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Sometimes It’s Better to Just Say No

Story One: When I was a child (and we’re talking a lo-o-o-ng time ago – when doctors made house calls)… if I got an earache, I would suffer.  REALLY suffer. Mom would drip some warm oil into my ear, and then stuff some cotton in behind it. She’d give me an orange flavored baby aspirin or two.  And I would just lie in bed, or on the couch, miserable.  MISERABLE.  Seems like I would sleep a lot. Two days later, my earache would be gone, and because I was a kid, and resilient, I would be back on my feet.

Story Two: When I was a kid, I fell off my bike as I flew around a corner near my house.  My bike flew off in one direction and I flew in the other, and landed smack on my elbow.  OH THE PAIN!  I pulled the cinders out of my arm, and cried all the way home as I dragged my bike with me.  That evening my dad walked me across the street to see a doctor who lived in our neighborhood.  He felt along my arm, moved it around a little, declared that I had sprained it, then put my arm in a sling where I was expected to keep it for the next few weeks.

Perhaps it’s miraculous that I survived childhood!  But I don’t think so.  I think any of us over a “certain age” had very similar experiences as a child.  We all had sore throats and earaches, we all sprained and broke bones – and we didn’t have the miracles of modern medical care to help.

Fast forward to today.  Today when we go to the doctor, no matter what the complaint, we are met with a barrage of tests, procedures and treatments.  If I had a sore throat and an earache in 2012, I would likely be given a strep test (chi-ching!) and prescribed an antibiotic (chi-ching!)  If I fell off my bike in 2012, I would be given at least an X-ray (chi-ching!), but more likely a CT scan.  I’d be prescribed an antibiotic (chi-ching!) and maybe even a pain killer (chi-ching!)  I’d need follow up testing to see how well everything was healing (chi-ching!)…

Bottom line – healthcare is so much more expensive today because we do things that we don’t necessarily need to do.  We are herded into services that we don’t necessarily need.  And (shame on us) we ASK for things we don’t necessarily need and probably shouldn’t get.

Don’t need?  Shouldn’t get?

Antibiotics, the miracle drug of the 80s and 90s, were so overprescribed that today the bugs they were intended to kill have evolved into superbugs. People die from acquiring infections that didn’t become problematic until the overuse of antibiotics.  Yet – mom takes her child to the doctor with an earache and insists an antibiotic be prescribed for her child.  Two days later, the child is no longer in pain.  (But is that any improvement over the two days it took me to get past my earache 50+ years ago?)

The existence of CT scanners, MRI scanners and PET scanners, and the need to pay for them, compel doctors to order those tests, even in cases when they may not be necessary.  Of course there are times when they are very necessary – but not always, and not as often as they are used now.  When it comes to so much extra scanning, it can create big problems for our health (too much radiation exposure from x-rays or CTs) AND our wallets – imaging is expensive, even when we have insurance.

So how can we know the difference?  How can we be a bit more savvy when it comes to test and treatments, whether or not they are suggested by our doctors?

Last month, a consortium of nine different medical specialties – the very doctors who make money when we have tests and treatments – came out with their lists of tests, treatments and procedures we patients don’t need.  They listed them all on a website, called Choosing Wisely.

If these doctors don’t think we should take these tests, then why would we have them?

What we know is that this elite group has made these recommendations.  What we don’t know is that those recommendations will filter down to the doctors who order these tests, treatments and procedures – because that’s how they make their money, and (they think) that’s how they can defend against lawsuits.  (We can only imagine how unhappy that orthopedist who makes his living running CT scans is with his own peers that tell patients not to get so many CT scans.)

So, knowing that our doctors may not be aware of the lists, or may have chosen to ignore the lists, it’s up to us patients to ask questions.  “Doctor, If I take this antibiotic, how soon will I feel better?  How soon will I feel better if I don’t take it?”  — or — “Doctor, I know an X-ray is much less expensive than a CT scan.  What will a CT scan tell you that an x-ray won’t?  Can I have just the x-ray?”

So yes, fellow empowered patients, it’s time for us to begin making smarter choices, both for our wallets and for our health.  Make yourself generally aware of the new recommendations of tests, procedures and treatments you just don’t need.  Understand that leaders in healthcare who understand about reining in costs, even if they are the ones who lose income, are calling out to their peers to make changes in their recommendations….

Unfortunately, anything in medical care takes a LOT time to implement.  But this is something we patients can do – and do with no detriment to our health OR our wallets.
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Time to Put a Stop to Drive-by-Doctoring

As many of my readers know, I speak at meetings and conferences fairly frequently, and most often to groups of patients and caregivers. The focus of the talks I give is usually on a patient empowerment topic – ranging from how to communicate with your doctor, to how to stay safe in the hospital, to a dozen other topics….

Every time I speak to groups of patients, I ask the question, “Have any of you ever felt rushed during a doctor appointment?”

The overwhelming majority raise their hands, and nod, and often turn to the person sitting next to them, poised to share their latest horror story about being rushed, which is often the case after they’ve waited in the waiting room for way too long.  A double whammy.

Frustrating. Maddening. Unfair.  And now, statistically accurate, including its negative effect on both our health and our wallets.

Newsweek Magazine published an article this week called The Doctor Will See You – If You’re Quick.  Written by Shannon Brownlee (author of Overtreated), it quantifies the problem of, what I call, “drive by doctoring” – the concept that we barely see the doctor walk IN the exam room door, before the doctor has retreated back out that door, asking the empty hallway (because he’s no longer engaged with the patient at all), “Do you have any more questions?”

The point to the article (which is excellent – you really should take the time to read it in its entirety), is that over the past few decades, the trusting relationship that used to exist between patients and their doctors has eroded to almost non-existent, and has resulted in bigger problems for both parties.  And both parties are suffering.  Patients don’t like it, and their doctors don’t like it either.

Or (another one of my sayings) – American healthcare is not about health or care. It’s about sickness and money – using sickness to make money.

Here are some of the points that support that:

  • The ideal patient panel (number of patients) for primary care doctors should be fewer than 1,800 patients in order to provide the kind of care patients need.  Today, the average number of patients per PCP is 2,300. And for “Medicaid Mills”, the panel is more like 3,000.
  • To speed things along, doctors interrupt their patients an average of 23 seconds into the answer to the question, “Why are you here today?”
  • One study showed that the average amount of time spent providing “critical information” to patients is 1.3 minutes (yes – that’s MINUTES.)  Your quality or quantity of life only deserves 1.3 minutes?

To those of us who understand this madness, and attempt to be smart patients, there is nothing new here. But the information is beneficial to us for a few reasons:

First – because our world is being driven more and more by data, and not simply our observations and stories. With the quantification of these kinds of problems, the powers-that-be will have to look at solutions, because no nation can afford sicker and poorer people.

Second – because this kind of information is a good reminder to us all that it’s us SMART, EMPOWERED PATIENTS who will manage to get the best of a system that has the capability to be great, but is growing worse every day.

We can’t help those who won’t help themselves… but we can be the ones who will STOP this erosion, and help ourselves.

•  Helping ourselves will mean we find the right doctors - the ones who WILL communicate with us. (A reminder that no doctor is average – they are either better than, or worse than, whatever average is. As empowered patients, we search out the “better than”.)

•  Helping ourselves means we place ourselves squarely in the middle of our own medical decision-making - we don’t default to letting someone else make them for us.

•  Helping ourselves means we find information to support our decisions, making sure it’s credible and reliable.

•  Helping ourselves may mean that we try to manage our relationships with our doctors on our own, or it may mean we ask someone else to help us.

•  Helping ourselves will mean understanding the roll the pursuit of profit takes on our health – we will understand the concept of Follow the Money and why that makes us poorer and sicker.

It took decades for the healthcare system to devolve to what it is today (just in time for us baby boomers to utilize it in huge numbers with, in too many cases, horrible outcomes.) It will take decades more to fix it.

Most of us don’t have decades to wait – and for that reason alone, we must engage in our own care.  We can’t afford, for our health OR our wallets, to let drive-by-doctoring take its toll on us or our loved ones.

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Want more Patient Empowerment?
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True Confessions – My Take on Health Care Reform

Last week we watched (or more likely heard summaries during newscasts of) the Supreme Court’s (SCOTUS Supreme Court of the United States) hearings on American healthcare reform (AKA The ACA, Affordable Care Act.)  For those of us engaged in health-related issues every day, it was fascinating to watch the transition, and the voices of pundits, from “they will” or “they won’t” or whatever that day’s interpretation was.

Watching this culmination of many years of reform efforts has been fascinating to me. And in the midst of it, I realized that many of my regular readers have probably made assumptions about my take on healthcare reform that may not be true.  So yes, today it is time for some true confessions.

First Confession:  I am a registered Republican and, for many aspects of politics, (economy, defense) a conservative. I am, after all, a small business owner. It would seem, then, that I would be against reform of the system.  However…

As someone who has been personally buffeted by the system, during a time when I was insured (meaning responsible), the conversation held special interest to me.  Because, despite the fact that I was insured, and even though my diagnosis was wrong, I still lost my life savings (all except my house and my retirement).   So as you might imagine, beginning when the 2008 presidential elections began to play out in the media, I was immersed in the questions and arguments about healthcare reform. It was highly personal.

As a result of my conservative business nature, combined with my in-the-trenches understanding of how the healthcare system works in the United States, I was truly conflicted!

In those days, I did a lot of speaking on the subject of healthcare reform.  I believe so many invitations came along because I established a reputation of being able to see and argue all sides of the argument.  Perhaps because I was so conflicted, I could switch sides at the drop of a hat, and plays devil’s advocate no matter what the argument.  I would challenge my audiences to see if they could determine whether I supported reform or not – and rarely could they tell.

Second Confession:  Even though I could intellectually understand and argue why big business “had to do what it had to do,” I never could reconcile in my heart that the current non-reformed system is geared to only the “haves.”  The current system is very much about making sure the have-nots (or choose-nots) cannot access care except through emergency rooms, or by going bankrupt. Period. It’s very elitist – all about controlling those who can’t afford care and making sure they get sicker and die, while reserving decent care for those who can afford it.  And THAT is not me.

And that is not me MORE than the capitalist conservative IS me. And so yes, despite the fact that the ACA is highly flawed, and despite the fact that it requires many changes to make it work well, and fairly, I believe that we must start somewhere and so, yes, I am in favor of the ACA and hope it remains the law of the land.

Fast forward to today – two years post passage of the ACA, and a week past Supreme Court arguments, and…

Third Confession: I am less conflicted than I was then.  Why?  Because in these five years after the arguments have begun, I have seen Americans pay attention to aspects of healthcare they have never paid attention to before. Even if I still heartily disagree with those who are against reform, I know that they are seeing the fruits of what has taken place so far.  Maybe they had pre-existing conditions and, for the first time, have been able to find insurance again. Maybe they have a 23-year-old college graduate who still can’t find a job, but could stay on their family health insurance policy. Maybe they are seniors who have found the donut hole shrinking.  Whatever the reason, at least we as American citizens are engaging in the decision-making process – even if some are on opposite sides from my own thinking.

Fourth Confession:  I am totally confused (and hope someone can enlighten me) on why on earth conservatives want to shoot down the individual mandate.  Their arguments against it just don’t make sense!  Republican conservatives are all about personal responsibility, and so many of the arguments against reform have been aimed at problems that have occurred before now because people don’t take responsibility for making sure they have health coverage.  The individual mandate is what makes “lazy” people (the ones who are working six jobs, none of which offer health coverage), and “poor” people (the ones who have been laid off because of Wall Street greed), and young people (the ones who are bulletproof and won’t ever get sick, so would rather buy stuff than invest in health coverage) get coverage.  The individual mandate is what prevents those who run up their costs beyond what can ever be repaid (today) not have to file bankruptcy because – well – they had coverage. The individual mandate is what controls costs for the rest of us who HAVE been responsible.  So – WTH?  I just don’t get that.

And finally, my

Fifth Confession:  (I have confided THIS confession only to my closest friends before today.) Personally, and in a selfish way, it doesn’t matter to me what the Supreme Court decides.  Because no matter what the Supreme Court decides, I and my loved ones, will be just fine. Whatever their decision – it’s job security for me.

The Supreme Court’s decision won’t affect my ability to be insured because my husband is retired from the military, so we have decent coverage for our lifetimes. Our children are all well-employed in jobs that won’t go away, so they are in good shape, too.

No matter what SCOTUS decides, Americans will continue having trouble getting what they need.  I predict that if the ACA is blessed by SCOTUS, then there will be more confusion in the short term, but less confusion in the long term.  And if they strike it down?  Well then, my fortunes will multiply because my career is all focused on either helping individuals get what they need from the system, or helping them find a health advocate to guide them.

Which, of course, goes back to my original statement…. that is…. I’m a business owner and a Republican.  I’ll just continue to grow my business.  And that creates one heckuva circular argument – don’t you think?

So there you go – my five confessions about healthcare reform.  They say confession is good for the soul.  While I’m not sure this has done much for my soul (because it certainly doesn’t resolve any of my personal conflict!), I do hope it has given you some food for thought.

…MORE…

•  Where Does Rationing Fit Into Healthcare Reform?

•  What Is Socialized Medicine?

•  What is Universal Healthcare?

•  Where Does Rationing Fit Into Healthcare Reform?

•  Follow the Money: How Money Affects American Healthcare

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Want more Patient Empowerment?
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Why Rob a Bank When You Can Make More Money by Counterfeiting Drugs?

Want to make millions of dollars quickly while risking only a few months in prison if (and that’s a big IF) you’re caught?  It’s not difficult at all. Just set yourself up as a distributor of counterfeit drugs in the United States.

This week’s announcement by the FDA that a counterfeit version of Avastin, a chemotherapy drug that is used for several kinds of cancers and tumors (lung cancer, kidney cancer, colon and rectum cancers – but no longer for breast cancer since approval was removed last year) has been found across the country, infused into the national drug supply, raises plenty of questions about how that could possibly happen.

It was followed by an interesting article in USA Today which partially answers the question.  Counterfeiting is a multi-billion dollar business that is on the rise because it’s so lucrative, and because the penalties are so… well… inconsequential.  I mean – would you be willing to spend no more than six months in jail if you could make millions of dollars for use when you got out?  (Even if you would answer no! I don’t want to go to jail!…  I’ll ask you this…. what if your child had treatable cancer and you had no insurance?  Just sayin’ …)

Avastin isn’t the only drug that may be counterfeited.  Any high cost drug that can be watered down, or manufactured to “look” right even if it is manufactured without its expensive ingredients, is a target for counterfeiters.  Lipitor and Viagra are probably the most apt to be counterfeit, but others like drugs used to treat HIV and AIDs, or diabetic drugs, or weight loss drugs, are likely targets for counterfeiters, too.

So what happens if you are somehow treated using a counterfeit instead of the real drug?  Maybe nothing. Or maybe you die. Or anything in between. The problem is, for the most part, we patients have very few ways we can detect whether a drug is real or fake.

Katherine Eban, in her book, Dangerous Doses, tells the stories of people who died from receiving infusions of counterfeit Procrit.  The conventional wisdom on this most recent discovery of fake Avastin is that there was nothing in the counterfeit version that was dangerous, and it’s difficult to tell within a regimen of 18-20 doses a cancer patient might receive over six months whether one “missed” infusion of the active ingredients has a long-term effect.

The bigger picture problem is that our drug supply is not being well enough protected by the FDA, which is tasked with protecting us. The FDA has no backbone when it comes to protecting us from bogus, counterfeit drug distributors who appear to be selling “real” drugs, but target greedy doctors, pharmacies and hospitals that are so willing to buy “discounted” drugs for their patients, knowing that there will be more profit in their reimbursements.  Experts estimate that about 1% of our drug supply is counterfeit.  That means that 1 out of every 100 administered drugs may be counterfeit, too.

One answer to this is an electronic pedigree system, meaning, from the time the drug is manufactured, until it is given to the patient, it is followed and logged using a bar code type system. If such a system was in place, then even us patients would have a way to double check that the drugs being given to us are the real drugs they are supposed to be.

So why doesn’t the FDA insist on the development of such a system?  Well, actually, they have. But again, they have no teeth, and so far, no backbone.  Every time they raise the issue, the drug companies and drug distributors begin to wail about the added cost to the system.  (Surprise!  Follow the money!)  And so, nothing gets done.

Like other issues in healthcare, it looks like little will happen to improve this system until something horrible befalls someone famous; someone who can actually override the special interests in Washington and insist on development of this electronic pedigree system.

Until then, here is information to help us patients do what we can to protect ourselves from counterfeit drugs.

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