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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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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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The 2012 Elections and the Issue of Healthcare Reform

This column first appeared
in the Syracuse Post Standard
January 17, 2012

During both the 2008 and 2010 elections, the issue of reforming the American healthcare system was the focus of overwhelming amounts of misinformation and disinformation.

Remember the email about Senior Death Panels?  It explained that the healthcare reform bill would allow Medicare to save money by refusing to pay for lifesaving treatment for older Americans.  Of course, it wasn’t true.

Another email stated that the Muslim belief in dhimmitude (surrender or appeasement) would mean American Muslims would be allowed to opt-out of the mandatory insurance rule. Also untrue.

Both inflammatory statements were horribly upsetting!  But it wasn’t a huge leap to figure out who wanted us to believe them.

Now primary season is here again, and some candidates continue to focus on repealing the Affordable Care Act (healthcare reform).  Whether or not you believe healthcare reform should be the law of the land, you owe it to yourself, and those you influence, to separate facts from fiction.

If someone shares “facts” with you that seem inflammatory, upsetting or don’t make sense, then there may be something askew. It’s possible they are true. Or, they may be only partially true, subjective interpretations of the truth, or even out-and-out lies.

Three websites provide neutral, objective analyses of political statements for our review. The best way to determine the veracity of information about healthcare reform, or any other political statements, is to scrutinize them at one, two or all three sites.

One site is the Pulitzer Prize winning Politifact.com. Its “Truth-o-Meter” scores statements on a range from True, to Flip-Flop, to Pants-on-Fire, along with supporting documentation for how the score was determined.

Factcheck.org is provided by the Annenberg Public Policy Center.  One section focuses specifically on email rumors.  Another section examines statements made by candidates and their high-profile supporters  to establish their accuracy.

Finally, Snopes.com is a great resource, too. While it originally examined only urban legends, in recent years it has expanded into political claims as well.

If you see, hear or read a statement from any organization or individual during the election season or any other time, be sure to review it carefully before you share it with someone else.  You don’t want to foolishly believe things that aren’t true, nor do you want to share misinformation or disinformation with others.  Using one of these statement-auditing websites will help you sort out the real facts.

Here is more information about reviewing email claims:

 How to Confirm or Debunk Claims
Made in Email, Blogs or Social Media

From Conspiracy Theories to Bogus Claims
How Can You Ascertain the Truth?

Have you confirmed or debunked a political email claim?
Share your findings!

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Can Patients Know Too Much?

(as published in the Syracuse Post Standard August 2, 2011)

Recently a series of videos appeared on a doctor education website, attempting to teach doctors how to deal with difficult patients. One of the videos was entitled, “The Patient Who Knows Too Much.”

That video sparked a heated debate among empowered patients and professionals. Can patients possibly know TOO much about their medical challenges and needs?

My opinion on this controversy might surprise you.

I don’t think the real question is whether patients can know too much. In fact, I think most of our doctors prefer we understand our health challenges and the steps needed to manage or get past them.

Instead, I think the real problem is how we patients approach our doctors with what we have learned, too often putting stock in misinformation. We arrive in our doctors’ offices with a fistful of computer print outs – information we’ve gleaned from our web searches that may, or may not, be appropriate to our conditions. It’s not that we know too much. It’s that we are curious about points the doctor believes to be wrong or irrelevant.

When the doctor finds us in the exam room with that stack of printed pages, whether or not he realizes it, he may become defensive. He may even be insulted. He has spent years getting an education and amassing experience. Before him sits a patient who thinks she is knowledgeable because she spent an hour on the Internet.

Further, it’s not that he believes his patient knows too much. It’s that appointment times are short, and he knows she will have a litany of questions about her findings, many of which do not apply to her diagnosis or symptoms, and some of which are false information.

But we empowered patients do have questions! We constantly find information we want to discuss. So what should we do instead?

Begin by making sure the information you find is credible and reliable. Here are some guidelines: http://bit.ly/CredibleHealthInfo.  When you find possibly useful information you would like to discuss with your doctor, prepare some notes and questions to take to your next appointment. Then leave the print-outs at home.

During your appointment, ask, “Doctor, what do you know about X?”  You’ll be asking for his expertise, not putting him on the defensive.

Patients cannot possibly know too much. But they can certainly come across as if they do. Don’t let that approach come between you and your doctor.

……………… ADDITIONAL RESOURCES ON THIS TOPIC ………………

How to Verify Credible Health Information

Sharing Internet Health Information With Your Doctor

Use Blogs and Wikis to Find Health Information

Government Health Websites

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Want More Patient Empowerment?
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…and…
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