Friday, March 26, 2010

Recap: Pay What You Can Day

So despite my attempts to publicize the offer to provide "Pay What You Can" medical care for a day, I ended up seeing 4 patients that day (with one cancellation). The other doctor doing this with me, Dr. Tsai, also saw 4 patients, and we agreed that though the numbers seemed low, we were thankful not to have been overwhelmed by too many patients.

I think the patients I saw were grateful to receive medical care, and I was happy to help them and not worry about money. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to find that most patients paid something for their visits, even though they didn't have to pay anything at all.

I may see some of these patients again, depending on what we can work out. I talked about potentially bartering services with one patient in lieu of cash.

Dr. Tsai and I weren't the only doctors doing "Pay What You Can Medical Day". Dr. Jean Antonucci in Maine also invited patients to come in for medical visits and pay whatever they could for a day. Here is the local TV coverage for her day:

And for those who can't watch the video, here is the link to the print version.

Some may argue whether it is even worth it to give away medical care for just one day and that patients don't get free labs, medications or follow up care.

For labs and mammograms, I directed patients to the cheapest facility that offered cash discounts. For medications, I prescribed $4 generics whenever I could. I will notify patients of their test results for free, but future visits would be negotiable.

Even humanitarian efforts such as sending medical personnel to Haiti after their devastating earthquake (where Dr. Tsai volunteered) or the Remote Area Medical event which helped 6,400 people in August 2009 and which is coming back to Los Angeles in April 2010 don't provide any long-term solution to medical care, but no one is arguing that these efforts are a waste of time.

We each do what we can to help others, whether it be to provide free medical care for a day, or committing your entire life to caring for the poor and sick, or just giving a word of encouragement.

Next year, I will get the word out sooner so that this event will be able to reach more people.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


But did he call bank? 

This at least gives me hope that America is back on the right track towards reforming its broken and dysfunctional healthcare system. Next: getting more primary care doctors.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Trouble With Giving Away Free Health Care

It all started with a question: "How much do patients value primary care?"

I was having an online discussion with other primary care physicians and this question came up. Someone suggested that one way to find out was to offer medical visits and have patients pay whatever they thought the visit was worth. Okay, I said, I'll give it a try. But when?

For the past few years, I kept intending to do something as part of Cover the Uninsured Week, but never could figure out what I could do. This year, I thought, I could make this experiment part of that. But when I checked the Cover the Uninsured website, there was no date set for their annual Cover the Uninsured Week. Maybe they weren't having one this year?

So I dragged my feet. Then on March 10th I checked the Cover the Uninsured website one more time and whoops! Cover the Uninsured Week was suddenly the next week! When did they decide that?

I had to make some quick decisions. I decided to have a one day event on March 23rd because that was during Spring Break; I wouldn't need to pick up my kids from school and I could stay all day at the office seeing patients.

I wrote up a press release to turn in to the local weekly newspaper. Their deadline was Friday and came out on Wednesday. That would allow a little more than a week for people to find out about it. I contacted another local family doctor who had just gone to Haiti to help in their relief effort to see if he would be interested in taking part. He was, so I added his name to the press release. I also sent the press release to the local chamber of commerce for distribution to local businesses, many of whom I figured would have uninsured employees, and a press release to the larger local paper.

I decided at the time to limit it to only South Pasadena residents and employees of South Pasadena businesses because I didn't think we could handle it if there was a huge response. 

Finally the article was published on Wednesday March 17th and . . . we waited. No one called. Friday morning, the chamber of commerce sent out an e-mail announcing the offer. One person called and scheduled an appointment.

OK, I thought, maybe I miscalculated. Either there aren't a lot of uninsured people in South Pasadena, or there wasn't a pressing need for medical care at this time. I mean, a one day offer of free medical care isn't going to cut it for chronic diseases such as diabetes or hypertension. Or the message wasn't reaching the right people. Our small town paper has a circulation, I'm told, of about 4000.

So I sent a modified press release to the local public radio station and a local TV station. This time, the offer was for anyone without insurance. Since I had no response from my press release, I called the local newspaper and spoke to a reporter who immediately sounded interested when I told him of our idea. But it was already late Friday morning and there wasn't enough time to come do an in-depth interview before the weekend. So he wrote up something quick and posted it to the website. 

Unfortunately, there was no link to the article on the main page of the newspaper, so the only way anyone could find it was to do a Google search. I e-mailed the press release to 3 more local TV stations but it was the weekend and I got no response. It was looking bleak. On the positive side, the healthcare reform bill was being passed by the House. On the negative side, I had only 3 patients scheduled for "Pay What You Can Day".

This morning I talked with the reporter again and he said that there was an article published in today's printed newspaper, and he would make sure that the article was posted with a link to the main page this time. And so he did:
"South Pasadena doctors to give free medical care for a day"
I've had one call so far from this article. It is 5:19PM. Hmmm. Still not looking so good.

Maybe everyone will call tomorrow morning. Or maybe a bunch of people will just walk in tomorrow. Or maybe, just maybe, nobody needs free healthcare right now?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

iPods and Healthcare Reform

In the late 1990s, an engineer named Tony Fadell came up with the idea of a hard drive-based MP3 player coupled with a Napster-like music store to complement it. He shopped the idea around to several companies but was turned down at all of them except for one. That company was Apple.

After modifying, improving, changing Fadell's original concept, Apple released a new device in 2001 they called an iPod.

The initial reaction on Slashdot, a prominent tech site gave this one sentence review:
"No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame."
At $399, it was also $150 more than a comparable $249 Nomad Jukebox. It wasn't compatible with Windows PC computers, just Macs which had a small market share at the time. You couldn't replace the battery. It had no FM radio. Many critics predicted it would flop.

And yet somehow the iPod went on to take over the music player industry. It now has about a 75% share of the market and has sold over 225 million units and counting.

It helped re-establish Apple as a top electronics brand, and paved the way for its subsequent successes with the iPhone and now the upcoming iPad.

The original iPod wasn't perfect. It was a start of something new, and it has improved gradually but continuously since then. But if Apple had listened to the naysayers and pundits at the time, none of this would have happened.

So I believe it will be with the current healthcare reform bill. It is not perfect, but there never could be such a thing as a perfect healthcare reform bill anyways. Those who criticize it and want it to fail because it doesn't have everything they want are short-sighted and unrealistic.

These are the same kind of people who couldn't see the potential in a little electronic music player, only the flaws.

If healthcare reform fails to pass now, it will be a loooonnnng time before any legislator attempts to try this again. And frankly, we can't afford to wait as the current system continues to crumble and cost everybody more and more money for worse and worse care.

As of now, I don't know if it will get the required votes or not, but I hope it passes. And if it does, I think it can be shaped and molded and upgraded over time to become a even better healthcare system.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Family Practitioner

Found this illustration via The Examining Room of Dr. Charles. I'd say it captures the feel of most family doctors' offices just right except that the tape the woman sitting behind the doctor is tangled up in should be red instead of white.

For other depictions of various medical specialties, go to this exhibition on the art of Jose Perez.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

A Top 50 Blog!

My blog is number 35 on this list which came out a while ago and is in no particular order. Amazing, considering how infrequently I post. But I am more about quality than quantity. That is, after all, why I left seeing 24+ patients a day and now see about 4-6 patients/day in my little micropractice.

Speaking of Top 50 blogs, I notice over on the excellent DB's Medical Rants site that he is posting his monthly workout tally on his blog, I guess to hold himself accountable for his exercise regimen. Likewise, over the past few years, I have come to the realization that I need to be pushed to exercise.

Like many of you, I had my gym membership that got used for the first few months, only to languish and fall to the wayside as my schedule got busy and motivation waned.

Then a few years ago, my wife showed me this newspaper article about a trainer that can help you dunk. I thought, why not give it a try? So I called the trainer up and he has been training me ever since. I haven't dunked a basketball yet (at least not on a 10 foot rim), but I have touched the rim, something I haven't done since college. In case you're wondering, I'm only 5'9".

But I am convinced that if I keep at it, I will eventually achieve my goal and dunk. Just like I was able to establish my solo micropractice. But I still need some coaching to help get me where I want to be.

That is what we can all use sometimes, whether is is losing weight, eating better, managing time, etc. A little coaching. And a willingness to work at it.

Monday, March 08, 2010

The 7 Doctors and the Patient

Once upon a time, there were six doctors in a hospital. One day the admission clerk told them, "Hey, there is a patient in the hospital today."

They had no idea why the patient was in the hospital. They decided, "Even though we have no old chart, let us go and examine the patient anyway." All of them went to where the patient was. Every one of them touched the patient.

"Hey, this is atopic dermatitis," said the first doctor who touched his skin, for he was a dermatologist.

"Oh, no! it is acute lumbago," said the second doctor who touched the back, for he was an orthopedic surgeon.

"Oh, no! it is paroxysmal tachycardia," said the third doctor who touched the chest of the patient, for he was a cardiologist.

"It is temporomandibular joint syndrome" said the fourth doctor who touched the jaw of the patient, for he was an otolaryngologist.

"It is spastic colitis," said the fifth doctor who touched the belly of the patient, for he was a gastroenterologist.

"No, it's lacrimal duct obstruction," said the sixth doctor who touched a tear from the eye of the patient, for he was a ophthalmologist.

They began to argue about the patient and every one of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated.

A seventh doctor was passing by and she saw this. She stopped and asked them, "What is the matter?" They said, "We cannot agree on the patient's diagnosis." Each one of them told what he thought the patient had.

The seventh doctor took a good look at the patient and said, "I know this man. This is Joe, and he is having an acute stress reaction because he just lost his job and his wife is being treated for breast cancer." And she shook his hand, offered some reassurance and made Joe feel better, for she was his family doctor.

Based on a well known story about an elephant.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

3 hours vs 36 minutes

That's the difference between how much time my patients get with me per year vs a typical primary care practice, using the same kind of calculation from this article posted at found by way of the Ideal Medical Practices blog.

Assuming 2 weeks of vacation a year and a patient panel of 500:
50 weeks a year x 30 hours per week divided by 500 patients = 3 hours.

Compare this to the 36 minutes per year patients get in a typical primary care doctor's office with a patient panel of 2500.

"I can see you today."
"I can see you on time."
"We can take all the time you want and need."

This is the mantra of the Ideal Medical Practice model.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

A Different Hat

I am currently in Sacramento wearing my California Academy of Family Physicians (CAFP) delegate hat at the Annual Congress of Delegates. Lots of civic-minded, concerned and caring family doctors doing a relatively thankless job. None of us get paid for this. Most family doctors in the state don't even know what we are doing at this meeting or that there is a meeting. But we are just trying to make a difference.

Dr. Lori Heim, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, was the guest speaker and she gave a quick update of how she sees the current healthcare reform going in Washington, DC. She gives the current bill a 50-60 percent chance of making it into law.

She noted how much has changed since 1 year ago when everyone talked about the importance of healthcare reform and how cooperative and bipartisan the initial talk had been. Fast forward to now and, even after 20+ years of health policy debate and study, it has reverted back to being partisan in the ugliest way.

She outlined AAFP's priorities for health care reform:
  • Expand coverage with minimum benefits package
  • Increase access/increase primary care workforce
  • Insurance market reform
  • Tort reform
Massachusetts demonstrated what happens when you increase coverage but don't have enough primary care doctors. Insurance does not equal access. 

To produce more family physicians, we need to resolve the "income differential" between primary care doctors and specialists, many of whom make 2-3 times more than FPs. There is simply no way to increase the number of family physicians when medical students see how much more they can make by going into a specialty instead.

CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) is looking into adjusting overvalued and undervalued CPT codes and has been criticized by specialists who see a loss of income. To counteract this, Heim said we need to write to our legislators to voice support for CMS's efforts.

For instance, some cardiologists claimed that eliminating the consult code would cause them to lose so much income that they would have to stop practicing cardiology and go back to primary care.

"That's okay, I said. They can come to my office and I'll teach them how to be a primary care doctor. Let's see how they like that," Heim said.

She pointed out that we need to bring Medicaid reimbursements up to at least the level of Medicare. "When you're losing money on visits, increasing the volume doesn't help."

Administrative simplification also needs to happen to relieve the crushing red tape and bureaucracy that every primary care doctor has to deal with.

Dr. Heim listed some of the major highlights of the current proposed legislation:
  • No public option. Instead there will be state by state insurance exchanges.
  • 10% bonus for primary care.
  • 94% of population will be covered under the Senate plan.
  • Establishment of a Medicare Advisory Board.
  • Accountable Care Organizations.
  • Dependent coverage up to age 26.
Heim acknowledged that the current bill is not perfect but that "it has a lot more good than bad," adding that healthcare reform will be an ongoing process.


I will be meeting with my state assemblymember and state senator on Monday to lobby/discuss CAFP's position on various pieces of healthcare legislation making its way through the state Capitol. We all complain about how bad the system is. This is my chance to try to do something about it.

If you want to do something about healthcare reform, you can help by:

  • Voting
  • Writing to your legislators
  • Writing a letter to the editor of your local paper
  • Asking your patients to write to their legislators or local papers
  • Posting/linking/tweeting/blogging about healthcare reform
  • Contributing to FP-PAC, CAFP's Political Action Committee (or your own state's PAC) or FamMedPac, AAFP's PAC so that someone will speak to the legislators for you besides the lobbyists for the insurance and drug companies.

As Dr. Tom Bent, CAFP's president said, "We no longer have the luxury of hiding in our exam rooms, or of just being a good doctor. We have to learn how to talk to the Rotary Club, legislators, the news media and the public."

Blogging's good, too, I assume.