The Reality of Skilled Nursing Home Stays

The online journal Medscape published a Reuter’s article on Skilled Nursing Facilities and post hospital stays.  They discussed the often-lengthy time span between hospital discharge and the patient being seen by a physician or “an advanced care practitioner”.

Older, more infirm and cognitively impaired patients tend to be seen later than other patients. Apparently the later you are seen, the more likely it is that you will be sent back to the acute care hospital and be readmitted.  The study was conducted by Kira Ryskina of the Perlman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The researchers looked at Medicare claims from nearly 2.4 million patients discharged from acute care hospitals. Her data indicated that when patients were seen by doctors at the facility soon after discharge they tended to recover more often not requiring acute readmission to the hospital for the same problem.

The author went on to say that most families confronted with a family member requiring post hospital rehabilitation at a skilled nursing home do not know what to expect from a skilled nursing facility (SNF).  The truth is, most doctors who practice in the inpatient setting or in surgical and medical specialties have no idea what to expect. They have never gone into one, unless it is for their own recovering family member, and they have never cared for a patient on a daily basis in one.

My first month as a private physician in 1979, my employer took me to the local facilities to meet the administrators, charge nurses and social workers at the facilities. The medical director was a young internist who had no private outpatient office or practices just a nursing home practice at five institutions he called on.  I was told that the law required me to see new patients within 24 hours of arrival, examine them and write a note and review all orders and either approve or change them.  I was surprised that facilities were staffed with only one registered nurse per 40 patients. The RN was required to pass the medications each shift, with most patients being on multiple medications so that most RNs had little time per shift to do much else but pass the medications.

When a patient had a complication or problem the nursing staff called the family member and the doctor. The volume of calls was so immense that the young facility medical director could not find any physicians who would agree to cross-cover with him on the weekends so he could get some time off.  In most cases, even if I decided the phone call related medical problem could be dealt with at the facility, the family decided otherwise and wanted their loved one transported to the ER. Those of us who cared for patients at these SNF’s joked that the protocol for caring for a problem was to call 911 and copy the chart for transfer.

It used to disturb me that EMS services were being diverted to these facilities for non-critical issues taking them away from true emergencies, and delaying response times, but they seemed to like it.  The more trips they were called on, the more evidence they could present for a larger share of the city or county budget.

At some SNFs there was always an EMS bus or ambulance sitting in the parking lot outside.  The patients were insured by Medicare guaranteeing bill payment so the receiving Emergency Department and staff were happy as well.

We were required to see the patient monthly and write a note. I saw sicker and less stable patients more often than monthly.  Progress in rehabilitation was discussed at mid-day care planning conferences that the physicians were rarely made aware of.  My goal for discharge was when the patient could safely transfer from the bed to a walker or wheel chair, get to the bathroom and on and off the toilet safely and; get in and out of a car. If the family could convert their home into a “skilled nursing facility” the patient could go home as well.  Often the patient was sent home by the facility “magically cured” when their insurance benefits ran out.

Most of the work at the facilities is performed by lower paid aides. In my area of practice most of the aides are men and women of color from the Caribbean who have little in common with the mostly Caucasian elderly population they care for. The work is hard and the pay low with the employee turnover rate extraordinarily high annually at most institutions. The patients are elderly, chronically ill, often with impaired cognition, hearing, and vision. Their family’s vision of what should be done is vastly different from what can be accomplished.  I believe most of the staff are caring and well-meaning just under staffed and under trained.  Administrations concerns about liability from medical malpractice, elder abuse and other issues is well founded based on the plethora of ads on prime time TV, newspapers and the sides of travelling public buses touting law firms seeking elder care cases.

It is now harder and harder to actually see patients at these facilities even if you wish to.  While community- based physicians with local hospital privileges were once welcomed and encouraged to attend to their patients at the facility, now the facilities require doctors to go through a lengthy credentialing process – as if you were applying for hospital staff privileges.   When you actually show up and care for your patients you rarely see a physician colleague. Most of the care is assessed and provided by nurse practitioners and physician assistants working for physicians who rarely, if ever, venture into the facilities. They may supervise the care plan on paper but rarely lay eyes or hands on the patient.

These facilities serve a vital role in the post-acute hospital care of patients. According to this study and article, Medicare spent $60 billion dollars in 2015 on this care. When a hospitalized patient has a frail spouse or no spouse at home, with no local nuclear family able to provide home care, the SNF is the only real option.

I suggest families visit the potential choices first. Speak to patients and their families about the care and services.  Review online state inspection and violations records. Ask about the transition from the hospital to the SNF. Who will be responsible for caring for them at the facility?  Meet them and talk to them. Make sure you are on the same page. If you can find a facility that has an onsite physician team with a geriatrician as the chief medical provider.  It may be the best option.

For these transitions to work and save money by stopping the revolving door form hospital to SNF to emergency room for every medical question, the SNF’s need some form of sovereign immunity from frivolous lawsuits if their services and care meet the legally required standards. The recent post- hurricane heat-related tragedy at a Hollywood, Florida nursing home underscores the need for vigilant inspection and regulation of this industry. The good homes need to be identified and need to be given the support and latitude required to care for this ever increasing portion of our American society.

Eggs and Diabetes – New Information

Diabetes has been known as a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases for years. Egg consumption was discouraged by experts.   Our perception of eggs as they relate to diabetes and heart disease may have to be reconsidered based on a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in May 2015

The Kuopio Ischemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study enrolled 2,332 men, aged 42 -60 years old, and followed them for more than nineteen years.  Four hundred thirty-two participants developed Type 2 Diabetes.  Men who ate the most eggs demonstrated a 38% lower risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes in this study.  Higher egg intake was associated with lower levels of fasting plasma glucose and serum C – reactive protein.

The researchers published a follow up paper in the Journal of Molecular Nutrition and Food Research this year and came up with similar results stating that “moderate egg consumption of eggs can be part of a healthy dietary pattern for preventive action against Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus.” Their definition of moderate was an average of one egg or less per day.

This is preliminary data involving eggs will be discussed and battled over for years to come. What is important is that once again a modest intake of a protein in moderation is probably not deleterious as previously thought.

When dealing with diabetes, lifestyle issues such as weight control, smoking status, alcohol intake, regular exercise and simple carbohydrate intake are far more important issues to address than egg consumption in moderation.  This topic was reviewed in the latest online publication of Medscape Medical News. 

Who Says Concierge Practice Is Unjust For Patients And Doctors Alike?

Medscape Medical Ethics published an article in August 2011 written by Art Caplan, PhD., Professor of Bioethics and Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania claiming that Concierge Practice Is Unjust For Patients And Doctors alike.  A PDF of the article is attached for your review.  Concierge Practice Unjust For Patients and Doctors Alike by Art Caplan, PhD.

I am in disagreement with Mr. Caplan’s article.  Below is my perspective.

Like the shots fired at Concord and Lexington in 1776, concierge medicine and direct pay practices are the initial shots fired by concerned primary care physicians in the revolution against health care systems which limit access to physicians and destroy the doctor / patient relationship. Concierge medicine arose as a result of government, private insurance, and employer intrusion into the health care field destroying primary care and a physician’s ability to spend the time required with patients to adequately and comprehensively prevent and treat disease.

The only thing that is unjust or unethical about concierge and direct pay practices is that they had to be formed to begin with. They formed after 30 years of:

  1. Primary care doctors lobbying unsuccessfully for adequate compensation for evaluation and management services and for protesting the widening gap between cognitive services and procedural specialty practices.
  2. Going through channels protesting the unfair bureaucratic and administrative burdens placed on primary care practices by Medicare, Medicaid and private insurers.
  3. Warning that the population is aging and their chronic health care problems are far more complex requiring more time with a physician rather than less.
  4. Primary care physicians leaving medical practice for early retirement or for paid jobs with pharmaceutical companies, medical device manufacturers and hospital administrations where hard work and achievement were rewarded without having to deal with system imposed overheads of up to 65 cents on the dollar.
  5. Legislators providing no relief from frivolous lawsuits which makes seeing complex patients in 5-10 minute sessions for “single problem directed visits” a legal liability.
  6. Medical students realizing that the time and financial commitment to the practice of primary care medicine didn’t cover the bills essentially directing them toward more lucrative procedure dominated specialties.

Physicians also left after salaried academic physicians, who never took risk and invested a cent of their own money in building a practice, pontificated and moralized in peer journals supported wholeheartedly by biased pharmaceutical company ads that generating passive income through shared labs and imaging centers was a kickback.

If we look at the data accumulating on care from concierge and direct pay practices, we find that despite a sicker patient population these practices generate fewer visits to emergency departments and fewer acute emergent hospitalizations saving the system money.  These practices provide coordinated care for their patients steering them through a complex and confusing health care system riddled with inappropriate advertising and claims and, get the patients to the best people to treat their problems.

Concierge physicians have more time to spend with their patients thus, achieving unheard of levels of retention and patient satisfaction while giving pro bono scholarships to patients who cannot afford their membership fees but were with them prior to their conversion to a retainer model.

After years of being on the conveyor belt of having to see more patients per day, every day, to stay abreast of system generated overhead cost increases and declining payment for services, concierge physicians now have time to teach students, volunteer at health fairs and screenings and participate in the stewardship of what remains of their profession.

If anything is unjust and unethical it is salaried academic non-physicians writing articles about morality and justice about issues they have no hands-on experience practicing. As a primary care physician for 32 years, I feel like a chameleon having to change colors and practice style every few years based on new rules imposed by private insurers, employers and government programs. At no time were these new rules designed to improve the patients’ access to care or total care.  In each case the new rules were designed to save money and do nothing else.

Concierge and direct pay medicine is the first volley in a revolution to take outstanding care of a smaller panel of older sicker patients on a long term basis.  Its proponents have worked hard for decades to change the system through channels. Failure of legislators, government bureaucrats, health insurers, employers and professional associations such as the AMA and the ACP to react and fix the inequities has generated these practices which cost less than a cup of Starbucks grand latte per day to be a patient of and provide comprehensive care and access.