Posts Tagged ‘defensive medicine’
It’s become one of those trendy phrases, “unnecessary care”. When you hear it on television or talkshow radio it’s usually said with a sneer. Indeed, the speakers almost spit the phrase out–“Unnecessary care”–like it tastes bad. It’s almost always accompanied by “fraud and abuse”, or a not so subtle accusation that some doctor is profiting off this “unnecessary care” at the expense of some poor patient. But is this true? Is this always the case? Are there no longer any circumstances whatsoever where the doctor really DOES know best?
I’m an ophthalmologist, an eye surgeon. Every single day in the office I see several patients who have enormous cataracts which have dramatically affected their vision, and yet they are not only totally unaware of this decrease, they are militant in their rejection of surgery to improve their vision. Some of them have vision which has decreased to a point where, not only would they fail their drivers license test, they are nothing short of a menace to society behind the wheel. Because cataract surgery is an elective procedure, the patient gets to choose whether or not to proceed with surgery. In other words, operating on a patient with a cataract who does not feel he has a problem would be “unnecessary care”.
The opposite version of this happens every day, too. In about 25 states there are strict, numerical guidelines that insurance companies (including Medicare) used to determine whether or not cataract surgery is “medically necessary”. Not a day goes by when I don’t see a patient who is bitterly unhappy with her vision, and yet her measured visual acuity is better than the threshold for “medical necessity”. Despite the fact that this patient feels handicapped by decreased vision caused by a cataract, operating on her is considered “unnecessary care”.
It kinda tricky. Sort of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t thing. I know it seems like a rather fine distinction, but cataract surgery is actually a big deal when it comes to the economics of medicine in the United States. Did you know that there are almost 3,000,000 cataract surgeries performed every year in the United States? Could some of these surgeries have been “unnecessary”? I dunno. I’m really struggling with the definition of “necessary”, frankly. Is cataract surgery in my two patients unnecessary? Says who?
You can achieve the same relative mortality rates for atrial fibrillation with either a cardiac ablation, or a cocktail of medications. Maybe you are medicine–free with the ablation, and therefore free of not only the yoke of your daily medicine schedule and side effects, but also the considerable burden of navigating your health insurance-approved medication list. The ablation might be 10X the cost of the medicines, but does that make it “unnecessary”? Too much? Says who?
So how do these two cataract patient scenarios play out at Skyvision? Well, the very unhappy patient with a cataract of any size whose vision does not reach that threshold level of “medical necessity” always chooses to wait until her insurance will pay for the cataract surgery. Always, whether she is a retired schoolteacher or a wealthy heiress worth tens of millions of dollars. She leaves the office unhappy, frustrated, and frightened. She cannot enjoy her daily activities because she cannot see well enough, and she is frightened by the prospect of normal activities like driving.
The other patient? Well, this patient typically has a monstrous cataract, so brown and cloudy it’s like looking through beef broth, or even beef gravy. This patient gets angry, too, but he is angry at me. He’s angry and offended that I would have the audacity to suggest that his vision is poor, too poor to drive, for example. He doesn’t understand what 20/50, or 20/80, or 20/100 vision means, and frankly he doesn’t really care. He’s got a drivers license, dammit, and he’s legal to drive. These visits almost always end something like this:
Me: “What kind of car do you drive?”
Patient: “A crown Vic.”
Me: “What color is your Crown Vic?”
Patient:” White. Why?”
Me: “Because my wife and kids are driving on the same roads as you, and I’m going to tell them to stop and pull over every time they see a white Crown Victoria.”
I say THAT’S “necessary care”!
They got it half right. The jury that is. The jury in the malpractice case in which I just served as an expert witness got it exactly half right. Kind of like our whole medical malpractice court system if you think about it. A young woman had a bad outcome in one of her eyes following eye surgery, an outcome that has caused her quite a lot of unhappiness, quite a lot of difficulty. The jury was quite correct in recognizing this, and also quite correct in recognizing that this woman was going to need some financial help in order to make this difficult situation even a little bit better. In order to make this happen the jury found the doctor who performed the surgery guilty of medical malpractice.
Only one problem with that, though: no true malpractice actually occurred.
Herein lies the essential, fundamental problem with our medical malpractice tort system as it is presently constituted. Every single malpractice case is a “zero–some game” in which the only way that an individual who has been injured or otherwise suffered a bad outcome from some medical experience can receive financial help is for some doctor (or hospital) to lose a malpractice case. As an aside, the plaintiff’s attorneys, the lawyers who represent the victims of medical misadventure, must win the case in order to be paid. (The full–disclosure necessary here is that the only people who are guaranteed to be paid are the defense attorneys and the expert witnesses on both sides of the case.)
I’ve actually been up at night, literally losing sleep every night since the conclusion of this trial. That’s actually kind of odd, and doesn’t really make any sense at all because I received rave reviews for not only my testimony but also for the strategy suggestions I made over the four years it took to bring this case to its conclusion. Indeed, even the court reporter went out of her way to tell the defense team what a great job I had done. It’s kind of like getting all kinds of pats on the back for making 10 receptions for 200 yards in a football game your team goes on to lose–pretty empty feeling despite the fact that you did your part well.
What then, exactly, is medical malpractice? In the civil court system in the United States medical malpractice requires that two things have occurred. First, a doctor (or hospital) must commit an act of COMMISSION (do something) or an act of OMISSION (fail to do something) that falls below the Standard Of Care. This failure to meet the Standard Of Care must then result in some kind of harm to an individual. To be extremely technical and to–the–letter correct, the failure to meet the Standard Of Care is malpractice, and the resulting harm is malpractice liability. No need to get all tied up in that kind of detail; let’s just call the whole thing medical malpractice.
The Standard Of Care is a difficult concept. In effect, the Standard Of Care is defined as that care or medical decision-making that a preponderance of (most) similar practitioners would provide in similar circumstances at that time. Pretty nebulous, huh? Not a terribly rigid, hard, easy to put your hands around definition, and it’s a moving target on top of that. The Standard Of Care is an ever–evolving thing; new research findings, new technology, and new patterns of care will all combine to create a Standard Of Care that may be different today than it was even last year.
In this particular case there was never any question that it was a medical procedure that caused this patient to have such a bad outcome. There was never really even any question about the technical quality of the work performed by the doctor. No, what it all came down to was a question of whether or not the surgery should have been performed in the first place, and thus came into play that subtle little part of the Standard Of Care, the difficulty in describing to a jury of non-–physicians the difference between the Standard Of Care today and that of some years ago. The lawyers for the patient did a brilliant job of burying the jury with the details of HOW the complication arose, the difficulties that have arisen because of the complications, and the uncomfortable interactions that occurred between doctor and patient in the months following the surgery. They confused the jury about the difference between “could have done” (more than the Standard Of Care) and “should have done” (Standard Of Care). The lawyers were able to bury the fact that the Standard Of Care was followed by the doctor in question because at the time of surgery the PREPONDERANCE of similar physicians in similar circumstances at that time would have done the SAME THING.
The jury got it half right.
There, in a nutshell, is everything that’s wrong with our present medical malpractice tort system. In order for this woman, obviously harmed by this procedure, to receive some award so that she can do certain things that will make her life easier, she and her team had to “beat” a doctor and win in court. And oh yeah, she’ll also have to give 40% of whatever her award might have been to her lawyers. I think that’s a big part of why I’ve been having trouble sleeping. Not the lawyer payment thing, but the fact that a doctor who (in my opinion) practiced within the standard of care must now have a black mark against his name so that a patient can get some money that I frankly think she deserves.
Maybe a better analogy of my role in this “competition” would be something more like this: I was the consulting coach brought in to suggest an additional element to a figure skater’s program. Assuming that everyone in the competition was as conversant with the subtleties of the rules involved I suggested that the skater add an elegant, understated movement that would be obvious to any experts on the panel of judges, the jury as it were. Unfortunately, in our American system of medical malpractice, that’s not the case, and the opponents eschewed subtle elegance in favor of multiple quad jumps. The skater I assisted performed totally within the letter of the rules, but was penalized because the jury, the panel of judges, was not really an expert panel and missed the added element. And so he lost.
I DO wonder though what my reaction would have been if the opposing skater who landed all those quads had been the one who lost. Would I be up at night over that, too?