Atul Gawande, MD is one of my favorite authors, and I’m currently working my way through his book “Being Mortal,” which discusses how we handle aging and infirmity in the United States. It is particularly relevant for me, since my family is dealing with some issues involving elderly relatives, and I know I discuss some of the book’s topics every time a child brings an elderly parent into the urgent care after a fall or some other type of accident. I was glad to see him featured on Freakonomics Radio addressing the “freaking mess” that is our so-called healthcare system.
When many of us think of the mess of the system, we think about the cost disparities, access disparities, and the regulatory burdens. Gawande cites challenges with the time it takes for good ideas to take hold in medicine, largely because of delays between the obvious or immediate impact of change and the delayed effects that may be difficult to see. He uses the examples of anesthesia and antisepsis in the 1800s as examples. Anesthesia was rapidly adopted, where antisepsis through hand washing and disinfection of medical equipment took significantly more time. Gawande attributes this difference to the obvious benefit of anesthesia as opposed to the somewhat invisible impact of disinfection. There were also cultural changes associated with antisepsis in the surgical realm that took time to resolve. He goes further to discuss the release of the drug Viagra, which had immediate impact on patients and was widely prescribed in short order. However, surgery checklists have been “harder to sell” because they represent an investment of time to prevent “problems which are often not immediately visible to people.”
Gawande talks about a conversation with a Cheesecake Factory manager about how to approach the healthcare industry as far as quality control, cost control, and innovation. The approach involves breaking down processes and standardizing them, along with figuring out what the best-performing organizations are doing and translating that into a “recipe” that can be used by many organizations. He talks about the problems he has to solve as a surgeon, including arranging care for uninsured patients, having to skirt around information that patients don’t want shared with their families, and working with patients who have high-deductible or narrow network health insurance plans that add layers of difficulty for patients. He does note that in his Boston practice, he rarely sees uninsured patients due to the universal coverage provisions in Massachusetts that preceded the Affordable Care Act. Despite being covered, however, patients with high deductibles might be skipping medications that control chronic conditions. He writes, “It’s been dramatic to me to see people who now have deductibles in the thousands of dollars routinely making decisions – you can see people are not filling their high blood pressure medication, and they’re not taking their statins for cholesterol control, and things like that that have long-term consequences, but on a day-to-day basis don’t feel any different.”
I enjoyed reading his comments on the intersection of politics and healthcare. He notes the disconnects between academic knowledge on issues and the questions that politicians are trying to answer: “Often people are trying to come to experts for technical answers to questions that don’t have a technical answer.”
Regarding the Affordable Care Act, “people fundamentally disagree on what the goal of the healthcare coverage is. Is it to free up a trillion dollars for tax reform? Is it to secure universal coverage for all? Is it to cut costs? You can’t take a trillion dollars out of the healthcare system and make healthcare better at the same time and increase coverage in a short time frame.”
He discusses the challenge of taking academic knowledge and applying it to actual care delivery, noting “We’re drowning in the complexity of the knowledge that’s been discovered over the last century.” I remember talking to a senior physician during medical school, who had been in practice probably close to 50 years. He told us that when he graduated from medical school, there were two antibiotics – penicillin and streptomycin. I think of him every year when I purchase my updated “Pocket Pharmacopoeia” reference and it continues to grow in size even despite shrinking print. Physicians are trying to not only make sense of new treatments, but to figure out how to deliver them in a cost-effective way that is also clinically effective. Yet, Gawande goes on to mention that one of the basic problems we’re dealing with is high blood pressure. Many of the medications are inexpensive, but the follow through and execution of treatment have significant opportunities for improvement.
The interview asks Gawande’s thoughts on the need to address healthcare fragmentation and the misalignment of incentives. He responds that a technical improvement like a better computer system isn’t going to fix fragmentation, and sees the tying of healthcare coverage to employment as one of the major problems in healthcare today. He cites data that when one looks at job growth over the last decade, more than 90 percent of new jobs don’t have healthcare benefits tied to them – contract work, freelancers, temporary workers, etc. He states that having “a regular source of care over time, over years” leads to better outcomes at five years. Those of us in the primary care trenches knew this to be anecdotally true, because as we got to know our patients, we were able to better strategize with them around their health and their willingness to change to healthier behaviors and better compliance with recommendations. When I was in the family medicine trenches, however, the average patient stayed with me only two or three years due to insurance changes, which hampered the development of those relationships. Fast-forward a decade and patients want even more convenience, preferring to visit a retail clinic, urgent care center, or telemedicine provider rather than wait weeks for an appointment with a primary care physician. Gawande also notes that high deductible plans often lead patients to “sacrifice” primary care, changing the playing field for preventive medicine and long-term cost savings.
Regarding healthcare informatics, Gawande calls our current state “the MS-DOS phase of computerization and healthcare.” He mentions that systems are great for billing but challenging for recording clinical data such as allergies: “We’re at the stage where it’s ripe for the Apple of healthcare to come knock the C-prompt out.” He goes further to say we need to move from being “cowboys delivering the care” to “pit crews” with teams of physicians, nurses, social workers, and health coaches caring for patients by “dividing and conquering and communicating,” but states we only take that approach a small part of the time.
Gawande also talks about being a writer, which resonated with me. He notes that physician writers have “this daily exposure to the human experience” that other writers don’t have, including exposure to money, technical challenges, family dynamics, and more. He states, “I feel like I would have totally burned out on my medical-practice work if I were only in the trenches and not able to lift my head up and see what’s really going on.” I understand where he’s coming from – some days as I watch organizations swirl around and people struggle with new mandates and requirements, it’s only when I sit down to organize my thoughts to write HIStalk that things start to become clear about how I need to advise physicians or care teams.
He also comments on juggling his clinical work with his public health work and his writing, saying “every day is a problem to solve” on how he sorts out his various priorities including to “make sure I get enough sleep most of the time.” I totally get that – often I’m writing at midnight or into the wee hours of the morning, or stealing scraps of time in between conference calls and meetings.
Gawande doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but he does provide ample food for thought that should be consumed by healthcare policymakers and financiers. How can we better tackle the “freaking mess” that is healthcare today? Leave a comment or email me.
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