Sept. 11, 2014

Endlessly entering data or calling for permission to prescribe or trying to avoid Medicare penalties—when should I see patients?

It has been four years since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, so I thought it may be useful to provide the perspective of a physician providing daily medical care. I am an endocrinologist in Washington, D.C., and have been in solo private practice for 17 years after seven years at an academic institution. Since 1990, the practice of medicine has changed significantly, seldom for the better.

In the 1990s insurance companies developed managed-care plans that greatly increased their profits at the expense of the physician. With the Affordable Care Act, we are seeing new groups profiting from changes to the health-care system. Entrepreneurs and hospital executives are capitalizing on organizing physicians into groups called Accountable Care Organizations from which they will take a very substantial percentage of collected income. Now that physicians are being required to use electronic medical records, the companies that develop them are harvesting money from physicians’ practices and from hospitals.

The push to use electronic medical records has had more than financial costs. Although it is convenient to have patient records accessible on the Internet, the data processing involved has been extremely time consuming—a sentiment echoed by most of my colleagues. To save time, I was advised by a consultant to enter data into the electronic record during the office visit. When I tried this I found that typing in the data was disruptive to the patient visit. My eyes were focused on the keyboard and the lack of direct contact kept patients from opening up and discussing their medical and personal problems. I soon returned to my old method of dictating notes and pasting a print-out of the dictation into the electronic record.

Yet to avoid future financial penalties from Medicare, I must demonstrate “meaningful use” of the electronic record. This involves documenting that I covered a checklist of items during the office visit, so I spend 90 minutes each day entering mostly meaningless data. This is time better spent calling patients to answer questions or keeping updated with the medical literature.

If electronic records ever allow physicians to obtain data from previous laboratory and imaging testing, it will improve costs and patient care. So far, however, the data in electronic records—like paper charts—can’t be shared unless physicians work in the same health-care system.

My practice quickly adopted the new Medicare requirements for electronically prescribing medications. Yet patients often do not want their prescription sent electronically. They want a physical copy—either because they don’t trust the Internet or because they don’t need to fill the prescription immediately. If I don’t electronically prescribe for a certain number of Medicare patients, I am penalized with a decrease in reimbursement that can rise to a maximum of 5%. Patients should have a choice in how their prescriptions are delivered, and physicians shouldn’t be penalized for how the patients choose.

To prevent physicians from prescribing more costly medications and tests on patients, insurers are increasingly requiring physicians to obtain pre-authorizations. This involves calling a telephone number, often being rerouted several times and then waiting on hold for a representative. The process is demeaning and can take 30-45 minutes. Rather than having physicians pre-authorize expensive medications, the outrageous costs of many non-generic medications must be addressed. I understand that pharmaceutical companies need to make profits to cover investments in drug development. However, they should have some compassion for their customers.

To avoid Medicare penalties, I also must participate in the Physician Quality Reporting System program. Initially, this involved choosing three codes during the patient visit to reflect quality of care, such as blood pressure or blood-sugar control, and reporting them to Medicare. In 2015, the requirement will increase to nine codes.

Coming down the pike, but thankfully postponed from the October 2014 deadline, is something called ICD-10. This is a newer system that will contain about 70,000 medical diagnostic codes used for billing insurance. The present ICD-9 system has about 15,000 codes. The Physician Quality Reporting System and ICD-10 requirements are intended to benefit population research, but the effect is to turn physicians into adjuncts of the Census Bureau who spend time searching for codes—and to further decrease the amount of direct contact with patients.

The practice of medicine in the current environment is unsustainable. The multiple bureaucratic distractions in my day consume so much time that I have to give up what little personal time I have in the morning, evening and on weekends if I want to continue to provide excellent care during office hours.

If high-quality medical care is the goal, the bureaucracies need to be tamed. Our government and insurance companies understandably want to measure outcomes of health-care dollars spent. However, if the health-care system rewards data entry, that is what it will get—the quality of care seems an afterthought.

The patient should be the arbiter of the physician’s quality of care. Contrary to what our government may believe, the average American has the intellectual capacity to judge. To give people more control of their medical choices, we should move away from third-party payment. It may be more prudent to offer the public a high-deductible insurance plan with a tax-deductible medical savings account that people could use until the insurance deductible is reached. Members of the public thus would be spending their own health-care dollars and have an incentive to shop around for better value. This would encourage competition among providers and ultimately lower health-care costs.

By contrast, the Affordable Care Act’s plans for establishing “medical homes”—a team-based health-care delivery model—and accountability-care organizations will only add more bureaucracy and enrich the consultants and companies organizing these entities.

To improve quality, we need to unchain health-care providers from the bureaucracies that are strangling them fiscally and temporally. We can better control medical costs if we strengthen physicians’ relationships with their patients rather than with their computers.

Dr. Sklar is an assistant professor of medicine at the Georgetown University Medical Center and at the George Washington University Medical Center.


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