Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Community health workers can complement primary care

Several years ago, I attended an academic meeting where the subject of community health workers came up in a discussion. Earlier that year I had read about Vermont's ambitious blueprint for medical homes integrated with community health teams, so I volunteered that we needed fewer specialists and more trained laypersons with ties to their communities to implement prevention strategies. Another physician objected that while community health workers might work well in lower-income countries like India, we didn't need to deploy them in America, where people already know from their doctors that they should eat healthy foods, watch their weight, exercise, and not smoke and don't need others nagging them about it.

But should community health workers be viewed merely as extensions of medical institutions when large proportions of the population will not visit a doctor in a given year? An alternative model, wrote Health Affairs editor Alan Weil,

views CHWs as part of the communities in which they work. The roles of community health workers are defined by the community and CHWs through a process of community engagement. CHWs are valued for their contribution to community health, not for the savings they generate for health plans or providers. CHWs are embedded in the community, not in a clinician’s office or hospital. Advocacy is required to effect a transfer of resources out of clinical care into the community.

On the other hand, a New England Journal of Medicine commentary observed that the absence of connections between community health workers and family physicians can leave them working at cross-purposes:

CHW services are commonly delivered by community-based organizations that are not integrated with the health care system — for example, church-based programs offering blood-pressure screening and education. Without formal linkages to clinical providers, these programs face many of the same limitations — and may produce the same disappointing results — as stand-alone disease-management programs. CHWs cannot work with clinicians to address potential health challenges in real time, and clinicians can't shift nonclinical tasks to more cost-effective CHWs. Indeed, clinicians often don't recognize the value of CHWs because they don't work with them.

How can we bridge this gap? A review in the Annals of Family Medicine provided a list of structure, process, and outcome factors to consider for patient-centered medical homes to partner with peer supporters (a.k.a. community health workers).

For complex patients with multiple health conditions, care coordination is a key role where community health workers could potentially be more successful and cost-effective than expensive projects led by registered nurses or physicians. Reviewing the past decade of Medicare demonstration projects, researchers from the Robert Graham Center drew five lessons for future coordinated care models:

(1) Minimize expenses by sharing resources and avoiding cost ineffective interventions
(2) Concentrate on high utilizers
(3) Foster relationships with both providers and patients
(4) Track patients across the medical neighborhood in real time
(5) Extend rather than duplicate the efforts of primary care practices

Although optimal integration between the roles of community health workers and primary care teams is easier to describe than to achieve, moving both groups toward the common goal of communities of solution will be essential to protecting the health of the whole population.


This post first appeared on Common Sense Family Doctor on September 11, 2015.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Unequal treatment: disparities in how physicians are paid

As a family physician and medical school faculty member, I'm naturally a big booster of primary care. America needs more generalist physicians, not fewer, and much of my professional activity involves encouraging medical students to choose family medicine, or, failing that, general pediatrics or general internal medicine. But it's an uphill battle, and I fear that it's one that can't be won without major structural changes in the way that generalist physicians are paid and rewarded for their work.

In a recent Medicine and Society piece in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Louise Aronson (a geriatrician) described visits with two of her doctors, a general internist and an orthopedist. The primary care physician worked in a no-frills clinic, often ran behind schedule, and devoted much of the visit and additional post-visit time to electronic documentation. The orthopedist worked in a newer, nicer office with an army of medical and physician assistants; generally ran on time; and was accompanied by a scribe who had competed most of the computer work by the end of the visit. Although there are undoubtedly a few family doctors with income parity to lower-earning orthopedists, according to Medscape's 2017 Physician Compensation Report, the average orthopedist makes $489,000 per year, while an average general internist or family physician makes around $215,000 per year. Here's what Dr. Aronson had to say about that:

It would be hard, even morally suspect, to argue that the salary disparities among medical specialties in U.S. medicine are the most pressing inequities of our health care system. Yet in many ways, they are representative of the biases underpinning health care’s often inefficient, always expensive, and sometimes nonsensical care — biases that harm patients and undermine medicine’s ability to achieve its primary mission. ...

Those structural inequalities might lead a Martian who landed in the United States today and saw our health care system to conclude that we prefer treatment to prevention, that our bones and skin matter more to us than our children or sanity, that patient benefit is not a prerequisite for approved use of treatments or procedures, that drugs always work better than exercise, that doctors treat computers not people, that death is avoidable with the right care, that hospitals are the best place to be sick, and that we value avoiding wrinkles or warts more than we do hearing, chewing, or walking.

Medical students are highly intelligent, motivated young men and women who have gotten to where they are by making rational decisions. For the past few decades, as the burden of health care documentation has grown heavier and the income gap between primary care physicians and subspecialists has widened, they have been making a rational choice to flee generalist careers in ever-larger numbers.

The cause of these salary disparities - and the reason that more and more primary care physicians are choosing to cast off the health insurance model entirely - is a task-based payment system that inherently values cutting and suturing more than thinking. I receive twice as much money from an insurer when I spend a few minutes to freeze a wart than when I spend half an hour counseling a patient with several chronic medical conditions. That's thanks to the Resource-Based Relative Value Scale, a system mandated by Congress and implemented by Medicare in 1992 in an attempt to slow the growth of spending on physician services. Every conceivable service that a physician can provide is assigned a number of relative value units (RVUs), which directly determines how much Medicare (and indirectly, private insurance companies) will pay for that service.

As new types of services are developed and older ones modified, the RVUs need to be updated periodically. Since the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) chose not to develop the in-house expertise to do this itself, it farms out the updating task to the Relative Value Scale Update Committee (RUC), a 31-member advisory body convened by the American Medical Association (AMA) and nominated by various medical specialty societies. Here is where the fix is in. Only 5 of the 31 members represent primary care specialties, and over time, that lack of clout has resulted in an undervaluing of Evaluation and Management (E/M) and preventive services (the bulk of services provided by generalist physicians) compared to procedural services. Although an official AMA fact sheet pointed out that some RUC actions have increased payments for primary care, a 2013 Washington Monthly article countered that these small changes did little to alter the "special deal" that specialists receive:

In 2007, the RUC did finally vote to increase the RVUs for office visits, redistributing roughly $4 billion from different procedures to do so. But that was only a modest counter to the broader directionality of the RUC, which spends the vast majority of its time reviewing, updating—and often increasing—the RVUs for specific, technical procedures that make specialists the most money. Because of the direct relationship between what Medicare pays and what private insurers pay, that has the result of driving up health care spending in America—a dynamic that will continue as long as specialists dominate the committee.

We teach our medical students to recognize that inequities in where patients live, work and play are far more powerful in determining health outcomes than the health care we provide. A child living in a middle-class suburb has built-in structural advantages over a child living in a poor urban neighborhood or rural community, due to disparities in economic and social resources. The same goes for how physicians are paid in the U.S. Until the RUC is dramatically reformed or replaced with an impartial panel, the $3 trillion that we spend on health care annually (20 percent of which pays for physician services) will continue to produce shorter lives and poorer health compared to other similarly developed nations.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Self-monitoring doesn't improve control of type 2 diabetes

"Have you been checking your sugars?" I routinely ask this question at office visits involving a patient with type 2 diabetes, whether the patient is recently diagnosed or has been living with the disease for many years. However, the necessity of blood glucose self-monitoring in patients with type 2 diabetes not using insulin has been in doubt for several years.

A 2012 Cochrane for Clinicians published in American Family Physician concluded that "self-monitoring of blood glucose does not improve health-related quality of life, general well-being, or patient satisfaction" (patient-oriented outcomes) and did not even result in lower hemoglobin A1C levels (a disease-oriented outcome) after 12 months. In their article "Top 20 Research Studies of 2012 for Primary Care Physicians," Drs. Mark Ebell and Roland Grad discussed a meta-analysis of individual patient data from 6 randomized trials that found self-monitoring improved A1C levels by a modest 0.25 percentage points after 6 and 12 months of use, with no differences observed in subgroups. Based on these findings, the Society of General Internal Medicine recommended against daily home glucose testing in patients not using insulin as part of the Choosing Wisely campaign.

Still, the relatively small number of participants in trials of glucose self-monitoring, and the persistent belief that it could be useful for some patients (e.g., recent type 2 diabetes diagnosis, medication nonadherence, changes in diet or exercise regimen), meant that many physicians have continued to encourage self-monitoring in clinical practice. In a 2016 consensus statement, the American College of Endocrinology stated that in patients with type 2 diabetes and low risk of hypoglycemia, "initial periodic structured glucose monitoring (e.g., at meals and bedtime) may be useful in helping patients understand effectiveness of medical nutrition therapy / lifestyle therapy."

In a recently published pragmatic trial conducted in 15 primary care practices in North Carolina, Dr. Laura Young and colleagues enrolled 450 patients with type 2 non-insulin-treated diabetes with A1C levels between 6.5% and 9.5% and randomized them to no self-monitoring, once-daily self-monitoring, or once-daily self-monitoring with automated, tailored patient feedback delivered via the glucose meter. Notably, about one-third of participants were using sulfonylureas at baseline. After 12 months, there were no significant differences in A1C levels, health-related quality of life, hypoglycemia frequency, health care utilization, or insulin initiation. This study provided further evidence that although glucose self-monitoring may make intuitive sense, it improves neither disease-oriented nor patient-oriented health outcomes in patients with type 2 diabetes not using insulin. So why are so many clinicians still encouraging patients to do it?


This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Does health insurance save lives? No: primary care does.

Two recent review articles in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Annals of Internal Medicine discussed the relationship between having health insurance and improving health outcomes (including mortality, i.e., "saving lives"). In my latest Medscape commentary, I analyzed these two articles in the context of the debate over the U.S. Senate's Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA), which the Congressional Budget Office has estimated would lead to 22 million more uninsured persons if passed, compared to current law. I concluded that arguments about the effects of gaining or losing health insurance largely miss the point, since any positive effects of insurance are most likely mediated through providing primary care:

It is plausible that the positive effect of insurance on health is real. The next question is, why? It's not because insured people receive more or better care for acute, life-threatening illnesses. Instead, people who gain insurance generally increase their use of preventive services and are more likely to report having a usual source of primary care, which other studies have found is strongly associated with lower mortality. In fact, I would argue that health insurance's positive effects on health are mediated largely through prepaid primary care services.

The American Academy of Family Physicians has joined several other major physician groups in opposing BCRA because absent modifications, it will certainly decrease access to primary care by making insurance unaffordable for low-income and other vulnerable populations who don't qualify for Medicaid or Medicare. But paying for a barely affordable bronze marketplace plan with a $6000 deductible hardly makes primary care affordable, either, outside of a limited list of preventive services. The solution? Make it possible for more people to buy inexpensive primary care without having to go through expensive health insurance.

Health reform proposals should build on the knowledge that primary care saves lives for a fraction of the cost of a health insurance premium. In the long run, Democrats and Republicans could find common ground between their "Medicare for all" and "covering everyone costs too much" positions by removing primary care from the inefficient insurance system entirely. Instead, Congress should guarantee everyone a family doctor through a community health center or direct-pay primary care, as physician and financial planner Carolyn McClanahan has proposed.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Strategies to limit antibiotic resistance and overuse

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 2 million Americans become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, leading directly to at least 23,000 deaths and contributing indirectly to thousands more. Antibiotic resistance occurs in the community, in long-term care facilities, and in hospital settings. Another CDC report on preventing healthcare-associated infections (also discussed in this American Family Physician article) identified six high-priority antibiotic resistance threats: carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), extended-spectrum beta-lactamase-producing Enterobacteriaceae, vancomycin-resistant Enteroccocus, multidrug-resistant Pseudomonas, and multidrug-resistant Acinetobacter.

In a 2014 editorial, "Antibiotic resistance threats in the United States: stepping back from the brink," Dr. Steven Solomon and Kristen Oliver from the CDC identified three strategies that family physicians can use to limit antibiotic resistance: 1) Preventing infections through immunizations, standard infection control practices, and patient counseling; 2) Reporting unexpected antibiotic treatment failures and suspected resistance to local or state health departments; and 3) Prescribing antibiotics more carefully. Unfortunately, inappropriate antibiotic prescribing (also known as antibiotic overuse) is common in primary care, particularly for patients with acute viral respiratory tract infections.

Antibiotic overuse is a multifaceted problem with many potential solutions. On Sunday, July 9th at 7 PM Eastern, Dr. Jennifer Middleton (@singingpendrjen) and I (@kennylinafp) will be taking a deep dive into the evidence on the most effective strategies to curb prescribing of unnecessary antibiotics. American Academy of Family Physicians members and paid AFP subscribers can earn 4 free continuing medical education credits by registering for the #afpcme Twitter Chat, reading three short AFP articles, and completing a post-activity assessment. We hope you can join us!


This post first appeared on the AFP Community Blog.