The Business of Medicine Should Not and Can Not Replace Care and Compassion

Compassionate CareWell over a year ago I advised my 80 something year old patient and her children that due to progression of her Parkinson’s disease, and her frail nature, she needed a higher level of assistance and care if she wished to remain in her home.  She was extremely unsteady walking and several courses of physical therapy had not improved the situation. The patient was feisty and would only allow help to come for 4 hours per day despite having a long term care policy that paid for significantly more.  She lost her balance recently, fell and landed on her back. She could not get up or get to a phone or her alert bracelet and was found seven hours later on the floor by her aide arriving for work.  In the Emergency Room x-rays revealed several acute fractures of her vertebrae that accounted for her severe pain with movement and inability to stand, bear weight or walk.

I hustled over to the ER and examined her and called the interventional radiologist to see if he could perform a procedure called a kyphoplasty that would cement the fractures and remove the pain. It was early Friday afternoon and the traditional back specialists were unavailable until the next day.  The radiologist came promptly, was professional and very pleasant explaining that he could do the procedure but because she took a baby aspirin for prevention of stroke, he would not perform it until the aspirin wore off in 5 – 7 days because of fear of excessive bleeding around the spinal cord.  He suggested we send her home with pain medications and round the clock assistance or keep her in the hospital until the aspirin wore off and he felt comfortable performing the procedure.  He was courteous and a credit to any profession. 

Since the patient was in great pain with any movement, I chose to admit her to the hospital while we sorted things out.  I admitted her as an inpatient because she is extremely elderly and frail with medical conditions that led to this injury which an expert had just told me required surgery to fix. She could not walk or transfer to a chair or wheelchair to get food, water or get to the bathroom. She had no arrangements for additional help at home to assist her. She could not, in my professional opinion, go home safely at this point.  

The next day I was making rounds late in the day for me at noon, reviewing the situation with the patient and her son when the physician’s assistant (PA) for the back surgeons, Andy, walked in and introduced himself. They had not seen her Friday evening or Saturday morning and this was their first contact with the patient.  My consult request and phone call had been quite clear. I wanted to know how they viewed the injury and what options did they feel were best to fix the problem. I additionally asked them how their approach would differ, if at all, from the approach of interventional radiology.  I had seen Andy around the facility and said “hello” but never formally met him so it was an introduction for me as well. 

“Hi, my name is Andy, and I work for Doctors Y and Z.  We have a little problem with your insurance.  You have a Medicare Advantage plan and we are not part of that plan. Most of the time, about 95% of the time, we eventually get paid for our services but we need to know how we will get paid for performing a procedure on you to fix your back before we proceed further. In these situations we usually ask the patient to pay the bill up front ($1000 – $1200) and then we submit the charges to your insurance company. If we get reimbursed from the insurance we return the money to you.”  

I took a deep breath and wondered if maybe I was overreacting to the brusque inappropriate presentation to a groggy senior who had been given a narcotic 30 minutes before for pain and was really in no condition to listen to any presentation or sign away informed consent.  I cut Andy off in the middle of a sentence and reminded him that I had requested an opinion. The son, an attorney by trade took up the fight and reminded the PA just how inappropriate his initial remarks were and that in this case money was not a problem but the manner of dealing with an elderly confused patient was.  I played mediator at this point and got the PA to explain that his employers had done several thousand of these procedures and handled many more complications than most interventional radiologists and that their success record spoke for itself.  He outlined a slightly different approach and once we got him talking about the reasons for his invitation onto the case, justified calling his group.

I am all in favor of physicians being paid for their professional services. This could have been handled differently by calling me first and informing me that they had concerns about payment and insurance and letting me address the issues. It could have been handled far gentler by answering the questions asked first and suggesting options and then reviewing the problems with the insurance. Had the gentleman performed a history and or exam rather than rely on the ER PA’s evaluation the day before, he would have seen that the patient was not in a position to comprehend what he was saying or sign for a procedure.  

This is not a criticism of PA’s or Nurse Practitioners. It is a criticism of any practitioner who does not answer the questions asked by the referring physician or question the referring physician about payment before arriving for the consult if they have questions about getting paid for their time and expertise.

The post script is that the son wisely chose to use this group based on their talents and experience and put aside the rude and insensitive communication by the PA. The surgery went well and the patient will go home after spending three nights in the hospital. 

There is still one obstacle to overcome. The hospital ignored my written order to make her status inpatient and made her status observation which will prevent her from receiving any post-surgery therapy or care which is paid for by her insurance. I will fix that. Keeping the phone number on my phone contact list of the Office of the Inspector General who investigates Medicare irregularities opens doors in situations like this. It does not change the fact however that as practitioners we need to be much more thoughtful when we discuss financial issues before medical issues if we wish to continue to be considered a profession rather than another business.

Hospital Administration: Spending Your Tax Payer Dollars / Shorting You on Benefits

Last summer my 86 year old father awoke in the middle of the evening with profuse rectal bleeding. He felt weak and dizzy and called 911. The paramedics transported him to the local emergency room at a hospital close to his home – about one hour south of my home.

I call my parents daily to check up on them and learned of the trip to the hospital during one of these calls.  Mom is 84 and wheelchair bound with multiple structural and cardiovascular issues. Dad is 86, a WWII decorated paratrooper with dementia and orthopedic issues that dwarf his other chronic problems. They have an aide for several hours a day that is the glue that holds their lives together in their own home.

No one was home when I called and of course my folks had their Jitterbug senior special cell phone turned off so they were unreachable.   I left several messages and finally about 8:00 p.m. my mom answered the phone, denied that the cell phone was turned off, denied that I had left any messages on her answering machine and told me that dad was in the ER at Memorial Hospital. Her description was quite vague as to what was going on but I did learn that their long-time physician was unavailable and the hospitalist service was caring for him.

I phoned the ER and spoke to a nurse who was nice enough to tell me that he was stable and they were holding him for observation. He had not yet required blood transfusions and they did not know the exact source of the bleeding but he was still in the emergency department and comfortable.  I drove down that evening and saw dad in the ER. The next evening, unable to find his doctor, I drove down as well and saw dad in his hospital room on the medical floor.  He was weak but in good spirits.  I left a note with his nurse to please ask his physician to call me at his convenience and left my office and cell phone numbers.

Two days later I received a phone call from his long-time physician, who had returned from visiting her family to explain what was going on. She said that his gastroenterologist had been in to see him and he was doing well. The next day after some “tests”, dad’s liquid diet was advanced to a soft diet.

At 5:00 p.m. I received a harried phone call from my mother. She told me that dad was being discharged immediately and that if they stayed longer Medicare would not pay for it and my folks would be totally responsible for the bill. Dad had been in bed for four days, had not walked the halls, had not showered or washed himself and had not yet had a bowel movement since admission.

As a board certified geriatrician I realize the importance of these benchmark pre-discharge steps being achieved BEFORE you send a patient home.  It was too late for dad who was out the door and home.   His aide was upset because she leaves at 7:00 p.m. and she felt dad was too weak to get out of bed and walk to the bathroom without falling. I hired a night nurse and put in a call to his doctor.  I demanded that he be evaluated for a stay in a rehab facility until he was able to ambulate or at least send in a physical therapist to help him regain his strength and ability to walk. A few days of bed rest completely de-conditions most senior citizens and the complications of falls, and their prevention, must be addressed to prevent a bad situation from becoming worse.

His physician told me that “he did not meet criteria for home health assistance or rehabilitation stay” because he had been in the hospital for less than three full days.  I was astonished. He had been in the hospital for five to six days by my count.  She told me his first two days in the hospital were not as an admitted inpatient but as an outpatient observation.   By discharging him at 5:00 p.m. he had missed being an inpatient and qualifying for benefits by several hours.

Outpatient observation status is a game hospital case managers and administrators play to bill more money. When a Medicare senior citizen is admitted as an inpatient the hospital receives a bundled total payment based on the diagnosis or DRG.  If the patient is kept in observational status the hospital is no longer limited to receiving a flat rate but can unbundle the charges and bill ala carte for each service rendered.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in its 12/03/2009 bulletin on page 3 defines outpatient observation services as “the use of a bed and possible monitoring by nursing or other ancillary staff, which are reasonable and necessary to evaluate the patient’s condition for possible inpatient admission.”   The decision as to inpatient admission status or observational status is supposed to be made by the patient’s doctor.  The problem is that is as far as it goes. No one at the CMS level has actually delineated criteria for an inpatient or traditional admission or for outpatient observation.

At the hospital level, administration now places a document on each patient chart requiring the physician to defer that decision to the hospital employed case manager who is not a physician. Over the years, hospital administration has diminished the political power of the individual physicians and medical staff to be advocates for their patients by destroying the medical staff bylaws and infiltrating medical staff governing bodies with physicians loyal to, and employed entirely by, the hospital.

The result is a tremendous conflict of interest with no one watching out for the patient.  The hospital then controls the rules and regulations and can even bully staff members into relinquishing decisions on admission status to the hospital employees rather than the patient’s physician.  One of the reasons hospitalist medicine has become so popular is that hospital administrators love the idea of controlling the physician side of care, something that acted like a “check and balance” in favor of patient advocacy when physicians were independent.

I bring this up because at my community hospital, where I care for my patient’s administration, is now attempting to influence doctors to give up the decision-making on admission and cede it to their case managers as well. A note was sent to the entire staff instructing us to not admit patients who do not meet “interqual” criteria for admission but to let their case managers assign them to observational status.

When I inquired about what interqual criteria were, and where “interqual” criteria were listed in the CMS bulletins or Federal Register, I was told they did not exist there.  Once again the fox is watching the hen house.

In these times of deficit spending and economic crisis hospitals are using our tax dollars to bill ala carte at a higher level and limiting senior citizens right to qualify for necessary post-hospital rehabilitative care by making much of their hospital stay “ observational” as opposed to traditional inpatient status.

I wrote a letter to Memorial Hospital about my dad’s stay and asked to see their criteria for inpatient admission.  Just like my local hospital could not produce criteria, neither could Memorial Hospital. I wondered how a frail 86 year old, dizzy, bleeding rectally and on anti-platelet agents to prevent clotting did not meet criteria for hospital admission?  I received a phone call from the Chief Medical Officer at Memorial Hospital months later saying he had reviewed my dad’s case and he was comfortable with their decision-making.

The issue needs to be addressed by patients, family members, legislators and concerned physicians. Hospital administrations are bullying physicians into relinquishing their advocacy and decision making so that they can charge more using the observational status rather than the inpatient admission status. By using this technique the patient does not meet the three day minimum hospital stay to provide post hospital care and treatment paid for by Medicare and the patients supplemental insurance policies. Once the patient’s personal physician relinquishes decision-making power to the hospital employees, they have created a conflict of interest which, if left unaddressed, will raise health care costs and affect quality of the patient’s care.