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.





Where are the Lollipop Men in Healthcare?

9 04 2012

I recently watched Dr. Atul Gawande on video describe how what American healthcare needs is pit crews and not cowboys.  This sentiment is also memorialized in his thought-provoking writings for the New Yorker.

Interestingly, Dr. Gawande is not the first person I have heard to suggest such a thing.  A colleague named Dr. Ken Catchpole actually studied Formula 1 pit crews and used the information to guide improvements in pediatric anesthesia handoffs.  His observations were astounding and really highlighted how the culture of medicine is different from Formula 1. In Formula 1, pit crews have a ‘fanatical’ approach to training that relies on repitition.   In healthcare, the first time we often do something is “on the fly”.  Moreover, on-the-job training usually means ‘checking the box’ by attending an annual patient safety lecture.   Perhaps the most important was the role of the “lollipop man” in pit crews.   And yes, even thought it’s a funny name, it’s a critical job.   As shown in the video, the Lollipop man is responsible for signaling and coordinating to the driver the major steps of the pit stop.  When it is safe to step on the gas, the Lollipop man will signal to the driver.  Sounds like a thing so perhaps it can be automated.  Wrong.  When Ferrari tried replacing the Lollipop man with a stop light that signaled the driver, the confusion created (does amber mean stop or go?) led to a driver leaving the pit with his gas still connected.  Quickly after this incident, Ferrari announced it would go back to the tried and trusted Lollipop “hu”man.

So, who are the Lollipop men (or women) in healthcare?  Turns out that Dr. Catchpole and his team observed that it was often unclear who was leading the handoff process that they were observing in healthcare.  With team training and system reengineering, Dr. Catchpole’s team was able to reorganize the pediatric handover so there was a Lollipop man (anesthesiologist) at the helm.

While these handoffs represent a critical element of healthcare communication in a focused area, it is symbolic of a larger problem in healthcare – we are still missing “Lollipop men” to coordinate healthcare for patients across multiple sites and specialties.  This is even more critical on the 2-year anniversary of healthcare reform and this month’s match results. At a time when we need to cultivate and train more “Lollipop men” to coordinate care for patients, we have had stable numbers of students who enter primary care fields.   And like the lessons from the Ferrari team, it is doubtful that a computer (even Watson who is now working in medicine apparently) will be able to do the job of a Lollipop man.

So, how can we recruit more Lollipop men?  While it is tempting to blame the rise or fall of various specialties and market forces, it is important to recognize that being this is a difficult job to do when the Lollipop is broken or even nonexistent.  Without the tools to execute the critical coordination that Lollipop men rely on, they cannot do their job.  So, the first order of business to ensure that the Lollipop, or an infrastructure to coordinate care for patients through their race that is their healthcare journey, exists.  As the Supreme Court debates the future of the Accountable Care Act, there is no greater time to highlight the importance of the Lollipop.

–Vineet Arora MD





What Happens in Vegas Can Be Used to Teach Costs of Care

16 02 2012

Funded with a grant from the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation,  Costs of Care has partnered with medical educators at Harvard Medical School and the University of Chicago (that would be us!) to start addressing this problem. We are developing a series of web-based medical education videos that use clinical vignettes to illustrate core principles of cost-consideration, including how to communicate with patients about avoiding unnecessary care and reducing overused or misused tests and procedures.  As part of the project launch, we released a new teaser video today called “What if Your Hotel Bill Was Like a Hospital Bill?”. The video is a tongue-in-cheek depiction of the challenges patients face in deciphering medical expenses, and their additional confusion when they learn doctors are not trained to consider costs.  – Excerpt from Costs of Care Press Release by Dr. Neel Shah  

How does this relate to Vegas?

On a recent trip to Las Vegas with my family for the holidays, I was in the Bellagio lobby admiring the Chihuly glass ceiling.  While that was impressive, I was also watching the clerks check in and out the long lines of visitors to the hotel.  The staff explained any charges on the bill, confirmed that the bill agrees with the expectations of the patron and then finalized the transaction, printing a copy on the spot for the traveler before they got in the cab to the airport hailed by the bellman.   What a far cry from hospitals where most of the hospital staff have no idea how much anything costs!  After all, doctors are notoriously bad at considering costs in the doctor-patient relationship, as demonstrated by a great piece by Dr. Peter Ubel on his experience with the cost of his own prescription medications. As Paolo (or Paul who works as our research project manager in his day job) from Hotel Hospital highlights, “our hotel staff specifically focus on the highest quality of care…I doubt that they even know how much anything costs here.”  The rest of the script was easy to write.  Shooting was a lot harder since we had to find a spot in the hospital that looked like a hotel but thanks to some creative camera angles and props from our MergeLab team, we were able to get it done.

Learning about costs of care is critical to taking care of patients.  This was especially poignant during my recent inpatient service block at a nearby community hospital, since I cared for many uninsured patients who paid out of pocket for their medications (not to mention their hospital stay).   Our residents were concerned about one patient who was uninsured and would have difficulty paying for Plavix, a critically important drug after his heart procedure.  Review of his medications also revealed he was recently put on Lexapro, a nongeneric antidepressant (with a sordid history) that was costing him over 100 dollars a month when there is a generic alternative for 4 dollars a month, which would help him afford his Plavix.   When physicians do discuss costs, they also get it wrong and perpetuate a ‘medical urban legend’ like stating that patients have to pay when they leave the hospital against medical advice (this is not true!).   These are just a few of many examples of why teaching students and residents to bring up costs and arming them with tools to address the issue with their future patients is imperative.  Without considering costs of care, we all take a ‘gamble’ that costs of care are not an issue for patients….Of course, the odds are against that.

Stay tuned for more work from our Teaching Value Project from Costs of Care funded by the ABIM Foundation. 

–Vineet Arora, MD, MAPP

Special thanks to our production team and actors: Mark Saathoff , Andy Levy MS4, Kimberly Beiting, Paul Staisiunas, Jeanne Farnan, and Neel Shah!





A Modern Day Fairy Tale for Medical Education

28 12 2011

Recently, I was asked to speak about innovations in inpatient medical education for leaders in general internal medicine.  Knowing that I would be last in a distinguished lineup of speakers and that my charge was to discuss novel ways to teach in the inpatient setting, I thought it would be important to review how its been done for a long time — so long that it is embodied in one of my favorite fairy tales…

You see, Cinderella dreamed of one day becoming the best clinical educator in the academic kingdom.  Unfortunately, her evil stepmom “Mrs. Dean” scoffed at Cinderella and said “teaching does not pay…look at your hard working and loyal stepbrothers….“Bill” has been our primary breadwinner due to his high volume of Patient Care and “Grant” –yes, while its feast or famine with him, just got a big payout for his Clinical Research.  Teaching? That’s no way to make a living.  Go work work for them until you figure you what you want to do.” 

So Cinderella toiled away…until one day, she met the Godmother of a grateful patient “Mrs. Fairy” who donated a small sum money to improve inpatient teaching…and with this Cinderella was able to transform herself into one of the leading teachers of the new curriculum (she was also able to get a raise to update her wardrobe!).  She quickly became a hit among all the medical students and residents who were truly “charmed”.  Then one day, at the stroke of midnight, Cinderella’s protected time ran out…and all of her work went up in smoke as she was forced back to her life of hardship seeing patients and doing research.  The students and residents were distraught at the thought of losing their most prized teacher and searched the academic complex for her –they were so moved they wanted to award her the precious “Glass Slipper” teaching award, which not only is bestowed with honor, but also a promotion to become a tenured educator in the academic kingdom.   And she lived happily ever after…

While you may think that this is the stuff of fairy tales (especially happily ever after), we all have Cinderellas at our institutions.  And those Cinderellas want to teach, but they struggle not only with funding, but also the realities of today’s inpatient environment.  So, what are these Cinderellas to do? Well, there are few of the ways to ensure that clinical teaching is rewarded – and possible resolutions for the New Year for medical educators.

  • Focus on a gap that needs to be filled:  Protected time is most likely be awarded to someone who is filling a need – think new curriculum that is mandated by LCME/ACGME or other alphabet soup organizational body.  What is the specific need that you can fill with teaching?  Often this may require thinking about a topic that may not exactly match your initial interest, but it is more likely to lead to funding for your teaching.
  • Learn new teaching methods:  Teaching methods for today’s wards are not well developed in the land of an organized chaos.  By incorporating a new platform for teaching (think case blogs, video reflection, standardized patients, or a host of other ideas), you can breathe new life into an old topic.  For example, using simulation to teach end of life discussion, or using blogs to teach about professionalism, can result in a novel curricular program that not only engage next generation learners, but also gains attention of leaders in medical education.
  • Document the effectiveness of the teaching – it is only through methodological evaluation that one can document that teaching translates into practice.  By showing that teaching can be linked to improvements in knowledge, attitudes, or practice, it is more likely that someone (maybe a fairy) will finance this teaching as critical to the mission of the hospital.  Think about procedural training that shows reduction in central lines.
  • Work with a mentor – Just like ‘big research’, mentorship is still important although not always emphasized. To be honest, mentors can serve to mobilize resources or promote your work with senior leaders.

However, regardless of these strategies, funding for teaching requires institutional leadership to recognize that the academic mission of teaching hospitals is still ‘to teach’.   Of course, this mission is sometimes lost in the chaos of teaching hospitals surviving budget crisis in an increasingly competitive environment.  So during this holiday season as everyone is reminded of the time of giving, now is a great time to remind the fiscally minded Mr. Scrooge in your C-suite that the greatest gift they can give is enabling a teacher to teach the future doctors of our nation.

–Vineet Arora MD





Transforming Medical Education: Trust, Time, Teams & Technology

28 11 2011

This past Thanksgiving, I was able to reflect on the always jam-packed and inspiring Association of American Medical Colleges 2011 Meeting that took place earlier this month in Denver.  The theme of the meeting was transformation.  It was certainly an interesting theme with the undertones of economic recession and the GME funding crisis- and that was before the failure of the Supercommittee to reach a resolution.  So, how does medical education need to transform?  In more ways than one, it turns out.  So here are just 4 that were the recurring themes of the meeting and being a fan of alliteration, they all begin with “T”.

  • Trust – it was clear that we need to restore the Americans people trust in physicians and in the medical education process.  While students enter medicine to make a difference, something that they see in their journey to becoming a physician makes them jaded and they sometimes lose sight of their initial intention. Is it debt, burnout, role models…Or likely some combination of the 3? It does not matter, because we have to restore their faith in teaching– yes teaching.  Teaching is the heart and soul of our medical education and it is sometimes the easiest to lose in an academic health center focused on NIH dollars or US news world report rankings.  In addition to teaching our students, it is time to teach another constituency, our patients and Congress about the critical need for medical education.   And in fact, advocacy is something we need to be teaching our own trainees so they can engage in the dialogue regarding the future of healthcare.
  • Time- perhaps the most radical proposal advanced was by Victor Fuchs who suggested that we radically redesign medical school to have medical students specialize 2 years after medical school and enter specific pathways like they do in many other countries and in other fields.  I’m all for shortening dwell time for our medical trainees, but I am not so sure that young people are ready to make a serious commitment about what they want to do at such an early age.  There has to be a middle ground since at the same time, one of the most well attended sessions was “who cares about the 4th year of medical school?” which included many insightful comments about the need for reflection and consolidation of core skills.  So, clearly not all time is easily tossed to the waste side.
  • Teams- given the projected shortage of over 90,000 physicians by 2020, it is important to reorganize care into teams.  While there is a lot of controversy about what to call nurses who have PhDs, that was not the focus of the meeting. It was about how can you encourage everyone to practice to their highest level of certification.  Team based competences have actually been developed by several groups and have been advanced by many schools with inter professional learning.  One difficulty we face at home is that we don’t have allied health professions, but we are brainstorming how to involve actual nurses and pharmacists in training medical students.
  • Technology -there was a lot of discussion about technology to boost medical education.  There was even a technology in medical education abstract session moderated by @motherinmedicine and including podcasts, iPads, and social media in medicine.  Perhaps the most interesting speaker was Chuck Friedman at the University of Michigan who is the former technology czar of the US and eloquently highlighted the need for moving medical education from wrote memorization to a distributed knowledge where the most important information future physicians will need to know is not what the information is off the top of their head BUT how to access information.  He went so far to say testing would move to “unassisted testing” followed by “cloud-supported testing” which would then merge into a pass or fail based on performance on both.  I know all of us who certified or recertified recently would welcome assistance from the cloud- it is after all the closest approximation to real medicine.  However, my hands down favorite moment of this session was when someone astutely asked what about these physicians when the power goes out or when the computer system fries.  His response was simple and so spot on… “Dont get me started on the state of IT in our teaching hospitals”.
So, while we just celebrated a holiday and accompanying ritual to give thanks, it is now time for medical educators to transcend the traditional status quo and instead test novel techniques to transform medical training — not only to restore public trust but so we can also train the trainees who will treat us in the future.
–Vineet Arora MD







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