Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The quest for medical error transparency suffers setbacks

Two recent articles in American Medical News highlight the difficulties in moving toward a blameless culture in medicine.

First we have the results of an Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality survey of 600,000 staff from over 1100 hospitals. Half of them “believe their mistakes are held against them, and 54% said that when an adverse event is reported, ‘it feels like the person is being written up, not the problem.’" And two-thirds are concerned that records of errors are maintained in their personnel files. Despite lip service by medical thought leaders, the reported responses have not changed since the last AHRQ survey in 2007.

Much more alarming is the second piece, which involves a family secretly recording a conversation with the chief medical officer [CMO] of an Ohio hospital.

Two days after knee surgery, a man died of cardiac arrest apparently secondary to an overlooked high serum potassium level. Before he died, the patient’s children met with the CMO, who had not personally been caring for the patient. Unaware that the conversation was being recorded, the CMO “made sympathetic and apologetic comments and admitted fault on the part of the hospital for Smith's condition, according to court records.”

The Ohio appellate court ruled that the secret recording was admissible and not protected by peer review privilege, as had been argued by the CMO’s lawyers. They had claimed that the CMO had learned of the error via the peer review process. Ohio law states that as long as one party consents, conversations can be recorded.

Thus we are left with pie-in-the-sky appeals for greater transparency and candor regarding medical errors [the so-called “Just Culture”] vs. a litigious society with stealth technical capabilites and a workplace atmosphere of fear and distrust.

Somehow I do not foresee a major change in the way doctors and hospital staffs approach this issue.

Survey finds med students view primary care and all specialties negatively

In a previous blog, I discussed some of the issues facing primary care. Specifically, I have pointed out that medical students simply do not want to go into primary care as a career. I even facetiously [although some thought I was serious] suggested that the way to lure students into primary care was to not provide them with clerkship experience.

In the January 2012 issue of the journal Family Medicine [full text available here], a survey of medical students’ attitudes toward primary care and specialties reveals some sobering information about primary care and the overall practice of medicine.

At three medical schools, Michigan, Michigan State and Brown, 1533 students were sent surveys during the years 2006-2008, with 983 [64%] responding, an excellent rate of return for a survey. My theory about exposure to primary care may be wrong because third and fourth year students were significantly more inclined to choose primary care as a career than first or second year students. But the overall percentage of students who said they would opt for primary care was only 14.8%. This is consistent with matching program data, which indicate that 14% of US medical graduates match in primary care.

The students had negative opinions about the work life of all physicians, but they were particularly down on primary care. Senior students were more negative about primary care than juniors [maybe my theory about exposing them to a primary care clerkship is right] and more positive about the work life of specialists. Despite the increased negativity of senior students, the clerkship in primary care did not really have much of an impact on the students’ career choices.

The paper has some limitations, most notably that the students were only polled once. It is well-known that many change their minds as they progress through school. Also, this study involved students from only three medical schools.

The authors conclude: “Our learners’ negativity about their future work lives reflects and portends a pessimistic culture of medicine. Student views of primary care work life are particularly negative, but some students indicate an interest in primary care despite negative perceptions.”

The authors feel that to attract more students into primary care, the work life of primary care doctors needs to be improved. However, they did not offer any suggestions on how this could be done. And the website FierceHealthcare reports that the government is trying to lure students into primary care. Other than mentioning a $877,000 grant to The University of Maryland Medical School for development of a “primary care track,” which to me seems somewhat short of innovative, the article does not describe any “lures.” They might have been better off giving the money directly to the students as a bribe.

Of even more concern is that the surveyed students perceived the work life of all physicians, primary care MDs and specialists alike, negatively. As I have stated before, I agree with the authors that the future of medicine is not bright.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The ultimate first-world problem: Twitter is slightly different on the computer, iPad & iPhone

Each platform has some advantages and disadvantages.

The standard computers, both PC and Apple, offer the full keyboard and obviously larger screen. It is easier to grab URLs and shorten links. Computers also include all interactions, not just mentions. But retweeting by copying someone else’s tweet and commenting on it is very cumbersome. The URLs do not copy with the “http://” and even the rest of the URL is omitted unless you copy the entire tweet including name and twitter handle of the tweeter.

The iPad lets you “Retweet” and “Quote Tweet.” Quote tweet reproduces the entire tweet with the full URL. You must delete the quotation marks after the tweet if they are directly next to the URL. But on the iPad, your “Mentions” are just that, mentions in tweets. Retweets of your stuff and other interactions like new followers are not listed. The iPad allows you to write a tweet and save it for later, a feature not available on a PC. But shortening a URL is a project that takes several steps because of the clunky way the iPad copies and pastes.

The iPhone lists all interactions, just like the PC and has “Quote Tweet” just like the iPad. It also permits writing a tweet and saving it for later. This feature is in a menu displayed by clicking “Cancel” instead of “Close” as is the case on the iPad. However like the iPad, the iPhone also makes shortening a URL a big deal.

There are other differences like the way profiles are displayed and direct messages are handled.

Is there some reason why there can’t be uniformity across all the devices?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Surgeons and alcohol use

“Prevalence of alcohol use disorders among American surgeons” appeared in the February, 2012 issue of Archives of Surgery.

A survey of 7197 surgeons, all members of the American College of Surgeons [ACS], had a 28.7% response rate and revealed that 15.4% had scores on an alcohol use assessment test that indicated abuse of or dependence on alcohol. This is consistent with the rate of such alcohol problems in the general public.

Factors significantly associated with alcohol abuse or dependence were age [younger surgeons had more problems], being in a relationship, burnout, depression, fewer hours worked, fewer call nights and not having children [I would have thought otherwise]. Women surgeons had twice the incidence of alcohol abuse or dependence than men, which was statistically significant, p = 0.001.

The most distressing result of this survey is that 77.7% of surgeons who had problems with alcohol said they had committed a major medical error within the three previous months. This is three times more often than those who reported no alcohol problems and statistically significant, p = 0.001.

The survey may not be that accurate because it had such a low response rate. In addition, the ACS had 65,844 members at the time of the survey but only 27,457 had provided the organization with e-mail addresses, 25,073 of which were valid. Although the rate of return of those with valid email addresses was 28.7%, the actual percentage of ACS members responding was 10.9% [7197/65,844]. There are also the usual problems of trying to sort out whether those who responded were more or less likely to have alcohol issues.

My opinion: It is not reassuring that surgeons abuse or are dependent on alcohol at the same rate as everyone else, nor is it acceptable. We should be held to a higher standard. Not one surgeon should take the responsibility of operating on a patient while dependent on alcohol. The rate of medical errors is chilling. Now that we have this information, what is going to be done about it?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Lying to patients: Part II of a two-part series

In Part I, we established that not only do physicians lie to patients; they lie about how frequently they lie to patients. So why do they lie to patients?

Apparently, it’s because they lie about other things too. Two recent papers illustrate the point.

A group from the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston reviewed 243 applications to their gynecologic oncology fellowship and found the following:

Applicants listed over 400 articles published but only 83% of these could be verified. And 30% of applicants who listed published papers had at least one unverifiable paper.

Hard to believe, but male gender was statistically significantly more likely to be associated with the deception.

The results reported in the above paper were remarkably similar to those found with applicants to a general surgery residency program in a paper from 2008.

The authors, from Duke University, looked at almost 500 applications to their program. They found that of 596 publications listed, 33% could not be verified. And of the 150 applicants who listed publications, 33% had one or more unverifiable publications.

In this paper, factors associated with unverifiable publications were older applicants and graduation from a foreign medical school.

If these papers are accurate [Can we believe them or anything else? After all, the two papers were written by doctors.], inflating one’s curriculum vitae is very common.

It is no wonder that doctors lie to patients.

Lying to patients: Part I of a two-part series

A survey just published in Health Affairs found that 20% of the nearly 2000 physician respondents said that “they had not fully disclosed mistakes to patients for fear of being sued” in the past year. When I first heard about this the other day, I tweeted the following, “And 80% lied.”

Now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, I still feel that way. Is it possible that 80% of the surveyed doctors did not make a single mistake over the course of a year? I would guess that many doctors who practice full time would have been likely to have made more than one error that led to significant harm to a patient. Do you think 80% of them owned up to it to the patient or his family?

I don’t think so. As much as it would be nice to live in an ideal world, we don’t. Despite research and assurances to the contrary, most doctors I know are not ready to confess their sins to patients because they do fear lawsuits. And that fear is well-founded. But it is unfortunate because in my limited experience [hard as it is to believe, I’ve made my share of mistakes], patients and families generally do take it well when you admit that you made a mistake and more importantly, say you are sorry.

One bright spot. I’m not surprised at this. The paper said, “General surgeons and pediatricians were most likely to completely agree about needing to disclose all serious medical errors to patients, while cardiologists and psychiatrists were least likely to report this attitude (p < 0:001).”

Having read the entire Health Affairs paper, which is entitled “Survey Shows That At Least Some Physicians Are Not Always Open or Honest with Patients,” I can point out another finding that did not receive enough attention. That is, 89% of physicians said that in the past year they never told a patient something that wasn’t true.

I am equally skeptical of that statement. Think about it. We have many opportunities to lie to patients. Many of them can at least be partially justified. In the so-called “informed consent” discussion, we don’t disclose every possible complication that has ever been associated with a procedure. If we did, no patient would ever consent to anything. What about injecting some local anesthesia and saying, “This won’t hurt. It’s just like a mosquito bite.” There are many more.

Many of the lies we tell patients are not intended to be malicious or deliberately deceiving, but they are still lies in the strict sense of the word. The bigger problem of disclosing errors in an honest and forthright way will happen more often when the punitive culture of medicine changes.

I do not expect to see that happen soon.

Coming up in Part II: Why do physicians lie?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Patient satisfaction and reality

Christmas came early for us skeptics this year. In a landmark study, certainly one of the most interesting and thought-provoking of the year-to-date, researchers from the University of California-Davis found that the more satisfied patients were with their physicians, the higher their hospital admission rates, prescription costs and total costs were. And patients with the highest level of satisfaction with their doctors had higher mortality rates compared to those patients least satisfied with their doctors.

The prospective cohort study included almost 52,000 patients. The full text of the paper can be viewed here. I won’t bore you with the details of how it was done except to say it looks scientifically legitimate.

The study’s authors say, “Patients typically bring expectations to medical encounters, often making specific requests of physicians, and satisfaction correlates with the extent to which physicians fulfill patient expectations. Patient requests have also been shown to have a powerful influence on physician prescribing behavior, and our findings suggest that patient satisfaction may be particularly strongly linked with prescription drug expenditures.”

Translation. What they mean is that doctors who do what their patients want receive higher satisfaction scores. This may also include admitting patients sooner rather than later, which could account for the fact that patients who were more satisfied had lower rates of emergency department visits.

So it seems patient satisfaction may not be the great “quality metric” that it is touted to be. The study concludes, “an overemphasis on patient satisfaction could have unintended adverse effects on health care utilization, expenditures, and outcomes.”

Due to something called "copyright law," I will resist the urge to quote the whole paper. I suggest you read it and judge for yourself.

Monday, February 13, 2012

I received a letter from the FBI

I just received this email from the "FBI." See below. Quite a while ago, I posted a blog offering my writing and editing services to the offshore spammers for only a small percentage of their profits. As you can see, they have yet to accept. 

To their credit, Robert Mueller is indeed the Director of Public Affairs for the FBI. Everything else is not convincing.

The font lacks significant gravitas for an FBI communication. The date is written in European style with the month second. To say the least, the opening sentence of 107 words is a bit awkwardly constructed. Try reading it aloud. The document contains the usual mismatches of singular and plural. The syntax shouts, "I'm not a speaker of American English."

My offer still stands. All they need to do is forward me their credit card and bank account numbers. My logistics agent will take care of the details.

WASHINGTON, D.C. 20535-0001
DATE: 09/02/2012,

This is to officially inform you that it has come to our notice and we have thoroughly completed an investigation with the help of our Intelligence Monitoring Network System that your e-mail address was among the e-mail that won this year UK National lottery award which you did not claim, we want to let you know that one of the bank worker where your fund was deposited arrange with his friend to come as the owner of the e-mail that won the prize which they claim your fund, but now your fund has been recovered from them and the people that claim your fund has been arrested.

If you receive any e-mail that you did not understand that is from unknown person to you please do forward it to us to verify and bring the person to justice.

 We have gone through your Identification record and we have verified a lot of things about you. It has come to the attention of our Money Trafficking investigation department, that you have some funds valued $950,000.00 Pounds on your name, The said payment is awaiting adjudication and we have authorized this winning to be paid to you, this funds are from UK NATIONAL LOTTERY.

Re-confirm,Names,Address,Cell Phone, Phone Number, to avoid double claim of your fund.

Your Immediate response will be an advantage.

Robert Mueller
Public Affairs Director - FBI.

Hyperbaric oxygen, evidence-based medicine and death

A few days ago, a tragedy occurred at a horse rehabilitation center in Florida. A horse said to be receiving hyperbaric oxygen treatment for EPM [equine protozoal myeloencephalitis] and a 28-year-old woman who worked at the farm were killed when the chamber exploded. Another woman was injured in the blast which destroyed the facility. The horse apparently became agitated and kicked off a protective horseshoe cover. A spark from the shoe ignited the explosion. Debris from the blast covered a 1200 square foot area.

Could this accident have been prevented? Some accounts pointed out that the horse should have been outfitted with aluminum shoes, which would not have caused a spark. Two workers did not reach an emergency shut-off valve in time. But what was the real cause?

For many years, people who have hyperbaric chambers have been looking for things to do with them. There is no doubt that hyperbaric oxygen is a very effective treatment for decompression sickness in scuba divers. Other than that, there is no proof in humans or animals that hyperbaric oxygen is effective in any medical illness. Two recent Cochrane reviews have found no evidence to support its use in the most commonly cited medical conditions for which it is always proposed, carbon monoxide poisoning and wounds. Both reviews call for randomized controlled trials.

A thorough search for evidence that hyperbaric oxygen works in equine neurologic diseases or wounds revealed only anecdotes. Websites devoted to the diagnosis and treatment of EPM do not mention the use of hyperbaric oxygen. There are many animal hyperbaric chambers in the United States.

I realize that all treatments need not be evidence-based. I don’t need a randomized controlled trial to prove to me that aspirin cures headaches.

But for a woman and a horse to die during a dangerous and completely speculative treatment is a truly preventable tragedy.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Washington State Medicaid will no longer pay for “unnecessary” ED visits

By now you must have heard the news that as of April 1, Medicaid in Washington State will no longer reimburse hospitals for care of what Medicaid deems unnecessary ED visits. [The Seattle Times report is here.] The problem, of course, is that many times the perceived lack of necessity can only be determined after the patient has been worked up. Even a patient brought in by ambulance will not be covered if it turns out that his illness is not a true emergency as defined by the rules. And hospitals will not be allowed to bill the patients. The unnecessary visits list includes illnesses like hypoglycemic coma and asthma attacks. Unstable vital signs do not matter if the visit is eventually found to be unnecessary.

Hospitals and ED docs in Washington have vociferously objected to this patently stupid plan but so far the state’s Medicaid boss [a doctor] is standing firm.

In addition to the obvious problem of not knowing whether a patient is sick or not before he is examined, what is an ED doc supposed to do if an ambulance brings in a Medicaid patient with a cold? Should the patient be refused entry into the ED?

That probably would not be wise because of a federal law known as EMTALA [Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act]. From the website “EMTALA requires most hospitals to provide an examination and needed stabilizing treatment, without consideration of insurance coverage or ability to pay, when a patient presents to an emergency room for attention to an emergency medical condition.”

What happens if EMTALA is violated? “A hospital which negligently violates the statute may be subject to a civil money penalty (i.e., a fine, but without criminal implications) of up to $50,000 per violation. If the hospital has fewer than 100 beds, the maximum penalty is $25,000 per violation.”

Anyone who works in a hospital knows that EDs are being inundated with patients who don’t really have emergencies, but shifting the blame and cost to the hospitals and EDs is not the answer.

Like many issues today, personal responsibility is no longer expected or required. The Medicaid card is the “everything” card. Get one and you’re all set. I worked in a city hospital for several years. The Medicaid patients had absolutely no interest in controlling costs. They knew that if they went to an ED, they had to be examined and treated.

Assuming that there are enough primary care doctors, accountable care organizations or “medical homes” in the State of Washington to accommodate the no longer ED-bound Medicaid population [a factor that apparently no one has brought up], wouldn’t it make more sense to shift the responsibility of deciding whether they should go to an ED to the patients themselves?

But that would require some restrictions on the “everything” card. I doubt that any politician or bureaucrat would have the balls to even suggest, much less implement, such a policy.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Finally, an internist discovers some pitfalls of the ACGME work hours restrictions

In a blog post, noted patient safety expert and hospitalist movement founder Bob Wachter discussed some new realities in resident education as a result of the recent [July, 2011] ratcheting down of resident work hours by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education [ACGME]. While applauding the more humane conditions under which residents now labor, he noticed disturbing changes in the way residents are being trained. The issues he raised have been well-known to surgical educators since the institution of the 80-hour work week in 2003.

He unknowingly agreed with something I wrote recently about today’s residents lacking opportunities to function independently, which leads them to worry about their competence after graduation. Wachter wrote: “Learning from one’s mistakes is fundamentally unethical when you have a human life in your hands. But an environment in which the housestaff are trained to read the attending’s body language before making a tough call can’t be right either, particularly when our third-year residents morph from resident to attending on June 30th each year.”

Continuity of care is another issue. Wachter: “A second worry is the relative dearth of patients being followed by a single resident from admission to denouement. Our teams inherited nearly half their patients as handoffs from night admitters.”

He stated the problem very well. “So many emergency admissions traverse a trajectory in which an early assessment is followed by a period of data gathering (tests, consults), followed by an initial patient response, which is evaluated in context. In a system in which half the patients are cared for by two sets of doctors during these crucial stages, neither group fully sees this arc play out, and their education suffers.”

And regarding hand-offs. “While some trainees forced themselves to rethink their patients’ problems and actively ward off anchoring bias, others didn’t, accepting what they were told as gospel and never coming to know the handed-off patients as well as those they admitted themselves.” This happens a lot more often than most people think.

He wondered how this fragmentation of care could be ameliorated but did not offer any solutions. Fragmentation of care during resident training will at least prepare internal medicine residents to become hospitalists, since lack of continuity permeates most hospitalist services that I am aware of.

Wachter has also just noticed that formal educational conferences are another casualty of the time limitations. He said: “The other thing that worries me about the new schedules is the palpably limited time available for education. In the 16 days I spent as attending in January, I recall only two in which the entire team was available for our traditional hour-long teaching rounds.” Bob, this has been a significant problem since 2003. It didn’t start last July. There is no such thing as an afternoon educational conference any more.

It’s nice to know that someone else is at least concerned about this. Neither Wachter nor I have any answers. I will just echo what many doctors of my generation are saying. We hope we still can figure out who the good MDs are by the time we need care for ourselves.

Thanks to Susan Carr for tweeting a link to Dr. Wachter’s blog.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

More on “Publish or Perish”

Bonus: What is a receiver operating characteristic (ROC) curve and how do you interpret it?

God knows I’ve written and managed to get published some downright awful research papers in my time. I was driven by the same forces that are at work today. “Publish or Perish” was very real for me as I needed to grind out papers to keep my general surgery residency from going on probation for inadequate “scholarly activity” as the Surgery Residency Review Committee (RRC) put it. [See previous blog]

A friend alerted me to a paper just published in Academic Emergency Medicine entitled “Diagnostic characteristics of S100A8/A9 in a multicenter study of patients with acute right lower quadrant abdominal pain.” This project took a lot of effort, and I respect the authors for that. And I am not opposed to the publishing of research that produces negative findings. But since no one at present is even considering using S100A8/A9 in the diagnosis of appendicitis and other biomarkers have not proven useful, I am not certain this needed to see the light of day.

Levels of a biomarker called S100A8/A9 [alias calprotectin] have been shown to rise in the presence of acute inflammation. The paper is a prospective, randomized, double-blinded multi-center trial investigating the utility of S100A8/A9 in the diagnosis of acute appendicitis, a disease that produces inflammation. Patients with right lower abdominal pain and suspected appendicitis had blood samples drawn. They were then sent to a central lab for measurement of S100A8/A9. The time it took to do this precluded the use of the results of the test for any decision-making. Presumably if the test was deemed useful, it would become part of every hospital’s on-site clinical lab.

The S100A8/A9 test was performed on blood from 848 eligible patients. When levels were elevated, it was found to be highly sensitive [It identified 96% of patients who had appendicitis] but poorly specific at 16% [That is, 16% of patients without appendicitis had normal S100A8/A9 levels; In other words, 84% of patients without appendicitis had elevated levels of S100A8/A9.] The area under the ROC curve was 0.66.

What does that mean? It means that the test’s accuracy approached 0.50, or 50%, the accuracy of flipping a coin. A very simple explanation of ROC curves can be found at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s website. It points out that a diagnostic test with an area under the ROC curve of 0.66 would be considered poor.

The figure below is based on one from that site. The red line is the curve from the S100A8/A9 paper. The 50% line is illustrated in green. The S100A8/A9 blood test is not likely to replace CT scanning as the diagnostic test of choice in patients with right lower quadrant abdominal pain.

Despite these dismal results, the authors are undaunted and are planning more studies on this biomarker.

There’s a “Publish or Perish” situation in emergency medicine too. Here are three excerpts from the RRC for EM regulations:

1. There must be a minimum of one core physician faculty member for every three residents in the program.
2. The definition of a core physician faculty member is a member of the program faculty who provides clinical service and teaching, devotes the majority of his or her professional efforts to the program, and has sufficient time protected from direct service responsibilities to meet the educational requirements of the program. To this end, core faculty should not average more than 28 clinical hours per week.
[Emphasis added. Unfortunately, this sweet deal is NOT found in the RRC for surgery regulations.]
3. The faculty must establish and maintain an environment of inquiry and scholarship with an active research component. [Translation: “Publish or Perish”]

So now you know why this research was done. It was published because there are so many journals that need to be fed. The Thomson Reuters SCIENCE CITATION INDEX lists 19 journals devoted to the topic of human emergency medicine. [See the last two paragraphs of a previous blog of mine about this.]

At least it provided an opportunity to say something about ROC curves.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Study: Robotic surgery financials explained

I thought I had seen the worst of robotic surgery research but the January 2012 issue of Surgery News, billed as “The Official Newspaper of the American College of Surgeons,” contains an article about a paper that surpasses all the rest. It can be found on page 17 here.

The paper was presented at the annual meeting of the American Association of Gynecologic Laparoscopists by a group from the Florida Hospital in Orlando.

The headline, “Robotic Hysterectomy Cuts Blood Loss in Obese,” is certainly catchy. Let’s look deeper. The study was a retrospective comparison of 111 patients who had robotic hysterectomy to 152 who had standard laparoscopic hysterectomy. All women had BMIs greater than 30. The robotic group had an average estimated blood loss of 85 cc versus 210 cc in the laparoscopic group. Sounds good, right? However, the difference in blood loss of only 125 cc [about 1/4 of a unit of blood] is hardly clinically significant. This was confirmed by the study’s own data. Average postop hemoglobin levels were 13.1 g/dL and 12.5 g/dL respectively.

There were also fewer conversions to open surgery in the robotic group. Duration of both types of operation was similar but does not take into account the lengthy set-up time, often as long as one hour, that robotic surgery entails.

The problem with any retrospective study is that confounding factors may not have been accounted for. It is likely that the women chosen for the robotic surgery were highly selected for suitability. We know nothing about either group’s co-morbidities, previous operations, uterine pathologies [e.g., cancer or not] or other possible factors influencing outcomes.

Here is the most interesting part of the report. The lead author said, “The robotic hysterectomy does … offer lower rates of conversion to laparotomy but does cause higher facility and total charges, as well as higher reimbursement rates.” The mean total hospital charge for robotic hysterectomy was $44,700 versus $25,557, a statistically significant difference. The average charge for the robotic instruments was $8,322 compared to $3,762 for standard laparoscopy equipment, also a significant difference. In response to a question about why there was such a disparity, the lead author said: “The charges are likely to recoup the cost of the robot purchase. We have multiple robots … four at our main institution and several others at other sites.”

The reimbursement actually received for robotic hysterectomy was $19,000 and for standard laparoscopic, a mere $$8,000.

I congratulate the authors for their candor [though no doubt inadvertent] in sharing the financial data and the reasons why robotic surgery is more costly. I am gobsmacked* at the differential in charges and reimbursement for the two types of hysterectomy and that the secret would be so openly shared.

I guess someone has to help the hospital “recoup the cost of the robot purchase.” But I wonder why third party payers are shelling out almost two-and-a half times more money for a procedure that has not been proven more effective than standard laparoscopic surgery?

And you wonder why health care costs are skyrocketing?

*gobsmacked-UK slang for astonished

Friday, February 3, 2012

Why robotic cholecystectomy may not become the standard way to remove a gallbladder

I have written in the past about robotic surgery pointing out that there is no proof that it is better than regular laparoscopic surgery.[Here and here]

Some think I am a Luddite. Other asked if I remembered all the naysayers 20 years ago who said that laparoscopic surgery was unnecessary. The answer is “Yes, but this is different.”

Here is why robotic cholecystectomy may not be the standard of care in the future.

Yesterday, a former resident of mine asked me if I thought he would be excluded from performing gallbladder surgery if he did not take a course in robotic surgery. I said I didn’t think so but since this thing is being marketed so heavily, it may become consumer-driven. He then told me that the hospital where he works has only one robot.

The lights came on.

There are about 700,000 cholecystectomies done in the US every year. How many robots would have to be purchased at $1.5M apiece to accommodate the volume? General surgeons would also be competing for use of the robot with gynecologists, urologists and colorectal surgeons, to name a few.

Will it be practical for busy hospitals to buy three or four robots? Are there more important things to spend health care dollars on? I think so.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Cheating, written board exams and “recall” questions

CNN "Exclusive: Doctors cheated on exams"

A recent dust-up about radiology residents accessing and memorizing questions from previous board examinations generated 1361 comments on CNN alone from physicians and others. Many more people took to Twitter and vented. Some said it wasn’t really cheating because the test-takers had to memorize the answers. Some said the radiology boards didn’t really sort out who was going to be a good radiologist anyway. Some said the questions were on non-clinical topics like physics. Some were highly indignant that such a thing could happen. I saw many comments suggesting the board simply write a new test every year.

The stockpiling of "recall" questions by residents and programs goes on in all specialties. I know it does in surgery.

It would be difficult to create a completely new written exam every year. For several reasons, that is not a practical solution.

My understanding of the way the American Board of Surgery handles questions is this. Questions are recycled because they must be validated by analyzing them after they are used. In surgery, questions may appear on the residents' in-training exam one year, the re-certifying exam the next year and Part I of the boards the following year. Where appropriate, questions are also recycled through the subspecialty exams such as critical care, colorectal and others. As it happens, each test contains some reused questions and some brand new questions.

The board assesses certain things about each question such as do junior residents do as well or better on a question than chief residents? An ideal question would be one in which the percentage of correct responses increased as the training level of resident increased. They also look at whether the questions are framed correctly. For example, a question which generates two or more answers that are chosen by similar numbers of test takers may be ambiguously worded. Questions that have unusual patterns of response or ambiguous answers would be reformatted or discarded, and they would not be counted for the test that resulted in the unusual answer patterns.

A completely new test would contain quite a few questions that would have to be discarded if they were not validated by prior use.

Another problem is that writing good questions is very difficult. Most educators feel that a five-answer multiple choice question should have one correct answer, one plausibly correct but not exactly correct answer, two wrong answers and one really, really wrong answer. The correct answers need to be found in commonly used textbooks. And there are just so many questions that can be asked. Try writing a few questions. You’ll see how hard it can be.

I am conflicted about whether possession and use of copyrighted material from the boards constitutes cheating. Strictly speaking, I suppose it does. But where do you draw the line? When I was a residency program director, my trainees would often ask me what I thought the correct answers to some of the questions were. If I told them, would that be cheating? If they remembered a few of the questions and discussed them among themselves, is that cheating? What if a resident remembered a question and looked up the answer herself? Is that cheating? Or is it learning?

Here’s the good news. I’m not a residency program director any more.

What do you think?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Research on fatigue and work hours annoys me

A paper from the University of Pittsburgh just published in the journal Academic Emergency Medicine claims that emergency medicine docs have problems with short-term memory and sleep after working what seem to be modest shift durations of only 6 to 8 hours.

The study involved 13 ED MDs who were tested before and after both day and night shifts. As is typical of studies in this genre, the tests had nothing to do with what an MD actually does while working but rather were quizzes with names such as the Paced Auditory Serial Addition Test (PASAT), the University of Southern California Repeatable Episodic Memory Test (REMT), the Trail Making Test (TMT), and the Stroop Color-Word Test. Just reading about how these tests are done made me sleep. Never mind having to be subjected to them.

Quality of sleep was assessed by something called the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI).

Facts that the authors probably did not anticipate would draw a reader’s interest include the following:

The ED docs worked an average of fewer than 10 shifts per month.
7/13 were overweight or obese.
4/13 had at least 4 alcoholic drinks per week.

Like most papers, the abstract does not really reflect all the goodies inside. Table 2 is an elegant massaging of the statistics with 32 different sets of 95% confidence intervals for the memory tests.

The paper notes “Sleep quality was worse in EPs (emergency physicians) compared to the normal population, with 31% of subjects reporting poor sleep quality.” Just in case you forgot, 31% of 13 is 4 people. In the discussion, the authors blamed poor quality sleep on fatigue, which was also quantified. They then made the startling revelation that “sleep disruption continues routinely beyond training years and may be a widespread issue among health care providers.” No kidding?

I have another theory. My experience (based on an “n” of one) is that I often have trouble sleeping when I’m working. I worry about the patients, the decisions I’ve made, whether I checked that lab result, will that clip fall off and lead to bleeding and so on. I think many doctors and nurses have similar thoughts.

But I saved the best for last. Performance on the memory tests was worse for all the ED docs AFTER WORKING BOTH DAY AND NIGHT SHIFTS.

The authors suggested “symptom improvements” might ameliorate these problems. My suggestion, which I blogged about in detail in October of 2010, is to do what the US Navy has successfully done for centuries. That is, have all doctors stand watches of no more than 4 hours at a time. It’s a little inconvenient, but it would reduce fatigue and stress markedly. [Click here to read how it would work.]

I want to thank Andy Neill who blogs at Emergency Medicine Ireland for bringing this paper to my attention.