Cleaning the Graffiti in Healthcare

24 07 2013

 I just left the most unusual conference I have ever attended.  First, it was small – 25 people.  Second, it was all women.  Third, it was all senior healthcare leaders who have done amazing things…make that trail-blazing things.  Moreover, I found myself surrounded by women who were journalists at major news outlets, retired military officers from the highest ranks, senior leaders (in some cases the senior most leader!) at major federal and state healthcare agencies, Fortune 500 companies, large health systems, healthcare foundations, national advocacy organizations.   It’s no surprise the name “Amazon warrior” resonated with this group!  Finally, the conference was all about identifying our “living legacy”.   Legacy seems like a strange word when you are living…it’s even stranger when you feel like you haven’t don’t anything yet!  So, how did I get invited you (and I) are wondering?  After all, I was the youngest person in the room, which as an aside, is a very unusual context when you work with students and residents for big chunks of the day.  So, believe it or not, I was invited by in large part due to my… social media presence!  After reviewing the list of participants, the organizers realized something was missing, and that something was someone younger who also had a social media presence.  And whoever said tweeting is a waste of time?

While there is much I could say, one of the group exercises on the last day of the conference is worth sharing and involving others in.  We were asked to examine “broken windows” in healthcare.  A broken window is a symbol of something smaller that is part of the context to a larger problem.  As Malcolm Gladwell popularized in his book, the Tipping Point, New York made a dent in the big problem of crime by tackling smaller problems, such as cleaning off the graffiti from the train every night.  By changing the context, people started to “own” the subway and report crime instead of expect it.  An excellent video summary is here.

So, how does this apply to healthcare?  While there are criticisms of the broken window theory, what a boon it would it be if we could locate something small in healthcare to fix the very large complex problems facing healthcare.   So, our group only had a short amount of time to pursue identifying broken window in healthcare.   While it sounds easy to come up with broken windows, it is much harder than it looks.   Interestingly, the healthcare problems here are so large, that the broken window may not be as simple and elegant as the graffiti example, but represent an easier place to start.  Here are three examples broken windows that we came up with.

  • Media portrayal of healthcare, especially related to resuscitation – By correcting the media portrayal of resuscitation, the public might have fewer unrealistic expectations of life sustaining therapies at the end-of-life, which could result in fewer people opting for futile measures.   By the way, researchers have even studies this (watching episodes of ER for research!) and have demonstrated the problem in a New England Journal article.   Imagine tackling this problem with media tools to demonstrate to people what a “good death” is.
  • Patient gown – While patient-centeredness is the new buzzword in our world, can we really say the system is patient centered?   Take the simple example of the patient gown which represents a loss of control and source of embarrassment to patients.  Could it be that when patients are in the gown, they feel to disempowered to engage in their own healthcare?  Could changing the gown empower patients to take a larger role in their healthcare?   In case you are wondering, there are many stories and efforts that have been undertaken to redesign the hospital gown – my favorite is the collaboration by Bridget Duffy, former Chief Patient Experience Officer at Cleveland Clinic, with fashion designer Donna Karan.
  • The Word Healthcare – It is well accepted that our healthcare system focuses on “healthcare” and not “health”.  Prevention and health promotion takes a back seat to intensive healthcare interventions.  It’s easy to resign that this will never change due to the payment system, or that return on investments in prevention are only realized in the long-term.  But, what if we could change the dialogue by using the word “health” instead of healthcare at every opportunity and juncture.  By changing the dialogue, can we change the context enough to create a change in the system?  I’m not sure, but at this point, I will say it is certainly worth a try.

There could be other examples of graffiti in healthcare.  By continuing the dialogue, hopefully we can locate the most promising levers for change.

–Vineet Arora MD

Special thanks to Dr. Joanne Conroy from the Association of American Medical Colleges for organizing the conference, our facilitators from the leadership consulting group Sunergos, and support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to make it happen.





What Can the Unmatched Seniors Tell Us?

18 03 2013

Yesterday, after the mayhem and jubilation of celebrating a successful match at the Pritzker School of Medicine with our students, I went onto Twitter to follow the #match2013 hashtag to understand what the reactions were.  Most were positive, but one headline caught my attention ‘In Record-Setting ‘Match Day,’ 1,100 Medical Students Don’t Find Residencies.”

It is true this was the largest match because it was “All-in” – programs either were in the match for all their positions (including international medical graduates or IMGs) or they were not.  Obviously, many programs put more positions up for grabs in the Match.  After I reposted this article to Twitter, there were many theories and questions about who these unmatched students were and why  – some of which I have tried to answer to the best of my ability below.  I welcome your input as well.

  • Are these IMGs?  This number is US Senior medical students who have been admitted and graduated from US medical schools but now have no place to go to practice medicine.
  • Does this include those that entered the “scramble” now called SOAP. Technically, those that entered SOAP and were successful would have been counted as “matched” on Friday.   Last year,  815 Us seniors went unmatched after the SOAP.
  • Did they choose to go into competitive specialties? We have to wait for the 2013 NRMP statistics, which will likely address this.  The 2012 data shows that more unmatched seniors did choose to go into competitive fields.  Last year, the % unmatched is much higher for students applying to radiation oncology, dermatology, and competitive surgical fields for example.
  • Did they go unmatched to due to poor strategy or poor academic performance? While poor strategy such as ‘suicide’ ranking only one program is related to the risk of going unmatched, the truth is getting into residency is competitive and there are some who will not match because of poor academic performance. Some even argue that medical schools have little incentive to fail students and a portion of these students should not be graduating to begin with.
  • If they had gone into primary care, would they would have matched?  I hear this myth that program directors in primary care fields only take international medical graduates (IMGs) since not enough US medical graduates apply.   This is due to the largely untested assumption that any US Senior would be preferred to an IMG.  However, I personally know program directors who would definitely take a seasoned and high performing IMG over a below-average US Student.   The reason this is important is the rationale for not lifting the GME cap is that we have 50% of certain fields filled by IMGs and those spots would naturally be filled by US grads. Interestingly, many of these spots happen to be primary care driven fields.   Yet, it is still unclear if US Seniors will displace IMGs for spots in IMG oriented residencies.  It is also unclear if they will be willing to apply to programs that typically cater to IMGs, since they are often not considered as prestigious or geographically desirable to US students.
  • Is this related to the lack of GME spots? Certainly, it is true that more effective career advising may have resulted in applicants being more strategic about their rank list and not reaching for a competitive field.  However, we cannot ignore the supply/demand side of this equation.  At a time when there is a shortage of physicians and a call to increase the number of physicians, the US medical school system by responded to this call.   New medical schools have opened.  Existing medical schools have increased their enrollments.  So, there are now more US Seniors entering the match and there will be even more in the future as new medical schools mature their entering classes to graduating students over the next four years.  Given that the supply of matched candidates includes both foreign-born IMGs and US-born IMGs, there are more candidates than spots.  And while many believe IMGs will be the ones that get “squeezed out” in this shortage situation, again this is an untested assumption.  It is also important to recognize that IMGs often play a significant role in ensuring primary care for rural populations and underserved communities,which are often not geographically desirable by US graduates.

 We are left with a fundamental question:  Do we owe it to our entering medical students who successfully graduate from medical school to have a residency spot?   At a time when we have a shortage of physicians and a call for medical schools to increase in size, should we not expand our residencies?   Unfortunately, GME funding is on the chopping block because of the belief that too much money is being wasted on residency training.  Moreover, hospitals seem less enthusiastic about expanding residencies, as it is not as much of a bargain due to caps on hours residents work, and all the other new accreditation standards for residency training.

There is a potential solution.  The “Training Tomorrow’s Doctors Today Act” by Reps. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) and Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), and the “Resident Physician Shortage Reduction Act of 2013” sponsored by Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would enable training 15,000 more physicians over 5 years.   Moreover, spots would be distributed to programs and specialties in critical shortages, like primary care.

Given the time that it takes to train a physician, now is the time to act to ensure we have the doctors we need for the future.

 –Vineet Arora MD MAPP





Time to Fight Horrors of Healthcare Costs by Taking Charge of Teaching Value

31 10 2012

This Halloween, several creative costumes have emerged from the zingers of the Presidential debates – Big Bird costumes are selling out like hotcakes. For a more do it yourself look, here’s a recipe for Binders full of women.  The debate over the best way to contain healthcare costs have also been a central part of the debates, and yet medical bills do not seem to make popular costumes. Maybe that is because that unaffordability of healthcare is too horrifying for ironic humor – even on Halloween.

As we head into the election, patients are increasingly being terrorized by runaway healthcare costs.  Americans outspend our peers two to one and still seem to be worse off. We overtest and overtreat to the point of absurdity.   According to a recent report, “The U.S. did 100 MRI tests and 265 CT tests for every 1000 people in 2010 — more than twice the average in other OECD countries.”  The causes are multifactorial but the solutions can’t be left to presidents and policymakers alone. An important part of the responsibility rests with healthcare professionals and the educators who train them.

Experts in health professions education and economics have lamented the poor state of education on healthcare costs.  Over 60% of U.S. medical graduates describe their medical economics training as “inadequate.”  Not only are medical trainees unaware of the costs of the tests that they order, they are rarely positioned to understand the downstream financial harms medical bills can have on patients.  More recently, Medicare, the largest funder of residency training in the United States, is concerned that we are not producing the physicians to practice cost-conscious medicine in an era of diminished resources.

We have been scared in the dark too long and this Halloween the time has come to Take Charge.

Join us now at http://teachingvalue.org/takecharge

About Teaching Value: the Costs of Care Teaching Value Project is an initiative of Costs of Care that is funded by the ABIM Foundation.  Our team is comprised of medical educators and trainees who believe it is time to transform the American healthcare system by empowering cost-conscious caregivers to deflate medical bills and protect patients’ wallets.  Our web-based video modules are designed to be easy to access for anyone anywhere and provide a starting point for tackling this problem. It’s time to emerge from the darkness and do our part to tame the terror of healthcare costs.








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