to be ineffective and unlikely to change in the absence of action outside the VA. Otherwise, the repeating cycle of the OIG being called to look at wait times, noting that they are gamed, and nothing being done will continue.

Richard A. Robbins, M.D.*

Editor, Southwest Journal of Pulmonary

            and Critical Care

References

  1. http://www.va.gov/oig/pubs/VAOIG-12-00900-168.pdf  (accessed 4-26-12).
  2. http://www.va.gov/opa/pressrel/pressrelease.cfm?id=2302 (accessed 4-26-12).
  3. http://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2011/07/12/08-16728.pdf (accessed 4-26-12).
  4. http://www.va.gov/oig/52/reports/2003/VAOIG-02-02129-95.pdf (accessed 4-26-12).
  5. http://www.va.gov/oig/54/reports/VAOIG-05-03028-145.pdf (accessed 4-26-12).
  6. http://www.va.gov/oig/54/reports/VAOIG-05-03028-145.pdf (accessed 4-26-12).
  7. http://www.va.gov/oig/52/reports/2007/VAOIG-07-00616-199.pdf (accessed 4-26-12).
  8. www.va.gov/HEALTHPOLICYPLANNING/rxweb.pdf (accessed 4-26-12).
  9. http://veterans.house.gov/107th-congress-hearing-archives (accessed 3/18/2012).
  10. Robbins RA. Profiles in medical courage: of mice, maggots and Steve Klotz. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care 2012;4:71-7.
  11. Robbins RA. Unpublished observations obtained from the Department of Veterans Affairs by FOIA request.
  12. http://www.medscape.com/features/slideshow/compensation/2012/psychiatry (accessed 4-26-12).
  13. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2018071724_mentalhealth26.html (accessed 4-26-12).
  14. Robbins RA, Gerkin R, Singarajah CU. Correlation between patient outcomes and clinical costs in the VA healthcare system. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care 2012;4:94-100.
  15. Robbins RA, Klotz SA. Quality of care in U.S. hospitals. N Engl J Med 2005;353:1860-1 [letter].
  16. Robbins RA. Mismanagement at the VA: where's the problem? Southwest J Pulm Crit Care 2011;3:151-3.
  17. Woolhandler S, Campbell T, Himmelstein DU. Health care administration in the United States and Canada: micromanagement, macro costs. Int J Health Serv 2004;34:65-78.
  18. Gao J, Moran E, Almenoff PL, Render ML, Campbell J, Jha AK. Variations in efficiency and the relationship to quality of care in the Veterans health system. Health Aff (Millwood) 2011;30:655-63.

*The author is a former VA physician who retired July 2, 2011 after 31 years.

The opinions expressed in this editorial are the opinions of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the Southwest Journal of Pulmonary and Critical Care or the Arizona Thoracic Society.

Reference as: Robbins RA. VA administrators gaming the system. Southwest J Pulm Crit Care 2012;4:149-54. (Click here for a PDF version of the editorial)