Monday, April 22, 2019

Well-woman exams: the road to poorer health is paved with good intentions

For each full day that I see patients, I generally perform 3 to 4 physical examinations in well children and adults. I am well aware of the evidence that general health checks may not improve health outcomes in adults, as well as the limitations of such studies (which are decades old and included many screening tests that are now known to be ineffective). My sense is that most of the health benefits my patients derive from checkups are not from the examination itself, but from listening and counseling. In a recent Medscape commentary, I observed that guidelines for well-woman care have appropriately moved away from largely pro forma gynecologic exams since the turn of the century:

At that time, it was not unusual for me to screen for cervical cancer in a sexually active teenager, and to advise most women to return for a Pap smear and clinical breast exam every year. I remember our clinic's medical director admonishing the residents not to skip routine breast and pelvic exams in women without symptoms.

However, I am concerned that this positive movement - de-intensifying or eliminating components of the well-woman exam that don't benefit women - appears to have stalled:

Recent federal regulations and recommendations now threaten to replace discontinued components of the well-woman exam with other well-intentioned services that unfortunately have little basis in evidence.

I discussed three examples in my commentary:

FDA-mandated language about breast density in mammography reports, leading to further testing in women with dense breasts: "While we do know that additional testing in women with dense breasts increases false-positive rates, we don't know if it improves breast cancer outcomes or only leads to more anxiety, more biopsies, and more overdiagnosis."

Annual screening for urinary incontinence, "even though the [Women's Preventive Services Initiative] group's own review found insufficient evidence that systematic annual screening improves health outcomes."

Screening for anxiety in all adolescent and adult women, "which has a similar dearth of supporting evidence on benefits and harms."

Each of these recommendations is intended to address a known problem: mammograms are less likely to identify breast tumors in women with higher breast density; urinary incontinence is common, frequently bothersome, and underreported; and anxiety reduces quality of life in many women (and men, for that matter). But a high prevalence of unidentified disease and the availability of effective treatments aren't enough to warrant screening on their own. Women deserve better than preventive care based on good intentions, which in the past led to mistakes such as prescribing menopausal hormone therapy for millions of women who either did not benefit or experienced harm. Instead, they deserve evidence-based, data-driven care.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Reimagining advance care planning

It is difficult to overstate the damage done by the fictional political term "death panel," which claimed that a 2009 legislative proposal to pay physicians for providing counseling to Medicare patients about advance directives and end-of-life care options amounted to a group of federal bureaucrats deciding whether an older or disabled person would be permitted to live or die. Not until 2016 did the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) create Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) codes that allowed billing for advance care planning services, and clinicians have been slow to use them. According to a recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine, only about 2% of Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries age 65 years or older had advance care planning visits. As expected, geriatricians and palliative medicine specialists were more likely to use the codes than other physicians. Even so, two-thirds of hospice and palliative medicine specialists did not use the codes at all in 2017, which suggested that billing did not reflect actual counseling practices.

Other articles have documented the challenges of incorporating patients' values and preferences into care plans when they are already experiencing serious illness. An analysis of recorded clinician-family conferences about critically ill patients found that in more than half, "there was no deliberation about how to apply patients' values and preferences in the current clinical situation," and in 1 out of every 4 discussions, the patient's values and preferences were not even mentioned. Similarly, a medical oncologist reflected in Health Affairs about the care team's failure to manage expectations of a patient with advanced (and ultimately fatal) lung cancer who, "because she was looking for rescue," declined to discuss goals of care as an outpatient even as treatments proved ineffective and her health deteriorated:

I'm not sure how well we managed Wendy's care at the end of her life. On the one hand, she achieved her short-term goal of attending the family gathering. On the other hand, she spent nearly the entire last month of her life hospitalized. She died in an intensive care unit, intubated, on a ventilator, and unable to say goodbye to love ones. She was not enrolled in hospice. We don't know whether we met Wendy's goals of care because we never managed to define them.

Two editorials in the March 1 issue of American Family Physician addressed how physicians can prepare patients better for end-of-life decisions by "thinking about [advance care planning] as an iterative and integrative process," rather than as a document to be filled out and then filed away. Primary care teams can use the Serious Illness Conversation Guide to assess patients' understanding of their illness, explore what matters most to them, and communicate goals of care to family members and subspecialists. Lack of training and time constraints remain barriers, however. Innovative residency curricula on advance care planning, such as this medical-legal partnership described in Family Medicine, may improve physicians' comfort level with these conversations. Having Medicare and private insurers pay for advance care planning discussions is a helpful first step, but as Drs. Joanna Paladino and Erik Fromme observed, "clinicians cannot improve the care of people with serious illness alone—to be successful, they need health system changes that support better conversations over the continuum of care."

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This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Unequal treatment: physician payment disparities and their health consequences

As a family physician and medical school faculty member, I'm naturally a big booster of primary care. America needs more generalist physicians, and much of my professional activity involves encouraging medical students to choose family medicine, or, failing that, general pediatrics or general internal medicine. But it's an uphill battle, and I fear that it's one that can't be won without major structural changes in the way that generalist physicians are paid and rewarded for their work.

In a Medicine and Society piece in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Louise Aronson (a geriatrician) described visits with two of her doctors, a general internist and an orthopedist. The primary care physician worked in a no-frills clinic, often ran behind schedule, and devoted much of the visit and additional post-visit time to electronic documentation. The orthopedist worked in a newer, nicer office with an army of medical and physician assistants; generally ran on time; and was accompanied by a scribe who had competed most of the computer work by the end of the visit. Although there are undoubtedly a few family doctors with income parity to lower-earning orthopedists, according to Medscape's 2017 Physician Compensation Report, the average orthopedist makes $489,000 per year, while an average general internist or family physician makes around $215,000 per year. Here's what Dr. Aronson had to say about that:

It would be hard, even morally suspect, to argue that the salary disparities among medical specialties in U.S. medicine are the most pressing inequities of our health care system. Yet in many ways, they are representative of the biases underpinning health care’s often inefficient, always expensive, and sometimes nonsensical care — biases that harm patients and undermine medicine’s ability to achieve its primary mission. ...

Those structural inequalities might lead a Martian who landed in the United States today and saw our health care system to conclude that we prefer treatment to prevention, that our bones and skin matter more to us than our children or sanity, that patient benefit is not a prerequisite for approved use of treatments or procedures, that drugs always work better than exercise, that doctors treat computers not people, that death is avoidable with the right care, that hospitals are the best place to be sick, and that we value avoiding wrinkles or warts more than we do hearing, chewing, or walking.


Medical students are highly intelligent, motivated young men and women who have gotten to where they are by making rational decisions. For the past few decades, as the burden of health care documentation has grown heavier and the income gap between primary care physicians and subspecialists has widened, they have been making a rational choice to flee generalist careers in ever-larger numbers.

The cause of these salary disparities - and the reason that more and more primary care physicians are choosing to cast off the health insurance model entirely - is a task-based payment system that inherently values cutting and suturing more than thinking. I receive twice as much money from an insurer when I spend a few minutes to freeze a wart than when I spend half an hour counseling a patient with several chronic medical conditions. That's thanks to the Resource-Based Relative Value Scale, a system mandated by Congress and implemented by Medicare in 1992 in an attempt to slow the growth of spending on physician services. Every conceivable service that a physician can provide is assigned a number of relative value units (RVUs), which directly determines how much Medicare (and indirectly, private insurance companies) will pay for that service.

As new types of services are developed and older ones modified, the RVUs need to be updated periodically. Since the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) chose not to develop the in-house expertise to do this itself, it farms out the updating task to the Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC), a 31-member advisory body convened by the American Medical Association (AMA) and nominated by various medical specialty societies. Here is where the fix is in. Only 5 of the 31 members represent primary care specialties, and over time, that lack of clout has resulted in an undervaluing of Evaluation and Management (E/M) and preventive services (the bulk of services provided by generalist physicians) compared to procedural services. Although an official AMA fact sheet pointed out that some RUC actions have increased payments for primary care, a 2013 Washington Monthly article countered that these small changes did little to alter the "special deal" that specialists receive:

In 2007, the RUC did finally vote to increase the RVUs for office visits, redistributing roughly $4 billion from different procedures to do so. But that was only a modest counter to the broader directionality of the RUC, which spends the vast majority of its time reviewing, updating—and often increasing—the RVUs for specific, technical procedures that make specialists the most money. Because of the direct relationship between what Medicare pays and what private insurers pay, that has the result of driving up health care spending in America—a dynamic that will continue as long as specialists dominate the committee.


We teach our medical students to recognize that inequities in where patients live, work and play are far more powerful in determining health outcomes than the health care we provide. A child living in a middle-class suburb has built-in structural advantages over a child living in a poor urban neighborhood or rural community, due to disparities in economic and social resources. The same goes for how physicians are paid in the U.S. Until the RUC is dramatically reformed or replaced with an impartial panel, the $3.5 trillion that we spend on health care annually (20 percent of which pays for physician services) will continue to produce shorter lives and poorer health compared to other similarly developed nations.

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This post first appeared on Common Sense Family Doctor on July 20, 2017.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Apps that detect atrial fibrillation may not improve health

The March 15 issue of American Family Physician included a recommendation statement from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) and Putting Prevention Into Practice case study on screening for atrial fibrillation with electrocardiography (ECG). The USPSTF concluded that current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of testing for atrial fibrillation in primary care patients without suggestive symptoms. In an accompanying editorial that I solicited, cardiologists John Mandrola and Andrew Foy discussed several potential downsides of ECG screening for atrial fibrillation: low prevalence, a high number needed to screen to prevent one stroke, high costs, false positive results, and uncertainty about the effects of anticoagulants in persons with subclinical atrial fibrillation.

At the American College of Cardiology (ACC) meeting last month, Dr. Mandrola interviewed Dr. Mintu Turakhia, a co-principal investigator of the Apple Heart Study, regarding initial findings reported at the conference. More than 400,000 U.S. adults with Apple Watches installed a paired smartphone app that used an algorithm to analyze heart rate variability and notified users if five out of six samples over a 48-hour period suggested an irregular heart rate. Of the 2100 individuals (~0.5%) who received these notifications, the positive predictive value for ECG-confirmed atrial fibrillation was 84%. The app's sensitivity and false negative rate are unknown because users who did not receive notifications did not have ECG monitoring. Also, the study was not designed to evaluate health outcomes. In a Medscape commentary, Dr. Mandrola chided the ACC for calling so much attention to these preliminary, disease-oriented data:

Given the stark inequities of care in the United States and globally, I question the morality of dedicating this much attention to a study on a low-risk population, a group that already enjoys relatively excellent health. ... Smart watches and digital health will deliver oodles more information. This, along with hype, will surely enrich the makers of devices, and in turn the medical industry. I remain skeptical that it will improve the human condition. It could even make us sicker.

A planned pragmatic randomized trial will enroll adults age 65 years and older to determine if screening for atrial fibrillation and other heart rhythm abnormalities using the Apple Watch app leads to reduced stroke rates and/or improved cardiovascular health. In the meantime, family physicians will likely start seeing more patients for evaluation of possible cardiac rhythm abnormalities detected by wearable devices. A recent JAMA article reviewed the limitations of such devices at detecting atrial fibrillation, tachycardia, and bradycardia and offered a suggested approach to evaluation and management.

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This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Patients, Populations and Policy: Season 1, Episode 2

This is the second of two podcast episodes that I created specifically for my first-year medical student class. It discusses the evolution of physician payment, the major components of the Affordable Care Act, and proposals for future health care reforms. If you haven't yet listened to episode 1, which provides some basic background information on the U.S. health system, you can find it here. And I don't intend to stop at two episodes, so if you like what you hear, please subscribe to the podcast feed to receive notifications when I release more later this year. My P3 podcast will also soon be available on ITunes, Google Play, Spotify, and Stitcher. Thanks for listening!