I’m only halfway through Elizabeth Rosenthal’s “An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back” which means that I haven’t gotten to the “what you can do about the problem” part. It’s a slow read, not because it’s not compelling but because it’s too compelling, and if like the current President, you were surprised at how complicated healthcare is, this book will do nothing to dissuade you. It’s really really complicated.
So far, I have two main takeaways from the book, that are easily illustrated through my recent experience of breaking and dislocating my finger: a simple, non-life-threatening problem, that unearthed a couple of key dysfunctions and unintended consequences.
My first takeaway is that everyone is complicit, and yet seem to manage to finger point at everyone else. Rosenthal spares no punches in unearthing decisions that are not made with the best interest in of the patient at heart. Providers, healthcare organizations, payers, pharma, and employers all are complicit in the mess that is our current healthcare system.
This past fall, I broke and dislocated my finger. It wasn’t a big deal, but because it happened on a Saturday night, my only option for care was at the ER. Last week I received a letter in the mail from my insurance company, that according to the envelope required my urgent reply. In the letter, the insurance company suggested that perhaps someone other than them may be on the hook for my ER bill. While I understand they wanted to make sure this wasn’t a worker’s compensation claim, the form was basically for me to tell them whose fault my injury was so that they could go after another insurance company to pay. This was a sports injury in a game of Ultimate Frisbee, a game so granola-like that there are no referees: players call fouls on themselves. . No one was at fault, and even if they were, I would never have considered suing. However, the form didn’t give me that option: only gave me the option of saying whether I had settled my claim. I created a new box that said “NA” and checked it.
When I received the letter, I couldn’t help but think back to Rosenthal’s book, and also consider the amount of effort and cost that was going into finding someone else to blame and pay. Just imagine what this effort and cost would have been if there were legal action….
The second takeaway is that the original intention of a decision always has much farther reaching implications than anyone who agreed on what seemed like a reasonable decision though. Again with the finger, I was asked a number of times if I wanted a prescription for OxyContin. I did not. As has been well publicized we have an opioid addiction problem in North America. While my finger hurt, aside from morphine during inpatient for an appendectomy, I hadn’t had opioids, and really didn’t think that it was necessary, which I explained to the physician. It wasn’t. Tylenol worked fine—however, it seemed that it was very important that I be the one to make this call, not the physician.
One of the unintended consequences of patient satisfaction scores may be the over prescription of pain medication, as many of the questions on the HCAHPS are about whether the patient’s pain was well managed. In Rosenthal’s book, I was also surprised to learn that a finger fracture where an opioid is prescribed has a different billing code than if it is not prescribed, and that with the fracture plus opioid billing code, hospitals get paid more. Now, if you are wondering how this may be the case, if you think about it, a fracture that requires an opioid must be more severe than one that doesn’t and therefore the billing code reflects the severity. This is exactly where the unintended consequences of billing codes can result in exactly the wrong behavior for patient care and safety.
It’s quite possible that the physicians on duty were not aware of either of these two drivers for prescribing, especially the billing code one. They may have just been told “this is our standard of care” and were following guidelines.
If a simple finger fracture and dislocation can shine a light on two key problems in our healthcare system, just imagine what else is out there. Actually, you don’t have to, just get a copy of Elizabeth’s book yourself, and let’s compare notes when I get to the part about what the fix is. It’s going to take all of us.