Category Archives: Tools, Techniques, Methods & Money

September 19, 2018

Over-dramatizing chronic pain isn’t helping much

The most recent MMWR report on the prevalence of chronic pain from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC)  continues today’s unfortunate trend of over-dramatizing chronic pain and feeding the frenzy that sends the message “this is horrible; medical science has gotta DO something for these poor people!”   There are simply NOT 20 million people in the USA suffering constant agony from debilitating chronic pain.  There ARE a lot of people with chronic aches and pains, and most of them are coping with it just fine, thank you.

The two crude questions that the survey asked people to answer -– and the way their answers were interpreted, especially the way they defined “high impact pain” -– makes pain look like a bigger impediment to a good life than it actually is -– for most people.  And, more importantly, I believe the list of questions failed to identify the group that most desperately needs better help.

Information about pain was collected through responses to these two questions:

  1. “In the past six months, how often did you have pain? Would you say never, some days, most days, or every day?”
  2. “Over the past six months, how often did pain limit your life or work activities? Would you say never, some days, most days, or every day?”

Chronic pain was defined as pain on most days or every day in the past 6 months. High-impact chronic pain was defined as chronic pain that limited life or work activities on most days or every day during the past 6 months

Aches and pains, both short-lived and long-lasting are an unavoidable part of everyday life. Acute pains are the result of being out and about, being active, and using the body like it is designed to be used — exercising muscles harder than usual, dropping something on your toe, tripping over a curb, or getting a sore throat or a tension headache. Chronic pains are usually the residual of various kinds of accidents, illnesses, traumatic events and other untoward events in life — including the progress of aging.

To me, that means PAIN as well as LOSS — and adapting to them — are “natural” consequences of being alive. How many people who have lived a full and eventful life have no “scars” or “tricky joints” of any kind to show for it? How many old people have you met who DON’T have any aches and pains? The question is: how do we view our pain, how do we manage it, and how have we adapted to it?

I, for example, am old. And I meet the CDC’s criteria for chronic pain, and even for “high impact” chronic pain. I have some pain in the joints of my hands and feet due to age-related osteoarthritis — with maybe some extra wear and tear on my feet due to several years on tiptoe and in toe shoes as a dancer more 50 years ago!  My fingers and toes ache virtually every day, especially when I move them a certain way or use them a lot — or I part my hair on the wrong side 🙂

The range of motion in some of my fingers and toes is limited. Sometimes a nerve gets caught on something inside my foot — which suddenly creates a searing stabbing pain – which hurts like stink. My stiff, increasingly deformed, and chronically achy finger joints have certainly affected my ability to use my hands for forceful pinching and gripping. I have also had to adjust the kind of shoes I buy, and sometimes I have to avoid walking long distances — on those days when my feet really hurt. Sometimes, the numb, burning sensation in my forefoot forces me to limp. When it gets too bad, I have to stop walking and attempt to “readjust” the position of the structures inside my foot. A successful adjustment is accompanied by a clicking sensation and a sharp searing needle-like pain, and then complete and sudden relief.

However, I don’t believe I’ve ever taken an aspirin or tylenol because of my chronic joint pain. I have not gone to a doctor about it because my discomfort is quite tolerable, the extreme pain is very occasional, and I have no need to do a lot of physically-demanding walking or gripping. And I am certainly not interested in surgery – I see little point in allowing someone to muck around in the complex structures of an old arthritic foot that is going to continue to get MORE arthritic due to natural processes.

In short, I am quite able to work around my chronic pain. I have adapted to it, and quietly and without (much) whining made adjustments in what I do and how I live. Perhaps others would not approve of my personal adaptation strategy — I’m awfully sedentary — but it is working for me. My pain is NOT dominating my life, is NOT the main focus of my attention, and is NOT sucking the joy out of my existence. In fact, I am really enjoying my life as it is.

The people whose pain IS dominating their lives, IS the main focus of their attention, and IS sucking the joy out of their existence are the ones who most desperately need help. And maybe what they need most is a re-orientation – to make LIFE the point of their life and learn techniques for how to control their own symptoms and put pain on the back burner of their brain — instead of keeping it on the front burner as a blinking red bad and pressing problem that must be solved.

So, personally, I think we should stop talking about pain and loss as though they are terrible things that shouldn’t BE — and instead make it clear that the job in front of us is to learn how to (1) adapt to and cope successfully with the unavoidable and unpleasant things that happen while we are alive, AND (2) find ways to minimize their impact on our everyday experience by focusing our energies on creating a good life anyway.

Over the last several years, I have been following the science of pain treatment and collecting tools and resources that can help people learn how to achieve a victory over their chronic pain.  Among many other techniques, acceptance and commitment therapy (or ACT) seems to be a very promising technique in this regard.  So are several other techniques that help people who are stuck living with pain give up on being angry at it or trying to “get rid” of it.  That’s because our brains are arranged so that what we pay attention to stays on the front burner.  What we resist persists.

The American Chronic Pain Association’s website has a wide array of free and low cost resources for people living with chronic pain and who want to move “from patient to person” again.   Among my favorites are the ACPA’s Ten Steps From Patient to Person and the ACPA Resource Guide to Chronic Pain Management which begins with self-directed therapies.  The ACPA also has a network of chronic pain support groups in local areas.


June 23, 2018

Don’t miss out! RETAIN grants are a big opportunity

RETAIN is a five year and $100 million Federal Grant program that state agencies must nominally lead.  However, the leadership team must be multi-stakeholder and include an organization that actually delivers hands-on medical care.  Moreover, the states will probably end up contracting for delivery of the many services by individuals or organizations in the private sector. Proposals are due in ONE MONTH – so if you’re tempted to get involved, join our list-serv now and learn what you need to do!  See more below.

RETAIN is the biggest opportunity for physicians who practice occupational medicine since the 1970’s — when NIOSH and OSHA were established. It’s also a huge opportunity for other professionals with expertise in preventing needless work disability during the early phase of the stay-at-work/return-to-work (SAW/RTW) process:  the first few weeks and months of an injury/illness episode.

RETAIN requires states to get involved VERY EARLY in new injury and illness episodes among workers they haven’t had on their radar — and arrange provision of several kinds of services with which these agencies have had little/no familiarity. Most of the state agencies that received the RFP (and must lead RETAIN in their state) have been confused and caught flat-footed by it. They really need professionals with expertise at the interface between healthcare and the workplace to pitch in at several levels:

– to help NOW with project design and proposal writing
– once the project launches, to help oversee, manage and tweak the project at the top level,
– in individual cases, to deliver specific services during the first weeks and months of work interruption. (In fact, eligibility for RETAIN program services ends after 6 months of work absence.)

I’ve set up a free list-serv for everyone who is interested in the possibility of getting involved with their state’s RETAIN project. My personal goal is to help as many states as possible to recruit appropriate leadership teams and write successful bids. The project is so unusual, I don’t think there will be many. The Feds plan to accept EIGHT bids (from eight states).

JOIN US — if you’re an occ doc or SAW/RTW professional who is willing to wade in, introduce yourself to strangers, and then join the small team that will be developing your state’s overall project design and writing its proposal (bid) between now and July 23. Once you join the list-serv, go to our website and read the small number of earlier and information-filled emails that will get you oriented and on the right track. You’ll find links to the RFP itself along with many other resources.

To join the RETAINers list-serv, go to https://groups.io/g/RETAINers and click on JOIN THIS GROUP

NOTE: Think big.  This is the beginning of an effort to knit together some holes in our social fabric to meet the needs of people who have been falling through the cracks.  The Feds are looking for proposals that will help workers with new health problems — regardless of what caused them.  The point is to help ANY worker for whom a new health condition is causing work interruption and, if the right things fail to happen, could threaten their job. Needlessly losing one’s livelihood and ending up on SSDI is a very poor outcome of a health condition — ESPECIALLY when it didn’t need to happen.


January 24, 2018

Normal people in difficult health situations benefit from psychological services

Research has now shown how the liberal use of opioid medications in the post-surgical setting can lead to long-term dependency on these drugs as well as the development of persistent disabling (chronic) pain. Therefore, we must find new and better ways to manage acute and sub-acute pain (particularly post-surgical pain). Researchers are in hot pursuit of that goal. One group did a review of existing literature to identify psychological treatments that help relieve post-surgical pain– up to 12 weeks afterwards.  (See reference and link below.)

Short answer: Yes to CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy).  However, none of the papers that evaluated the impact of other types of psychological treatment met the authors’ inclusion criteria.  (Not meeting criteria is simply a sign the methodology or size of the studies wasn’t solid enough — the techniques may actually be effective, but a rigorous standard of proof hasn’t been met.)

Implications for ALL professionals who interact with ill and injured people: We must must MUST stop sending the message (with the way we speak and behave) that CBT and other effective psychological treatments are only for “screwed up people” with mental illness diagnoses!!!!

Background and Perspective:  Many people who are suddenly faced with UNUSUAL EVENTS have NORMAL HUMAN REACTIONS to them that lead them to make unwise decisions that lead to worse-than-necessary outcomes.  The list of normal human reactions includes things like confusion, uncertainty, worry, distrust, head-in-sand, false beliefs, and wrong-headed impulsive decisions.

A sensible and compassionate way to look at that kind of behavior is this: Some people are ill-equipped to deal well with what life serves up to them at a particular moment in time. They may simply lack the understanding, information, and effective tool/techniques that other people have. There is NOTHING WRONG with these people.  There is simply something MISSING that could make a positive difference if supplied.

I suggest we start thinking about people dealing with acute post-surgical pain (and other unfamiliar health-related life events) as people who need to be FULLY EQUIPPED or PREPARED to deal with whatever it is.  And we, as the professionals who are responding to their predicaments, are in a better position to know what it is they DO need and ensure they DO get it.

Two analogies:  The best analogy I know is prenatal care and childbirth education. There is NOTHING WRONG with a woman who hasn’t had a baby before being ignorant about pregnancy, labor, and delivery . The data is clear that prenatal care and childbirth education improve both patient experience and outcomes. We don’t stop to WONDER whether a pregnant woman “needs” that education. We KNOW she does – unless she’s already an “expert”!

Another excellent analogy is the palliative and hospice care that aid people who are preparing for their own death. Since we humans only die once, most of us are not experts at going through the wrapping up period of life.  There is NOTHING WRONG with being afraid and ignorant about what is coming and how to handle it.  Research long ago proved that the biopsychosocial approach used in palliative and hospice care improves quality of life for both patient and family. And more recently, the evidence is accumulating that hospice care actually prolongs life!

Among other things, “palliative care” involves educating patients and their caregivers — so they feel less powerless, so they put the emphasis in the right places, so they are prepared, so they have simple methods and techniques at their disposal for managing symptoms and relieving distress. All of this gives them a sense of SOME control – which is tremendously important to people dealing with a process that cannot be stopped and an inevitable end.

And we can’t assume that having a college degree means a woman knows anything about having a baby, or living with a terminal illness, or managing acute post-surgical pain.  General literacy is NOT a guarantee of health literacy – but low general literacy is pretty much a guarantee of low health literacy as well.  (A person with good health literacy is fully equipped and prepared to deal  appropriately and effectively with the health matters they are facing.)

Suggested action steps:  Decide to help people in difficult situations acquire the knowledge and skills they need to cope well with their current / future predicaments — so they get the best possible outcome.   Take a pro-active approach so that people are routinely offered assistance.  Your job is to make it clear you expect them to take advantage of and actively participate. Explain to them why and how doing this will help them.

Where there is a will, there is a way.   If you are creative, you will be able to figure out how to accomplish these things simply, at low cost, and effectively.  For example, CBT treatment often takes just a handful of face to face appointments.  Nurses and physical therapists have been successfully trained to do education and employ CBT techniques in specific situations. There are on-line versions of almost everything these days.  Use your existing staff to  provide oversight, structure, and reinforcement to ensure adherence.

1. For post-operative pain:  Since pain following surgery is entirely predictable, please start thinking about how you can ensure that patients get enough information and actual instruction in effective self-pain control techniques and methods, including psychological ones, so they too have a sense of SOME control and reduce their own suffering — during that difficult post-surgical recovery period?

2. For painful and disabling new injuries or illnesses that are disrupting jobs / livelihoods.  For working people whose ability to do their usual jobs has been affected by a painful injury or illness, please start thinking how you can ensure that they get enough useful information and practical instruction in BOTH self-care for pain and functional rehabilitation, including psychological techniques.  These tools will allow them to gain a sense of SOME control over their recovery and their future —  and thus will be more likely to have a good outcome.

Please let me know what you decide to do and how it goes.

REFERENCE AND LINK

Psychological treatments for the management of postsurgical pain: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials.  Judith L Nicholls,1 Muhammad A Azam,1,2 Lindsay C Burns,1,2 Marina Englesakis,3, Ainsley M Sutherland,1 Aliza Z Weinrib,1,2 Joel Katz,1,2,4 Hance Clarke,1,4   in Patient-Related Outcome Measures, 19 January 2018 Volume 2018:9 Pages 49—64.
DOI https://doi.org/10.2147/PROM.S121251

Authors:   1Pain Research Unit, Department of Anesthesia and Pain Medicine, Toronto General Hospital, 2Department of Psychology, York University, 3Library and Information Services, University Health Network, 4Department of Anesthesia, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada

ABSTRACT

Background: Inadequately managed pain is a risk factor for chronic postsurgical pain (CPSP), a growing public health challenge. Multidisciplinary pain-management programs with psychological approaches, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and mindfulness-based psychotherapy, have shown efficacy as treatments for chronic pain, and show promise as timely interventions in the pre/perioperative periods for the management of PSP. We reviewed the literature to identify randomized controlled trials evaluating the efficacy of these psychotherapy approaches on pain-related surgical outcomes.

Materials and methods: We searched Medline, Medline-In-Process, Embase and Embase Classic, and PsycInfo to identify studies meeting our search criteria. After title and abstract review, selected articles were rated for risk of bias.

Results: Six papers based on five trials (four back surgery, one cardiac surgery) met our inclusion criteria. Four papers employed CBT and two CBT-physiotherapy variant; no ACT or mindfulness-based studies were identified. Considerable heterogeneity was observed in the timing and delivery of psychological interventions and length of follow-up (1 week to 2–3 years). Whereas pain-intensity reporting varied widely, pain disability was reported using consistent methods across papers. The majority of papers (four of six) reported reduced pain intensity, and all relevant papers (five of five) found improvements in pain disability. General limitations included lack of large-scale data and difficulties with blinding.

Conclusion: This systematic review provides preliminary evidence that CBT-based psychological interventions reduce PSP intensity and disability. Future research should further clarify the efficacy and optimal delivery of CBT and newer psychological approaches to PSP.

Keywords: postsurgical pain, CBT, acute pain, chronic pain, chronic postsurgical pain, multidisciplinary pain management


November 28, 2017

Avoid “one-size-fits-all” thinking in evidence-based medicine

If you feel a duty to avoid “group think” and are not yet a subscriber, I recommend you take a look at this group and their blog:  Minimally Disruptive Medicine.   Today’s posting (What are the risks and benefits of adopting guideline-driven care?)  refers to a remarkable blind spot in thinking that has just begun to be revealed:   the faulty belief that one size fits all in treatment which is based on the assumption that mathematical averages are “good enough” to PRECISELY  describe the care a whole population should receive.   And there’s a link to a VERY COOL Air Force study about “average” pilots that led to a new approach to designing cockpits for them.

Interestingly, a neuroscience researcher brought up this exact problem of variability while discussing neuroplasticity and its application to rehabilitation after strokes in a YouTube I watched last night.    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LNHBMFCzznE.  She uses the phrase “personalized medicine”.    The genetics-oriented medical community uses the phrase “precision medicine.”   The bottom line:  people are not biologically identical at birth – and their life experiences after birth only INCREASE that variability.

The definition of evidence-based medicine (EBM) proposed by Dr. David Sackett, one of the original gurus who articulated the concept, DID include patient values and preferences.  (See diagram pasted below and this website:   http://guides.mclibrary.duke.edu/c.php?g=158201&p=1036021.)

Note however that the Sackett definition FAILS to mention variations among patients – their biological idiosyncracies, other co-morbidities, or the context of the illness:  the patients’ life situations.   Technically, one could argue the nature and impact of those variations are all included in the box called Best Research Evidence.   BUT REALISTICALLY, as applied in practice and on the go, the “research” being brought to bear is usually mono-dimensional (the research on a particular test or treatment regimen).

A very bright and ambitious young Air Force physician told me last year that most of the fun is gone from medical practice for him due to EBM and EHRs (electronic health records).  By fun, he meant intellectual challenge and creativity.   In his world, going along with whatever the practice guideline says to do is the easy path.  There is neither encouragement nor reward for taking the extra mental step to consider whether there any reason why a patient might need something else –in addition or instead.   If he deviates from a guideline, he has to spend MANY more clicks and MUCH more  (bureaucratic) time documenting the reason for it.   He has already become cynical and is looking for an alternative to clinical practice.    Apparently the idea of mastering a “population approach” – seeing if he CAN consistently apply EBM across all of his panel of patients  – has little appeal for him.

Definitely a worthy bleeding edge of medical thought.    EBM conscientiously and consistently – but injudiciously – applied by clinical lemmings (imagine little white coats) may help many patients — but will definitely HARM some.


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 26, 2016

Two faulty beliefs about IMEs & impartial physicians

Patients and their advocates tend to be skeptical about independent medical opinions.   There are legitimate reasons to be concerned.  However, I want to point out two common but faulty beliefs that create UNNECESSARY distrust in this aspect of disability benefits and workers’ compensation claim management systems.  First, despite patients’ faith in their own doctors, treating physicians as a group are NOT a reliable source of accurate and unbiased information.  Second, although justice IS even-handed, impartial physicians should not find for both sides equally.

Based on my experience leading teams on three consulting projects that audited the quality of more than 1400 reports of independent medical evaluations and file reviews I definitely share MANY other concerns about the quality of the reports, the process by which they are procured, and the physicians and other healthcare professionals who provide them.  But these two particular issues are not among them. Read on to find out why.

FACT:  As a group, treating physicians are NOT a reliable source of accurate and unbiased information

First is the incorrect belief that the treating physician is the BEST place to turn for an “independent” opinion because they are highly trained professionals who are familiar with the patient’s case.   There are two main reasons why this is incorrect:

(a) There is considerable variability in the appropriateness and effectiveness of the care delivered by practicing physicians, and patients are not in a good position to assess it.  Evaluating appropriateness and effectiveness is admittedly a difficult and imperfect process, but the best way we know to do it is through the eyes of another physician who is equally or more expert in the matter at hand — and has no axe to grind and no financial stake in the outcome:  neither a friendly colleague nor a competitor.

(b) In medical school and residency, physicians are often told they should be “patient advocates” — but that instruction may not include a definition of advocating. (True for me and many others in physician audiences when I have asked about it.)  Patient advocacy sometimes turns into doing or saying exactly what the patient wants, not what is actually in the best interest of the patients’ long term health and well-being.  (I call this being a McDoctor.)  Particularly in today’s world with fierce competition between medical groups for patients and the use of “patient satisfaction scores” in calculating physician bonuses, that is true.  The data is clear:  treating physicians provide unnecessary antibiotics, pain medications, inappropriate treatments and are even willing to even shade the truth on reports in order to keep their patients happy.

The reason why arms-length or “third party” physicians are preferred as the source of opinions is to protect patients from harm from EITHER the “first party” (treating physician) OR the “second party” (the payer — which has an OBVIOUS business interest in controlling cost).  Judges, public policy people, and I get uncomfortable when the WAY the arms length physician is SELECTED is distorted by the interests of either the first party or second party.

FACT:   Impartial physicians’ opinions should not find for both sides equally

Second is the belief that “truly” impartial physicians should come down on the side of the patient vs. insurer half the time.  Or call it 50:50 for plaintiff vs. defense.  This belief is WRONG because cases selected for review or IME have been pre-selected by claims managers and case managers.   These professionals may not be healthcare professionals but because they see thousands of cases and become very familiar with the medical landscape, they ARE often more experienced OBSERVERS of the process of care than many physicians. They learn to recognize patterns of care that fit normal patterns, and care that is unusual.  These days, they are often expected to use evidence-based guidelines to identify outlier cases.  Those who focus on specific geographical areas come to see which doctors get patients better and which ones don’t.

The VAST MAJORITY of the time, there is no need / no reason to refer a case for independent review.  The treating physician IS doing the right thing;  the diagnoses, prescribed treatment, and causation determination (if work-related) DO appear reasonable and appropriate.   If the claims managers/ case managers see no problems or have no questions, they don’t refer the case for outside review.  If it aint busted, why fix it?

So as a rule of thumb, you can assume that some feature or another in ALMOST EVERY case being sent to review has RAISED QUESTIONS in the mind of an experienced observer of the care process.  The reason WHY the case is REFERRED is because that observer has only a very superficial knowledge of medicine.  They need an adviser — an impartial and expert physician who can evaluate the clinical facts and context and then either CONFIRM that the treating physician is doing the right thing or VALIDATE the claims/case manager’s concerns.

When claims/case managers are doing a good job selecting cases for referral, we SHOULD expect that MOST of the decisions will favor the insurer / defense. The more expert the claim/case managers are, the MORE LIKELY the independent physicians will agree — because the claims/case managers are accurately detecting real problems and concerns.

(By the way, a similar ratio seems to apply in the court system.   A judge once told me that MOST defendants ARE guilty – because the prosecutors don’t want to waste their time and public funds bringing cases to trial if they think the defendant is innocent – or if they simply think they will lose.    A perfect example  of this pragmatism is the FBI’s recent decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton.  The Director made it clear that they didn’t want to waste the taxpayers’ money on a case in which they wouldn’t be able to convince a jury “beyond a reasonable doubt.”)

Consider this:  If you are a treating physician who FREQUENTLY ends up with your care plans rejected by claims managers and utilization review, consider the possibility that YOU stick out.  Your care patterns may be more unusual than you realize.  Your outcomes may be worse than your colleagues’.

Sadly, some physicians discredit input from independent experts in front of patients.  They THINK they are advocating for their patient — on a social justice crusade, but end up harming their patient instead — by teaching them they have been wronged, are a victim of “the system,” and a helpless pawn.  This message:

  • increases distrust, resentment and anger (which in turn worsens symptoms);
  • encourages passivity rather than problem-solving (which in turn increases the likelihood of job loss, permanent withdrawal from the workforce, and a future of poverty on disability benefits).

A former president of the Oregon Medical Association said he counsels patients this way:  “Your two most important treasures are your health and your job. And  I am here to help you protect both of them.”  Healthcare practitioners really ought to do everything they can help their patients find a successful way out of these predicaments, instead of allowing them to believe they are trapped.  The “system” is not designed to solve their life predicament for them — they may have to do it themselves.  The physicians’ care plans should consist of those treatments known to restore function and work ability most rapidly.  Physicians should encourage their patients to tell their employer they want find a way to stay productive and keep their jobs.  And if the employer won’t support them, physicians should counsel their patients to try to find a new job quickly — even if it’s temporary or they have to make a change to the kind of work they do.

Adapting to loss is a key part of recovery.   When I was treating patients, I could tell they were going to be OK when they said with pride “I’ve figured out how to work around it, and life is getting back on track.”


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


July 28, 2016

Video on tools & techniques to aid recovery & RTW

You may like watching the video of a group discussion on Tools to Aid Recovery and Return to Work that was presented (and recorded) via Blab yesterday.  It was a stimulating exchange of ideas about both tools AND techniques with my colleagues Les Kertay, PhD and Chris Brigham, MD — as we each sat in our own offices.  Each of us were visible in our own little boxes on the screen.

The session was aimed at professionals in any discipline who want to hone their skills at working with individuals who are having trouble getting back on their feet.  It was sponsored by R3 Continuum and hosted by John Cloonan, their Marketing Director.

The video is now available on You Tube.  There are a few static-y and jumpy spots in the video, but I believe you will find the 60 minute conversation is worth your time.
Here’s the link to the YouTube version:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAwJFMD0hBo

Afterwards I talked to John Cloonan about Blab.  Apparently it has a built-in link to Twitter, so Twitter users can watch the live Blab video using Twitter’s Periscope capabilities.  Comments from Twitter users are fed to the Blab screen and are visible to presenters, which enables audience participation.  In addition, John was able to simultaneously link the live video to Facebook.   So while we were talking among ourselves, an unknown number of people were watching our discussion via R3 Continuum’s website, Facebook AND Twitter.   If you go any of those places, you can still find it.

Wow, talk about the ability to extend one’s reach and connect with many audiences!   Looks like John Cloonan (as a marketing guy who wants to disseminate messages far and wide) is drawn to Blab because it is possible to attach such a big social media megaphone to it!

As is typical with new technology, there are more challenges than are obvious at first glance.  For example, Blab works much better with a high-speed wired connection.  Some users may find their firewall is blocking it and have to figure out how to unblock it, etc. etc.  I had to restart my silly computer to get the microphone to work.  So having a “tech rehearsal” ahead of time was absolutely essential.

Les, Chris and I are all members of the Praxis Partners Consortium, by the way.


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.


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.”