March 30 marked Doctors’ Day in the US. The date was selected in honor of the anniversary of the first use of general anesthesia in the US, when Dr. Crawford Long used ether prior to a tumor surgery. The US formalized the date in 1990, when President Bush signed a joint resolution created by the 101st US Congress. My practice did nothing to celebrate, so I marked it on my own by scrolling through some photos of my physician exploits. By far one of my most challenging (and rewarding) experiences as a physician was staffing the 24th World Scout Jamboree in 2019. I never thought I would be practicing in a tent, but it was an experience I’ll never forget.
This week also included the ONC 2021 Annual Meeting. I initially had high hopes of making a number of the sessions, but was quickly sidelined as I had to put out some fires with my clients. I was able to catch bits and pieces of some of the presentations but will have to use the on-demand recordings to see the rest of the ones that were on my must-see list. From the sessions I made it to, predictable themes included the use of health IT in the COVID-19 response and interoperability. Major pushes for the former include a basic FHIR approach for vaccine scheduling that could make it easier for patients to find vaccine compared to the “Hunger Games” approach that many patients are experiencing as they compete for scarce spots.
National Coordinator Micky Tripathi credited the health IT industry with making progress on interoperability. He also noted that ONC is helping the White House with plans for vaccine passports. There was also discussion of how health information exchanges fit within the context of nationwide health networks such as the CommonWell Health Alliance. The meeting had over 2,000 attendees in an all-virtual environment and I heard mention of several post-meeting happy hours and get-togethers, also virtual.
I did a little bit of traveling last week. Even though it was a mid-week trip, my overall impression was one of very few business travelers and mostly leisure travelers, despite the CDC’s recommendation against leisure travel. Fewer seasoned business travelers makes for a messier boarding and deplaning experience, for sure. Most passengers were well behaved and kept their masks on and I didn’t see any flight attendants having to give people extra warnings. My work took me to New Orleans, where I spotted this great mini-pharmacy kiosk. Since many of the patients I see in urgent care haven’t tried any home remedies before coming in, maybe we need strategies like this to encourage people to try a Tylenol or a Claritin before running to the doctor.
One of my best friends is a surgeon. We have been having ongoing conversations about the role of telehealth in his practice versus mine. A recent JAMA Surgery article reported on a study that showed a rise in new patient visits being conducted via telehealth in surgical subspecialties, at least during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020. The study was conducted in Michigan and found that almost 40% of new patient visits were telehealth-based (compared to 1% pre-pandemic) and decreased as the first peak of the pandemic began to subside.
My last visit to a surgeon could definitely have occurred via telehealth since the physical examination performed was cursory at best and added nothing to the case, other than forcing me to sit for 20 minutes waiting in an awful pink gown that was four sizes too big. As a patient just seeking a second opinion about my MRI and ultrasound results, I could have avoided the hour-long round-trip commute, dealing with the parking garage, and taking more time off work than I wanted to.
Speaking of that visit, it also included some genetic testing, and I was a bit surprised at how the process went compared to previous testing I had done in 2017. The practice didn’t give me any kind of anticipatory guidance on what to expect other than to tell me that results would be back in two weeks (which actually took three). A few days after I had my blood drawn, I received a text from the lab vendor offering me a preliminary cost estimate for my labs, which the surgeon had told me verbally would be fully covered by my insurance. When I followed the link, I had to verify some basic demographic information, then was taken to a page that told me it actually couldn’t give me the estimate due to insurance issues.
When the results were available, I received a MyChart message rather than a phone call from the physician, who claimed that they had a wrong number in the chart and therefore couldn’t reach me. After confirming that every single phone field in Epic has my cell number, I wondered if she even tried to redial after reaching someone else. The message let me know my results were “fine” except for a mutation I already knew I had, and she told me to make sure I’m getting colonoscopies, which I already do, and which she should know since we discussed both the mutation and my recent scope at the visit.
All of that data should be in the EHR from previous visits, so I was left with the impression that she wasn’t fully contemplating my case when she sent the results. Since the outside labs can’t be displayed in MyChart, I’m still waiting for a paper copy of them to be sent to my home. After a previous medical misadventure when the ordering provider missed an abnormal result and told me results were “fine,” I’m not closing the book on this one until I have the paper copy in hand. Just when I think healthcare can’t get any more disorganized or that I can’t have yet one more less-than-optimal patient experience, I continue to be surprised.
Also in the journals this week was a paper on “Factors associated with opting out of automated text and telephone messages among adult members of an integrated health care system.” The authors looked specifically at the volume of messages as a predictor of opting out. They found that patients who received 10 or more text messages or two or more interactive voice response messages were more likely to opt out of receiving future messages. As anyone who has ever opted out of a consumer loyalty program knows, text fatigue is real. Healthcare providers should consider message volumes carefully and make sure they’re balancing what they send with the desired outcomes.
Back to telehealth, a recent piece discussed the realities of telehealth contacts and the things physicians observe in that context. Physicians are able to observe clues from the home environment or interact with families in ways they haven’t been able to previously, sometimes leading to more effective care. I’ve certainly seen some eye-opening situations during telehealth interactions, but as part of a nationwide telehealth-only organization, have even less ability to intervene than I might if I was a traditional primary care physician performing telehealth visits with my own patients. My organization doesn’t have the ability to connect patients with social services or home health referrals, so usually we end up referring patients to brick-and-mortar providers in a process that can take months if the patient doesn’t already have a PCP. We’ll see if payers continue to cover telehealth services as the pandemic dynamics change. Everyone is concerned about the potential for fraud, so we’ll just have to see how things go.
What’s your prediction for the ongoing availability of telehealth services? Leave a comment or email me.
Email Dr. Jayne.