Thursday, December 11, 2014

Job Posting: 2015-16 Robert L. Phillips, Jr. Health Policy Fellowship

The Department of Family Medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine is currently recruiting qualified applicants for its one-year fellowship in Primary Care Health Policy. This is a unique, full-time program that combines experiences in scholarly research, faculty development, clinical practice, and coursework at the McCourt School of Public Policy. Fellows have the opportunity to interact with local and federal policymakers in Washington, D.C. and conduct health services research projects with experienced mentors at the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care. They will join a dynamic group of faculty (including me) at one of the flagship departments for urban family medicine on the East Coast. Past Robert L. Phillips, Jr. Health Policy Fellows hold leadership positions in federal health agencies, community health organizations, and academic institutions. Applicants should be graduates of an accredited residency program in Family Medicine or Internal Medicine or expect to graduate in 2015. Please contact me at for more information.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The best recent posts you may have missed

Every few months, I post a list of my top 5 favorite posts since the preceding "best of" list on this blog, for those of you who have only recently started reading Common Sense Family Doctor or don't read it regularly. Here are my favorites from September, October, and November:

1) The demise of the small practice has been greatly exaggerated (9/22/14)

In addition to providing superior service, solo physicians or small groups can create their own economies of scale by pooling resources and collaborating with other practices in areas such electronic health record systems and quality improvement.

2) For homeless patients, housing is preventive health care (11/9/14)

I have come to realize that some of my patients will not be able to fully address their chronic health issues until they have roofs over their heads and the stability and security that comes with having a place to call home.

3) Birth control pills over-the-counter: debate evidence, not politics (11/6/14)

Over-the-counter birth control need not be an evidence-free debate. Regardless of where you stand on this issue personally or politically, it's time to stop with the slogans and inform the discussion with science.

4) Why are doctors still prescribing bed rest in pregnancy? (9/8/14)

71 percent of maternity care providers would recommend bed rest to patients with arrested preterm labor, and 87 percent would advise bed rest for patients with preterm premature rupture of membranes at 26 weeks gestation, even though most of them did not believe it would make make any difference in the outcome.

5) The natural history of symptoms in primary care (11/2/14)

At least one-third of common physical symptoms evaluated in primary care are "medically unexplained," meaning that they are never connected to a disease-based diagnosis after an appropriate history, physical examination, and testing.

If you have a personal favorite that isn't on this list, please let me know. Thank you for reading!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Right-sizing the care of patients with serious illness: it's about time

Concerned about the overuse of ineffective or harmful practices in older patients with serious illnesses, the High Value Task Force of the American College of Physicians (ACP) recently published a synthesis of best practices on patient-centered communication about serious illness care goals. Although these conversations can sometimes be uncomfortable for clinicians or patients, the authors offered several reasons that they should occur early and often:

An understanding of patients’ care goals in the context of a serious illness is an essential element of high-quality care, allowing clinicians to align the care provided with what is most important to the patient. Early discussions about goals of care are associated with better quality of life, reduced use of nonbeneficial medical care near death, enhanced goal-consistent care, positive family outcomes, and reduced costs. Existing evidence does not support the commonly held belief that communication about end-of-life issues increases patient distress.

What clinical situations should trigger discussions about end-of-life preferences? The authors recommended making time for a conversation in the setting of worsening symptoms or frequent hospitalizations in patients with COPD, congestive heart failure, and end-stage renal disease; in all patients with non-small cell lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, and glioblastoma; in patients older than 70 years with acute myelogenous leukemia; in patients receiving third-line chemotherapy; and in hospitalized patients older than 80 years. The ePrognosis website offers useful tools for clinicians to estimate prognoses in older persons with serious illnesses.

According to the ACP, key elements to address in these conversations include understanding of prognosis; decision making and information preferences; prognostic disclosure; patient goals; patient fears; acceptable function; trade-offs; and family involvement. Additional guidance for discussing end-of-life care and eliciting patient preferences has been published in American Family Physician and Family Practice Management.


This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Cost-effective preventive care: seeing the forest for the trees

At last month's Family Medicine Education Consortium Northeast Region Meeting, one of my residents presented some research that she had completed under my supervision. Since I left the staff of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force four years ago, it has been my sense that the Task Force has substantially lowered its evidence "bar" for recommending a preventive service, an impression confirmed in private discussions with colleagues who closely follow the group's activities. In a JAMA editorial published last year, Drs. Steven Woolf and Doug Campos-Outcalt expressed concerns that the Affordable Care Act, by requiring insurers to fully pay for grade "A" and "B" recommended services, would lead to political pressure on the USPSTF to produce more of these favorable recommendations.

My resident and I hypothesized that if this concern turned out to be correct, we would find that a higher proportion of recommendation statements - both new and updated - published in 2011 or later would be grade "A" or "B" rather than "C," "D," or "I." After reviewing the Task Force's portfolio of active recommendations, she concluded that this is absolutely the case. Of course, not being able to attend the meetings or review their minutes (which are unavailable to the public), we could only demonstrate an association, not causation. Another plausible explanation is that research progress over the past several years has produced more evidence and effective interventions to support providing services which weren't recommended before (e.g., lung cancer screening with CT scans, screening for hepatitis C). That's unlikely to be the whole story, though, since the TF would have generated more new "D" (don't do it) recommendations too, which hasn't happened.

Politics aside, the other problem with linking USPSTF decisions to "free" preventive services is that a group that adamantly does not consider cost in assessing the value of a preventive service increases the cost of health care (and health insurance premiums) every time it makes a favorable decision. Dr. Woolf has argued that effective prevention doesn't have to be cost-saving, only cost-effective, and the vast majority of immunizations and recommended screenings meet this criterion. Even CT screening for lung cancer, according to a recent study, would cost $81,000 per quality-adjusted life year (QALY) gained, if appropriately implemented in a high-risk population similar to that in the National Lung Screening Trial.

But cost-effective services can still end up being terrifically expensive. If the estimated 9 million eligible Americans receive "free" annual low-dose CT scans recommended by the USPSTF at $300 per scan, that's $2.7 billion added to the national health care bill each year - and this doesn't count the costs of all of the follow-up CT scans for abnormalities, consultations, biopsies, and treatments that will ensue. If birth cohort screening finds 2 million previously unidentified adults with hepatitis C who subsequently take the new drug sofosbuvir (Sovaldi) at $84,000 per treatment course, it will cost $168 billion to pay for this drug alone, not counting other medications or costs of care.

Even if paying for these screening tests will ultimately provide health benefits to many (though I have qualms about the evidence for both), they will also make health insurance premiums a little less affordable, and it's nobody's job to decide if the benefits are worth the added costs to the population. In an article in Health Affairs, Dr. Mark Pauly and colleagues argue that complete pooling of risk is justifiable only for preventive services that are highly cost-effective. They propose continuing full coverage for the most cost-effective services, increasing patient cost-sharing for less cost-effective services, and discouraging coverage of services that are not cost-effective according to a societally-determined threshold (they suggest $400,000 per QALY).

Plenty of public health and health equity arguments could be made against this proposal, but what I like about it is that it sees the forest for the trees. Not matter how equally we distribute them (and the U.S. does a poorer job at this than most countries), health care resources are limited, and money spent on marginally effective services is money that's not being spent on countless other things that promote health and make life worth living. It's simply not enough to promote evidence-based preventive care by making all of it "free," regardless of the true costs.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Shared decision-making for lung cancer screening: will it work?

Earlier this month, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) officially proposed coverage for annual low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) screening for lung cancer in current or former smokers age 55 to 74 years with at least a 30 pack-year history. In doing so, CMS followed the lead of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which had previously given a "B" grade recommendation for screening in a similar population through age 80 years.

In the November 1st American Family Physician cover article, Dr. Thomas Gates reviewed concepts and controversies in cancer screening. Dr. Gates observed that in the 1960s and 1970s, physicians were misled by lead-time and length-time bias into believing that screening smokers for lung cancer with chest radiography saved lives, when in fact, it did not. He also noted that although LDCT screening has reduced lung cancer and all-cause mortality in a randomized controlled trial, adverse effects include a high false-positive rate, uncertain harms from radiation exposure, and overdiagnosis (leading to potentially unnecessary treatment). For these reasons, the American Academy of Family Physicians decided not to endorse the USPSTF recommendation. In an editorial published earlier this year, AFP Contributing Editor Dean Seehusen, MD, MPH elaborated on arguments against routine LDCT screening.

Notably, CMS has proposed to pay for not only the LDCT itself, but also for a "counseling and shared decision making visit" with a physician to review benefits and harms of lung cancer screening and emphasize smoking cessation (in current smokers) and continued smoking abstinence (in ex-smokers). This element is critical, as Dr. Gates observed in his article:

Perhaps the most important issue with low-dose CT screening is that it is a costly, high-tech response to what is essentially a behavioral and lifestyle problem. Smoking is responsible for 85% of lung cancers; convincing persons to quit smoking (or to not start) is far more effective in preventing lung cancer deaths than low-dose CT screening.

Shared decision-making is increasingly recommended by screening guidelines, but I worry that these difficult discussions may not actually take place, even if family physicians are paid to initiate them with patients eligible for LDCT screening. Will clinicians merely go through the motions and just order the test, as happened with prostate-specific antigen testing for prostate cancer and screening mammography for women in their 40s? What do you think?


This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Public Speaking Update

Since I began blogging at Common Sense Family Doctor in July 2009, its posts have been featured in widely read blogs such as, The Doctor Weighs InThe Health Care Blog, and Gary Schwitzer's HealthNewsReview, and the websites of major national health and news outlets such as Proto Magazine, the Costco Connection, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the Boston Globe. I also wrote the consumer health blog Healthcare Headaches for U.S. News and World Report from August 2010 through September 2011.

Like the vast majority of physicians who blog, I write in my spare time. I have never accepted advertising or paid web links on Common Sense Family Doctor, and the choices of topics for posts are my own and not influenced by financial or other conflicts of interest. In order to support the time I devote to blogging, and to encourage high-quality medical writing and clinical practice, I give lectures and workshops to medical and non-medical audiences on a variety of topics. These include the uses of social media tools in medicine and education, developing and implementing medical guidelines, and the evidence supporting specific prevention recommendations. If you or your organization would like to invite me to speak, please e-mail me at or

Upcoming events:

Choosing Wisely: Pearls for Primary Care Physicians
- District of Columbia Academy of Family Physicians
- January 21, 2015

Medical Apps: Topic TBD
- International Consumer Electronics Show, Las Vegas, NV
- January 6, 2015

Cancer Screening: An Updated Primer for Journalists
- National Press Foundation's Cancer Issues 2014, Washington, DC
- December 8, 2014

Past events:


Lung and Bronchial Cancer
- American Academy of Family Physicians Assembly, Washington, DC

Policy and Funding for Preventive Care Programs
- Georgetown University Health Systems, Policy, and Public Health Elective


CT Screening for Lung Cancer: Evaluating the Evidence
- National Capital Consortium Family Medicine Residency, Fort Belvoir, VA

Thinking Like An Editor
- Society of Teachers of Family Medicine Annual Spring Conference, Baltimore, MD

Politics of HIV Testing
- Georgetown University School of Medicine

Burnout Prevention for Healthcare Professionals
- Teaching Prevention 2013, Washington, DC

Evidence-Based Literature Searching: A Primer
- National Capital Consortium Family Medicine Residency, Fort Belvoir, VA

Less is More: New Approaches to Cancer Screening in Primary Care
- Primary Care Coalition of Montgomery County, Maryland


Science and Public Policy in Conflict: PSA Screening
- Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health Fall Policy Seminar

Screening Mammography for Women in their 40s: Exploring the Controversy
- National Capital Area Regional Breast Healthcare Improvement Initiative

Why You Should Stop Screening Patients for Prostate Cancer
- Ephrata Community Hospital (PA)

Identifying and Using Good Practice Guidelines
- Temple University School of Medicine 2012 Family Practice Review Course


Cancer Screening: A Primer for Journalists
- National Press Foundation's Cancer Issues 2011

What to Do When Screening Guidelines Conflict: HIV and Mammography
- Grand Rounds, Georgetown University Department of Family Medicine

Overdiagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health
- William J. Bicknell Lecture (panelist)
- Boston University School of Public Health

For Geeks and Geezers: With Social Media Skills You Can Change the World
- Family Medicine Education Consortium Northeast Region Meeting

Screening for Diabetes: What Does the Evidence Say?
- Spanish Catholic Center of Catholic Charities of Washington, DC

Don't Do It! Preventive Health Services That Harm More Than They Help
- District of Columbia Academy of Family Physicians

Using the Medical Literature to Make Decisions About Preventive Health Services
- Medical Library Association Annual Meeting

2008 - 2010

Medical Blogging and Other Professional Uses of Social Media
- Grand Rounds, Virginia Commonwealth University Internal Medicine

Spilling Ink: An Expert's Guide to Getting Your Work Published
- Society of Teachers of Family Medicine Annual Meeting

COPD Update: A Prevention Perspective
- Maryland Academy of Family Physicians