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Tuesday Jun 21, 2016

FP Salaries Increasing, But How Much?

Editor's Note: Physician search and consulting firm Merritt Hawkins and the Medical Group Management Association recently released their annual reports on physician salaries. Both groups noted sizable increases in compensation for primary care. A few family physicians who are regular contributors to this blog changed jobs in the past year, so we asked them to offer their opinions on those reports and their insights on the job market.

Peter Rippey, M.D., Bluffton, S.C.
The most intimidating thing I had to do during my residency and fellowship training had nothing to do with patient care. It was negotiating my first employment contract.  

Of course, one of the most important parts of the contract for new physicians, who often have $200,000 or more in student debt, is the starting salary. Merritt Hawkins recently announced that for the first time in the history of the search firm's annual report on physician salaries the average starting salary for family physicians eclipsed $200,000. In fact, based on the thousands of search and consulting assignments Merritt Hawkins conducted on behalf of its clients from April 1, 2015, to March 31, 2016, the firm said the average starting salary for family physicians increased 13 percent to $225,000.    

The Medical Group Management Association recently released similar findings in its annual survey, stating that median primary care physician compensation rose more than 4 percent to $250,000.

Family medicine was Merritt Hawkins' most requested specialty for the 10th consecutive year. It's no secret there is a shortage of primary care physicians. Add the fact that a well-trained family physician can fill virtually any primary care void and you have a recipe for high demand, which is one driver of higher compensation.  

But before all of our third-year residents start salivating over these numbers, this is where I put an important asterisk.

* Individual results may vary.  

I would love to tell you that all new FPs can expect these high salaries. However, this was not my experience when I changed jobs last year. We have to mind the demographics of Merritt Hawkins' sample. The majority of the settings involved were hospital-based, employed positions and in communities with populations of more than 100,000. Salaries also vary by region and practice setting.  

Also keep in mind that Merritt Hawkins is a recruitment firm, so employers using these services may have more resources, which could translate to higher salaries. It's also possible that using a recruiting service could indicate more trouble hiring or retaining physicians, which may cause salaries to skew higher.

Personally, I am not making anywhere close to the average Merritt Hawkins is reporting, and I have a certificate of added qualifications in sports medicine to boot. I think these reports can give us a starting point for negotiating a fair salary, but I would be careful about doggedly expecting to start out making that kind of coin.

Also keep in mind there is more to a job than a salary. I have worked jobs where no amount of money could have made me stay. For me, considerations such as location and type of practice are just as important as the salary. Let's also not forget that job benefits -- including insurance, retirement and bonuses -- are not created equal.   

However, it is promising that salaries are trending up given the increased demands and responsibility of primary care physicians. I think this breeze is indicative of larger winds of change where increasingly primary care is stepping up responsibility for coordinating patient care, improving health care outcomes and increasing the efficiency of health care delivery.

The importance of primary care's central role in a vibrant health care system is finally starting to be recognized, respected and valued.  

Natasha Bhuyan, M.D., Phoenix
The shortage of primary care physicians is expected to reach 31,100 by 2025, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. There isn't a magic bullet to alleviate this shortage; it will require health care delivery reform, incorporation of technology into health care, increased funding for residency training, and team-based care with more advanced clinical practitioners. In the meantime, groups desperate for physicians are responding to market demand with vigorous recruitment.

As a resident in search of employment last year, I was pleasantly surprised to see how aggressively family physicians are recruited. Of course, there are the standard recruitment techniques of endless mass mailings and targeted headhunters. However, with increasing primary care demand, recruitment strategies are growing more sophisticated and responsive to physicians. The most obvious recruitment tool is a competitive salary with impressive signing bonuses (an average of $40,000 in Phoenix) or loan repayment.

Many places I interviewed offered high base salaries with reasonable quality performance bonuses as well. Each interviewer offered $10,000 more than the last. I also quickly learned employers are flexible in all areas of contract negotiations, including non-compete clauses, CME and even paying for examinations/licensing and professional membership dues.

Non-financial aspects also are used as recruitment tools: better call schedules, sophisticated electronic health record systems and minimized administrative burdens. I was particularly glad to see that many places I interviewed valued primary care physicians through leadership and governance. Some have compensated committee roles for physicians -- a move that shows our ability to transform care delivery is valued as well as our direct clinical skills.

With the trends in health care, I anticipate family physician salaries will continue to increase. However, job satisfaction isn't dictated simply by money. Rather, the structure of health care delivery will have to change for primary care physicians to truly deliver on the quadruple aim of better health, better delivery, lower costs and higher physician job satisfaction.

Helen Gray, M.D., Kirkland, Wash.
In November, I wrote about my move from Nevada to Washington in this blog. I learned a lot about changes to costs of housing and living. Keeping this in mind, I made sure that when I negotiated my contract my salary would be fixed and guaranteed for the first two years, and that I would be receiving compensation commensurate to the increase in spending I would experience in a different state and bigger city.

Although the numbers are available, I had a difficult time finding data on average compensation for the location I was moving to. Eventually, after Googling for what felt like days and asking numerous colleagues in the area, I felt like I had a good idea of what I should ask for without getting laughed at when it came time to negotiate.

Negotiating and contracts are not things I'm fond of, though it's worth noting that the AAFP has resources that can help. So imagine my relief when my initial offers from the potential employers I was considering were actually comparable to the community's market. My salary increased 20 percent with the new job.

I will say, however, the starting salary offered to me as a physician now four years removed from residency in an urban area with a high cost of living is not the number noted by Merritt Hawkins.

I was involved in recruiting for my Nevada practice prior to relocating, and I can say that the starting salaries there were even lower than those here in Washington. The Merritt Hawkins numbers were a little surprising to me and my colleagues with whom I discussed the results.

It is great, though, that family medicine is becoming more desirable and that salaries are going up. This could help to address the primary care shortage.

Tuesday Jun 14, 2016

Arrival of Superbug Highlights Need for New Antibiotics, New Approach

Reports in the mainstream media are finally catching up to what the medical literature has been saying for months: We have bacteria that have developed or acquired resistance to all available antibiotics.

One strain of gram-negative, urinary-tract-infecting bacteria is now resistant to colistin, a drug of last resort for many multidrug-resistant organisms.

More than 50,000 health care-associated Pseudomonas aeruginosa infections occur each year, according to the CDC. Roughly 13 percent of these are multidrug-resistant.

There are already limits on which antibiotics work on different types of bacteria. For some infections, only one or two classes of antibiotics proved effective against them in the first place, so developing resistance to existing drugs can be easier than it sounds. Multiple mechanisms can confer resistance to antibiotics, whether via enzymes that break down the drug, pumps that remove it from the bacterial cell or some that are as yet unknown.

And once a mechanism exists, passing it on to other species is relatively easy. Several bacteria can transfer genetic material in the form of plasmids, which then confer resistance in the receptive bacterium. Replication going forward includes the plasmid, meaning the genetic offspring of that single bacterium all carry that resistance. Other bacteria may develop novel mutations that make them different enough that the medications meant to combat them no longer find the expected target and cannot work as designed.

So we as scientists and physicians try different medication targets or different combinations of medications to overcome the resistance mechanics, and the bacteria continue to develop new defenses.

The arms race escalates daily.

If you think that such a doomsday scenario would have the pharmaceutical industry scrambling to prioritize the development of new antibiotics, think again.

A Reuters article that broke the news of the superbug in Pennsylvania put it this way: "Many drugmakers have been reluctant to spend the money needed to develop new antibiotics, preferring to use their resources on medicines for cancer and rare diseases that command very high prices and lead to much larger profits."

In fact, dozens of pharmaceutical companies signed a declaration in January calling for government incentives to support the development of new antibiotics.

I initially considered writing this post as an open letter to the pharmaceutical industry, encouraging manufacturers to urgently do something about this problem. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that was not the right plan. The idea that a single company or industry might be able to fix this problem alone makes the scientist in me cringe. This problem extends far beyond one group or industry. At some level, we are all to blame.

Thus, here's an open letter to all of us -- pharmaceutical companies, physicians and patients:

The recent recognition that a bacterium resistant to all known antibiotics caused infection in a patient in Pennsylvania catalyzed discussion about the problem of antibiotic resistance. But this isn't a new problem.

We've been fighting this battle for decades, and we as humans are losing.

Hospitals and physician groups develop infection control teams and protocols for dealing with infectious diseases. Governing bodies mandate hand-washing and isolation protocols. Policy statements about appropriate antibiotic use appear in major medical publications. And yet, we still see the growing threat of antibiotic resistance.

We need a new strategy -- a new way of looking at this problem. Education is good. Mandating infection control is good, too. But throwing money and time at the problem is not the only answer. This is not just about profit or loss. This is not about shareholders or investors or bottom lines. This isn't about ensuring CEO bonuses. This battle is not about one group or industry "fixing" the problem.

This is about the greater good and preserving lives. This is about using science to protect and serve all of humanity. Everyone involved in infection care and control must work together, each doing their part. No one gets a pass.

We physicians and allied health professionals can continue to educate ourselves and our patients about using existing treatments appropriately. We must end the strongly ingrained habits of inappropriate antibiotic use and work to improve our diagnostic skills and testing. We can work together to build the body of knowledge about infectious diseases and appropriate use of antibiotics. No more caving to the whims of the consumer or doing what we've always done.

Instead, we must follow validated medical evidence. Whether in the inpatient or outpatient setting, we need to be good stewards, using our tools appropriately and implementing plans that ensure proper use of existing medications. We can teach our patients why we do what we do and what the appropriate practices entail. We can spread the word about infection control procedures that work, not just anecdotally, but with hard scientific evidence. And where that evidence does not exist, we should continue to study the problem.

Patients must learn to trust that evidence in the face of discomfort, especially for problems that are often improperly treated with antibiotics at patient request. We can help by re-educating everyone about safe and smart use of antibiotics for appropriate situations. We need a cultural shift away from the mindset of "I have to have a pill to get better" and toward appropriate use of antibiotics in established cases of bacterial infection. No more antibiotics for viral upper respiratory infections.

Each of us -- only one bacterial infection away from becoming a patient -- should do our part to encourage patient stewardship, as well. Take the full prescription of antibiotics, even if you begin to feel better. Throw away unused medications if there are leftover pills, and avoid the temptation to use leftover pills to treat future illness.

The pharmaceutical industry can continue working to discover novel medications and formulations. Innovation, while difficult, is necessary. Every year, the major companies look at hundreds if not thousands of compounds, searching for "the next big thing." Our society will benefit from companies devoting a larger portion of their substantial resources to the discovery of the next class of antibiotics.

Even better, drug manufacturers can continue to seek out novel mechanisms of action that don't allow for resistance. Give our immune system a new tool. Find a way to target specific species without adversely affecting noninfective species. I'll wager the profits from such a discovery will pay off monetarily in the long run, and the dividends in human lives saved will be immeasurable.

It's easy to wait for someone else to do it. Avoiding the challenge is safer for the bottom line and for patient satisfaction scores, but this path leads to debility and death. No matter what we do, we cannot just cross our fingers and hope this problem goes away. It won't. And lives are at stake.

We can fight back against this common enemy, but we must work together. We must seek answers to the hard questions and be willing and ready to change if the scientific evidence dictates it. And we must always, always keep going.

Gerry Tolbert, M.D., is a board-certified family physician who practices in northern Kentucky. A lifelong technophile, his interests include the intersection of medicine and technology. You can follow him on Twitter @DrTolbert.

Monday Jun 06, 2016

Paging Dr. Mom: Becoming a Parent Made Me a Better Physician

When my daughter recently turned 1, we celebrated her birthday and I paused to reflect on all the things I'd learned as a new parent that helped me become a better family physician.

The journey hasn't been easy. But she survived, and so did I, through my first year of juggling the responsibility of nurturing a new life with all of the other tasks I have been trying to do well. Breastfeeding was much harder than I expected. And my baby's well visits weren't the straightforward encounters of just shots and anticipatory guidance that make family docs smile during an otherwise busy workday.  

It changed my counseling. I have developed more confidence and empathy, now counseling based on experience and a developing intuition instead of relying solely on my training. I have gained more insight as part of a community of parents where I have witnessed variation in child development, experiences and parental response.  

I am more supportive of those who are anxious about the things that run through a parent's mind at 3 a.m. Despite all of my medical knowledge and experience caring for sick children, I have watched over my baby's chest at night to make sure she is still breathing. And I have agonized after accidentally clipping skin instead of nails.   

Up until this past year, I didn't fully comprehend the emotion behind the vaccines debate because "science ruled." But after having a child, I understand that any controversy raises red flags for new parents, and I respect a parent's decision to make a choice -- even when I disagree. My job as a doctor is to help parents make the healthiest decision for their child by being supportive and providing evidence-based information.

I have also learned how much influence family and friends have on new parents, as the volume of their day-to-day advice about parenthood can overshadow what I say at well visits. This dominant force in a young parent's life shouldn't be ignored. Knowing what is being said to new parents and helping to provide a different perspective is fundamental to the concept of anticipatory guidance.

I have learned to listen. I fired my child's first physician because she didn't. Her assumption that I was "worried well" made her deaf to my complaints and unsympathetic to my concerns. The doctor was fixated on my daughter's diagnosis being nothing, so she looked for nothing. Meanwhile, I was observing exactly what was going on with my child.

It's important that we listen to families. The parent in me saw that my child had difficulty latching, seemed to have developed an aversion to my breast, was smaller than other children her age, frequently seemed uncomfortable with bowel movements, had dry skin and vomited every time I gave her formula to help supplement.

Still, I was shocked when the doctor told me during the 2-month visit that my baby was only at the second percentile for weight and she recommended starting formula -- even though I had previously mentioned we had already started formula out of necessity.

Reassurance is not always reassuring. The doctor offered no other solutions. In fact, I was told to be patient. Thankfully, the doctor in me woke up after observing another emaciated child in the waiting room, and the reality of a failure-to-thrive diagnosis set in. My 2-month old infant was showing many signs of a milk allergy, everything except the tell-tale sign of bloody stools.  

This led to my next big realization: Emotions really do get in the way of objectivity, which is why as a parent it is impossible to be your child's physician. However, you can be your child's biggest advocate. It is important to surround your family with those who listen and whom you trust. After all, we are all human. Parenthood often exposes the vulnerability of all people, including physicians.  

I belong to a strong community of knowledge. Besides joining the Physician Moms in Family Medicine Facebook group, which has been extremely helpful, I also have been tapping more into the resources I already have. In regard to my daughter's health, I organized a teleconference with an FP colleague who works as a lactation consultant, a college friend who works as a med-peds doctor, and two of my friends from medical school (one is a pediatrician and the other has two young children and had gone through something similar).  

As a family physician, there is so much to know and even more to learn. Tapping into the collective knowledge of those who have practiced for decades, those who practice in different specialties, and those who are parents helped me to organize and develop a plan to put my daughter on the road to better health. Similarly, I have been called on more frequently by my friends, family and community to offer advice and second opinions for virtually all things kid- and family-related. As a new physician, I notice even my patients, especially the older ones, trust and respect me more now that I am a parent.

The transition hasn't been easy, but it has taught me much in this first year. I look forward to future lessons, and I hope it will make me more humble, resourceful and knowledgeable for the benefit of those I wish to help and serve.

Venis Wilder, M.D., is a board-certified family physician who practices at a federally qualified health center in Harlem, N.Y. She also considers herself a community health practitioner working at the intersection of primary care and public health.

Tuesday May 31, 2016

Diagnosis Dangerous: What Do You Do When a Patient is Armed, Hostile?

I don't get nervous easily, I don't avoid confrontation, and I usually feel safe in situations where others might not. I do a lot of home visits, and I am not afraid to confront patients if I think they are lying to me. And I don't hesitate to have difficult conversations with patients even when they are angry.

I actually would say I have a track record of making patients angry because I am honest and willing to confront them, especially about narcotics. And like most family doctors, I have had my fair share of threats.

I've had answering service calls from patients who say they will die if I don't refill their benzos, that they will kill themselves if I don't prescribe pain pills. I've had face-to-face threats from patients who say they are going to sue me, report me to the board of medicine and tell everyone I'm a terrible a doctor. (I consider that good publicity most of the time.) Often, this involves yelling and swearing. Through years of dealing with irrational, repetitive drug-seeking behavior, I've developed a thick skin.

But when a patient brings a loaded gun into my office, I feel 100 percent terrified.

Before I go on, I should give some background about my experience with guns. I own guns. I grew up with guns. I don't have a concealed carry permit, and I don't carry a gun on home visits, but I am not frightened by the presence of a gun.

In residency, we had to do a patient education video, and one of my colleagues and I focused ours on gun safety. It explained how to unload and turn on the safety mechanism on different types of handguns.

I live in a part of the United States where guns are part of life. I think every house in my neighborhood has a gun (or lots of them). That is why this is such a difficult topic, and why I was so surprised I was shaken by a patient who came into my exam room with two loaded handguns.

He wasn't pointing them at me and demanding meds. He actually handed them to my nurse so she could do an electrocardiogram. The thing that made it scary was that I didn't feel comfortable around this patient even before he showed up with guns.

As physicians we are in difficult situations all day, making diagnoses, struggling to find the right treatment for a complicated patient, delivering bad news or even saying goodbye. We have to be comfortable with uncertainty, but we make evidence-based decisions and probably look things up more than we need to just to be certain our memory is accurate about a medication dose or length of treatment. We spend hours at home reading and researching yet we still sometimes have to make decisions about people's lives that are not clear, and we reassess and re-evaluate those patients to ensure we've made the right choices. And through all of that we often ignore ourselves, putting the patient first.

After my first visit with this patient -- just a few months before this gun-in-the-exam-room encounter -- I told my office manager that if any patient were ever going to shoot me, I had just met him.

I didn't have anything specific on which to pin that feeling, although multiple people witnessed uncomfortable exchanges between the patient and me, and a few even said they didn't think I should keep taking care of him. But he is complicated, and it's a really long drive to the next primary care doctor. Besides, why should I subject some other doctor to him instead of dealing with him myself?

During a visit with me the week before, he voiced a threat toward a subspecialist to whom I had referred him. I notified that doctor, fully expecting him to dismiss the patient, but it never occurred to me to consider all the reasons I should dismiss him until he presented with two loaded guns.

It was pretty darn clear at that point -- so clear that I felt I had jeopardized the safety of my entire office by not dismissing him sooner.

What came next is my motivation for writing this blog.

I have dismissed other patients for threatening me or my staff. I give them 30 days to find a new medical home and will see them for emergencies. But I didn't want this patient anywhere near the office again. I wanted his dismissal to be effective the moment he walked out the door.

What I found, however, is that I didn't have the ability to make that happen. Law enforcement officers told me I would have had to confront him about the guns, specifically that he was not allowed to have them in my office. I needed to point out that we have a sign on the front door stating no weapons are allowed on the premises, and that he was violating our policy. Then, and only if he refused to take the guns out of the building, did I have the right to keep him out of my office.

It took so long to figure this out that he came back to the office before we had a chance to write our dismissal letter. Fortunately, the receptionist told him she would need to take a message, and he left without any conflict.

When we have doctors getting shot in hospitals and offices around the country -- sometimes by accident -- why am I not allowed to stop a patient from coming into my office with loaded guns?

As a physician, I don't feel I can simply refuse to see patients based on who makes me uncomfortable. I have an obligation to take care of people with violent histories, and I have no moral issue with that. But I am struggling to decide where to draw the line.

I'm not the only physician thinking about safety. During the AAFP's recent National Conference of Constituency Leaders, delegates adopted resolutions that addressed workplace violence. One substitute resolution that was adopted requested that the AAFP help state chapters advocate for legislation that protects physicians from violence. Another one asked the AAFP to oppose legislation that allows guns in civilian clinical settings.

Unfortunately, some states are passing laws that will reduce protection for us and our patients. And that is how I see it: Allowing guns in clinical settings means less protection. I shouldn't have to have a conversation about an inconsistent urine drug screen or board of pharmacy report with a patient holding a gun. And just as I don't want to get shot in my office, I definitely don't want one of my patients to get shot, either.

Starting next year, legislation will make it legal for people in Kansas to carry concealed weapons on college campuses and in health care facilities with no requirement for permits or training. In West Virginia, our state legislature eliminated a concealed carry permit process that included a gun safety class.

I know that after my experience I want my guns in my house where they've always been, and I want no guns in my exam rooms where I sometimes make people mad while I'm alone with them behind a closed door.

Kimberly Becher, M.D., practices at a rural federally qualified health center in Clay County, W.Va.

Tuesday May 24, 2016

How Can Family Physicians Turn Back the Rising Suicide Rate?

As both a physician and someone who suffers from depression and anxiety, I have been alarmed by what appears to be a dramatic rise in mental illness in our country. With this in mind, I was extremely saddened -- but not shocked -- to see that the U.S. suicide rate has reached a 30-year high, according to a recent CDC report.

 Nearly 20 percent of Americans have a mental disorder, but 60 percent of people with mental illness do not receive treatment.

Depression and other mental illnesses have long carried a stigma of failure and weakness among Americans. We are a country of rugged individualism, self-sufficiency and economic advancement. Mental illness runs counter to these notions but is nevertheless increasing among wide swaths of the U.S. population.

It is estimated that 18 percent of Americans suffer from a mental disorder, a rate that appears to have increased dramatically from the 1930s to the early 1990s.

You might expect suicide rates to decrease because of improved diagnosis and treatment options. But suicide rates have increased 24 percent since 1999, supporting the idea that a growing number of individuals have mental illness. (Ninety percent of people who commit suicide suffer from a psychiatric diagnosis.) This trend holds in both women and men, in adolescents and the middle-aged, and among nearly all ethnic and racial groups. And although rates of suicide among the elderly have not increased, these individuals are still at high risk for suicide.

Attempted suicide is also increasing among youth, suggesting that the increased rate of suicide is not just an increase in "successful" attempts." More than one-third of college students report that in the past 12 months, they experienced depression to the extent that it affected their ability to function. And although individuals in the gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (GLBT) community are more likely to have mental illness, they are also more likely to run into discrimination in health care, thus lowering their rate of diagnosis and treatment.

Among veterans, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has caused significant morbidity since the Vietnam era. As many as 31 percent of Vietnam combat veterans have had PTSD, as has a similar percentage of those who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In fact, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, one veteran commits suicide nearly every hour.

However, this is not just an American problem. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death in the world for individuals ages 15 to 44, having increased by 60 percent since the 1970s. One person commits suicide every eight minutes the Americas. This tells us that the problem is not one of just culture, environment or health care, but a situation that crosses all of these variables.

So what is our role as family physicians? Assisting in diagnosis and treatment could make a difference because 60 percent of individuals with mental illness do not receive treatment. A broader goal should be to help individuals overcome the stigma of mental illness so those who need treatment will seek it. Working with our clinic populations, along with local health departments or other community groups, we can educate the public about the legitimacy of mental illness and the crucial need for treatment.

What about preventing suicide? Some of the suspected causes for the increase in suicide in recent years include divorce, drug addiction, economic concerns and increased social isolation that stems from Internet and social media use. These are areas we rarely cover in our anticipatory counseling, but where education can make a huge difference in our patients and communities.

Recognizing the populations at highest risk, such as adolescents, veterans and members of the GLBT community, helps us tailor our prevention efforts. According to a U.S. Preventive Services Task Force evidence review, psychotherapy can reduce suicide by nearly one-third in adults. Considering the biggest antecedents to the recent rise in suicide, it also may be helpful to focus more on patients' personal relationships, economic stresses and even social media use. NIH has some great resources on healthy screen time and personal relationship-building that can be beneficial to patients and families.

There are many CME options related to the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. For example, the AAFP is offering a Maintenance of Certification for Family Physicians self-assessment module that focuses on improving care of depression and coincides with the Family Medicine Experience Sept. 24 in Orlando, Fla.

Social determinants of health, issues that family physicians are acutely aware of in the public health realm, are believed to be the biggest contributors to suicide. The World Health Organization offers assistance in addressing these issues with our patients.

Mental illness and suicide are huge problems. But as with many problems in medicine, family physicians are poised to provide meaningful solutions.

Kyle Jones, M.D., is a faculty member at the University of Utah Family Medicine Residency Program in Salt Lake City. He is the director of primary care at the Neurobehavior HOME Program, a patient-centered medical home for those with developmental disabilities. You can follow him on Twitter @kbjones11.

Tuesday May 17, 2016

Six Lessons From Six Months as Medical Director

Take calculated risks. Lead by example. Be inspirational.

When I became the medical director of our office, I had a smattering of leadership clichés in mind that I thought I should follow. I anticipated that in my new role, I would communicate updates to the team, handle conflicts and set objectives.

But my first six months as medical director of our office involved little of the above. Instead, it's been a whirlwind of navigating teams and strengthening the patient and staff experience. Each day comes with 40 new lessons of you-don't-know-what-you-don't-know moments, personal growth and professional opportunities.

Here are a few of the interesting lessons I've learned.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Those who understand organizational psychology embrace this as gospel. It's the key factor in why companies with innovative ideas and solid revenue streams still fail. It's a business philosophy, but I've found it to be even more important in medicine.

An organization's core values need to be woven into decision-making at every level. We don't exist just to prescribe patients' medications. We are not here simply to track labs. Every person in my office is mission-driven (to transform health care). This is evident in both grand insurance battles and small gestures. Our team is diligent about prior authorizations and advocating for care our patients deserve. But we also never hesitate to make tea for a sad or an anxious patient in our waiting room. Our positive culture leads to internal coherence that sees opportunities in challenges. This didn't happen by accident. We invested in defining our culture.

Everyone -- including patients -- should feel ownership of your organization. In medicine, the term "stakeholders" applies broadly to employees, insurance companies, the specialists we refer to, the imaging centers we use and so on. But the most important stakeholders in medicine are the patients, who often feel as though they have little impact on health care. As a result, many medical organizations have started patient advisory groups. It's a good step, but I've learned patient feedback should be continuously integrated into health care organizations in as many ways as possible, not just via a feedback survey or siloed groups. My patients love sharing their experiences -- whether it's about their care, the lab or parking.

The next part is key: Be nimble enough to use feedback as a catalyst for change in your organization. We've expanded our services (we now perform endometrial biopsies, for example) as the result of patient feedback. We've even changed processes, such as instituting an RN consult before placing an intrauterine device. Listening to feedback is a key part of making sure patients feel ownership.

You'll know you are doing it right when patients refer to your office as "we" instead of "you guys."

Infuse your organization with a constant stream of new ideas. People who spend countless hours together start to think like each other. In fact, they start to sound like each other. They even use the same phrases. It's easy to spiral into an echo chamber where no one challenges group consensus. Ways to avoid the prevalence of stagnation include creative hiring and fostering a culture where individuals feel comfortable dismantling the status quo. In fact, 94 percent of senior business leaders said the right people and culture are the most important drivers of innovation, according to global consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

Meetings should be productive, clear and frequent. There are so many meetings. They are in person. They are via video conference. They are on the phone. Some meetings have just two people. Other meetings include hundreds from across our organization. At first, my meeting schedule was exhausting. I took a deep dive into the literature on meetings (this actually exists) and learned meetings require active management, with strict guidelines, attendees, timelines, etc. And it's better to meet frequently, because this contributes to accessibility and responsiveness. As a result, our meeting agenda includes goals and action items for each topic. We have developed a meeting cadence and determined who should be part of each meeting -- and who shouldn't. Our meetings are now more productive and efficient, and we avoid meeting fatigue.

Data without context is dangerous. In this big data era, everyone loves hard numbers. But sifting through those numbers without understanding how they fit an organization's mission is counterproductive. Even worse, sifting through them without realizing any trends or meaning is pointless. Patient volume, patient satisfaction scores, lab reporting times -- these are important, but they don't tell the whole story of an office or patient care. The clinical quality numbers (emergency department visits, blood pressure control, A1cs) can be even more nebulous without understanding your patient population. I'm still figuring this one out.

Invest in professional, leadership and team development. We hire people for potential, not perfection. They generally have core values that align with ours, but they still require structured training, careful mentoring and a path that will challenge them. Even in my short time at my practice, I've been delighted to see admins transition into membership advisers and site stewards become phlebotomists. And we emphasize that one role isn't above another -- it's just a different contribution to the team. It's for good reason: Companies with engaged employees who are inspired, empowered, confident and enthusiastic outperform those without by as much as 202 percent, according to Gallup.

Our team has learned the value of collective leadership. It makes sense that a group, and not just an individual, will have the best solutions to complex issues.

These leadership lessons don't include what I have learned about patient care. Those lessons can't be contained in one blog post. They are more suited for a novel.

This reminds me of another cliché: life-long learning. It's valuable to embrace. I anticipate the next six months (then six years, then six decades) will be rich with lessons.

Natasha Bhuyan, M.D., is a board-certified family physician in Phoenix. You can follow her on Twitter @NatashaBhuyan.

Tuesday May 10, 2016

If We Fail to Recognize Our Own Bias, We Fail Patients

I heard groaning and looked up to see a woman writhing in pain as they rolled her into room No. 1 in the rural ER where I moonlight. The groaning and squirming continued during triage, but a friend who had come with the patient seemed unconcerned and did not even look up from her cell phone.  

After a few minutes, a nurse walked over to me with an exasperated sigh, rolled her eyes, and announced the arrival of the woman, one of our regulars. Ms. Smith (not her real name) usually complained of abdominal pain, and that was the case once again. A quick review of her chart showed she had been in the ER three times in the past month for abdominal pain.

Her inpatient records included labs, plain films and abdominal CT. Some outpatient records indicated she had seen a gastroenterologist and had an ultrasound and a hepatobiliary scan. Despite her frequent visits to our ER and other sources of care, no etiology could be found for her pain.  

In ERs, patients like this are often labeled as mentally ill or drug seekers, or they are suspected of having some other secondary gain from their complaints. I am ashamed to admit that this night was no different.  

Neither the nurse nor I took Ms. Smith seriously. She was evaluated promptly with no specific findings and lab work was ordered. She was given some IV ketorolac tromethamine for pain but I was not about to "feed the bears," as we say.

To some this may sound harsh, and to those people I would say, "Good." I'm glad that your experiences have not jaded your sympathy for patients, and your first impulse is to alleviate suffering. To those who identify with this, I would also say, "Good." I'm glad to know I'm not alone in trying to maintain my humanity in the tide of opioid misuse that washes over our ERs and offices in a country where opioid-related constipation is so common that treatments for it are peddled during the Super Bowl. 

The ER is one place where we can clearly see how broken our health care system is. Patients present to the ER with complaints many of my primary care patients would not deem worthy of an office visit. Unfortunately, there is little sense of fiscal responsibility and poor understanding of appropriate utilization in our health care system, and many of these patients simply have nowhere else to go. It can be an exasperating environment for physicians and patients alike. 

Then two things I never could have predicted occurred simultaneously. The first was that Ms. Smith's urinalysis returned with large blood. The second -- and more incredible -- was that my wife texted me a link to an article she came across titled "Doctors are more likely to misdiagnose patients who are jerks."   

In one study featured in the article, family physicians who were asked to read vignettes of clinical cases made 42 percent more mistakes on the cases of difficult patients. In a related study involving hospital-based physicians, diagnostic accuracy was 20 percent lower for cases involving difficult patients. 

While I waited for the results of the CT scan that would ultimately identify Ms. Smith's 5-millimeter ureter stone, I read that article and began to replay her visit in my mind, ticking off all nuances that had biased my view of the case. There was her history of ER visits, my stoic nature contrasted against her more outward display of a pain I have never experienced, her friend's ambivalence, the nurse's demeanor and our personal frustrations (hers with a system that wrongly mislabels her as a possible drug abuser and mine with having patient care usurped by trying to avoid enabling drug abuse).

These biases are ever present in the physician-patient relationship and cannot be eliminated from human interaction. The error I made was that I did not recognize the bias within myself nor of those external to me. This influenced our interaction in a way that at the very least delayed appropriate care and nearly led to misdiagnosis. 

The bias had caused a misalignment between my instincts for the care of the patient and my view of the patient as a person. When I consciously considered the factors that were influencing my feelings, not only did I see the patient in a more positive light but my frustration with the situation was alleviated.

We are often taught to leave our feelings out of caring for patients, that this is part of objective care. However, I disagree. It is impossible to leave our feelings out of caring for our patients, and if we ignore the way we feel then we will make mistakes. We should instead strive to understand why we feel the way we do. In doing so we will find we can provide a higher level of care with greater satisfaction for both the patient and the physician.

Peter Rippey, M.D., enjoys outpatient family and sports medicine practice in a hospital-owned clinic in South Carolina.

Monday May 02, 2016

Insurance Hurdles Add Challenge to Treating Pain

If you are an opiate prescriber or are dependent on opiate prescriptions, you are likely well aware of the CDC's new guideline for prescribing opioids for chronic pain.

At some point in your life, the quality of the pain management you deliver or receive is likely to be impacted by how the medical community responds to these guidelines. They likely also will impact insurance coverage of certain medications and will undoubtedly influence further regulations.

You could say that the time had come, and perhaps was even overdue, for CDC's guidelines, and I am cautiously optimistic about what their ultimate effect will be. I have been painfully aware of the need for more guidance and oversight of pain management in the primary care setting, especially as new abuse-deterrent medications become available. I was hoping for some sort of clear pain management algorithm that would pressure insurance companies to provide blanket coverage for physical therapy and abuse-deterrent medications, while withdrawing support for the use of the frequently abused prescription narcotics.

It took me a couple of reads through the guidelines and a few reviews of the commentary from my peers before I began to see that this might be exactly the impetus we need.

I think the solutions to the opioid issue lie not in the guidelines themselves but in the larger conversation they generate and the medical community's response as a whole. To that end, let me present a glimpse into the difficult reality I and many other physicians face on a day-to-day basis. I am continuously confronted with the challenge of treating the subjective complaint of pain, sometimes called the fifth vital sign, while maintaining safe medical practice and achieving the often coveted, and now mandated, secondary goal of patient satisfaction.

One thing is clear; patients rarely come to the clinic or the ER complaining of pain with the expectation that they are going to get a sticky note saying, "Go pick up some Tylenol or Motrin at your local convenience store."

When you start with this understanding and the premise that you are a medical service provider who is being rated on the quality of your service, things get really tricky. For example, what do you do when the patient who you already have seen five times for back pain says, "Doc, I've done all the exercises and tried all the medications you prescribed me, but none of it is working?"At that moment, you review the chart and see that, indeed, patient X has failed every nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) known to man and jumped (or limped) through all the hoops you set. Or you look at the allergy list and you see "NSAIDS, acetaminophen, codeine and tramadol" while your patient looks you square in the eye and says, "That's right, Doc, the only pain medications I can take are hydros or oxys, and if I'm going to be honest with you, Percocet works the best for me."

Then there is the fibromyalgia patient who has failed pregabalin (marketed as Lyrica), and the insurance won't pay for milnacipran (Savella) or duloxetine (Cymbalta), which leaves the higher risk medication amitriptyline (Elavil).

How about the osteoarthritis patient who can't afford celecoxib (Celebrex)? You write a script for the diclofenac patch (Flector), but it is only covered for acute arthritis pain and is not affordable with Medicaid or Medicare.

For your lumbar radiculopathy and sciatica patient, you think, "Wouldn't it be great if I could write a script for a lidocaine patch (Lidoderm)?" But you know you can't because it is only covered for post-herpetic neuralgia. But no worries because of course there is gabapentin (Neurontin, Gralise and Horizant) which is really only indicated for restless leg syndrome, partial seizures and post-herpetic neuralgia, but thankfully is covered by all insurances.

If you are really trying to reduce the number of prescription narcotic pills floating around your neighborhood, you might get inspired when a pharm rep stops by to talk to you about the new options in abuse-deterrent pain management. So in your patient encounters, you start talking up abuse-deterrent variations of buprenorphine (Butrans and Belbuca), hydrocodone (Hysingla and Zohydro), morphine (e.g. Embeda), and oxycodone (Xtampza), but later you find out that these drugs are unaffordable, require a step edit, or need a prior authorization that says something like, "patient must first fail Opana, MS Contin, or Nucynta."

You likely have similar stories of your own. My point is that we, as medical professionals, are all deeply invested in the welfare and satisfaction of our patients. We are also adaptable and extremely adept at achieving good outcomes using whatever tools we have.

So, speaking for myself, I can say that I am longing for the day when insurance companies no longer dictate how I practice, and I am looking forward with tempered expectations to see if the CDC's opioid prescribing guidelines will lead to real solutions. Whatever the outcome, I am certain that I and many physicians like me will keep plugging along, doing the best job we can for our patients within the parameters that are set for us.

Kurt Bravata, M.D., is a family physician who practices primary care, geriatric medicine and addiction recovery in rural southwest Missouri.

Tuesday Apr 26, 2016

FPs Are 'Soldiers in Field' Against Outbreaks

I recently was hired as the medical director of our local health department, and my new role started in the midst of one of the worst pertussis outbreaks on record in my state.

The experience has made realize just how important community physicians are in reporting and controlling an infectious disease outbreak. We are the soldiers in the field, not only caring for the patients affected by the disease, but also collecting information and reporting it to state, local and national health agencies.

Family physicians see patients from every age range and socioeconomic background. It's imperative -- especially during a disease outbreak -- that we keep our eyes and ears open, know how to contact our state and local health departments and report what we see. This means that community physicians need to have a low threshold for testing for specific diseases when an active outbreak occurs.

It's also important to know the rules for reporting infectious diseases at the local, state, and national level. The CDC has a list of reportable diseases, and most local health departments will have a list of diseases reportable in your state.

Although the pertussis outbreak is waning locally and flu season is winding down nationally, a new potential threat is looming. Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently said local outbreaks of the Zika virus are likely this summer in the United States.

If you've read any recent news, you've likely seen reports about the Zika virus and its now-confirmed links with microcephaly in infants. You may have been bombarded with questions from patients or email from public health groups about preparing for the Zika outbreak.

Whenever an outbreak hits, physicians and patients alike need good quality information to make good health care decisions. As primary care physicians, we translate and disseminate critical information to our patients. They trust us to keep them safe, but who do we trust to help us build that knowledge base?

Much like what happened with Ebola, or happens with any other highly publicized disease, lots of information -- and misinformation -- about Zika floods the airwaves and the Internet. Fortunately, the AAFP maintains accurate, up-to-date reference materials concerning Zika.

State and local health departments also are an excellent source of information. Most health departments have one or more epidemiologists who track and report on communicable diseases. They work with a team of medical professionals and communications specialists who collect and collate data, and then create resources for better patient education and disease prevention. Most state health departments work closely with local agencies to devote more personnel and resources to the task.

Once those resources have been developed, they are shipped out to patients and community physicians via multiple channels. We must use this information to help our patients sort the facts from the morass of misinformation that flood the public consciousness.

Zika, a flavivirus similar in structure to the viruses that cause dengue and yellow fever, is most often transmitted to humans by the Aedes mosquito. Recent studies have concluded that the virus can also be transmitted from mother to child, through sexual contact, or by blood transfusions.

Symptoms include fever, skin rash, eye irritation and redness, muscle and joint pain, malaise and headache. Obviously, these symptoms can overlap with many other illnesses, so accurate assessment requires not only a visit with a health care professional but also a full accounting of recent travel or other possible exposures. Currently, no vaccine for Zika exists, and there is no treatment to eradicate the disease once contracted. The best we can do for patients is treat the symptoms and control spread to others.

Preventing the spread of infectious disease depends on community physicians being able to detect and report cases early. Conversely, it's the job of the state and local health departments to communicate to community physicians when an active outbreak is in progress. Community physicians can then report cases to improve surveillance. We can all work together to ensure the safety of our individual patients and the public as a whole.

Have you had good experiences with your state or local health department? Any words of wisdom or best practices for timely communication? Sound off in the comments below or contact me on Twitter @DrTolbert.

Gerry Tolbert, M.D., is a board-certified family physician who practices in northern Kentucky. A lifelong technophile, his interests include the intersection of medicine and technology.

Tuesday Apr 19, 2016

Ah, Nuts: Is Kellogg's Putting Consumers at Risk by Adding Allergen to Food?

Editor's Note: This blog post was updated after Kellogg's announced that one of the eight products it had planned to add peanut flour to will be peanut-free again in September.

Kellogg's Co. recently made big waves in the allergy community when the manufacturer announced plans to add peanut flour to several varieties of Austin and Keebler brand crackers. The products affected previously had been considered safe for consumers with peanut allergies.

The change largely went unnoticed by the mainstream media, and I'll admit that my initial reaction was not extreme concern. No one in my family has food allergies, and neither do any of my close friends. But then my instincts as a doctor and a mother kicked in. As a physician, I know food allergies are a major public health concern. As a mother, I understand that they are a life-or-death matter for a parent of a child affected by food allergies.

But how wide-scale is the problem of food allergies? I didn't know, so I went looking.

Eight percent of U.S. children have a food allergy, and allergies to peanuts and tree nuts are the leading causes of fatal allergic reactions. Peanut allergies tripled from 1997 to 2008, and 3 million Americans have peanut and tree nut allergies.  

Eight foods are responsible for 90 percent of serious allergic reactions: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish. Even trace amounts of these products can cause a reaction. Milk, eggs and peanuts are the top three allergens, and although milk and egg allergies often are outgrown by school age, roughly 80 percent of peanut allergies remain.  

At a time when the number of children with food allergies and intolerance issues is skyrocketing -- and knowing that peanut allergies account for one of the most persistent and most dangerous allergies -- why would a manufacturer add a peanut ingredient to a previously peanut-free product?  

Many manufacturers are working to eliminate food allergens from their products, and indeed the market for foods free of major allergens is booming, creating a large market for food manufacturers.

In its responses to angry consumers on social media, Kellogg's positions itself as if it's trying to figure out how to expand, not shrink, that market: "We are truly sorry to disappoint you. We appreciate you sharing your concerns and understand why you're upset. We know it's not easy to find foods that people with peanut allergies can eat, and are looking at ways to make a cracker sandwich you and your family can buy."

My thought when I read that was, "You already had one, so why change it?"

Since the announcement by Kellogg's, more than 20,000 people have signed a petition on that says, in part, that peanuts are "the allergen most responsible for triggering anaphylaxis, an allergic reaction that can result in horrific consequences including death." The petition calls adding peanuts to previously peanut-free products "unethical and irresponsible."

As family physicians we need to be aware of changes that can affect the health of millions of our patients, and act as advocates when possible. The petition allows people to say why they are signing it. My comment says, "Because I am a family physician and believe that the safety of my patients is important."  

Kellogg's assured consumers that any product including allergens will be clearly labeled and later said that one of the eight affected products will again be peanut-free beginning in September. But a big concern is that all eight of these products have long been known to be safe in the allergy community. Parents, grandparents, allergy sufferers themselves, coaches and teachers who are familiar with these products would have little reason to think that an allergen would be added. Most consumers likely would not expect to find peanut ingredients in a cheese cracker, nor would they be likely to check the allergy label on a food they have known to be safe.  

As physicians, we can remind our patients with food allergies (and their parents or caregivers) that they should check product labels every time, even on familiar foods, because manufacturers may change their ingredients or manufacturing processes. We can also inform them that there are blogs and websites -- like the one at the beginning of this post -- that alert consumers with allergies to such changes. Although manufacturers might not make decisions with our patients in mind, we can help our patients make good decisions for themselves.

Beth Oller, M.D., practices full-scope family medicine with her husband, Michael Oller, M.D., in Stockton, Kan.

Tuesday Apr 12, 2016

Does Prevention Save Money? That's the Wrong Question

Ben Franklin's proverb that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" makes sense to all of us, especially in medicine. Why wouldn't you want to prevent lung cancer by helping someone quit smoking?

Preventive health care is something family physicians excel at. We use evidence-based medicine to focus on how to best prevent heart attacks, to find cancer early and to prevent infectious diseases through immunization. But are we targeting the right individuals and populations in our specific preventive efforts? Are we aware of the most impactful preventive strategies?

A 6-month-old girl receives a vaccination. According to CDC estimates, vaccinations among children born from 1994 to 2013 will prevent 322 million illnesses, 21 million hospitalizations, and 732,000 deaths and save the health care system $295 billion.

Many economists say that prevention isn't cost-effective, and that focusing too much on prevention instead of treatment can actually make things worse for our health care system. So which is it, and what should family physicians do to best help our patients?

There are actually three types of prevention, a nuance that most policymakers and economists miss.

Primary prevention is preventing a disease or problem in the first place, such as exercising to avoid obesity. This tends to be a combined effort of public health and medical professionals.

Secondary prevention is typically performed in medical settings and has to do with preventing progression or impact of an existing disease, such as establishing an appropriate diet to control blood sugar for someone with diabetes mellitus.

Tertiary prevention is about "softening" the impact a disease may have on a person's life, such as routine eye exams for people with diabetes mellitus to detect and treat early diabetic retinopathy.

Misunderstanding or misidentifying the differences between these types often causes confusion. Assessments of the costs and benefits of preventive efforts typically look at the cost for primary prevention of a disease vs. the cost of treating the disease, which sometimes includes secondary and tertiary preventive measures. If it's a bigger effort and cost to prevent the disease than treat it, is it worth our time and resources?

Many studies have found that the majority of primary and secondary preventive efforts don't save our health care system money. However, almost 40 percent of deaths in the United States could be averted through better primary prevention, such as by decreasing tobacco use. Relatively simple public health interventions, such as including seat belts in cars and immunizing infants and toddlers, can save thousands of lives at minimal cost. But what if efforts are spent on those at low risk for a behavior or disease? For example, I don't smoke and have no intention of starting, so anti-tobacco efforts aimed at me won't be of any benefit. But providing me assistance in losing weight, particularly in the setting of my family history of coronary artery disease, could yield significant cost and quality of life results.

Many economists will point to things such as colonoscopies (secondary prevention), citing the extreme increase in cost if every individual 50 years and older is screened. Some have even argued against such practices on the grounds that increasing life expectancy just means that we have to spend more money in the future. But colonoscopies are not "true" (i.e. primary) prevention. There is likely no way to eradicate colon cancer 100 percent before it occurs, which then causes confusion among the general public. Should we be getting colonoscopies or not? We should in order to save lives, but we need to educate that this is early detection, not prevention.

Mammography is another good example of early detection rather than primary prevention. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) has been criticized by many for changing the recommendations on when and how often mammography should be done. The USPSTF's charge is to look at the evidence of what is effective and create guidelines based on that information. It does not take cost into account, but many in the public are upset and confused, as if the system is trying to ration their care by restricting something that instinctively seems appropriate.

So what does this all mean?

It means that we need to understand what is meant by prevention.

It means that as family physicians, we need to be able to educate our patients on what prevention means and what works, and then help them apply it to themselves.

It means that we should be part of the system-wide efforts to focus on what is most effective. This includes ensuring that the preventive quality measures on which we are monitored are based on medical evidence of what truly adds to positive patient outcomes. As Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health professor Ron Goetzel, Ph.D., has said, "Instead of debating whether prevention or treatment saves money, we should determine the most cost-effective ways to improve population health."

In the end, preventing disease and its complications is what we do. Whether or not it saves money, it saves lives and improves quality of life; what could be more humane than that?

Kyle Jones, M.D., is a faculty member at the University of Utah Family Medicine Residency Program in Salt Lake City. He is the director of primary care at the Neurobehavior HOME Program, a patient-centered medical home for those with developmental disabilities. You can follow him on Twitter @kbjones11.

Wednesday Apr 06, 2016

Shutting Rural Labor and Delivery Units Threatens Access, Health

I started writing this blog post at the OB nurses' desk at my rural hospital while waiting for two patients to deliver. Not surprisingly, I did not finish it there because I was interrupted to help bring two healthy babies into the world.

As I waited, an article about rural hospitals closing labor and delivery units made me wonder where these two patients (soon to be four) would be if I wasn't here to deliver them. Without our hospital in rural Kansas, these women would have been forced to travel to the next big town to deliver. For one of these patients that would have meant a 45-minute drive, for the other an hour. And we're not just talking about the day of delivery, but the trip there and back for every OB visit, which are numerous, especially at the end of pregnancy.  

Here I am with Cassandra Prediger and her son, Emerick, who I delivered via water birth. Cassandra chose my facility because it offers this delivery option.

With the visit and drive time, women in my community would be looking at three hours out of their day if everything goes smoothly, which is a half day off work (or three hours that you have your other children in day care or in the car and a doctor's office). Such a distance could preclude regular visits if time off work is hard to come by. It also could mean that significant others are unable to accompany the patient to office visits.

Throw in the patient with complications who needs weekly or bi-weekly ultrasounds, blood work or non-stress tests, and the time spent on the road becomes astronomical. For many of my patients, the drive to the next closest delivering hospital would be closer to two hours one way, a daunting proposition for any patient, and a terrifying one if there is bad weather or a labor that progresses quickly.

We are lucky here. Our patients can choose to have care that is close to home, and due to our hospital's strong commitment to excellence in obstetric care many of my patients actually drive from the bigger city to me to deliver.

In these times when it can be difficult for rural hospitals to thrive, I don't think the answer is closing down units but finding ways to make them viable. Our OB unit has grown greatly in the past four years because of the time and effort we have put into it. We have incorporated more complimentary medicine practices such as water birth (as far as I know I am still the only doctor in the state that provides this, and we are the only hospital where this is offered), nitrous oxide for labor analgesia (same with this), and the option to have the services of a doula that is employed by the hospital free of charge to the patient.  

Patients know that we're grounded in making every labor process one that follows the patient's wishes to the best of our ability; to have the patient delivering with the doctor who has cared for her throughout her entire pregnancy and will continue to care for her after; and to provide a supportive environment for birth, bonding and breastfeeding.

The statistics on rural hospital closures are distressing. These closures don't mean just longer drive times, but severely decreased access to care, which will lead to poorer health outcomes for the patients in the areas affected. About 500,000 women give birth each year in rural hospitals, but this number is declining as labor and delivery units close. An analysis of 306 rural hospitals in nine states with large rural populations found that 7.2 percent closed their units from 2010 to 2014.  

I have heard time and time again from our hospital's administration that the OB unit is expensive to run and insurance payments are low, especially Medicaid, which pays about half as much as private insurance for childbirth. Labor and delivery units in rural hospitals, especially those like mine that deliver fewer than 100 babies per year, are not revenue makers for the hospital.  

Thankfully our administration and hospital board understand that having access to local obstetric care is important to the health of our community, and it also brings in patients and services. Skeptics can speak to any family physician who delivers babies because we can recount the number of fathers, children, grandparents and aunts and uncles we have received into our practices after a family experiences the care provided during the birth experience.  

But the bottom line and the bills are still there, so what are rural hospitals to do?

Advocates for preserving access to rural obstetric care have come up with a number of things that could help bolster labor and delivery services. One is encouraging medical professionals to move to rural areas. A bipartisan bill introduced in Congress last year would require the federal government to designate maternity care health professional shortage areas. The National Health Services Corps gives scholarships and provides loan repayment to primary care providers who commit to serving for at least two years in designated shortage areas.  

The hope is that that once physicians move to a community and put down roots, they'll stay. Many of our surrounding communities have ceased providing obstetric care because of the huge investment of human resources, both physician and nursing, required. You must have someone on call 24 hours a day 365 days a year, both a physician and nursing staff.  If you are in a one- or two-physician community, this leads to extreme fatigue and little time off.  

Finding nurses with obstetric experience can be difficult, as well, and because the staffing with OB patients is one-to-one, more nurses must be staffed when a labor is in progress. Rural hospitals may be able to band together to share resources, such as those to keep staff trained in complications.  

We must continue to ensure that rural voices are heard in the ongoing national dialogue on health reform. Research on reforms to improve rural health care is greatly lacking, and should be encouraged.  

Those of us in rural areas with viable facilities need to be willing to help those who are struggling, if possible, discussing changes that have been made to increase productivity and revenue and offering resources and advice.

The process of pregnancy and childbirth is one of the most special, and vulnerable, times in a patient's life. The ability to provide care for our own patients in our own communities is something everyone in rural practice should strive with all our might to maintain.

Beth Oller, M.D., practices full-scope family medicine with her husband, Michael Oller, M.D., in Stockton, Kan.

Tuesday Mar 29, 2016

So Long, New York, You Were Exactly the Trial This New FP Needed

As an osteopathic medical student in Arizona, I had a lot of classmates and professors question why I wanted to go across the country to New York City for my residency in family medicine.

The West Coast -- where I grew up -- has a strong family medicine tradition, whereas New York City is perceived to have a strong focus on specialty care. Not only have I met several New Yorkers who did not even know that family physicians exist, I have worked with medical students whose school has no family medicine department and with other medical students who question whether they can find a good job in NYC if they pick family medicine.

So why choose to be in an environment that might, at best, be skeptical of family medicine?

My residency, the Mount Sinai Beth Israel Residency in Urban Family Medicine offers a diversity and complexity of patients that is unique to New York. With patients from around the globe, we had to keep a broad differential in mind as we also learned to treat the "bread and butter" family medicine cases.

But there was something far more important to my learning as a physician than the diagnoses that I made. My patients not only came from different countries, had different socioeconomic backgrounds and spoke different languages, they often had differing views of disease processes and expectations of the patient-physician relationship.

In medical school, we learned the textbook ways to diagnose and treat, but in residency I learned how much patients' cultural backgrounds can influence their recounting of symptoms and their relationship with their own body. We know how crucial the history is to finding the right diagnosis, particularly as we try to minimize extraneous and expensive tests that add burdensome costs for our patients and our health care system. When the patient and the physician have wildly different life experiences, language is often not the only barrier that needs to be recognized in order to appropriately diagnose and care for the patient.

After residency, I continued with the same family medicine organization that my residency was affiliated with. I have spent nearly three years in the Bronx with an international patient population, many of whom have language, health literacy and socioeconomic barriers that make it difficult for them to navigate our health care system.

I am surrounded by all the subspecialists that New York has to offer -- several of whom are rated top in their field -- but the majority of my patients simply cannot access them. Their need for a family physician and a patient-centered medical home (PCMH) to support their health and the health of their family is dramatic.

When they enter my clinic and find friendly staff who know their name, speak their language, and do not judge them for a lack of insurance, employment or even basic reading skills, my patients begin to feel hope.

When we ask them questions about their ability to access healthy food and whether they feel safe in their current housing situation, my patients begin to realize that we in family medicine understand how much social determinants of health impact our community.

When our clinic goes to great lengths to obtain records from outside clinics and to call patients to come in for a visit after their recent trip to the emergency room, my patients begin to understand what it means to have a family physician and a medical home.

There are many community clinics throughout the country that have made a commendable effort to gain PCMH recognition and to be part of a safety net for their patients; our clinic is not unique in that respect. But there are times when the degree of disparity between my patients and the affluent patients who can access the "best" care in the nation clearly weighs on my patients. They are deeply aware of what they do not have and what they cannot access. And they are often resentful of the discrimination they have faced because of these disparities.

Working within this community has enabled me to witness firsthand what I learned while pursing my master of public health degree -- that a community's resources and environment can have an enormous impact on the health of its residents. It has been exciting to be part of my local AFP chapter and to contribute to the enactment of bills that can make a real difference in the health of New Yorkers, such as a lower speed limit to reduce pedestrian deaths and expansion of health coverage for pregnant women.

In a few months I'll be moving back to the West Coast, primarily for family reasons. It was a difficult decision, and there are many things about New York -- particularly the people I've come to know -- that I will truly miss. As is true with any major change, my upcoming relocation has given me the opportunity to reflect on my time as a family physician in New York. This is the only environment I've worked in as a practicing physician, and although I have encountered the occasional frustration when dealing with a subspecialist here and there, the overwhelming experience has been better than I even imagined when I applied during medical school.

Family physicians are a diverse group with a diverse set of skills to treat the communities we work (and often live) in. My work during the past several years has taught me a great deal about caring for communities that are in need of creative, evidence-based, compassionate primary care. I have built a foundation that will influence my practice of medicine wherever I go, and for that, I will always be grateful to New York and its patients.

Margaux Lazarin, D.O., M.P.H., provides comprehensive family health services, including osteopathic manipulation, at a community health center in the Bronx, N.Y. She is actively involved in teaching residents and medical students to deliver evidenced-based care to underserved communities.

Tuesday Mar 22, 2016

Here's My Number, Call Me (Maybe)

Both urban and rural docs in the past shared a different type of accessibility with their patients than most of us do today. Without the communication lines of social media, email and text messaging -- and when the only ways to communicate were in person or via a landline phone -- most rural doctors had their home numbers listed in the phone book. And everyone knew where they lived.  

Even today in small towns and rural areas some of that holds true, as evidenced by stories from our members. But historically it was a much more even playing field. Doctors weren’t isolated from patients but there were far fewer access points. And accessibility, to some degree, affects who chooses family medicine, particularly in rural settings. If you don’t like answering health questions at the grocery store, living and working in a rural community might not be for you.

Often when I am in a group of physicians, I will get a text or a phone call from a patient or a patient’s family member. Without fail, the group will be divided about what is right, wrong, expected, or even should be prohibited, regarding communication with patients outside a face-to-face office visit or a patient portal. Obviously, there are HIPAA issues involved, but the bigger argument among physicians is about handing out a direct access point.

Honestly, whenever I thought the best patient care was going to result from a patient's family having my cell phone number, I gave it. End of life is one of those times when I feel it is important for the family to have 24-hour access to prevent unnecessary anxiety and/or suffering for anyone involved -- patient or family. The hurdle of calling my answering service in a panic or ending up in the ER because someone does not know what to do must be avoided when the patient’s wishes are to die comfortably at home.

Recently I started looking for guidelines to see if there were established ethics or standards for handing out my cell phone number, but I didn’t find much. There are some resources regarding social media, but most essentially say zero social media interaction should occur between patients and doctors, even though the data show patients would be receptive to receiving information from physicians via social media.  

Selfishly, I will often give a family my cell number if it is going to make things easier on me. If I know we need to communicate often, and with quick responses on both my part and theirs, it is much easier for them to contact me directly. And it means we both get the most accurate information with no distortion.

Granted, anyone who has ever worked with me will tell you I am a control freak who wants to be involved with every little decision about my patients. I want subspecialists' consult notes, I want the labs they draw, I want to know how my patients are doing the day after I see them, and I want to know what the ER workup reveals before they ever leave the ER. I'm that doctor that no subspecialist wants to hear is calling for them. I’m a patient advocate above all else, and sometimes that involves asking patients to text me as soon as they complete an imaging test so I can call for the result, or to call me when the home health nurse arrives. Most of those needs occur after normal business hours.  

After-hours care is also a big motivator for me to hand out my cell number. I feel it's much less disruptive for a patient to text me a question I can respond to without having to interrupt a board game with my son. Otherwise I would have to take a call from the answering service and then call the patient back.  

I won’t lie. I have regretted my decision to hand out my number on occasion, but it isn’t the end of the world. Just as patients can overstep boundaries in the office and we have to be professional and maintain an appropriate patient-physician relationship, the same holds true for communication outside the traditional office setting. If I get a text asking about pain or pain meds I reply that they need to call the office and schedule an appointment. If someone starts to text excessively about non-emergent issues I often have office staff call back to address the issues rather than perpetuating the situation, particularly when patients text while I am in the office. But overall, even the negative experiences haven’t changed my perspective. Often we have to step outside the perceived boundaries of our duties and expectations in order to provide the right type of care.  

One night my phone rang at 3 a.m. One of my patients' daughters was distraught and did not know what to do. One of her parents was unstable, and the other could not be left at home. I advised her to send her father to the hospital he had most recently been to where a doctor would be able to review fairly recent health information. I also advised her to have EMS communicate the need to have the triage team call her for a pertinent history over the past couple days. She felt much better, felt OK with the plan. Then I checked back in with both her and the hospital as soon as I got to my office.

I didn't know how she got my number because I hadn’t given it to her, but I honestly didn’t care. I’d helped her and her parents -- all three of them are my patients -- through the night and I felt it was an appropriate call to wake me up.  

A few days later, one of my office staff asked if I was mad at her for giving my cell number out to that family. I explained that I actually didn’t ask the patient who gave it to her and that, no, I was not at all upset. She said, "I was more worried you would be upset with me for not giving it, so I did."  

We could have an entire discussion about payment, reimbursement and the need for billing reform for this type of care, but that is honestly what I’m trying to get away from. So much discussion revolves around the "loss of the family doctor" and the "downfall of the art of medicine," etc. due to electronic health records, time constraints, data collection, quality measures and limiting the time we spend on work after work.

Personally, I want to maintain that traditional, old-school relationship with my patients in spite of the increasingly unreasonable requirements we are faced with. Just as our patients miss that relationship, so do I. Often, a text from a patient makes my day.  

Kimberly Becher, M.D., practices at a rural federally qualified health center in Clay County, W.Va.

Tuesday Mar 15, 2016

Fake Teen Doc Reflects Need for Real Minority Physicians

In mid-February, a black teen accused of posing as a doctor made national headlines. The story of "Dr. Love-Robinson" was mesmerizing. The teen reportedly had secured not only a white coat, but also an office, a website and, most incredibly, patients.  

It made me wonder, are people so hungry to have a doctor -- especially a doctor who looks like them -- that they are willing to overlook some major anomalies? I was struck by the teen's tenacity and wondered what encounter with the profession could have inspired such eagerness to pursue his dream (albeit unlawfully). It also made me reflect on my own experience with medicine as a child and my current habit of asking my young patients about their career goals during annual well child and adolescent visits.

Although blacks represent 13 percent of the U.S. population, black doctors account for only 4 percent of the physician workforce.

As a child, I loved being asked, "What do you want to do when you grow up?" It gave me the feeling that I was expected to aspire to be something. It gave me purpose and direction.

Therefore, when I was 7 and my mom was pregnant with my younger brother I went to all her prenatal appointments. As I listened to the baby's heartbeat and started the process of being an older sibling, I became enamored with my mom's OB/Gyn. Dr. Brooks was personable, caring, smart and --- most important to me -- he was black. He was the only black doctor I had exposure to as a kid, and the impression he made gave me confidence that becoming a doctor was something I could achieve. I remember him asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I also recall the pride in his eyes when I responded sincerely that I wanted to be like him.

I have been surprised that when I ask this basic question of my own young patients it seems like it is the first time that they have even considered it. I have also found that that there are some common replies, which many of my peds-loving peers and I lament because these popular answers often are given without much thought or reflection of the child's true skills and abilities.  

If a child doesn't want to be a professional athlete, he or she often wants to be a coach or manager. Other popular choices are a singer or rapper for the younger children, and forensic science or correctional officers for the older children. These kids, no doubt, are influenced by the media and awareness that minority athletes and entertainers often have incomes of seven figures or more. Career choices can also be influenced by the systems children and families have more familiarity with, even if it is the prison system.  

I recently asked an older teen what she aspired to be when she grew up, and she responded, "A stripper!"  

After my initial surprise about her choice and the enthusiasm with which she stated it, I realized the best way to respond was to not be judgmental but to engage her further. I asked about her decision, and she mentioned that people she knew who had this job always had a lot of money. It also allowed her to do another thing she enjoyed, which was dance. I asked her what other things she thought she was good at. After some reflection -- and an initial response that she wasn't good at anything else -- she mentioned cosmetology.

After more probing, she revealed she no longer attended school. The smell of marijuana on her clothes, the frequent STD testing noted in her chart, and the mention of an older boyfriend who had just been released from jail (prompting her current visit to the doctor) shed some light on some of her more recent activities. I left her with some encouragement as well as a handful of condoms.   

I also desired to leave her with hope for a better life -- even if it was just my presence as a female doctor of color and someone who cared enough to ask.

Although blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans make up 13 percent, 17 percent, and 1 percent of the U.S. population respectively, these groups make up a mere 4 percent, 4 percent, and 0.4 percent respectively of the U.S. physician workforce. Increasing the diversity of the physician workforce depends greatly on developing the pipeline -- where children and young adults are exposed to, academically prepared for, and encouraged to join our profession. In the age of struggling public school systems and fewer students going into STEM fields, we need more role modeling, mentoring and academic success programs so that there are more minorities applying to our medical schools. And of course, once they reach the doors of our universities, we need to be willing to admit dedicated and capable students.

Sadly, we are losing ground. Despite an increase in the number of black males graduating from U.S. colleges, the number of black male applicants to medicals school dropped from 1,410 in 1978 to 1,337 in 2014. During the same time span, the number of black males enrolling in med schools fell from 542 in 1978 to 515 in 2014.

One day, hopefully, there won't be such an unmet demand for a doctor of color that people could be willing to put their health in the hands of a teen playing dress up.

Venis Wilder, M.D., is a board-certified family physician who practices at a federally qualified health center in Harlem, New York. She also considers herself a community health practitioner working at the intersection of primary care and public health.

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