Concierge Medicine – My 15th Anniversary

I practiced general internal medicine from June 1979 until November 2003. Immediately after training I became an employed physician of an older internist covering my employer’s patients and building my practice for two years before embarking on my own.

I saw 20 or more patients per day in addition to providing hospital care and visiting patients as they recovered in nursing homes. As managed care made its clout felt by kidnapping our patient’s and trying to sell them back to us at 50 cents on the dollar, I helped form a 44 doctor multi-specialty group with its own lab, imaging center and after hours walk-in center. The hope was that a large group might have some negotiating leverage with insurers allowing us to take more time with our patients for more reasonable fees. They laughed at us.

Three years later, my associate and I went to the bank, took out a big personal loan and started our concierge practice. We did this primarily to be comfortable providing excellent care to patients. The system was broken and no medical leader, insurer, employer or politician was going to fix the broken system.

Year after year as our patient’s survived and grew older and more complicated, private insurers including CMS (Medicare) asked us to see them quicker, in shorter visits, but be more comprehensive. The insurers essentially wanted us to place a square peg in a round hole. Switching to a Concierge practice meant I would be caring for a small group of patient’s well at the cost of finding a new medical home for 2,200 existing patients. Switching to Concierge Medicine was our response to a broken system being pushed in a direction of more money and profits for administrators and insurers at the expense of patients and doctors.

In retrospect, I should have made this change five years sooner. The financial rewards are not very different – caring for a small patient panel that pay a membership fee as compared to an enormous panel of patients. The rewards to the patients’ and the doctor for doing a job well done are priceless.

We increased our visit time to 45 minutes from 10 minutes. We set aside 90 minutes for new patient visits. We made a point of continuing to care for our hospitalized patients while all our colleagues were turning that over to hospital employed physicians with no office practices. We provided same day visits and access to the doctor 24 hours a day, seven day a week with accessibility by phone or email. We had the time to advocate for our patient’s as they weaved their way through a bureaucratic mind numbing health care system that made filling a prescription as difficult as the science of launching a rocket into space.

The results of the change are striking. There are very few emergency admissions to the hospital. Falls and trauma, which are mostly not preventable, replaced heart attacks, strokes and abdominal catastrophes as reasons for hospitalizations. There are many fewer hospitalizations. There are fewer crises because we learn about the problems immediately and see the patient’s quickly. If necessary, we help them get access to specialty services.

We have the time and staff now to battle with insurers and third party administrators to get our patient’s what they need to regain their health and independence. When they need specialty care we get them the best; the people we go to ourselves both locally and nationally. We send them equipped with all the information and questions they need to ask about their health problem.

Concierge Medicine has additionally given us the time to teach future doctors. While this stewardship of the profession and launching of future physicians is immensely satisfying, it also makes us stay current and on top of the latest literature and advances.

I look forward to this coming celebration of my 15th year in concierge medicine. I see Direct Pay Practices developing which deliver concierge services to the masses for lower fees. It is a spin-off of “boutique “medicine” or Concierge Lite” as my advisor calls it. It is an attempt by young physicians to reestablish the doctor patient relationship and deliver care in a broken health system.

I am thankful to my patients, who took a chance and came on this journey with me. I look forward to caring for them for years to come.

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Experimental Drug Stops Parkinson’s Disease Progression in Mice

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine published an article in Nature Medicine Journal outlining how administration of a drug called NLY01 stopped the progression of Parkinson’s disease in mice specially bred to develop this illness for research purposes. The medication is an alternative form of several diabetic drugs currently on the market including Byetta, Victoza and Trulicity. Those drugs penetrate the blood brain barrier poorly. NLY01 is designed to penetrate the blood brain barrier.

In one study, researchers injected the mice with a protein known to cause severe Parkinsonian motor symptoms. A second group received the protein plus NLY01. That group did not develop any motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. The other group developed profound motor impairment.

In a second experiment, they took genetically engineered mice who normally succumb to the disease in slightly more than a year of life. Those mice, when exposed to NLY01, lived an extra four months.

This is positive news in the battle to treat and prevent disabling symptoms in the disease that affects over 1 million Americans. Human trials will need to be established with questions involving whether the drug is even safe in humans? If safety is proven then finding the right dosage where the benefits outweigh the risks is another hurdle. The fact that similar products are currently being used safely to treat Type II Diabetes is noteworthy and hopefully allows the investigation to occur at a faster pace.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive debilitating neurologic disorder which usually starts in patient’s 60 years of age or greater. Patients develop tremors, disorders sleeping, constipation and trouble moving and walking. Over time the symptoms exacerbate with loss of the ability to walk and speak and often is accompanied by dementia.

The American Cancer Society and Colorectal Cancer Screening

Colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cancer with 140,000 diagnoses in the nation annually. It causes 50,000 deaths per year and is the number two cause of death due to cancer.

Colorectal cancer screening guidelines have called for digital rectal examinations beginning at age 40 and colonoscopies at age 50 in low risk individuals. An aggressive public awareness campaign has resulted in a marked decrease in deaths from this disease in men and women over age 65.

The same cannot be said for men and women younger than 55 years old where there is an increased incidence of colorectal cancer by 51% with an increased mortality of 11%. Experts believe the increase may be due to lifestyle issues including tobacco and alcohol usage, obesity, ingestion of processed meats and poorer sleep habits.

To combat this increase, the American Cancer Society has changed its recommendations on screening suggesting that at age 45 we give patients the option of:

  • Fecal immunochemical test yearly
  • Fecal Occult Blood High Sensitivity Guaiac Based Yearly
  • Stool DNA Test (e.g., Cologuard) every 3 years
  • CT Scan Virtual Colonoscopy every 5 years
  • Flexible Sigmoidoscopy every 5 years
  • Colonoscopy every 10 years.

Their position paper points out that people of color, American Indians and Alaskan natives have a higher incidence of colon cancer and mortality than other populations.  Therefore, these groups should be screened more diligently. They additionally note that they discourage screening in adults over the age of 85 years old. This decision should be individualized based on the patient’s health and expected independent longevity.

As a practicing physician these are sensible guidelines. The CT Virtual Colonoscopy involves a large X irradiation exposure and necessitates a pre- procedure prep. Cologuard and DNA testing misses few malignancies but has shown many false positives necessitating a colonoscopy. Both CT Virtual Colonoscopy and Cologuard may not be covered by your insurer, and they are expensive, so consider the cost in your choice of screening.

I still believe Flexible Sigmoidoscopy must be combined with the Fecal Occult Blood High Sensitivity Testing and prepping.  Looking at only part of the colon makes little sense to me in screening.

Colonoscopy is still the gold standard for detecting colorectal cancer.

Prostate Cancer, Digital Rectal Exams, PSA and Screening

The PSA blood test, to detect prostate cancer, clearly has saved lives according to numerous studies. The United States Preventive Task Force (USPTF) recognizes this but has decided that screening for prostate cancer is not a great idea in men aged 55-69. They point out the PSA can be elevated from an enlarged prostate, an inflamed or infected prostate, a recent orgasm while having sex and other causes.

Elevated PSAs led to trans-rectal ultrasound views of the prostate and biopsies of the prostate. These biopsies were uncomfortable, even painful, and often followed by inflammation and infection of the prostate. Many times the prostate biopsy was benign with no cancer detected. The USPTF felt the cost, worry, and potential side effects were a risk far outweighing the benefits of screening. They consequently came out against screening men in this age group.  Naturally this position produced a tidal wave of criticism from urologists and other.

So, the USPTF has produced new recommendations calling for patient education and making a shared decision whether or not to obtain a PSA measurement before you send it out. This is a bit confusing because we always discuss the pros and cons of a PSA before we draw it. Adult men are entitled to hear the pros and cons so they can make their own informed decision.

To complicate matters, a study out of McMaster University in Canada reveals physicians are poorly trained in performing a digital rectal exam. They cite the lack of experience coming out of school and going into training and cite numerous research studies showing a rectal exam is a low yield way to detect prostate cancer. They do not recommend performing digital rectal exams for prostate cancer screening.

This received much media hype and the blur between the efficiency of detecting prostate cancer via a rectal exam and the use of the rectal exam to detect rectal and colon disease has been lost. We perform digital rectal exams to detect prostate cancer and look at the perirectal area for disease. We test the strength and performance of the anal sphincter muscle. We feel for rectal polyps and growths and, in certain situations, test the stool for the presence of blood.

During my internal medicine training my teachers always required a digital rectal exam, stool blood test and slide of the stool as part of the exam. As trainees, we realized the invasiveness of the exam and did our best to be polite, gentle and caring. I always asked for permission first, and still do. How can you tell if something is abnormal if you haven’t performed normal exams?

Last but not least, Finesteride, a medicine used to shrink an enlarged prostate by inhibiting male hormones, has finally been shown to be protective against developing prostate cancer. A study published in the journal of the National Cancer Institute found that men taking it for 16 years had a 21 % lower incidence of prostate cancer.

Artificially Sweetened Beverages, Stroke and Dementia Risk

An observational study in the Journal “ Stroke, A Journal of Cerebral Circulation” examined the question of whether there is an a relationship between consuming “ diet” beverages with artificial sweeteners and the development of a stroke or dementia using data from the Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort. They looked at 2888 individuals older than 45 years of age for the development of strokes and 1484 participants over age 60 for the development of dementia. They followed the group for ten years and were able to gauge their intake of artificially sweetened beverages from food questionnaires filled out at exams. After making adjustments for age, sex, education, caloric intake, diet quality, physical activity, and smoking they found that higher consumption of artificially sweetened beverages was associated with a higher risk of strokes and dementia. This was not seen in individuals drinking sugar sweetened beverages.

In a comment section, the author acknowledged that diabetic patients had a higher risk of stroke and dementia than the general public and they consumed more artificially sweetened beverages than others. While the study did not show cause and effect it does leave us wondering just how safe these diet drinks are?

Hospital Discharges and the Handoffs

Fred Pelzman, M.D. is an experienced internist who practices in the NY Metropolitan area and trains young doctors at a well-deserved renowned academic medical center. His corporate behemoth medical system tries to engage in the latest and greatest business practice models for care, using technology and staff generally unavailable to the mom and pop medical practices that once dotted America.  Meanwhile, Dr. Pelzman cares for people compassionately while training his young disciples in an ever changing and complicated health care environment. I love reading his blog posts discussing his thoughts, concerns and efforts.

This week’s article or “post” is about the difficulty and danger entailed when a patient leaves the hospital, after being cared for by hospital based physicians, and returns to their homes and the care of their outside doctor’s. I give Dr. Pelzman much credit for taking ownership of the problem and attempting to solve it. I think there is a much simpler solution to his problem than creating a fast track computer program for patients who need to be seen quickly post discharge. It is called the telephone.

There was a time when physicians actually picked up the phone and called their colleagues and discussed the transfer of care before initiating it. During my internship and residency at the University of Miami Jackson Memorial Program; when a patient was being transferred, the receiving physician received a page resulting in a phone call from the transferring physician to discuss “the case.” The transferring physician wrote a transfer summary in the chart to be reviewed by the receiving physician. When patient’s went home, especially non-private patient’s, the handoffs were inadequate since often there was no receiving physician to communicate with.

After finishing my training and entering private care in a suburban community, the transfer of care was quite simple because most physicians cared for their own patients in the hospital and in the community so the transfer of care was smooth and seamless. This changed with the institution of “managed care” run by insurers at the request of employers and by the development of hospitalist physicians.

Employed hospital based physicians were the idea of Robert Wachter, M.D., the father of hospitalist medicine and the current director of hospital physician training at University of California in San Francisco. When he was completing his training in internal medicine he noticed that general internists in private medicine were not being paid very well in the field. He also noticed that his academic teachers, who were required by Medicare and insurers to actually spend time taking a history, doing a physical exam and writing a progress note on each patient on their teaching service if the facility was going to get paid for their care hated actually interacting with patients. They preferred to be in their research labs or teaching students and future doctors.

Hiring someone to do that work and creating a specialty gave them the freedom to go back to what they wanted to do. It also gave administration a certain amount of control over the tests ordered, medications ordered, length of stay and costs. At the same time this was occurring, “administrative and management experts” were out in the community, convincing private physicians that the solution to their low reimbursement was to stay in the office and see more patients and give up caring for hospital patients. It was deemed inefficient to cancel or delay patients in your office or clinic so you could run to the hospital or emergency room to see an acutely and seriously ill patient.

As hospitalist medicine took hold, medical and surgical specialties decided it was more efficient to use their services than to take the time to admit the patients with issues they were best trained to care for. Orthopedic surgeons stopped admitting patients to the hospital with fractures that needed surgical repair. They asked the hospitalist to do it. Oncologists stopped admitting patients with fevers and infections and abnormal blood counts as a consequence of their cancer or treatment of cancer. They asked the hospitalist to do it. Gastroenterologists stopped admitting acute gastrointestinal bleeders who needed endoscopy and cardiologists stopped admitting acute heart failure and pulmonary edema and heart attacks. These specialists preferred to be “consultants” and let the hospitalists perform the tedious medication reconciliation, admitting orders and mandated quality metrics forms and the deep vein thrombosis prevention forms. The hospitalists became their interns and medical students performing the time consuming , bureaucratic, labor intensive low paid administrative work so the specialist could arrive like the cavalry and just do their procedure and leave.

The problem is that the hospitalist didn’t know the patient. The referring doctor never called the hospitalist or ER physician to send the records and explain why the patient was coming and there was little if any communication. The same occurs when the patient leaves the hospital and is sent for post hospital care. No one coordinating care in the hospital contacts those responsible for the patient’s outpatient care to discuss a care plan. The fault lies with both the inpatient and outpatient physicians who don’t take the time to communicate.

Above anything else, the patient must come first. Picking up the phone and calling the receiving physician and discussing the nuances of the necessary care and creating a plan which is explained to the patient is in the patient’s best interests. All care givers need to remember this and create local environments, climates and systems that encourage communication between hospital-based physicians and community physicians.

Allergies Worsening Due to Climate Change

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology and the World Asthma Organization just concluded their joint congress in Orlando, Florida. One of the topics of concern is how climate change is making everyone’s allergy symptoms much worse.

We read about more powerful hurricanes and cyclones, seasonal tornadoes occurring out of season, horrible beach erosion and flooding due to large volume rains, lack of rain causing poor harvests leading to waves of migration for survival for animals and humans. Climate change also exacerbates allergy symptoms. Nelson A. Rosario, MD, PhD, professor of pediatrics at Federal University of Parana (Brazil) discussed longer pollen season and increased allergens caused by fallen trees and ripped up plants, mold growing following flooding and irritants in the air due to wildfires. An international survey in 2015 found that 80% of rhinitis patients blamed their symptom exacerbations on climate change items. Pollen seasons have more than doubled in some areas.

The argument should not be about whether climate change is due to cyclical planetary changes or man-made pollutants. It should be about what we can do as a society to maintain economic growth while limiting man made contribution to adverse climate changes. The health and survival consequences of not addressing this issue will ultimately involve our survival as a species.