Tag Archives: surgery

Why Your Doctor Is Never on Time

Why is it that every time I go to a doctor, I am given an appointment for a precise time, and then every single time the doctor shows up at least 20 minutes late? Does the healthcare system hate me? Do doctors not want to fix the problem? Or are they just simply incompetent?

To dig deeper into the question, we at LeanTaaS dove into the operations of more than 50 healthcare providers this past year. We looked at resource utilization profiles at three different types of clinics – cancer infusion treatment, oncology and hematology – to understand the problem and how best to solve it.

The truth is that most healthcare providers have the patient’s interest at heart and are trying their level best. However, “optimal patient slotting” is a lot more complex than might appear on the surface – in fact, it is “googol-sized” in complexity. The good news is it’s a problem solvable with advanced data science; the sobering news is it MUST be solved if we are to handle the incoming onslaught of an increasing, aging patient population all carrying affordable insurance over the next 20 years.

The Doctor Will Be Right With You. NOT.

There are few things I take for granted in life, and waiting to see a doctor is one of them. The average wait time for a routine visit to a physician is 24 minutes. I am sure I am not the only one who has sat in a doctor’s waiting room thinking, “You said you would see me at 3:00 p.m. – why am I being called at 3:24? This happens every time; I bet you could have predicted it. So, why didn’t you just ask me to come at 3:24 instead?”

A Press Ganey study of 2.3 million patients at 10,000 sites nationwide found that a five-minute wait can drop patient satisfaction by 5%, a 10-minute wait by 10% and more than 10 minutes by 20%.

Source: http://www.pressganey.com/

 

That 24-minute stat is, in fact, not so bad compared with anyone who has had to get an infusion (chemo) treatment, visit a diabetes clinic, prepare for surgery or see just about any specialist. Those wait times can be hours.

Just visit any hospital or infusion center waiting room, and you will see the line of patients who have brought books, games and loved ones along to pass that agonizing wait time before the doctor sees them.

I spent the past year researching this problem and saw for myself just how overworked and harried nurses and doctors operating across the healthcare system are. I spoke to several nurses who have had days they were not able to take a single bathroom break. Clinics routinely keep a “missed meal metric” – how often nurses miss lunch breaks – and most of the ones I spoke to ring that bell loudly every day. I even heard of stories of nurses suing hospitals for having to go a whole day without breaks or meals.

The fact is that long patient wait times are terrible for hospitals, too. Long wait times are symptomatic of chronically inefficient “patient flow” through the system, and that has serious negative impact on the hospital’s economic bottom line and social responsibility:

  • Lower Access and Revenue: A natural corollary to long patient wait times is that the hospital sees fewer patients than it possibly could each day. The Medical Group Management Association found that the average utilization of operating rooms at large hospitals in 2013 was only 53%. Fewer patients served directly implies reduced access to care, lower revenues and higher unit costs.
  • Rising Labor Costs and Declining Nurse Satisfaction: Nurses are an expensive and scarce skill set. Because of the “peaks and valleys” caused by inefficient scheduling during the day, hospitals have to staff for the “peak” and simultaneously experience periods of low activity while still needing significant overtime hours from nurses.

Hospital leaders know this well. Every administrator I spoke to in my research – CEO / CAO / CNO – has some kind of transformation effort going on internally to improve patient flow – “lean” teams, 6-sigma teams, rules for how to schedule patients when they call into various clinics and so on. Leaders know that if patients could be scheduled perfectly and doctors could see them on time, the resulting “smoothing of patient flow” throughout the system would make their facilities, staff and the bottom line much better off.

The Real Reason

It’s not for a lack of motivation that the system is broken. It’s just a complex math problem.

The system is broken because hospitals are using a calculator, standard electronic health record (EHR) templates and a whiteboard to solve a math problem that needs a cluster of servers and data scientists to crunch.

To illustrate why scheduling is such a complex problem, let’s take the case of a mid-sized infusion (chemo) treatment center I studied during my research.

This infusion center has 33 chairs and sees approximately 70 patients a day. Infusion treatments come in different lengths (e.g., 1-2 hours, 3-4 hours and 5-plus hours long), and the typical daily mix of patients for these three types are 35 patients, 25 patients and 10 patients, respectively. The center schedules patients every 15 minutes starting at 8:00 a.m. with the last appointment offered at 5:30 p.m. So there are 39 possible starting times: 8:00 a.m., 8:15 a.m., 8:30 a.m., etc, ending at 5:30 p.m. The center can accommodate three simultaneous starts because of the nursing workload of getting a patient situated, the IV connected, etc. That makes a total of 39*3 = 117 potential “appointment start slots.”

That may not seem like a lot, but it results in 2.6 times 10 to the 61st power possible ways to schedule a typical, 70-patient day. (I’ll save you the math.) That’s 26 million million million million million million million million million million possibilities.

And that number is just the start. Now add in the reality of a hospital – some days nurse schedules are different from others, the pattern of demand for infusion services varies widely by day of week, doctors’ schedules are uneven across the week, special occurrences like clinical trials or changes in staff need to be considered and so on. You are looking at a problem that you can’t solve with simple heuristics and rules of thumb.

How Today’s “Patient-Centric” Scheduling Often Works – and Backfires

Very few hospitals I spoke to understand or consider this math. Rather, in trying to “make the patient happy,” most providers have been trained to use a “first come, first served” approach to booking appointments. Sometimes, providers use rules of thumb based on their knowledge of busy times of day or week, e.g., start long appointments in the morning and shorter ones later.

If hospitals were scheduling patients for one chair, one nurse and the same treatment type, some simple rules could work. But reality is a lot more complicated – the right schedule would need to consider varying treatment times across patients, include multiple treatment rooms/chairs, varying staff schedules, lab result availability and so on. Without sophisticated tools, there is an almost zero chance a scheduler can arrange appointments so treatment durations fall like Tetris blocks that align perfectly over the course of the day, and seamlessly absorb patients as they arrive, orchestrating doctor, nurse and room availability, while accounting for all the other constraints of the operation.

In effect, hospitals are scheduling “blind,” not taking into account the effect of appointments already scheduled before, during or soon after the slot being allotted on a first-come basis. Schedule currently is like adding traffic to rush hour and almost always results in a “triangle shaped utilization curve” – massive peaks in the middle of the day and low utilization on either side.

Typical utilization in an infusion treatment center with 63 chairs

 

Each of the 50 hospitals I spoke to identified precisely with this utilization curve. In fact, they identify with “the midday rush and slower mornings and evenings” so well that they have given them affectionate names – one called it their “Mount Everest,” another “Mount Rainier.”

From a cancer center’s standpoint, this chair utilization curve has several issues even beyond long patient wait times:

  • The center can only see a fraction of patients it could have with a “flatter” utilization curve.
  • Nurse scheduling has to be done for the peak, and the treatment center typically deals with lots of overtime issues.
  • Nurses find it hard to take lunch breaks because of the midday peak, while half the time the chairs are empty.
  • On any day, given the number of interdependent moving parts, a small perturbation to the system (e.g., a patient’s labs are late, another patient didn’t arrive on time) creates a domino effect, further exacerbating delays, not unlike a fender bender in rush hour traffic that delays everyone for hours.

In effect, when hospitals think they are scheduling in patient-centric ways, they are doing exactly the opposite.

They are promising patients what they cannot deliver – instead of giving the patient that 10:00 a.m. Wednesday appointment, an 11:40 a.m. appointment may have been much better for the patient and the whole system.

As we will see, the patient could have had a 70% shorter wait time, the hospital could have seen 20% more patients that week, every nurse could have taken a lunch break every day and a lot less (if any) overtime would have been required.

So How Do You Solve This “Googol-Sized Patient Slotting” Problem?

The solution lies in data science and mathematics, using inspiration from lean manufacturing practices pioneered by Toyota decades ago, such as push-pull models, production leveling, reducing waste and just-in-time production.

In mathematical terms, it means taking those 10^61 possibilities and imposing the right set of “constraints” – demand patterns, staffing schedules, desired breaks and whatever is unique to the hospital’s specific situation – to come up with a much tighter set of possible patient arrangements that solve for maximizing the utilization of hospital resources and therefore the number of patients seen.

In the case of the infusion center, the algorithm optimizes utilization of infusion chairs, making sure they are occupied uniformly for as much of the day as possible as opposed to the “peaks and valleys” in Figure 3. In essence, “rearranging the way the Tetris blocks (patients) come in” so they appear in the exact order they can be met by a nurse, prepped and readied for a doctor whose schedule has been incorporated into the algorithm.

The first step in doing this is mining the pattern of prior appointments to develop a realistic estimate of the volume and mix of appointment types for each day of the week.

The second step is imposing the real operational constraints in the clinic (e.g., the hours of operation, doctor and nurse schedules, the number of chairs, various “rules” that depend on clinic schedules, as well as patient-centric policies such as that treatments longer than four hours should be assigned to a bed and not a chair).

Finally, constraint-based optimization techniques can be applied to create an optimal pattern of “slots,” which reflect the number of “appointment starts” of each duration.

In the case of the infusion center, that means how many one-hour duration, three-hour duration and five-hour duration slots can be made available at each appointment time (i.e. 7:00 a,m., 7:15 a.m., 7:30 a.m. and so on).

Optimized shape of utilization curve for the same center as in Figure 1. 20% lower peak, much smoother utilization of resources, significant capacity freed

 

Doing this optimally results in moving the chair utilization graph from the “triangle that peaks somewhere between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.” in Figure 3 to a “trapezoid that ramps up smoothly between 7:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m., stays flat from 9:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. and then ramps down smoothly from 4:00 p.m. on” in Figure 4.

Coming up with realistic slots that keep patients moving smoothly throughout the day cuts patient waiting times drastically, reduces nurse overtime without eliminating breaks and keeps chair utilization as high as possible for as long as possible. Small perturbations in this system are more like a fender bender at midnight, a small annoyance that causes a few minutes of delay for a small number of people instead of holding up rush hour traffic for hours.

Smoothing Patient Flow – A Large Economic Opportunity

The above graphs are sanitized versions of real data from a cancer infusion treatment center at a real hospital that used these techniques to solve their flow problems. The results they achieved are staggering and point to the massive economic and social opportunity optimal patient flow presents.

Post implementation of a product called “LeanTaaS iQueue,” they now experience:

  • 25% higher patient volumes
  • 17% lower unit cost of service delivery
  • 31% decrease in median patient wait times
  • 50% lower nurse overtime
  • Significantly higher nurse satisfaction – no missed meals

Imagine applying this kind of performance improvement to every clinic, hospital and surgery suite in the country and the impact it will have on population health through increased patient access to the system.

The Problem Is Going to Get a Lot Worse Unless Providers Address It Now

This problem is going to get a lot worse for a simple reason – the demand for medical services has never been stronger, and it’s only going to increase. Just looking at the U.S. market:

  • Population Growth: By 2050, there will be more than 438 million Americans, up from 320 million in 2015.
  • Demographics: By 2030, more than 20% of the country is expected to be older than 65, up from 15% in 2015 – increasing the demand for chronic clinical therapies. In raw numbers, the Census Bureau estimates that by 2030, when the last round of Baby Boomers will hit retirement age, the number of Americans older than 65 will hit 71 million, up from 41 million in 2011, a 73% increase. When this happens, one in five Americans will be older than 65. Not surprisingly, by 2025, 49% of Americans will be affected by a chronic disease and need corresponding therapies.
Access to healthcare is a looming crisis – multiple drivers of significant demand growth

  • The Affordable Care Act: The Affordable Care Act will add 30 million Americans to the healthcare system by 2025. That means more demand for healthcare – more doctor visits, more hospital visits, more emergency emergency room visits and more need for resources (e.g., surgery rooms, MRI / CAT scans). Reimbursements will increasingly depend on outcomes and efficacy, quality of care and patient access. Unless providers become a lot more efficient in how they process and treat patients, they will need to spend billions in capital spending on new infrastructure – clinics, operating rooms, infusion centers and the like.
  • In an online poll conducted by the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP), 86% expect emergency visits to increase over the next three years. More than three-fourths (77%) say their ERs are not adequately prepared for significant increases.
  • The Commonwealth Fund, a New York-based fund that tracks healthcare performance, projects that primary care providers will see, on average, 1.34 additional office visits per week, accounting for a 3.8% increase in visits nationally. Hospital outpatient departments will see, on average, 1.2 to 11 additional visits per week, or an average increase of about 2.6% nationally.
  • It is estimated that the U.S. will face a shortage of 90,000 physicians and 500,000 nurses by 2030.

The Good News

Most healthcare providers are waking up to the fact that their operations need a data-driven, scientific overhaul much the same way as auto manufacturing, semiconductor manufacturing and all other asset-intensive, “flow”-based systems have experienced.

The good news is that there are tools, software and resources that can be used to bring about this transformation. Companies like LeanTaaS are at the forefront of this thinking and are applying complex data science algorithms to help hospitals solve these problems.

Hospitals that are serious about solving patient flow issues and the related problems now have access to the best computational minds and tools.

I see a world in which our healthcare system can see every patient on time without imposing hardship on care providers, disruption on current processes or increasing cost of services.

Here’s to that world!

5 Apps That May Transform Healthcare

Talk about being in a room with a lot of smart people! Wow!

HITLAB, a healthcare innovation technology and teaching lab based in New York, just sponsored its second annual World Cup event at Columbia University for aspiring healthcare technology entrepreneurs and start-ups. The HITLAB staff, who blew me away with their creative energy, brought together the best and the brightest in academia, the business world, the insurance industry and the healthcare technology sector for this two-day event.

Out of 192 applicants, five finalists were selected to present potentially revolutionary technology and ideas on a wide range of global public health problems that have been around since the time Moses wore short pants and that someday soon may have the kind of impact Louis Pasteur and Steve Jobs did.

The beauty of these five finalists is that their solutions are so simple that even someone from Jersey City like me can easily understand. The health insurance industry and the malpractice insurance industry should stand up and take notice.

Noninvasix — Keeping Babies Safe

For starters, what if we could reduce brain injuries in newborns by 90%? That is what the CEO of Noninvasix (www.noninvasix.com ), Graham Randall, PhD, MBA, based in Houston, is working on.  The technology is designed to monitor the levels of oxygen molecules in the brains of infants; lack of oxygen causes many permanent brain injuries. This technology was originally funded by the Department of Defense and the NIH, among others, to address traumatic brain injuries in wounded veterans and other adults. Randall’s colleagues discovered a way to use this technology, known as an optoacoustic oxygenation monitor, to detect brain oxygenation levels in babies during active labor.

Gary Hankins, MD, who is the vice chair of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology Task Force on Neonatal Encephalopathy and Cerebral Palsy, said, “This technology has the potential to eliminate up to 90% of cases of hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy and subsequent permanent injuries such as cerebral palsy.” The problem with simply using current technology such as a fetal heart monitor-which dates back 40 years-is that it does not accurately measure the levels of oxygen in the brain. In fact, 80% of results are indeterminate or unknown. The new technology can help prevent brain hypoxia (or lack of sufficient oxygen) at birth, which is responsible for 23% of neonatal mortality in the world.

This technology may also help revolutionize obstetrics. OB-GYN physicians have the highest rate of malpractice insurance, with reported annual premiums as high as $200,000 in some states. More than 75% of OB/GYN physicians have been sued for malpractice, with an average of 2.7 lawsuits per physician. Most lawsuits relate to neurologically impaired infants, whose issues get blamed on the doctor during delivery. It has been reported that as many as 50% of OB-GYN physicians have cut back on their practice because of the fear of malpractice claims. Many have moved their practices to states that have less expensive premiums because of legislative caps on liability.

Hospitals, healthcare systems and health insurers should also take notice because the rate of unnecessary surgery has been widely believed to be too high since I walked the hallowed halls of Columbia University 34 years ago. C-section rates have, in fact, nearly doubled over the past 10 years from 17% to 34% of all births in the U.S. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends C-section rates in the range of 10-15%. The Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Hospitals now requires hospitals to report C-section rates, and many health insurers now pay a bundled rate for deliveries and not a separate, higher rate for C-sections. Many health researchers believe the high rate of unnecessary C-sections is because of the fear of malpractice lawsuits, and Graham Randall believes that false positives from fetal heart monitors also play a huge role. C-sections are the most common surgery in the U.S., with 1.2 million performed each year, and they carry risks such as blood clots and surgical infections to both mother and baby.

Ceeable — Preventing Blindness

Chris Adams, the CEO of Ceeable, based in Somerville, Mass. (www.ceeable.com), won this year’s World Cup competition. “I am here to prevent blindness,” he said. Ceeable was formed in 2014 to commercialize a mobile digital eye exam platform that was co-invented with Dr. Wolfgang Fink at Caltech with assistance from scientists at NASA, the University of Arizona, the Doheny Eye Institute at UCLA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

This mobile field test is a perfect example of the potential for telemedicine. Current technology, used by ophthalmologists, optometrists and eye care clinics in strip malls across America and around the world are expensive, and not very mobile. Today’s eye exams are tedious. (Bats have much better eyesight than I do, so I have experience with tests.) The equipment typically costs $35,000 and weighs roughly 100 pounds.  By contrast, Ceeable only needs a tablet with a touch screen and the Internet to perform a 3-D early detection for glaucoma, muscular degeneration disease, other causes of vision problems and the actual onset of blindness.

The test is user-friendly and can be performed anywhere in the world. The test can even be performed at home, which is brilliant. Although health insurers pay for eye exams at no cost under the ACA, patients are typically limited to two visits per year. With this inexpensive mobile device, people at risk can perform tests as often as they like.

More than 285 million people worldwide suffer from diseases that cause blindness, such as diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration. The Ceeable technology is now deployed in vision clinics in the U.S., Mexico and Russia and will soon be available in developing countries.

Rubitection — Managing Bedsores

Sanna Gaspard, the CEO and founder of Rubitection, based in Pittsburgh, received her PhD from Carnegie Mellon University, and her start-up has developed a handheld diagnostic device and software system to modernize the detection and management of bedsores. Rubitection has been part of Project Olympus at the Carnegie Mellon incubator program.

When I met her, I interrupted her within 60 seconds and said, “I get it.” My mother ended up in a nursing home when she was overcome with organic dementia. She became so fragile from old age that the nurses could hardly touch her skin without it turning black and blue. They also had to check her frequently for bedsores. 

Turns out I didn’t get it about bedsores at all. What I didn’t know, until Gaspard told me, is that bedsores can be life-threatening. Complications from bedsores, such as infections, kill 60,000 people every year in the U.S. The average cost to treat bedsores in acute cases is $43,000 each and may reach $70,000; there are more than 2.3 million bedsore cases a year in the U.S., costing $11 billion in total.

Medical expenses resulting from bedsores are not reimbursable under Medicare if they developed after someone was admitted to a facility. The facility has to eat the costs.

Current technology that monitors for bedsores is very expensive and difficult to use. The current standard of care is typically a manual skin palpitation and visual inspection. The Rubitech Assessment System (RAS) provides a reliable early detection handheld device for patients at risk with bedsores, helping to address a global public health problem that I didn’t even know existed beyond discomfort and pain for the patient. Rubitection www.rubitection.com came in a well-deserved second place.

Now I get it.

Homeward — Getting the Medication Right

Joe Gough, president and CEO of Homeward Healthcare in Toledo, Ohio www.homewardhc.com, told how his six-year-old son was misdiagnosed at a hospital emergency room and was sent home with the wrong medication. All his vital signs crashed. Luckily, his life was saved upon readmission, and today he is a healthy young man. Many others are not so fortunate.

Again, I immediately could relate to misdiagnosis and incorrect medications. My dad was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, and his cardiologist told me he had two months to two years to live. Several months later, I got a call: “You have to come home because your father is in the hospital, and we need to amputate both his legs because he is not getting enough blood circulation down there. We need you to tell him.”

I hopped on the next flight. When I told my dad the situation, he had the perfect answer: “Throw me out the window now.”

Turns out he was on all the wrong medications, and the poor circulation in his legs was actually more because of blockage in his carotid artery. The plan to amputate his legs would have done nothing to save his life. I got him admitted to a new hospital with a new cardiologist. My dad got to live a couple more years before he finally took his first day off from work, at his funeral. We buried him with both his legs.

So, I get misdiagnosis, wrong medications and poor discharge planning.

Gough and the researchers at Homeward Healthcare have created interactive software for hospitals, patients and payers that the patient can control on a touchscreen tablet from her bedside. Multimedia, real-time discharge planning that includes a patient dashboard will produce better outcomes, free staff time and resources and vastly improve communications.

Gough had begun his presentation by telling us that most people toss their discharge instructions as they walk out the hospital door — but no more. His technology has great potential to reduce hospital readmissions. A key component is a psychosocial assessment to determine who is at risk of not following the discharge plan.

There are also reminders about the correct use of proper medications, and I get the need for that, too. Patients must own their care plan. My oldest brother, upon release from a hospital a few years ago, was told he needed to lose weight and stop smoking. The first thing he did when he got home was have a large bowl of ice cream and a cigarette. I threw his discharge plan in the waste basket.

It is estimated that $26 billion is spent annually from readmissions. The reduction of readmission rates is now a major initiative under both Obamacare and the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals. The Homeward Healthcare technology is now being used in 23 hospitals, and I am told nurses doing discharge planning just love it.

Ristcall — a Mobile, Smart Watch Nursing Station

Srinath Vaddepally, the CEO and founder of Ristcall, with offices in both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, has designed a wireless, wearable smart device for both hospital patients and nurses. I like to think of it as a mobile smart watch nursing station.

The idea for this technology, designed with researchers from Carnegie Mellon, came about when, as a hospital patient, Vaddepally fell in his hospital room and could not reach the call button on the bed. Turns out 70% of all patient falls in a hospital occur in the patient’s room, with 40% occurring while walking to the bathroom. The average cost to a hospital for a patient fall is $20,000 per case, and the annual reduction in Medicare reimbursements can reach $200,000.

Ristcall (www.ristcall.com) has a great point. How do you call a nursing station if you are lying on a floor and can’t reach the call button? In addition, how can you reach a nurse who is busy caring for multiple patients and is not at the nursing station?  Even when you ring the traditional call button, the nurse has no idea why you are calling; he has to walk to your room to find out.

As I told Dr. Michelle Odlum, a postdoctoral research scientist at the Columbia School of Nursing, nurses rock! They are the heart and soul of our healthcare system, but they are often overworked, and they don’t have eyes in the back of their heads.

Now, with the help of Project Olympus-which provided incubator space at Carnegie Mellon-nurses can soon have a real-time alert for all traditional patient requests. Nurses will be able to rock even more.

If you are a healthcare technology entrepreneur, I highly recommend applying for this award or sponsoring next year’s HITLAB World Cup Summit. It will be held once again at Lehner Hall at Columbia University in New York, from Nov. 28 to Dec. 2, 2016.

For more information, visit www.hitlab.org.

It was a real pleasure to meet these outstanding World Cup finalists and the HITLAB staff. I learned a great deal and made friends I feel I will now have for a lifetime.

Unnecessary Surgery: When Will It End?

Unnecessary surgery: When is it going to end? Not any time soon, unless a documented and proven approach is used by health benefit plan sponsors.

I began my healthcare career 35 years ago when, as a graduate student at Columbia University School of Public Health, I was awarded a full scholarship as a public health intern at Cornell Medical College in New York City. Dr. Eugene McCarthy at Cornell was the medical director of a Taft-Hartley joint union/management health benefits self-administered fund at the time and my mentor. I worked on the Building Service 32 B-J Health Fund, which was the focus of an eight-year study sponsored by the then-Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services, or HHS) and which was the first study on second surgical opinions.

The study (1972-1980) followed union members and their families who were told they needed elective surgery and documented that roughly 30% of recommended surgeries turned out to be medically unnecessary. The study found 12 surgeries that generated the most second opinions that didn’t confirm the original diagnosis. This list comprises: back surgery, bone surgery and bunions of the foot, cataract removal, cholecystectomy, coronary bypass, hysterectomy, knee surgery, mastectomy, prostatectomy, hip surgery, repair of deviated septum and tonsillectomy.

What has changed on this list 35 years later? Very little, if anything.

USA Today on March 12, 2013, reported on a study that found that; “tens of thousands of times each year patients undergo surgery they don’t need.” After the release of this study, a former surgeon and professor at the Harvard School of Public Health stated that: “It is a very serious issue, and there really hasn’t been much movement to address it.”

A CNN special on March 10, 2013, reported that the U.S. spent $2.7 trillion on healthcare per year and that 30%, or roughly $800 billion, was wasted on care that did not improve outcomes. Sound familiar? The Cornell study said the same thing 31 years earlier.

Public and private employers, health, disability and workers’ comp insurers and state and federal programs such as Medicare and Medicaid are doing very little, if anything, to effectively address this problem. The solution to preventing unnecessary care and surgery is not in raising co-pays and deductibles and other out of pocket costs unless they are tied to consumer education and well-designed second-opinion programs.

In response to the USA Today article, a leading medical expert said, “You can shop for a toaster better than prostate surgery, because we don’t give patients enough information.” Another leading surgeon stated; “Far too many patients are having surgeries they don’t need, with associated major and severe complications such as long-term disability and even death.” Furthermore, “I see patients with neck and back problems, and at least 1/3 are scheduled for operations they don’t need, with no clinical findings except pain.”

What is the principal focus of today’s multibillion-dollar managed care industry, especially in workers’ compensation? Provider discounts, that’s what. But how is it a savings if the patient receives a discount on an operation he doesn’t need?

Most often, when I ask that question I am met with blank stares.

The New England Journal of Medicine in 2009 stated that a common knee surgery for osteoarthritis “isn’t effective in treating patients with moderate to severe forms of the disease.” Yet, according to federal researchers, 985,000 Americans have arthroscopic knee surgery each year, and 33% (more than 300,000) are for osteoarthritis “despite overwhelming medical evidence that arthroscopic surgery is not effective therapy for advanced osteoarthritis of the knee.”

According to the chairman of cardiovascular medicine at the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic, the U.S. health system is “doing a lot of heart procedures that people don’t need.” For example, angioplasty stent surgery in heart patients will likely relieve pain but “will not help a person live longer and will not protect against having another heart attack… What’s worse is that many of these surgeries will lead to bad outcomes.” He said, “This procedure should be performed for patients having a heart attack, but 95% of patients who have angioplasty surgery are not the result of a heart attack.”

The estimate on the direct medical costs to American businesses for low back pain is $90 billion a year; this doesn’t include workers’ compensation indemnity and litigation costs, disability costs, sick days and indirect costs such as lost productivity. As reported in my previous article, The Truth about Treating Low Back Pain, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) estimated that 40% of initial back surgeries, which amounts to more than 80,000 patients per year, have “failed back surgeries.” These unsuccessful back surgeries most often lead to a lifetime of debilitating back pain and billions more in long-term disability and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) costs. These patients — four out of every 10 — all wish they had received a second opinion now. Yet when I recommended a second-opinion program to a union health fund in New Jersey, the manager said: “I am not going to tell my union members they need to get a second opinion.” True story.

Although we were scheduled to have an informal lunch meeting, after I recommended the fund consider a second-opinion program the “lunch” part of the meeting disappeared, even though I had driven two hours to get there. Maybe that is where the expression there is “no such thing as a free lunch” comes from? The health fund manager was downright indignant about my suggestion even though the first-second opinion program was conducted on behalf of a union health fund and was overwhelmingly successful.

He did describe, however, how upset he was about the fund’s rising healthcare costs. I guess he just wanted to be able to complain about it instead of actually doing something about it on behalf of his members. (The president of the union confided in me afterward that he had failed back surgery many years ago and wished he had gone for a second opinion.)

A colleague of my mine who is a senior vice president of product development for a leading third-party administrator (TPA) confided that insurance companies and TPAs will not implement programs that I could design and implement for their clients because they would never admit it was a good idea, given that they didn’t invent it.

I also hear all the time from so-called experts that second surgical opinions don’t work and don’t save money.

But large self-insured employers and health, disability and workers’ comp insurers should follow the lead of the top sports teams who send their top athletes for second opinions all the time to places like the Hospital for Special Surgery (HHS) and New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia Medical Center in Manhattan or UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles.

When I send client employees or friends and neighbors for second opinions, they often tell me that their appointment was with the same doctor Tiger Woods or Derek Jeter went to. My response is, “exactly.” Very often, conservative treatment is recommended and produces great patient outcomes, especially for back injuries and diagnoses for conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome. (See Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: It’s Time to Explode the Myth.)

Most, if not all, top surgeons I have met welcome second opinions for their patients because, when surgery is recommended, they want their patients to be assured that another expert also believes it is in their best interests.

I interned at the first second-surgical opinion in the country. I wrote my master’s thesis at Columbia on what I learned and how to improve upon the design and administration of the very successful Cornell program. Although the phrase, “I want a second opinion,” is now common terminology in America from auto repair to surgery, it has not reduced the overall amount of unnecessary surgery. If your program is not successful or not saving money it is because there is a serious flaw in the design and administration.

What I have documented since I designed or administered the first corporate second-opinion benefit programs back in the early 1980s are several key components of a successful program. First, it must be mandatory for the plan member to receive a second opinion for selected elective surgeries. Remember, elective surgery, by definition, means scheduled in advance, not for life-threatening conditions. Second, the second-opinion physician must not be associated with the physician recommending surgery. The physician must truly be an independent board-certified expert. Third, the second-opinion physician cannot perform the surgery; this provision removes any conflict of interest.

In addition, although a plan member should be required to receive a second opinion to receive full benefits under the health plan, the decision on whether to have surgery is entirely up to the patient. The whole idea is to educate the patient on the pros and cons of proposed surgery and the potential benefits for non-surgical treatment or different type of surgery (lumpectomy vs total mastectomy, for example). (I also developed a process of administrative deferrals for instances when it would be impractical to obtain a second opinion or when the conditions were so overwhelming that the need for a second opinion could be waived.)

It is only by helping to make patients truly informed consumers of healthcare and educating them on the benefits of alternative surgical treatments that a program can be successful. Voluntary programs simply don’t work. Rarely do patients seek second opinions on their own, and most often do not know where to obtain and arrange for a top-notch second opinion. In addition, they often feel uncomfortable and do not want to tell their physician they are seeking a second opinion. That is why I found that a program only really works when patients can state that their “health plan requires that I get a second opinion.” The mandatory approach reduces unnecessary surgery dramatically and saves the plan sponsor money with at least 10:1 return on investment.

The most amazing reduction of unnecessary surgery and resulting savings to the plan sponsor comes simply by implementing and communicating the benefits and requirements of the program design that I outlined above. The reason is known as the “Sentinel Effect.” What the original Cornell study and others have documented is at least a 10% reduction in the amount of recommended elective surgery simply from announcing the program is now in effect. No need for an actual second opinion; merely require one!

Now that is cost-effective!

Scandal of Unneeded Knee Replacements

HR and benefits managers need to wake up: As a Reuters report by Will Boggs says in the headline, “One-third of knee replacements in the U.S. may be inappropriate.” Ouch.

But, by today’s surgery standards, the story should come as a surprise to no one.

The article says, “Judging by the symptoms of people with knee arthritis, one-third of knee replacement surgeries may be inappropriate, according to a new study.” The lead author of that study, Daniel L. Riddle from Virginia Commonwealth University, said, “We found that some patients undergo total knee replacement when they have very low grade symptoms or minor knee arthritis….”

That is the point I’ve been making all along: The ethics around surgery in the U.S. are declining rapidly.

It’s time for HR and benefit managers to wake up. Bad surgeons will get worse and worse until you take their patients away.

25 Axioms Of Medical Care In The Workers Compensation System

  1. The right medical care at the right time is always in the best interest of the injured worker and almost always will result in the lowest claims costs.
  2. The right medical care at the right time will (almost always) result in an earlier return to work with less permanent residual disability.
  3. Evidence-based medicine is the right care for the legitimately injured workers. (There is a hierarchy on how to apply evidence-based medicine).
  4. To control worker's compensation medical costs requires both a fee schedule and an ability to control the frequency and the appropriateness of treatment. One without the others usually results in massive increase in medical costs for the system.
  5. The medical treatment fee schedule should be clear, easy to use, accurate and reflect the latest technology.
  6. A fee-for-service system may result in incentives for physicians to over-treat, inappropriately.
  7. In many jurisdictions Worker's Compensation is generally the last fee-for-service system.
  1. As long as workers compensation uses a fee-for-service system, medical utilization review is needed to make sure that the physicians will treat adhering to evidence-based medicine.
  2. Pharmacy utilization is problematic because of the “Medicalization” of the general population. (Medicalization is the direct advertising of symptoms and diagnoses to the general population by drug manufacturers, resulting in an overuse and/or misuse of some types of drugs and therapies).
  3. There is a significant problem with “off label use” of drugs in the worker's compensation system. (Off Label is the use of a drug for treatment that was not the reason for its approval from the FDA).
  4. Medical decisions should be made by medical professionals. Most Workers' Compensation judges, attorneys, and claims adjusters have little to no formal medical training and are not medical professionals.
  5. Poorly (inappropriate) placed incentives will result in poor medical outcomes. (There are several studies that demonstrate that allowing physicians to do self-referrals or to dispense pharmacy goods from their offices will usually result in a utilization of unnecessary services or inappropriate usage of drugs).
  6. Even if the doctor is not dispensing the drugs, opiates require regular visits to the doctor for renewal of the prescription and also may involve expensive drug testing; so there is a financial interest on the part of some doctors to prescribe opiates.
  7. Some physicians who prescribe opiates do not fully appreciate the addictive power of the drugs that they are using or the difficulty in detoxing the patients.
  8. There are currently enough treating physicians and specialty physicians in most urban areas; however there are not enough physicians (treating, orthopedic or neurosurgeons, etc.) in the rural areas to meet the demand. This problem will only get worse as the population ages and more doctors retire. It will also get worse if physicians leave workers' compensation due to the demand for their services due to the implementation of the federal universal health care programs.
  9. Many surgeons and other physicians want to perform their craft (do surgery, provide injections, etc.). They truly believe that their surgery or injections will work even if the prior treatments have not been successful or if current evidence-based medicine says surgery is not appropriate.
  10. Every patient looks like a good candidate for an MRI when there is an MRI machine in the doctor's office.
  11. Not every person with a surgical or potentially surgical condition is a good surgical candidate. Though pre-surgical psychiatric evaluations are required for spinal cord stimulators (post spine surgery), the same is not true for many other surgeries.
  12. It is difficult for a patient who is in intractable pain to believe that strong medications (including opiates) are not appropriate or are not good.
  13. It is difficult for a patient who is in intractable pain to believe that not having back surgery will have the same ultimate result as having surgery when the surgeon is saying (with confidence) that the surgery will cure all. Even though current evidence-based medicine says differently.
  14. Because “doing something is better than doing nothing” when the patient is in intractable pain, if the surgeon says surgery will not be successful, the injured worker will attempt to find someone who will say that the surgery “will be more successful than not having surgery,” and will then attempt to have the surgery.
  15. Patient advocacy is the application of appropriate treatment and patient encouragement that allows the patient to remain as functional and productive as possible.
  16. Patient advocacy does not always mean the pursuit of treatment a patient desires.
  17. Patient advocacy may require the physician to decline to do the treatment sought by the patient when that treatment is inappropriate.
  18. In Workers'Compensation, there are many (known and unknown) underlying non-industrial, psyche/social issues that may hinder or completely stop optimum medical recovery.