Category Archives: People, Organizations & Websites

September 27, 2017

Job loss due to medical care calendar vs. FMLA calendar

Extending medical leave beyond the FMLA period may be an UN-reasonable accommodation under the ADAAA, according to a recent decision of the US 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court wrote: “ADA is an anti-discrimination statue, not a medical-leave entitlement.” And it said that since the purpose of reasonable accommodation is to allow an employee to work, which a medical leave does not do, then a leave does not accomplish the law’s purpose. However, the EEOC opposes the position of the court, and is unlikely to change its view that a long-term leave IS a reasonable accommodation when it is: (a) of specific duration, (b) requested in advance, and (c) likely to result in the employee being able to perform essential job functions upon return.

ATTENTION ALL CLINICIANS and CLAIM PROFESSIONALS: Please notice this one key fact in the case before the court. A guy exhausted his 12 weeks of FMLA leave during the “conservative care” phase of treatment for his back pain. In fact, he had his back surgery on the LAST DAY of his FMLA leave — which was protecting his job!

We really have to think more about the intersection between the calendars of “evidence-based medical care” and job loss. For most of the common musculoskeletal problems (like straightforward back, knee, shoulder and ankle pain for example), the scientific evidence says that the doctor should begin by prescribing simple things like aspirin or motrin, ice packs, physical therapy, and exercise.  Unless there are clear signs of a potentially dangerous or progressive problem, the best thing is to wait for 6 weeks and give the patient’s body time to heal itself naturally.

But maybe we should be keeping our eye on the clock, and monitoring progress more actively during that 6 weeks.  When we see recovery not proceeding as hoped, we may need to ANTICIPATE the need for an orthopedic referral, make the appointment for that 6 week mark, and cancel it if things turn out better so it’s not needed.  If not, we may burn through several weeks before the specialist can be seen.

In my experience, it is more typical to see the initial treating clinician SLOWLY notice the passage of time and realize that conservative care hasn’t cut it.  Then they start talking to the patient about a referral to a specialist for consideration for surgery.  Then, when the surgeon sees the patient, they may talk about surgery and wait for the next appointment before requesting authorization from the payer.  They usually wait for a yes before scheduling the surgery — which is often some weeks in the future.   Maybe somebody ought to do a study of the weeks of time lost in this process.

Or maybe you have a better idea? How do we make sure that people’s FMLA clock doesn’t run out because of an ADMINISTRATIVE delays on OUR end, not medical ones on THEIR end? Our goal is to have them NOT lose their jobs – and right now I’m afraid we are really not paying enough attention to that critically important and NEGATIVE result of an injury/illness.

Read more about the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals decision here: https://www.natlawreview.com/article/ada-not-medical-leave-entitlement-seventh-circuit-declares


January 5, 2017

Why Public-Private Collaboration Is Necessary to Prevent Work Disability

My goal now is to raise awareness about the need for concerted governmental, philanthropic, and private sector action to find better ways to support the millions of workers who lose their livelihoods each year due to injury or illness.  In many cases, this outcome could have been prevented.  And in the New World under President Trump, it will probably be more important than ever to make sure that people get the help they need to KEEP earning a living and STAY in the workforce.

You may be wondering … why work disability is a problem?  Let’s start with the basics. As a practical matter, we already know that lack of work is bad for people and for communities.  Just think about the many millions of dollars the government spends to create jobs and reduce unemployment!  But now, formal research has started confirming how harmful worklessness really is for adults — documenting the consequences for their physical and mental health as well as for their marital, family, social and economic well-being.

Since that’s so obvious…. let’s agree that preserving people’s ability to function and work should be a fundamental purpose of health care services.  Successfully doing so should be seen as an especially valuable health care outcome, second only to preserving life, limb, and essential bodily functions.  And the failure to do so should be called a poor outcome.

Today’s reality is … that whether or not a person with an newly-acquired medical condition is able to function and work afterwards is not even counted as a health outcome!  And there are gaps in our social fabric that are actually creating job loss and work disability.

Here’s one big example of a gap: … None of the three professionals typically responding to workers who are dealing with life disruption due to injury or illness feel any responsibility for actively supporting the workers to keep their jobs or find new ones if necessary. That includes health care professionals, employers, and benefits administrators.  Occasionally, some of these professionals actually advise against work — not realizing the consequences, of course.  The workers are left to fend for themselves;  some lack the confidence or skills to do so successfully.  We need better public policy, stronger governmental efforts, and more support from the private sector in order to prevent this needless work disability.

Do you realize… that roughly half of the people now receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and other prolonged disability benefits started out with very common health problems like back pain, depression, and anxiety?  And do you realize that the vast majority of people in the country who develop those same conditions don’t even take any time off work or are able to return after just a short absence?   So the people who end up on SSDI are members of a subgroup that has had unexpectedly poor outcomes — including job loss.

You might ask …why does this sub-group have such poor outcomes of conditions that normally don’t cause much work disability at all?  It’s logical to assume that these people had the most severe cases of back pain or depression and so on, but in most cases there’s actually no objective data to support that idea.  For every person now on long-term disability there are others who started out with the exact same condition, but are still working.  From the strictly medical point of view, they looked identical at the beginning.  What is different is the way the illness episode unfolded in the two groups:  what happened; how others talked to them and treated them; the decisions they made about the best way to manage this life challenge; the effectiveness of the medical treatment they received; the other kinds of support they got and the opportunities that were or weren’t available.

My personal hope is that … more employed people who are dealing with new injuries or illnesses are going to get what they need at the right time to avoid needless impairment work absence, job loss, withdrawal from the work force, and long-term reliance on disability benefits — which really means a life of poverty.  That would be good for them, for the tax payers, and for our society as a whole.

Now that these issues are in the spotlight …. It is time for policy makers, employers, healthcare providers, health and disability insurers, other service providers, and affected individuals to start talking together about solutions — and then do their part to make those things happen.

For the last three years, Mathematica‘s policy researchers Yoni Ben Shalom, David Stapleton, and I have been collaborating in the SAW/RTW Collaborative sponsored by the Office of Disability Employment Policy in the US Department of Labor.  On September 13, 2016, Mathematica held a forum and webinar during which several speakers presented some actionable policy options that can improve outcomes and prevent needless work disability.

If you want to go deeper … Read my short Work Disability Prevention Manifesto by downloading it from the “Current favorites I’m Sharing” section on my blog homepage.  Or you can look at / listen to the recording of the SAW/RTW Collaborative’s September 13 forum/webinar..  Some of the ideas presented by the policy researchers came from surprising angles — and were quite creative / innovative!


October 31, 2016

Social Security Administration seeks input from YOU

I hope you will read — and respond — to this Request for Information issued by the U.S. Social Security Administration.  SSA is looking for input in order to decide whether to undertake a demonstration project (at the community level) for early intervention in musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions – in the first few weeks (<12) after onset of work disruption.

I’m sure SSA will really pay attention to thoughtful input they get from “front line” professionals and researchers / practitioners with expertise in this field — and from patients who have personal experience with the gaps and holes in our systems today that push them towards disability and job loss.

SSA will ONLY proceed with this demonstration project idea if they think it WILL decrease job loss, workforce withdrawal, and eventual applications for SSDI — by reducing needless impairment and disability while preserving livelihoods among the workers.   At this stage, SSA is asking basic questions about the level of evidence supporting the efficacy of early intervention, what the interventions should consist of, as well as the wisdom, practicalities, and potential efficacy of such an effort.

The deadline for responses is November 18.   There is a real possibility this demonstration will actually happen.  The President’s proposed 2017 budget has $200 million allocated for demonstration projects by SSA.    Whether or not that money will ever actually be appropriated will depend on many factors, including which candidate is elected President and the composition of the Congress.

While I was scanning the RFI to find the response date, I was stunned and delighted to see my name listed in one of the 3 references cited at the end!  SSA listed the concept proposal for a Community-Focused Health & Work Service that Tom Wickizer, Kim Burton and I contributed to the SSDI Solutions Initiative sponsored by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.  All of the proposals, including ours, are available here: SSDI Solutions: Ideas to Strengthen the Social Security Disability Insurance Program .Maybe our work has actually made some difference – at the very least, SSA is now interested enough to seriously explore our ideas!

Now it’s YOUR turn to make a difference — by reading and responding to SSA’s RFI.


September 9, 2016

Pithy 4-min Video & 1-page Manifesto for you to use

Mathematica just released a 4-minute video of me pointing out why the work disability prevention model is important — in plain language.  The video was made at the request of the US Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP).  The main messages in the video are:

  1. MILLIONS of Americans lose their jobs every year due to injury and illness;
  2. Worklessness and job loss have been shown to harm physical and mental health as well as personal, family, social, and economic well-being;
  3. Worklessness and job loss should therefore be considered poor healthcare outcomes;
  4. Unexpectedly poor outcomes can often be prevented and there is good research evidence about how to do that;
  5. Changes need to be made so that vulnerable people get what they need at the time when they need it — and as a result are able to have the best possible life outcome, stay in the workforce, and keep earning their own living.

In addition, the video also explains WHY and HOW some people have unexpectedly poor outcomes of conditions that do not normally cause significant work disruption and job loss.  Unless you’re in my line of work, it is hard to understand why things turn out badly in some cases and not in others — especially if they looked exactly the same at the beginning.

The video is loosely based on a one-page Work Disability Prevention Manifesto I wrote.  I put a draft of it on this blog last spring and got many useful comments.  After many revision cycles, it is now as succinct and compelling as I know how to make it.  ODEP had no hand in the Manifesto; it’s my independent work.

I’m glad I can now share these two items with you because the WORLD needs to know more about these issues—and most PEOPLE in the world have a very short attention span and no interest in the topic to begin with.   I hope you will pass this stuff along to the people whose thinking you want to change or whose buy in you need. Then maybe THEY will pass it along to others as well.  Social norms ONLY SHIFT when people share powerful mind-opening ideas with one another.

Lastly, let’s all stop speaking ABOUT these problems.  It is time for us all to start speaking FOR action and FOR changes.

WORK DISABILITY PREVENTION MANIFESTO
©Jennifer Christian, MD, MPH August 2016

Preventable job loss demands our attention

  • Millions of American workers lose their jobs each year due to injury, illness or a change in a chronic condition.
  • Preserving people’s ability to function and participate fully in everyday human affairs, including work, is a valuable health care outcome, second only to preserving life, limb, and essential bodily functions.
  • A new medical problem that simultaneously threatens one’s ability to earn a living creates a life crisis that must be addressed rapidly and wisely. Most people are unprepared for this double-headed predicament. It can overwhelm their coping abilities.
  • When medical conditions occur or worsen, especially common ones, most people are able to stay at or return to work without difficulty. However, many prolonged work disability cases covered by private- and public-sector benefits programs began as very common health problems (for example, musculoskeletal pain, depression, and anxiety) but had unexpectedly poor outcomes including job loss.
  • Loss of livelihood due to medical problems is a poor health outcome. Worklessness is harmful to people’s health, as well as to their family, social, and economic well-being.

Why do such poor outcomes occur?

  • Medical conditions by themselves rarely require prolonged work absence, but it can look that way. Both treatment and time off work are sometimes considered benefits to be maximized, rather than tools to be used judiciously.
  • Professionals typically involved in these situations (health care providers, employers, and benefits administrators) do not feel responsible for avoiding job loss.
  • Unexpectedly poor outcomes are frequently due to a mix of medical and nonmedical factors. Diagnosed conditions are inappropriately treated; others (especially psychiatric conditions) are unacknowledged and untreated. The employer, medical office, and insurance company (if there is one) operate in isolation, with little incentive to collaborate.
  • Without the support of a team focused on helping them get their lives back on track, people can get lost in the health care and benefits systems. With every passing day away from work, the odds worsen that they will ever return. After a while, they start to redefine themselves as too sick or disabled to work.
  • When people lose their jobs and do not find new ones, they barely get by on disability benefits and are vulnerable to other detrimental effects.

How can we fix this problem?

  • Good scientific evidence exists about how unexpectedly poor outcomes are created, how to avoid them, and how health care and other services can protect jobs.
  • Health-related work disruption should be viewed as a life emergency. Productive activity should be a part of treatment regimens.
  • When work disruption begins, it can be both effective and cost-beneficial to have a coordinator help the individual, treating physician, and employer communicate and focus everyone’s attention on maximizing recovery, restoring function, accommodating irreversible losses, and making plans for how the individual can keep working, return to work, or quickly find a more appropriate job.
  • We must urgently establish accountability for work disability and job loss in our workforce, health care, and disability benefits systems and build nationwide capacity to consistently deliver services—just in time, when needed—that help people stay at work or return to work.

September 7, 2016

Is this disability porn? Lovely duet by disabled dancers

A physician colleague sent me a link to the video entitled “Hand in Hand Dance.”  It features two Chinese dancers, each with a different impairment.  The woman has lost one arm; the man has lost one leg.

As a former dancer myself who has never seen obviously disabled dancers, I was curious.  So I watched the video — and am embarrassed to admit I was surprised at how aesthetically pleasing it is.  Their duet is beautiful and very professional.  The emotional story is clear and compelling:  loss, grief, encounter, relationship, attraction, love, joy.  But for me, the thrilling part was seeing their mastery and pure enjoyment of dance itself.  They use their bodies both gracefully and athletically — exulting in their youth, capabilities, talent, strength, life, and love,

Some people in the disability community are offended by what they call “disability porn”.   You can read about it here  and here.   Is that what this dance video is?  I don’t think so.  These two deserve admiration because they have done the work and have the talent to create an artistically satisfying dance.   But on the other hand, insensitivity is in the eye of the receiver, not the sender.  If I’ve got it wrong, please let me know — and tell me why.

See what you think:  http://biggeekdad.com/2013/09/hand-hand-dance/


August 5, 2016

CMS announces where they will start transforming physician payment plans

If like me you’ve been kinda following Federal physician payment reform (and hoping that what is learned there there will lead to payment reform in the private sector or maybe even workers’ compensation), the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) made a big announcement this week.

Starting 4 months from now, (January 2017) they will be rolling out / testing a really quite revolutionary change in payments to PRIMARY physicians in 14 regions that include 11 whole states:  Arkansas, Colorado, Hawaii, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island and Tennessee.    Other areas are the Greater Kansas City, MO area; the North Hudson Valley in New York state, the Greater Philadelphia area, and a region that includes all of Ohio plus northern Kentucky.

If you’re in any of those areas, it would behoove you to learn more about this –- and follow it as it unfolds.    CMS is estimating that 5,000 primary care practices serving an estimated 3.5 million beneficiaries could be touched by this model.   They are currently taking applications for providers in eligible practices in these areas, and don’t expect much trouble recruiting because the care-management fees can be a boon for practices.  Providers may be able to earn an additional $100,000 to $250,000 per year under the model, depending on the number of patients who participate.

The new model CPC+ (Comprehensive Primary Care Plus) has two tracks. Under track one, providers get a monthly fee for specific services in addition to the usual fee-for-service Medicare payments. But in track two, practices get an upfront monthly care-management fee coupled with reduced fee-for-service payments. The purpose of this hybrid model is to let practices provide care outside of the traditional face-to-face encounter.

Learn more here:  http://www.modernhealthcare.com/article/20160801/NEWS/160809989?utm_source=modernhealthcare&utm_medium=email&utm_content=20160801-NEWS-160809989&utm_campaign=financedaily


August 3, 2016

A smile-filled rebuttal of ageism

I’m sitting here with a smile on my face after watching a 90 year old woman perform on America’s Got Talent — on You Tube.

If you’re worried that maybe you’re getting old and set in your ways, watching this video will be a great tonic.  If you don’t like being ageist but old people seem so, well, OLD and predictable  —  this will sure give you a different perspective on what’s possible.

And what the heck  –  just watch it because it’s a bit outrageous and totally fun:
http://www.upworthy.com/watch-this-90-year-old-woman-give-the-performance-of-a-lifetime-on-national-tv?c=reccon3

Yesterday I ordered a book entitled:  Aging or Ageless:  Rising Like a Phoenix from the Myth of Aging by Ron Zeller, a Landmark Forum leader who died recently at age 83.   It’s a book about transcending aging that doesn’t focus on how to stop aging but instead on how to be “ageless” in the face of any circumstance you face.  Ron Zeller got his first diagnosis of terminal cancer at age 60 (which he beat), and his second at nearly 80.  In the 20 years in between, he kept on transforming people’s lives by leading courses for Landmark while taking his health and vitality up to an entirely new level as an endurance athlete. At the age of 64, he ran and won his age division in the 100-mile Wasatch Endurance Race in Utah, one of the most demanding ultra-marathons in the world —  the first of many races he ran in places all over the world.  In 2004 Ron took up power lifting and by the age of 72 had had broken three US national records for his age. As recently as age 77 he completed the 135 mile Bad Water desert endurance race, running solo between the lowest and highest points in the continental United States.

I wonder if that 90 year old woman on America’s Got Talent has read Ron’s book!  Maybe she didn’t have to – because she sensed the secret to vitality on her own.   When I have a minute, I’ll try to find out what happened to her afterwards.   If you do, please let me know.  And if I like Ron’s book, I’ll share it with you.


July 19, 2016

Overcoming fear of sharing our work with others

It’s scary to make a suggestion or share a work sample on a social networking site or a list serv in an effort to help less expert colleagues.  There’s a risk that an even-more-expert colleague will point out the flaws, or even make belittling comments.  If they’re kind, the expert will do it in private.  If not, there is the possibility of gossip behind one’s back, or public humiliation.

A colleague I deeply respect recently took that chance — not because he’s the world’s expert on a particular topic, but because he has a commitment to generously sharing what he does know for the benefit of others.  His goal in sharing his work product was to upgrade the way a particular issue is usually handled across the country.  That’s why I admire my colleague.  He offered a very concrete work product for others to use if they would like.

Fear of humiliation and being incompetent lie one millimeter beneath my skin. That fear, which is pretty common among humans, runs rampant in physicians.  It was intensified by our severe socialization during medical school and internship.  I hesitate every time I put any of my own thoughts or work “out there” for all to see.

I’m not alone in having this fear of being upstaged by someone more expert. For example, a doctor recently unsubscribed from the ACOEM Work Fitness & Disability Section list-serv with this comment:   “I joined the WFD section because I presumptuously (perhaps arrogantly) thought that given my decades of trying to navigate the rocky coastlines of fitness for duty and disability management I might actually have something of value to offer the newbies who might post questions.  So I responded to couple of posts and …… Well, let me tell you, I may be a big fish expert in my insular little pond, but soon recognized that the WFD Section is replete with knowledgeable, articulate, and fluent experts.  I really didn’t have much of anything new to offer. It was kind of like the experience of being at or near the top of your class in a suburban  high school then getting into a competitive college in the big city where everyone is as smart as you or smarter. So you folks don’t need me; you’ve got it covered. And I’m not fishing for compliments or encouragement either (which you couldn’t offer anyway since you don’t know me), just keeping it real.”

Got any ideas for how to solve this cultural problem?  I don’t — other than to point out these three aphorisms which seem relevant:

  • “Don’t let the excellent drive out the good.”
  • “You may need to lower your standards in order to improve your performance.”
  • “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed is king”

Fear of sharing stifles collaboration and innovation — so it inhibits any community’s ability to upgrade its current prevailing level of quality — “what typically happens”.  There’s something wonderful about people contributing what they DO KNOW.  There’s something wrong about being made to feel bad if it turns out someone else is EVEN MORE expert or wise.  So, perhaps we need to ponder, in the “land of the blind”:
— how a kind and respectful person with binocular vision (“the nation’s top expert at seeing”) should behave towards blind and the (rare) one-eyed people?
— how one-eyed people could best respond to input from the (very rare) binocular individuals?
— how blind people should differentiate between the (rare) one-eyed individuals and the (very rare) binocular people?

In the meanwhile, here is what happened with my colleague.   I received feedback that there were some inadequacies in his work product.  I sent that feedback along (anonymously by request) to him.  I ended my email with this:  “On behalf of all of those who are less well organized and systematic than you are, and for whom your tool provides a concrete model of what ‘good looks like’ — thank you for this contribution.   And, please, if you have the time, use the feedback to go take it up a notch!”

His response: “I’m very open to discussions on ways to improve this document.  I look forward to input of all sorts.”   He also plans to teach a session on how to use the “new & improved version” at our professional development conference next year.   THIS is the kind of professional behavior I DEEPLY ADMIRE.


July 14, 2016

Why we need a 1:1 ratio of healers to lawyers when designing reforms for “comp”

While Linda Rudolph was Medical Director of the California workers’ compensation regulatory agency in the mid-1990’s, she defined workers’ compensation as a medically-driven legal system.  I still use that definition when I give my annual lecture on work comp at the Harvard School of Public Health.   Based on my interpretation of what that succinct and elegant summary really means, I believe that any group setting out to improve the workers’ compensation system should have a roughly equal number of people at the table who were originally trained in a healing art and the law — because of the way their minds were indelibly imprinted by that training.

As you may have heard, I was among 38 workers’ compensation experts of various stripes who participated in the Workers’ Compensation Summit co-hosted by blogger Bob Wilson from workerscompensation.com and blogger Judge David Langham, Deputy Chief Judge of the Florida workers’ compensation system.

I was surprised as we went around the room introducing ourselves.  I was one of only two physicians in the room.  There were no others with healthcare professional training.  There was one person whose original training had been as a vocational counselor.  By far the largest group had had legal training, although many of them were now in other jobs — judges, legal scholars, workers’ compensation system administrators, corporate executives.

Training in both law and in medicine shapes a student’s worldview, teaches a precise vocabulary, builds a foundation of factual knowledge as well as rigorous intellectual discipline, and defines how things work in a certain part of human life.  The training also establishes a finite range of things that seem possible, and offers a particular inventory of potential solutions.  A behavioral acculturation process accompanies it, too.  The point here, though, is that the actual shape and content of those worldviews, vocabularies, knowledge bases, intellectual disciplines, possibilities and solutions — and behavioral cultures — differs in most respects between the two professions.

Earlier in life, I spent 20 years as a physician married to a lawyer.  For many reasons, it was kinda like a nice cat being married to a nice dog.  We had a primordial kind of incompatibility.  But I did get to know what made that particular dog tick pretty well.

Lawyers seem to have a predilection for solutions that involve clarifying rights, justice, entitlements, boundaries, and who is responsible to pay for what.  Lawyers are trained to advocate for their clients’ rights and interests.  Most lawyers seem to spend an awful lot of their time and energy anticipating arguments or actually arguing, fighting, and trying to win  — because the everyday grist of their vocational mill is broken promises and disputes.

As I was pondering the difference between the “head set” of medicine and law, I found a quote from an article in the May 31 Boston Globe about a 35 year old man, a published author and poet, now  graduating from Yale Law School — who at age 16 had hijacked a car at gunpoint and served 8 years in prison.   He said “The law is a way to think and argue, and a way to find solutions….. Law is the language of power, and understanding that language is important to understanding power.”  This quote struck me — not because he’s so amazing (which he obviously is) but because he articulated so precisely what I had predicted a lawyer would say.

Physicians and others in the healing professions have a predilection for solutions that reduce peoples’ suffering and restore the integrity of their bodies/minds.  Medicine has nothing to do with winning.  The first precept of medicine is to do no harm.  Physicians are trained to advocate for their patients’ health, to meet their immediate needs today and maximize their future well-being in the future.  The everyday grist of their vocational mill is providing comfort, relief, and reassurance to a stream of patients coming through the door with symptoms, with bodies or minds that aren’t working right, distressed and worried about the meaning of those things for their health and everyday activities (and often secretly fearing death).

In my view, a good “medically-driven legal system” for people injured at work should concern itself primarily with helping injured workers get back on their feet.  That requires paying roughly equal attention to

  1. Helping them manage any life predicament the injury has caused (reducing worry, suffering, and distress, arranging good care promptly that maximizes healing and restores function as quickly as possible, preserving daily routine, minimizing work disability and job loss or providing assistance to find a new job quickly.  The goal is to get everyday life back to normal as soon and as completely as possible.  Time spent in limbo is destructive.
  2. Minimizing their short-term financial stress as well as long-term financial loss, sorting out their rights, and dealing with disputes.

Everyone’s goal should be to expedite the activities in #1 even if there are difficulties in #2, instead of allowing #2 to delay #1 as is common today.

 


June 28, 2016

Reduce ill-considered surgeries by using shared medical-decision making

Something called “shared medical decision-making” increases patient satisfaction while reducing utilization of elective procedures that are invasive, risky, of questionable value — and often high cost.   But it is rarely used today outside large health plans.

Do you know how shared medical decision-making (SMDM) differs from “informed consent”?  I didn’t until I attended a presentation by Ben Moulton from the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation. In brief, informed consent is a legal process that is supposed to protect patients and promote patient autonomy.  You’re probably familiar with it.  You get a form to read a minute before the doctor walks in to talk at you for a few minutes about risks and benefits of your up-coming test, procedure or surgery.  Then you sign the form after barely glancing at all the legalese.  In contrast, SMDM is a structured process by which a patient and a clinician share information with each other in a two-way exploratory conversation that prepares the patient to make a truly informed decision.  The INSTANT I learned about SMDM, I became an ardent fan.

(Please forgive the acronyms.  We have been doing a project with the military.  They constantly use acronyms in the interest of brevity.  I now find myself making an acronym out of EVERY multi-syllabic or multi-word term.  Here’s the latest one I learned:  BLUF which means “bottom line up front”.  In other words, instead of beating around the bush, the point of the memo or report is right here at the start!)

So here’s the BLUF:  Since the superiority of SMDM is now well-established among healthcare researchers and legal scholars, and many articles have documented its benefits to patients, to healthcare professionals, and in some cases to health payers, why isn’t it in widespread use every day and everywhere?   As soon as I heard SMDM existed, I began to wonder about what’s getting in the way of constant use?   I bet a combination of conflict of interest and pesky not-so-little logistical details like the lack of vendors, undeveloped operational mechanisms, and lack of fair payment for effort are the main reasons why.  And of course, a preference for costs later rather than costs today.  We gotta find a way around those obstacles!

BACKGROUND:

Ten years ago, a landmark article appeared that distinguished between informed consent and SMDM — then made a persuasive case for the latter.  Here’s the full citation:  King, Jaime S. and Moulton, Benjamin, Rethinking Informed Consent: The Case for Shared Medical Decision-Making. American Journal of Law and Medicine, Vol. 32, pp. 429-501, 2006.

First the authors described the two prevailing types of legal definitions for informed consent.   They wrote: “Currently, the states are almost evenly split between two types of standards for informed consent – the physician-based standard, effective in 25 states, and the patient-based standard, effective in 23 states and the District of Columbia.  Physician-based standards generally require physicians to inform a patient of the risks, benefits and alternatives to a treatment in the same manner that a ‘reasonably prudent practitioner’ in the field would.  On the other hand, patient-based standards hold physicians responsible for providing patients with all information on the risks, benefits and alternatives to a treatment that a ‘reasonable patient’ would attach significance to in making a treatment decision.”

The crux of the problem:   About one third of the time, the prevailing standard of care does not require the physician to do the treatment  (for example, the surgery is not the only treatment available, or is not required to save the patient’s life).  In that third of cases, in which the treatment or procedure is referred to as “elective”,  the intended outcome of the surgery is basically improved quality of life.  Thus, the decision whether to go ahead with the treatment really should depend largely on the values and preferences of the patient.  However, patients vary widely in how much information they want, their appetite for risk, their tolerance for various side effects and possible poor outcomes, and their confidence in their own decision-making ability.   Many of them will not feel prepared to make a good decision no matter how much information they get;  they want guidance or an out and out recommendation from their doctor.  Without knowing the patient’s  preferences and values, physicians are not able to give advice about treatment decisions tailored to the patient’s personal situation — and may inappropriately bias the discussion of alternative plans.

Then the authors defined SMDM:   “a process in which the physician shares with the patient all relevant risk and benefit information on all treatment alternatives and the patient shares with the physician all relevant personal information that might make one treatment or side effect more or less tolerable than others. Then, both parties use this information to come to a mutual medical decision.”  They also said SMDM must occur BEFORE the patient can give truly informed consent.

Here’s another problem:  Many physicians have trouble talking in lay language;  they tend to use big words and medical jargon.  And because medical visits are stressful, patients have trouble remembering the things the doctor tells them.   Moreover, most physicians do not have comparative factual data at hand about likelihood of success and specific side effects for the various treatment alternatives.  This has led to the development of decision aids – pamphlets, booklets and videos for patients that summarize information about procedures and treatments, their likelihood of success, what it is like to live with potential side effects and poor outcomes, and so on, all written in simple everyday language. Both the Foundation and its partner Healthwise have produced many of them.

Finally, the authors asserted that despite the “bureaucratic headaches, the enormous expenditure of financial and human resources, and the need for state by state adoption of new informed consent laws, the long-term benefits of shared decision-making and the use of evidence based decision aids to promote patient understanding of medical information to arrive at informed medical decision making far outweigh the costs for both patients and physicians.”

MY SIMPLISTIC ANALYSIS OF THE REASONS FOR LOW USE

Conflict of interest:
Some (or many) surgeons and interventionists of various kinds earn their living by delivering expensive services – and usually have convinced themselves believe those services are the best thing for the patient.   They often work for healthcare delivery organizations that want to drive revenue up – not down.   The whole team has a vested interest in making sure the patient says “yes” and understandably has less commitment to spending valuable time helping patients say “no thank you” to the operation or the treatment.

My question is:  How can we get around this obstacle?   Why can’t managed care companies or health/disability/workers’ comp payers find qualified third party vendors who can engage patients in shared medical decision-making conversations when the treating physician can’t – or doesn’t want to?   The company Health Dialog does that – but last time I talked with them, they are only set up for bulk sales to healthplans.    I haven’t yet run across an organization that will do onesie and twosie shared medical decision conversations on request.   In workers’ compensation and disability benefits programs, that option is the only way this will fly.

Scarcity and cost of materials, logistics, and lack of delivery mechanisms:
1.    Materials to educate and prepare the patient for shared medical decision-making are available only for a limited number of procedures.  It takes time and expertise to prepare them, and since they are based on the latest scientific evidence, they must constantly be updated.  For example, when I looked last, the Foundation had no package for spine fusion surgery, though they did have them for laminectomy and spine MRI.
2.    Medical offices that buy the materials used to educate and prepare the patient for a shared medical decision-making conversation can’t bill for the cost of the materials.  There is no CPT billing code expressly designed for it, and if the provider bills under a similar-appearing code, it often won’t be paid.
3.    Physicians who conduct “real” shared decision-making conversations in their office aren’t paid for the time.  There is no CPT billing code expressly designed for it, and if the provider bills under another code, it often won’t be paid.
4.    Medical delivery organizations that have especially trained staff on hand to conduct these conversations can’t bill for the time they would spend doing it.   Non-physicians can’t bill health payers for the time they spent on these conversations.  There is no billing code expressly designed for this service, and if the provider bills under another CPT code, it usually won’t be paid.

GOTTA FIND A WAY TO MAKE THIS WORK

Many studies have shown increased patient satisfaction when SMDM occurs.  In addition, Group Health of Oregon reduced healthcare costs by 40% by putting SMDM in place throughout their group practice HMO.  (They didn’t have to worry about getting paid for doing it because Group Health is a prepaid health plan that employs its own physicians.  Increasing patient satisfaction strengthens their business, and any dollars they save stay in house)

Those of us who contract with vendors and operate provider payment mechanisms really ought to get ourselves in gear to remove the barriers to widespread adoption of SMDM.   Drs. Ian Hargreaves and Victor Montori from the Mayo Clinic summarized the situation in an article in Health Affairs entitled “Shared Decision Making: The Need For Patient-Clinician Conversation, Not Just Information,” They wrote: “The patient and clinician must jointly create a course of action that is best for the individual patient and his or her family. The larger need in evidence-informed shared decision making is for a patient-clinician interaction that offers conversation, not just information, and care, not just choice.”