Thursday, September 11, 2014

More ratings—this time it's residency programs

Can you really decide which surgical residency program is right for you using Doximity's Residency Navigator?

I don't think so, and here's why.

The rankings of residency programs were obtained by surveying surgeon members of Doximity. They were asked name the five top programs for clinical surgery training. When the survey was announced in June, I predicted that most respondents would probably overlook the word "clinical" and focus on the usual famous academic institutions.

I also pointed out that anyone not intimately familiar with a program would be unable to judge whether it is good or not and suggested that reputation would be the main driver of results.

In fact, that is exactly what happened. Of the top 40 programs listed, all are based at university hospitals, as are 66 of the top 70. Back in June, I speculated about the top five programs and got the first two correct but in the wrong order.

A 2012 survey of surgical residents with over 4200 responders (an 80% response rate) found that community hospital trainees were significantly more satisfied with their operative experience and less likely to worry about practicing independently after graduation. Wouldn't you then expect a few community hospital programs to be among the top 40 hospitals for clinical surgery training?

Proof that the survey's findings are not reliable is that every one of the 253 surgical residency programs in the country was mentioned by one or more of those who responded. This included one program that has been terminated by the Residency Review Committee for Surgery. At least it appears near the bottom of the list.

The number of voters who cited the lower ranking programs must have been very few, meaning the difference between the 200th and 240th program ranks is probably not statistically significant.

Some programs that were rated are so new that very few or no residents have graduated yet. How could anyone know if they are turning out competent clinical surgeons?

Board passage rates for programs, which are available online, were omitted for some and were not clearly identified as the percentage of residents who passed both parts of the boards on the first attempt only.

The percentile rankings of alumni peer-reviewed articles, grants, and clinical trials are displayed prominently. What do those data have to do with the research question—which residency programs "offer the best clinical training"?

So what's the bottom line?

You can put the Doximity Resident Navigator in with the other misleading ratings of hospitals and doctors. Applicants considering surgical residencies should not rely on it for guidance.

It has warmed the hearts of faculty and residents at highly rated programs, but I wonder how the OR lounge discussions are going at places where programs ranked lower than expected.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

From the trenches: More about grit

The following was compiled from two comments on my recent post about grit written by a doctor who calls himself "Geronimo." It is reproduced with permission.

Grit cannot be assessed by a survey. I wholly agree. As a military physician, my firmly founded opinion is that grit is essential to the practice of medicine. Grit is the elusive characteristic that carries the clinician through the challenges that exceed ordinary capabilities. You cite a paper that argues for surgical training to borrow aspects of SEAL training. I applaud any measure that would allow senior faculty and program directors to unilaterally shape their residents’ training, whether or not it bears any resemblance to the rigors of BUD/S [Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training].

The 2011 loss of 30-hour call for medical students and interns was a fatal blow to residency training, in my estimation. I count myself fortunate for having a 30 hour call internship before embarking on my operational career. While downrange, it is not at all uncommon to be woken at inconvenient hours of the night to tend to the wounds of war. If you don’t know how you function cognitively, physically, psychologically, and emotionally while sleep deprived, exhausted, hungry, cold, and pissed off, you’re behind the curve. While it isn’t any fun to work in such a state, or to work with people so challenged, it is decidedly less fun to be a patient expiring for want of any medical provider, let alone a tired one. American medicine used to be in such a place in the not so recent past, to hear the story told by my forbearers.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Chance can turn a surgeon into a killer

Risk-adjusted 30- to 90-day outcome data for selected types of operations done by specific surgeons and hospitals are now being publicly posted online by England's National Health Service.

According to the site, "Any hospital or consultant [attending surgeon in the UK] identified as an outlier will be investigated and action taken to improve data quality and/or patient care."

After cardiac surgery outcomes data were made public in New York, some interesting unexpected consequences were noted.

Surgeons and hospitals resorted to "gaming the system" by declining to operate on patients who were high-risk and tinkering with patient charts to make those they did operate on seem sicker. This can be done by scouring the charts for all co-morbidities and making sure none are overlooked when they are coded. An article from New York Magazine explains it in more detail.

Interpreting outcomes data can be tricky.

In a post three years ago about a report that nine Maryland hospitals had higher-than-average complication rates, I pointed out that whenever you have averages, some hospitals are going to be worse than average unless all hospitals perform exactly the same way or, like medical students, are all above average.

A much more sophisticated way of looking at this subject appeared in a fascinating 2010 BBC News piece by Michael Blastland, who is the Nate Silver of England [or maybe Nate Silver is the Michael Blastland of the US], called "Can chance make you a killer?"

Blastland set up a statistical chance calculator for a hypothetical set of 100 hospitals or 100 surgeons performing 100 operations each. The model assumes that every patient has the same chance of dying and that every surgeon is equally competent. The standard is that a mortality rate 60% worse than the norm set by the government for any hospital or surgeon is not acceptable.

You are assigned one hospital. Using a slider, you may choose an operative mortality rate anywhere from 1% to 15%. After you do this a number of times and recalculate for each mortality rate, you will notice that the number of unacceptably performing hospitals or surgeons changes randomly for each percent mortality and your hospital may appear in the underperforming group strictly by chance alone.

The whole concept is explained in more detail on the site. I encourage you to try it for yourself. The link is here.

So it may be difficult for the NHS to separate the true outliers from the unlucky surgeons who happened to fall outside the established norms.

What do you think about this?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Health Care and the $20,000 Bruise: A different take

Twitter is buzzing about yet another medical billing horror story. This one appeared in the Wall Street Journal and was written by Eric Michael David who is an MD PhD JD and an officer at a biotech company.

He saw a large, swollen bruise on his three-year-old son's head several days after falling off his scooter. Other than the bruise, no other abnormalities were mentioned. He took the boy to "one of the top pediatric emergency rooms in the country" to have a CT scan done. It showed "a small, 11-day-old bleed inside his head, which was healing, and insignificant."

Dr. David received a bill for $20,000, $17,000 of which had been paid by his insurance company. He was responsible for the remaining $3000.

He noted a $10,000 charge for a trauma team activation which he said never happened. After a lengthy series of exchanges with the hospital's billing department and Dr. David having to prove that a trauma team activation was unwarranted and not permitted by certain regulations, he was able to have the charge rescinded.

The essay went on for some 1200 words listing the steps that he went through. He correctly described what a mess American healthcare delivery is and why as long as overuse and upcoding are rewarded, the Affordable Care Act will not fix it.

Dr. David was right to contest the $10,000 charge for a trauma team activation that wasn't indicated and didn't even occur.

What he didn't address was this.

Why would a doctor who said that he had "served on trauma teams in two of the busiest hospitals in New York City" feel the need to take his apparently asymptomatic son with an 11-day-old injury to an emergency room for a CT scan?

Doesn't this imply overuse of a different type?

Secondary questions:

Did anyone bring up the issue of radiation from the CT scan?
Did the docs in the ED think a CT scan was necessary?
"Inside his head" is a rather odd phrase. Does it mean intracranial? Intracerebral?
Was "one of the top pediatric emergency rooms in the country" the only option or could this asymptomatic boy have been seen in a doctor's office?
Why is the charge for a trauma team activation $10,000?

Improving the M&M conference

"Surgical pathology works more than 80 hours per week, has no regard for your gender or your life situation, and can be devious and sneaky in its presentation."

The following is a guest post by Dr. Leo Gordon, a surgeon from Los Angeles.

A recent paper in Annals of Surgery found that 24% of graduating surgical residents "were unable to recognize early signs of complications." One possible solution is a redesign of the morbidity and mortality (M&M) conference .

I have spent a significant part of my professional life in an effort—at this point it is a crusade—to change the nature of the M&M conference. For 11 years, I moderated 495 conferences, 1485 presentations, and 30 written examinations based on the error and complication-reducing points raised during the discussions.

If properly implemented, a redesigned M&M conference can satisfy the ACGME core competencies, the suggestions of the Institute of Medicine, and the public's demand for a reduction in medical errors.

What I have dubbed the "M&M Matrix" converts the weekly conference into a vibrant educational effort and creates a constantly updated patient safety curriculum for the resident and attending staff.

If the M&M Matrix is such a valuable idea, why hasn’t it been widely adopted?

Here are the reasons:

Friday, August 29, 2014

Pain is not the "5th vital sign"

No, contrary to what you may  have heard, pain is not the 5th vital sign. It's not a sign at all.

Vital signs are the following: heart rate; blood pressure; respiratory rate; temperature.

What do those four signs have in common?

They can be measured.

A sign is defined as something that can be measured. On the other hand, pain is subjective. It can be felt by a patient. Despite efforts to quantify it with numbers and scales using smiley and frown faces, it is highly subjective. Pain is a symptom. Pain is not a vital sign, nor is it a disease.

How did pain come to be known as the 5th vital sign?

The concept originated in the VA hospital system in the late 1990s and became a Joint Commission standard in 2001 because pain was allegedly being undertreated. Hospitals were forced to emphasize the assessment of pain for all patients on every shift with the (mistaken) idea that all pain must be closely monitored and treated .

This is based on the (mistaken) idea that pain medication is capable of rendering patients completely pain free. This has now become an expectation of many patients who are incredulous and disappointed when that expectation is not met.

Talk about unintended consequences. The emphasis on pain, pain, pain has resulted in the following.

Diseases have been discovered that have no signs with pain as the only symptom.

Pain management clinics have sprung up all over the place.

People are dying. In 2010, 16,665 people died from opioid-related overdoses, a four-fold increase from 1999 when only 4,030 such deaths occurred. And the number of opioid prescriptions written has doubled from 109 million in 1998 to 219 million in 2011.

Meanwhile in the 10 years from 2000 to 2010, the population of the US increased by less than 10% from 281 million to 308 million.

Doctors are caught in the middle. If we don't alleviate pain, we are criticized. If we believe what patients tell us—that they are having uncontrolled severe pain—and we prescribe opioids, we can be sanctioned by a state medical board or even arrested and tried.

Some states now have websites where a doctor can search to see if a patient has been "doctor shopping." I once saw a patient with abdominal pain in an emergency room. After looking up her history on the prescription drug website, I noted that she had received 240 Vicodin tablets from various doctors in the four weeks preceding her visit.

That's a lot of Vicodin, not to mention a toxic amount of acetaminophen if she had taken them all herself during that month.

What is the solution to this problem?

I don't know, but as long as pain is touted as the fifth vital sign, I do not see it getting any better.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The solo general surgeon is a dying breed. What is next?

This is a guest post by Dr. Paul A. Ruggieri, a general surgeon in Fall River, MA and author of a new book “The Cost of Cutting: A Surgeon Reveals the Truth Behind a Multibillion-Dollar Industry.”

A potential casualty of employment in a hospital system may be the ability to openly disagree with the organization. Will surgeons, as highly paid employees, be confident enough to speak up against hospital policies affecting patient care without worrying about corporate retaliation? Will employed surgeons be able to speak out against hospital cost-cutting measures that infringe on patient care without being labeled whistleblowers or troublemakers? Can they voice their displeasure without worrying about the security of their job? If you are branded “not a team player,” referrals may dry up. Or, you may suddenly be “asked” to take more emergency room call. You may also be asked to travel farther to see patients and generate surgical business in another town. You may be replaced. You could end up as a surgeon without a practice. If let go, you may discover that the clause in your contract prohibiting you from practicing within the area drives you out of town.

Will employed surgeons be able to openly highlight waste and fraud without fear of losing their jobs? As highly paid employees, surgeons risk much if they criticize the organization that employs them, even when the intent is improved patient care. Knowing the economic stakes of speaking against the corporate team, I suspect many may choose to be silent.