Take a Bow, Physicians -- You Defeated the SGR
No more patches.
No more payment cuts looming on our calendars.
We did it!
When the U.S. Senate passed the bipartisan Medicare Access and CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program) Reauthorization Act, or MACRA, tonight, more than a decade of frustration with and instability in the Medicare program ended. The legislation contains many provisions that have long been supported by AAFP members, most notably repeal of the Medicare sustainable growth rate (SGR).
In recent weeks alone, AAFP members weighed in with about 5,000 letters or phone calls to legislators, urging them to support this important legislation.
Thank you for making your voices heard. The long-awaited action by Congress retroactively negates a 21 percent cut in Medicare payments that took place when the most recent patch expired March 31.
How did we get to this point? Congress created the SGR formula as part of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 as a way to determine annual updates to the Medicare physician fee schedule. By 2002, the SGR was mandating reductions in physician payments, and we began a nearly annual dance of threatened pay cuts and congressional patches.
In all, Congress used 17 temporary patches to avoid payment cuts at a total cost of nearly $170 billion. The longstanding uncertainty regarding Medicare payments has had adverse effects on the long-term health of our practices, as well as on patients' access to care. In a 2013 survey of Academy members, 9 percent of respondents said they had stopped taking new Medicare patients in the past year, and 10 percent said they had stopped taking new Medicare patients more than a year earlier.
Still, nearly 80 percent of AAFP members continue to take new Medicare patients despite years of uncertainty, and the Senate's vote on MACRA is a victory for us and our patients. In addition to repealing the SGR, the legislation will establish an alternative set of annual payment updates. The legislation also extends funding for critical programs that affect primary care:
- community health centers;
- the National Health Service Corps; and
- teaching health centers.
MACRA also addresses another key issue that affects our practices and the health of our patients. The legislation makes interoperability of certified electronic health records a national objective. HHS will be required to establish interoperability metrics next year to measure progress toward achieving that goal by the end of 2018.
The passage of this bill illustrates the value of primary care and the strength of our voice. Thank you for standing with family medicine.
Robert Wergin, M.D., is president of the AAFP.
FPs Have Ability to Inspire, Be Inspired by, One Another
During a recent review course at our local medical school, my practice partner gave a lecture about the patient-centered medical home (PCMH). My partner -- who also happens to be my wife -- was not too keen on making the presentation at first. She doesn't think of herself as a public speaker, but after a bit of encouragement, she agreed to share the story of our journey through practice transformation with an audience of about 250 people. And she was magnificent.
Every practicing physician has interesting and valuable stories that other physicians could learn from, but too often, we don’t seize the opportunities in front of us. Likewise, I think many family physicians fail to realize the value we bring to the health care system. But if our nation is to transition from a specialty-driven health care system to one built on primary care, family physicians must be the change agents in that revolution. We cannot wait for permission or validation from others; if we do not believe in ourselves, who will?
In medical school, we often heard the mantra, “see one, do one, teach one,” which emphasizes student learning through practice. A similar approach of “imagine one, do one, inspire one” could be applied to the changes that are needed in our health care system.
One of the experiences I enjoy most of late is when other physicians come to visit our practice to see what we’re doing. Some come to see what we’ve done with our electronic health record system. Others want to know how a small, rural practice became a recognized PCMH. Still others want to hear about our accountable care organization (ACO).
Being around people who are making changes and succeeding can give us the confidence, courage and inspiration to embark on our own transitions. And that doesn’t have to be a transition to a PCMH or an ACO. A growing number of our members are pursuing other practice alternatives, such as direct primary care.
We can create the change we want to see, but first we have to understand the possibilities. We can’t just sit back and wait to see what happens next. Of course, every family physician doesn’t have to run for a chapter presidency or testify before a congressional committee to consider him- or herself "involved," but we can all share our success stories with our colleagues and work with our staffs to provide the best care possible.
The Academy has pledged to deliver "strong medicine for America." So long as we inspire our family physician colleagues, and allow ourselves to be inspired by others, we will deliver on that promise.
Lloyd Van Winkle, M.D., is a member of the AAFP Board of Directors.
Rx for Success: PBS Film Shines Light on Health Care Triumphs
I recently watched a documentary that put a song in my heart and left me inspired by people who decided to take control and make a difference in the world around them -- for their patients, their teams and their communities. I heard stories of family physicians doing what we do best, despite the many hurdles we all face in a fragmented system. I want you to see what is possible.
David Loxterkamp, M.D., is the son of a physician. For two decades, he was a small-town, small-practice family physician much like his father, a general practitioner, had been. About 10 years ago, however, Loxterkamp decided he needed to make a change.
"I realized medicine is too difficult to do it alone," he said. "This is a really hard, emotionally draining job. You really need someone else to help you out."
Loxterkamp assembled a team to help him care for his small community in Maine, where he still makes house calls. His practice now includes other physicians, nurses, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a pharmacist, a physician assistant, a medical assistant and a physical therapist.
It's hard to argue with their results. The practice's ER visits have fallen 40 percent in the past four years. One-third of the patients enrolled in a smoking cessation program have actually quit, and the blood sugar level of patients with previously uncontrolled diabetes has dropped dramatically.
David Grubin also is the son of a general practitioner, but he did not follow in his father's footsteps. Grubin is a filmmaker whose documentary, Rx: The Quiet Revolution, makes its debut tonight in many markets on PBS. Grubin said his father had lost faith in the U.S. health care system by the time he retired. Physicians, his father said, didn't have enough time for their patients, and he didn't know how to change a system that valued volume over quality.
Grubin's father, however, had never met anyone like Loxterkamp, one of the four examples the film provides of physicians and systems that have found a way to succeed in a dysfunctional, fragmented health care system.
The film, which will be repeated in most markets and also can be viewed online, delivers a powerful message: It is possible to succeed in our flawed, fee-for-service system. Although Loxterkamp practices in a recognized patient-centered medical home, these success stories didn't depend on the kind of incentives often provided in practice transformation pilots.
For example, Grubin visited On Lok, a San Francisco-based program for the elderly, that has been around since the 1970s. Like Loxterkamp's practice, On Lok takes a team-based and patient-centered approach to care.
The innovative program provides care and social activities for the elderly during the day yet allows patients to remain in their homes at night. In addition to medical care, the program provides services like grocery shopping and cleaning to patients who likely would otherwise be in a nursing home.
According to the film, patients in the program are less likely to visit ERs and hospitals and are less likely to be readmitted than those who live in nursing homes.
With the number of Americas older than 65 expected to double in the next 20 years, such services could be in high demand in the near future. And this film could help more patients be aware of -- and expect -- high quality, patient-centered care.
Grubin's travels also took him to Alaska, where native Alaskans were so dissatisfied with an Indian Health Service program that relied on emergent care that the community took control of the local hospital and built a new system with a strong primary care foundation. Team-based care is again a central theme in this story as is telemedicine, which the system uses to connect remote communities with physicians and pharmacists.
Teams and telemedicine also play prominent roles in the success of a program in Mississippi, which has the nation's lowest median household income and the highest rate of obesity. The state, which has one of the nation's highest rates of diabetes, is trying to address these health problems with a program that provides patients a tablet-based monitoring program that allows them to provide a blood sample each morning.
The program goes beyond monitoring with physicians, nurses, dieticians, physical therapists and more providing care and counseling. As one patient told the filmmaker, "You need somebody that cares."
Clearly, Grubin has succeeded in finding such people. It is critical to point out again that these practices were created in the setting of a flawed, fee-for-service, volume-driven, fragmented and dispassionate system. Individuals, sometimes a family physician and sometimes another team member, took control of their lives and situations. They made changes, big and small, with the most important one being that they would remember to care. They have reclaimed their joy of practice by embracing the essence of team-based, patient-centered care. And now they have shared their stories in this film.
These stories give us hope and show us what is possible.
Reid Blackwelder, M.D., is Board chair of the AAFP.
Dear Payers: Unnecessary Visits Waste Patients' Time
One of the biggest health care challenges we face in this country is the combination of fragmented care and the siloing of different systems. I recently was reminded how important this issue continues to be.
During a recent clinic, most of my patients were logged in with notes related to their insurance rather than a medical need for a visit. Some of them were there for health maintenance per insurance, one was for a "diabetic check per insurance," and so on. Oddly, this was a group of patients that I had seen only a few months ago.
I asked these patients why they had come in, noting that I had not expected to see them so soon. (In fact, I had not planned to see them for a year, assuming they weren't ill.) Most of them said they had received phone calls from their insurance companies stating they needed to be seen for a health maintenance visit, but in reality, no such need existed.
Family physicians provide health maintenance during every visit, but we must make sure we code appropriately because, unfortunately, insurance companies often pay more attention to codes than to the actual care being provided.
As I reviewed their records, I realized that in my efforts to care for my patients, I had neglected to care for their charts by indicating an ICD-9 "V" code (e.g., V70.0, "Routine general medical examination at a health care facility") within the timeframe of the insurance calendar. However, each of these patients had indeed had health maintenance evaluations. When I had seen them in November, we had gone through the management of their chronic diseases, any acute issues, their biopsychosocial issues, and we had also addressed their individualized preventive services aspects -- all of the things that we routinely address.
Each patient had Physician Quality Reporting System measures checked and recorded, and I reviewed health maintenance and documented it clearly in the chart; however, as this was just a routine part of what I did, I was billing based on their medical disease management.
Despite their efforts, my patients had been unable to convince the insurance representatives on the phone that they had actually covered all of these issues. In fact, one patient who came to me for a diabetic check per insurance does not even have diabetes, and so this was another issue I documented.
Rather than calling patients -- who reported that they felt "harassed" by the payers -- it would make more sense in a nonfragmented system for insurance companies to call physicians so we can review what care has and has not been offered and provide any necessary information. My hope and ideal would be that all payers look for ways to connect with physician offices or, better yet, implement a system that would note the checkboxes that indicate the appropriate health maintenance measures were indeed done without the V code.
Better and easier communication with payers would benefit patients and physicians and help payers avoid unnecessary costs. Several of the affected patients had Medicare, but when I tried to call that payer I was unable to get a real person on the phone. The patients did not have any related paperwork with them, so I couldn't identify a direct help phone number. So, we covered whatever clinical issues needed some attention. Then, without really requiring anything specifically for the health maintenance, I diligently coded V70.0s and documented the previous discussions in their charts.
The sustainable growth rate formula legislation that passed the House last week includes steps to consolidate performance measures in an effort to decrease administrative burdens. It would be helpful if interoperability existed that would allow immediate tracking when such measures were done anywhere in the health care system. Although we have made some progress, there is still a great deal of work to be done.
One of my favorite quotes lately is, "It is not patient-centered until the patient says that it is patient-centered." Forcing patients to make unnecessary office visits certainly misses the mark.
Reid Blackwelder, M.D., is Board chair of the AAFP.
Mismatch: Why the Disconnect Between Student Interest and Student Choice?
I matched into family medicine. The number of students matching into family medicine increased for the sixth year in a row. Now it's time to celebrate.
Or is it?
|My husband, Rob, helps me find the paper lantern containing my Match information. More than 3,000 students matched into family medicine last week as part of the 2015 National Resident Matching Program.|
Although the number of students matching into family medicine through the National Resident Matching Program increased again this year, the uptick was small, especially among U.S. medical school graduates.
This leaves many -- students and physicians alike -- asking, "What gives?" Everything we have been hearing points to increasing student interest in family medicine, so why aren't more students matching into the specialty?
First, it's true that student interest in family medicine is increasing. The AAFP has reached out to students in many ways, and student membership in the Academy has grown from 14,833 in 2010 to 26,900 today. Student attendance at AAFP's National Conference of Family Medicine Residents and Medical Students has increased substantially each of the past four years. And family medicine interest groups (FMIGs) also are reporting growth, with new groups being formed and interest in existing groups increasing. We even have FMIGs at schools that lack departments of family medicine.
And second, it's not a question of lack of demand. For eight consecutive years, family medicine has been the highest recruited medical specialty for physician employment.
So again we are left wondering, 'Why the disconnect?' The interest and the demand are there, so why doesn't the increase in our match rate reflect this?
Unfortunately, there's no single easy answer. Instead, we see interwoven barriers preventing a smooth translation from student interest into student choice of family medicine. The AAFP has for years investigated these barriers and worked to develop and execute plans to overcome them. That work continues, and there are ways you can help.
The issue of student debt has two components: the debt itself and overall physician payment, which affects students' ability to repay their debt. Many fourth-year medical students recently completed their exit loan counseling, and, after years of trying not to worry about the amount of debt they were accruing, they finally had to face it.
Loan amounts vary from student to student. I consider myself fortunate to be the recipient of a National Health Service Corps (NHSC) scholarship for part of my medical education. Yet even with the scholarship, my student loan debt is $172,000. This is a scary number for me, but not as scary as the mountain of debt some face. One of my colleagues, who also is going into family medicine, owes $410,000.
He applied for an NHSC scholarship during medical school, but there simply was not enough funding for all the students who applied. So yes, we still need to take a look at student debt and how to alleviate more of it, including through more scholarships and loan repayment programs, lower loan interest rates, ensuring public loan forgiveness programs remains intact, and more.
Equally important is physician payment reform. Students are worried their income will not cover their debt and the cost of living, let alone the expense of starting a practice. With a 21 percent Medicare payment cut set to go into effect on April 1 if Congress doesn't act to repeal the sustainable growth rate (SGR) formula, this topic has been center stage for practicing physicians and the AAFP in recent weeks. I urge you to reach out to your legislators and tell them to repeal the SGR.
Despite all the great work going into finding solutions for student debt and payment reform, students still worry these two massive issues are a long way from getting solved. These concerns can make them hesitant to choose family medicine, and this is where practicing family physicians can make an immediate and direct impact through mentoring.
For example, family physician Mark Goedecker, M.D., of York, Pa., has visited many medical schools, including mine, to share his family's story of overcoming substantial student debt. His main message is "You can afford to be a family physician." Of all our FMIG events in the past four years, Dr. Goedecker’s talk was the most well attended and the most inspirational.
But financial topics are not the only issues medical students want to hear about from residents and physicians. We want and need more family physician role models! We need to see your enthusiasm and passion for family medicine; we need to see family medicine's broad scope and its diversity of patients; we need to see you combating burnout; we need you to show us the way.
We can get some of this insight from conferences and meetings, especially National Conference, but you can help build and maintain student enthusiasm and passion for family medicine all year round. We want to see family doctors caring for kids; performing vasectomies; and doing prenatal care, palliative care, sports medicine and more. Show us, talk to us and teach us.
Showing us your passion for family medicine through mentorship also helps us understand the strength, value and importance of family medicine. Show us how primary care is delivered in teams, and that all members of the health care team, including our nurse practitioner and physician assistant colleagues, have a unique and valuable role in patient care. Help dispel the many myths and misperceptions about family medicine that students hear.
Imagine what would happen if some of these barriers to student choice were removed, and more students who would make phenomenal family doctors followed their passion to family medicine. It's what needs to happen to eliminate the primary care shortage and achieve our quadruple aim of better care, better health, lower costs and happier physicians.
Kristina Zimmerman is the student member of the AAFP Board of Directors.
FP Recommendation Key to Boosting Colorectal Cancer Screening Rates
Each year, more than 130,000 U.S. adults are diagnosed with colorectal cancer, the nation's second-leading cause of cancer deaths. Despite those stark statistics, nearly one-third of adults ages 50 to 75 aren't getting screened as recommended.
In an American Cancer Society survey of unscreened patients, one of the leading reasons respondents gave for not being screened was that they had not received a screening recommendation from a physician. Family physicians are positioned to make a huge difference in closing this gap because we provide roughly 200 million office visits each year to a vast spectrum of patients.
A physician discusses care options with a patient. An American Cancer Society patient survey indicates that a physician recommendation can make a big difference in whether or not patients are screened for colorectal cancer.
So it was no surprise last year when the National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable (NCCRT) -- chaired by family physician Richard Wender, M.D. -- sought the AAFP's support for its 80% by 2018 initiative, which seeks to increase the percentage of adults ages 50 and older who get screened for colorectal cancer to 80 percent by 2018.
It's been estimated that achieving that goal would prevent more than 200,000 deaths because colorectal cancer can be detected early -- when treatment is more likely to be successful -- and even prevented through the removal of precancerous polyps.
So where do we stand? The percentage of U.S. adults who have been screened increased from 56 percent in 2002 to 65 percent in 2010. And as the screening rate has risen in recent years, cancer incidence has dropped in this age group.
Still, much work remains to reach the initiative's goal. College graduates are screened at a rate of more than 80 percent, but disparities exist for many other populations. Patients with less education and income, the uninsured, underinsured and certain minority groups have dramatically lower screen rates and higher cancer rates.
So how do we reach these populations? I recently participated in an event hosted by the American Cancer Society and the NCCRT that looked at the progress made during the first year of the 80% by 2018 initiative. We heard from some of the more than 200 groups that have pledged to help boost the screening rate. Those groups range from individual physician practices to national physician organizations and also include payers, public health groups, national retailers and others. In some communities, family physicians, gastroenterologists, public health officials and others are working to identify unscreened patients and direct them to affordable care.
For example, John Allen, M.D., M.B.A., president of the American Gastroenterological Association, said during the event that a grant from Walgreens had helped physicians in Connecticut identify and screen more than 300 patients. Of those, 46 percent had precancerous polyps.
In Arizona, the state department of health is working with one payer to provide screening information to 200,000 patients, as well as providing related CME to physicians.
Earlier this month -- which happens to be Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month -- Mississippi announced a statewide program that aims to increase screening rates in that state to 70 percent by 2020. Although that goal is lower than the NCCRT's objective, it would be a giant leap for Mississippi, which has the nation's highest mortality rate -- and one of the lowest screening rates -- related to colorectal cancer.
What can we do in our own practices? We can make that all-important recommendation during visits with patients ages 50 to 75, and we can follow up with reminders through mail or email.
We also can be sensitive to what type of test patients are willing to do because although some may be hesitant to have a colonoscopy, they may agree to do a take-home test. Remember that a typical series of take-home stool tests does qualify as screening and should be done annually. However, a single, one-time, in-office stool test does NOT adequately screen for colorectal cancer.
In my federally qualified health center, we are helping eligible patients get coverage through the health insurance marketplace. Although screening is a covered preventive service, follow-up care could require a copay in some health plans.
Family physicians build relationships and trust over time. By making a recommendation and providing reminders, we can help achieve this important, life-saving goal.
Wanda Filer, M.D., M.B.A., is president-elect of the AAFP.
The Envelope, Please: Waiting for Match Results
We are almost there, mere months from realizing a dream we have poured our hearts and souls into for years. Although thoughts of graduation are in the backs of our minds, something else remains at the forefront: the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP).
Match week activities start March 16 when we fourth-year allopathic medical students find out whether we have matched to a residency, and programs find out whether they have filled their positions. We won't know our specific results until March 20.
It's been a long and sometimes grueling process since Match registration opened six months ago. We have fretted over letters of recommendation, decisions about which residencies to apply to, travel and other expenses, interviews, and ranking our residency choices.
All this led up to officially submitting our rank order lists on Feb. 25.
Whew. Take a breath. That was a lot. So now what?
Now, we wait.
My husband also is waiting -- somewhat patiently -- to see where I land so he can figure out where we will be living and, thus, where he will be working. He's a Pennsylvania state employee, so the majority of my 14 interviews were with in-state programs.
I have faith that wherever we end up will be the right spot for us. I feel confident that I'll be able to fit in anywhere because of the passion family physicians share for primary care, our patients and our communities.
I also think residents get out of a program what they put into it. We not only have a lot to learn but a lot to give, so my plan is to give my new program everything I can and become the best doctor I can be. If that happens, I'll be happy with the final result.
Since I submitted my program rankings, I've completed an obstetrics rotation and started another in emergency medicine. The good news is that I'm too busy during work hours to think about the magnitude of the letter I'll be opening soon.
There are 23 days from the time we submitted our rank order lists until Match day. As I post this, I am keenly aware that there are only 10 days left -- but who’s counting? (Well, actually, many fourth-year medical students likely have it calculated down to the second.)
As the anticipation grows, and the Match draws closer, find solace, my fellow fourth-year students. We are ready. We have done everything we can. I'm happy and excited to take the next step in my training, and the wait is almost over.
Come back to the AAFP website on Match Day for NRMP results and AAFP News coverage of those results.
Kristina Zimmerman is the student member of the AAFP Board of Directors.
On the Hill: Academy Promoting Family Medicine's Perspective
The AAFP Board of Directors spent a day lobbying last week on Capitol Hill. We each met with legislators and congressional staff from our own states, meaning that the offices of representatives and senators from more than a dozen states heard about issues critical to primary care.
Although the conversations undoubtedly varied, many of the topics covered in our meetings were the same. We asked Congress to do the following:
- Avoid the 21 percent Medicare payment cut scheduled to take place April 1 and work to repeal and replace the flawed sustainable growth rate formula;
- Reauthorize and adequately fund the Teaching Health Center Graduate Medical Education program, which is responsible for training more than 500 residents at 60 residency programs in two dozen states;
- Reform graduate medical education funding; and
- Increase Medicaid payments for primary care.
| Photo courtesy Architect of the Capitol
Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., whose husband is a physician, was receptive to my message about the need for action on these pressing issues. And, although members of the Board covered a lot of common ground about payment and education in our separate meetings, my meeting with Kelly also offered a chance to discuss important clinical issues.
Kelly serves as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Health Brain Trust, which collaborates with stakeholders in the health care system to address issues of health equity. Some of the Health Braintrust's priorities overlap with those of the AAFP, including addressing social determinants of health, expanding access to primary care and tackling health disparities.
In addition to the CBC's legislative efforts to address health equity, the group's Health Braintrust supports research related to how education, economic stability and neighborhood affect a person's health. The group also hosts health fairs across the country and annually hosts a fall health policy event organized as part of the CBC's Annual Legislative Conference, as well as a spring forum on health disparities. It also holds monthly meetings with health advocates and policy experts.
When opportunities present themselves to promote primary care and advocate for our practices and our patients, we have to seize those opportunities. The CBC was seeking feedback on a number of health issues, and the Academy provided this group -- which includes nearly 50 members of the House and Senate -- with as much information as possible.
In addition to my meeting with Kelly on Feb. 25, Academy staff participated in a Feb. 27 Health Braintrust roundtable meeting that included Kelly, congressional staff, advocates and representatives from the American Hospital Association, Morehouse School of Medicine, the National Medical Association, the National Urban League and others.
With such a diverse group, the latter meeting covered a wide range of topics, including access issues associated with health care reform and technology. In addition, the forum addressed public health issues such as federal nutrition standards, healthy communities, health disparities and violence prevention. The Health Braintrust sought feedback on its agenda and how to address these issues. The group plans to continue to engage stakeholders and generate short-term and long-term goals for health priorities, and we were eager to provide family medicine's perspective.
For our issues to be addressed, it's important for legislators to hear from their constituents. It's worth noting that hundreds of family physicians from across the country will be in Washington May 12-13 for the Family Medicine Congressional Conference. That event offers a full day of advocacy training followed by a day on Capitol Hill. It's not too late to lend your voice.
Javette Orgain, M.D., M.P.H., is vice speaker of the AAFP Congress of Delegates.
The Folly of Judging Physicians Based on Patients' Foibles
Physicians write nearly 4 billion prescriptions each year in the United States, yet roughly half the patients who come to us for help fail to take their medications as directed. Among older patients, the proportion could be as high as 75 percent.
Patients often suffer the consequences when they don't take their medications as directed, but so, too, do physicians when reimbursement is tied to outcomes and community metrics. This can create an adversarial relationship between a prescriber and a "noncompliant" patient, which is antithetical to the kind of relationship family physicians want to have with their patients.
I recently attended a presentation about minimally disruptive medicine, which means simply health care that is designed to meet the goals of the patient while also considering the capacity of the patient to meet those goals.
This overall concept gets at the issue of noncompliance and whether we should even use that term. Noncompliant conjures up an image of a patient who disregards our advice because he or she doesn't value it, but the truth is that any number of factors can prevent a person from adhering to a prescribed regimen, including insurance coverage, out-of-pocket costs, health literacy, cognitive issues, social problems, transportation and more.
The speaker gave the example of a 55-year-old man who had several chronic conditions, including diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension and obesity. Due to his multiple conditions, his physician advised him to exercise, but the man had a blue-collar job that caused him back pain. That pain rendered him largely sedentary at home, which exacerbated his chronic conditions.
In addition to his physical health concerns, the man's chemically dependent daughter had moved into his home along with her children to escape an abusive relationship. And on top of everything else, the man was suffering from depression.
The patient said he was simply overwhelmed, was unable to exercise and had little time to make the office visits his physician recommended to keep his conditions in check.
We've all had patients like this. They are aware of their health problems and would like to address them but feel unable to do so. Some are merely treading water. That leaves the physician with the unenviable choice of "firing" patients or continuing to try to help them under the very real threat of financial penalties.
Payers would like patients to fit neatly into a single mold but the reality is that patients need an individualized plan that fits their needs. Progress in addressing chronic conditions -- even if it's just baby steps -- should be valued rather than discounted, and physicians should not be penalized for being unable to force a patient with multiple chronic conditions to make miraculous improvements in the face of a litany of obstacles.
I had a patient whose hemoglobin A1c was 14. We were able to bring that number down to 10, which is a significant improvement. But from a payer's perspective, it wasn't good enough because my community metric is 8.
Using these types of quality measures across the board has unintended consequences, and physicians are being punished unfairly for failing to live up to these expectations. Drawing a line in the sand and saying, "Meet this number," fails to recognize the value of the work primary care physicians are doing to reduce the burden of illness and costs to the health care system if a patient happens to land slightly outside an ideal target area.
Being sick is emotionally, physically and financially hard on patients. We need to look at how we can partner with patients and individualize their therapies so they can make progress toward health goals that make sense for them -- not just for us and certainly not for payers.
Lynne Lillie, M.D., is a member of the AAFP Board of Directors.
Thomas Wolfe Had It Wrong: You Can Go Home Again
The only doctor who ever treated me while I was growing up was the local general practitioner, so my concept of a physician was someone who took care of everyone -- from birth to end of life -- and was involved in the community. Being exposed to subspecialty care during medical school and residency didn't change my perception of what I was meant to do. I knew I wanted to be a "real doctor."
Photo Courtesy Megan Sonnier
Here I am talking to a patient who -- like many in my hometown practice -- I've known for decades. In fact, he wrote a letter of recommendation for me when I was a high school student applying for a scholarship at the University of Alabama.
Not to gainsay Thomas Wolfe's compelling novel You Can't Go Home Again, but when I left Bibb County, Ala., to attend medical school in Mobile in 1975, that was exactly what I planned to do. I wanted to practice family medicine in my community.
I live in Brent, Ala., and work in Centreville. These neighboring small towns run together and are home to roughly 6,000 people combined. When I look at my patient list in the morning, I often know patients' complaints before I see them because I've already heard about their illnesses, conditions or concerns at church, in the stores or from my nurse.
At the heart of primary care is the idea that patients should have an ongoing relationship with a family physician they know and trust. I have that kind of relationship with my patients because I've lived here most of my life, and I've practiced medicine here for more than 30 years.
There were only two other physicians in the county -- both family physicians -- when I started my practice in 1982. One was another local who had come home to practice. One thing we learned about starting new practices in our hometown is that folks typically fall into one of three groups:
- People who didn't know you before you became a physician or moved to town while you were away at medical school or residency;
- People who knew you before you were a physician and will never come to you for care because they still think of you as a kid; and
- People who knew you before you were a physician and won't see any other doctor because they know and trust you.
Patients should have the right to choose their physician, and I understand that some of my old high-school classmates might be uncomfortable being patients of mine -- particularly women. On the other hand, I've delivered the babies of some of my former classmates, so it works both ways. My patient panel also includes former teachers, coaches and my high-school principal.
My wife grew up in a small town, too, and when I finished residency, we visited a few other communities before we decided where to start my practice. In fact, I had an offer to join a friend's practice in another location. But in the end, we couldn't find anything we liked better than my hometown.
I've built strong relationships in this community. To me, that's part of being a family physician. And I love what I do.
John Meigs, M.D., is speaker of the Congress of Delegates, the governing body of the AAFP.
Curbing Childhood Obesity Requires Moving Beyond the Exam Room
A concerned parent recently brought her child to see me, worried that the child was underweight. A check of the patient's height and weight confirmed what I suspected -- the child's body mass index was normal. The problem likely is that so many of the child's peers are overweight or obese that the parent's sense of normal was skewed.
Our state, North Carolina, has the fifth-highest rate of childhood obesity in the nation, affecting nearly 20 percent of children ages 10-17 years. Nationally, more than one-third of all children and adolescents are overweight or obese.
|More than one-third of U.S. children and adolescents are overweight or obese.|
The White House recently marked the fifth anniversary of the first lady's Let's Move campaign, an ambitious national program to combat childhood obesity that the AAFP has supported. But efforts to address this epidemic have shown mixed results. In the first two years after the program launched, the obesity rate among children ages 2-5 years dropped nearly 4 percent, but the rate among those 12-19 increased more than 2 percent during the same period. Overall, the rate of childhood obesity was steady at nearly 17 percent.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently doubled down on its investment in childhood obesity programs, matching the $500 million commitment it made in 2007 with a pledge for another $500 million during the next 10 years.
But what can we as family physicians do in our own communities? When I was president of the North Carolina AFP, our chapter partnered with the state agricultural extension agency to provide nutrition education in family medicine practices. We identified children who were overweight or obese and provided education for entire families in large-group visits. We also worked with the extension office to develop a Web-based resource that included the menus of the popular fast food restaurants in our region. The database allowed users to compare nutrition information of various menu items so that they could make healthier choices when they ate out.
Both of those programs were funded by the state's Health and Wellness Trust Fund, which provided grants with money from the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. Although those funds are long gone, family physicians can still find creative ways to help families eat better and increase physical activity. And we can help families beyond the work we do in our exam rooms.
For example, Tommy Newton, M.D., of Clinton, N.C., created a program that rewards elementary students for achieving certain fitness goals. The 10-year-old program, used in schools across the county, has more than 3,500 students enrolled and has been shown to improve children's fitness and self-esteem.
One of the challenges many families face is the lack of a safe place for children to play. Gone are the days (in most communities) when parents felt comfortable allowing their kids to ride their bikes around town -- or even play outside in their own neighborhoods -- without supervision. One of our local communities has addressed that by completing a bike trail that stretches from one end of the city to the other, providing a safe place for families to exercise.
What is your community doing to address this crisis?
Mott Blair, M.D., is a member of the AAFP Board of Directors.
Under Attack: We Can All Join the Fight for GME Funding
For thousands of U.S. medical school seniors, the end is drawing near. In less than five months, they will be completing their fourth year of undergraduate medical training and gaining those two highly prized letters at the end of their name: M.D. But their work is far from complete.
Throughout the fall, they traveled the country interviewing for residency spots at programs large and small. Now, with the National Resident Matching Program -- better known as the Match -- only six weeks away, their anxiety is starting to grow.
Getting into medical school was difficult. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, more than 40 percent of those who apply are turned away. Getting through medical school was difficult, too. Hours of classes, tests, clinical clerkships and overnight call. Next stop, residency. Getting in the door there is no easy task, either, and now it looks like the process could get even harder.
At a time when a shortage of primary care physicians is getting worse, hundreds of family medicine residency positions are in jeopardy.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act created the Teaching Health Center Graduate Medical Education (THCGME) program to increase the number of primary care physicians. Unfortunately, the federal government's $230 million investment in that innovative program -- and other critical primary care programs -- is set to expire this year. In a survey last year, two-thirds of THCGME program directors said they likely would be unable to continue supporting current residency positions without continued federal funding.
Some aren't waiting to see whether or not Congress will act, and it's hard to blame them for being cautious.
The Fresno Bee reported Jan. 31 that the Sierra Vista Family Medicine Residency program in Fresno, Calif., already has decided not to take on a third class of residents in anticipation of a funding shortfall.
That program had received nearly 800 applications for four residency slots, but the program needs $2.4 million over three years to train each class of four residents.
Nationally, there are 60 teaching health center programs with a total of more than 500 family medicine residency slots. If Congress fails to reauthorize and adequately fund the THCGME program, how long will it be until we hear of more residencies pulling the plug on residency positions?
You've invested considerable time and money and likely amassed a daunting level of debt to pursue your goal -- your dream -- of becoming a physician. But if you're medical student, you might be wondering how this funding crisis could affect your spot in the Match. And if you're a resident at a teaching health center, you might be worried -- justifiably so -- about whether or not you get to keep yours.
So what is the AAFP doing about it?
- Last fall, the Academy released a proposal that built on recommendations for GME made by the Institute of Medicine earlier in the year. The AAFP's plan would, among other things, significantly change the way GME is financed.
- Two months later, AAFP leaders were on Capitol Hill to discuss several key issues -- including funding for teaching health centers -- with legislators and congressional staff.
- GME likely will be one of the topics on the agenda when the AAFP Board of Directors spends another day lobbying on Capitol Hill later this month.
- The AAFP and the Council of Academic Family Medicine recently responded to the House Energy and Commerce Committee's request for comments on GME reform with a letter that reinforced the concepts in the proposal released last fall, including support for community-based training programs and the need for accountability for the roughly $9 billion in federal GME funds that are funneled through academic health centers.
- That letter is just one of many the Academy has sent to Congress regarding GME reform in recent months.
Health care faces a "primary care cliff" in 2015. In addition to GME, funding for the National Health Service Corps and community health centers also is set to expire this year. We students and residents can do our part by getting directly involved in the advocacy efforts of the Academy and our state chapters. For example, efforts by students and residents last year helped the Pennsylvania AFP secure state funds for nine new family medicine residency positions and a development program for residents interested in practicing in underserved areas.
Students and residents also should be aware of scholarship opportunities to attend the Academy's Family Medicine Congressional Conference (FMCC). The May 12-13 event in Washington trains family physicians (and students) to advocate for patients and family medicine and concludes with a day of lobbying on Capitol Hill. The deadline for scholarship applications is March 6.
Whether you attend FMCC or not, your legislators need to know how funding cuts to primary care programs affect medical training and health care in their states.
Andrew Lutzkanin, M.D., is the resident member of the AAFP Board of Directors.
Maternity Care, Solid Team Training Build Strong Bonds
For me, nothing cements my relationship with patients and their families like the birth of a child. It is heart-warming for me to be part of the privileged minority of family physicians who continue to provide maternity care as part of a full-scope practice.
Getting here was no accident. I grew up in rural Washington, and when I was born in the local small community hospital, a family physician was there for the delivery. The same family physician delivered my sister and brother, and he later mentored me during high school when I worked the night shift as a hospital orderly to get a taste of a career in health care.
During my second year of medical school, I was fortunate to find a family physician preceptor for my continuity clerkship who not only practiced maternity care in the hospital but also provided care in patients' homes, working with a certified nurse midwife to provide home births and births in his office-based birthing center.
The experience of following families through prenatal care and then being invited into their homes to assist with a birth had me hooked, and watching those newborns grow and develop during the course of their well-child care set the hook for good.
In the multicultural community my medical school served, it was not uncommon to have multiple generations present for births and well-child visits. The safe birth of a healthy baby often came as a relief to the elder members of the families, whose previous experiences with childbirth had not always been so joyful.
The contrast between taking care of a selected, “low-risk” population of women having home births and my experiences as a medical student on the OB service of a quaternary care university hospital was enormous; I saw that a comprehensive education and residency training program in family medicine, taking care of the highest-risk/highest-acuity pregnancies, was definitely a necessary start on my path to a full-scope practice. Little did I know how much I would miss taking care of the low-risk patients until those first few months of residency in the county hospital, where every patient seemed to have a myriad of medical and social challenges. The vaginal delivery of a healthy, term baby was rare, except for patients who received prenatal care through our family medicine clinic. Although they had many of the same demographics as the rest of our county hospital patients, and many of the same obstetrical challenges, the clinic patients had the advantage of continuity of the team and integrated care of the family.
Now, more than 30 years after residency, I am sitting in the labor and delivery unit, reflecting on the experiences I have shared with the family I am caring for tonight. We have a long history together; this is their second child, coming more than 15 years after the birth of their first. That beautiful baby girl, who has grown into a mature young lady, is here with her dad, helping coach her mom during labor. Between her birth and tonight, there have been three miscarriages, including a molar pregnancy.
The couple had almost given up hope of another child, but tonight, hope comes home to stay. We have time to talk about their first childbirth and the family medicine resident who was there with me. That resident subsequently became a partner in my practice. We reminisce about that stubborn little girl who decided she was going to arrive in the wee hours of the morning. She had a compound presentation that required extra help and effort. Everything turned out fine, but I am reminded how challenging it was to keep panic out of the room that morning until help arrived.
And yet I am confident this evening -- working with another resident -- that no matter what the challenges may be with this labor and delivery, panic will not show its ugly face. How can I be so confident? I sum it up in one simple but profound concept.
A team of experts does not automatically make an expert team. That is one of the tag lines in the “Safety in Maternity Care” chapter I helped write for the AAFP’s Advanced Life Support in Obstetrics (ALSO) program when I joined the ALSO Board years ago. Teamwork training, as simple as it may sound, saves lives. There is a growing body of evidence that simulation and teamwork training specifically regarding obstetrical emergencies saves mothers and babies no matter the setting, whether it be in the regional perinatal center (like the one I am sitting in this evening), a rural hospital in Tanzania or the maternity hospital in Baghdad (where I taught an ALSO course last year).
Tonight’s team is different from the team I worked with nearly 16 years ago; everyone on the labor and delivery unit tonight has been through an ALSO course. Five years ago, after some adverse events that could have been prevented, the obstetricians, family physicians, nurse midwives, labor nurses and mother-baby nurses here voted to require ALSO certification and ongoing maintenance of that certification for every person working on the unit. We are proud that safety has become the focus of our care. Teamwork is integral to everything we do, and this high-risk perinatal center serving a high-risk, multiethnic population has the lowest C-section rate and highest safety ratings of any hospital in our state.
I salute the AAFP’s commitment to ongoing education in maternity care, from the ALSO courses for practicing physicians and other maternity care professionals, to the Academy's Family Centered Maternity Care course, to the Basic Life Support in Obstetrics courses targeted to medical and nursing students, prehospital care professionals and emergency department staffs and, finally, to the international work ALSO and Global ALSO continue to do.
I have to go now. The newest member of the family is about to arrive.
Carl Olden, M.D., is a member of the AAFP Board of Directors.
Health Tech Developers Could Use Physician Input
I always wanted to attend the Consumer Electronics Show, not only to see what all the hype was about but also to find out if there were innovative ideas that could be used to strengthen primary care and help family physicians better meet our patients' needs. Finding ways to improve patient access, care coordination and engagement while achieving the Triple Aim -- better care, better outcomes and lower cost -- may require new approaches and an open mind, and I wanted to see if any technologies were on the horizon as part of those solutions.
I couldn't have picked a better year to finally make it to Las Vegas. The number of biotech and health companies participating in the recent international show increased by more than 30 percent this year.
Photo Courtesy the Consumer Electronics Show
Attendees look at
smart watches on display at the Consumer Electronics Show. More than 50
wearable health and wellness products were on exhibit last month at the show in
More than 150,000 people trekked to the Las Vegas Convention Center to see the latest high-tech gadgets. Exhibitors covered more than 2 million square feet with the latest innovations in automobiles, televisions, headphones and more. I didn't have time to see everything, so I focused on the exhibits that had the potential to improve health and wellness.
What did I see?
How about bike pedals that can track a cyclist's speed, distance, elevation, calories burned and record his or her route?
Or a patch that can monitor a patient's temperature for 24 hours, tracks changes and send alerts to physicians?
Could your patients benefit from a product that tracks calories through a wrist sensor and monitors heart rate, blood flow and fluid levels?
Although there were plenty of innovative ideas on display, the biggest trend was wearable devices. There were dozens of companies hoping to be the next Fitbit. In fact, more than 50 wearable products were being promoted at the show.
Why the glut? Roughly 19 million wearable products were sold last year, and that number is expected to more than triple within the next three years. But as I made the rounds and talked to these companies on the show floor, I had to question how much some of these companies knew about U.S. health care. And were they making a product because it fit a need or simply because they had developed a cool, new technology?
For example, I talked to representatives of the company promoting the temperature monitor. That product is being marketed primarily as a pediatric device. When I asked them, "What about geriatric patients?" they admitted they hadn't considered that possibility.
I talked with multiple foreign developers who were each marketing more than a half dozen gadgets that can monitor a user's temperature, blood pressure, blood sugar, etc., and they each had their own proprietary platform that feeds data into one place. A patient could easily use such a system to send his or her information to a physician. The problem is that a consumer would have to buy all these gadgets from the same vendor because the competing systems aren't interoperable. Sound familiar?
The disconnect between developers and health care was one of the reasons I was glad to see family medicine prominently featured at the show. A panel of physicians representing the Health is Primary campaign hosted a panel discussion that urged increased collaboration among technology companies, physicians and consumers during a presentation about health technology.
According to an AAFP survey released at the event, more than 50 percent of family physicians recommend health and wellness apps to their patients, and more than 40 percent use apps at the point of care.
So what's the problem? Roughly 40 percent of respondents indicated they had reservations about using apps because of questions regarding the evidence or proven effectiveness of these products. With more collaboration that could change because we could help developers make better products to help our patients.
That isn't to say product developers don't have good ideas. I talked with one exhibitor who has developed a new app that helps consumers create appropriate diets for patients with diabetes. The app assists with menu planning, recipes and grocery lists. The developer hopes to make the app free to patients by working with stores and manufacturers to distribute relevant coupons through the app.
Again, I wondered if this idea could go further. Could it, say, help patients with heart disease adhere to a low-sodium diet? The developer hadn't thought of that possibility.
In the short time since the show ended, I've already exchanged emails with a few developers who realize family physicians can help improve their products, making them more beneficial to a wider audience.
I also realized that not only could family physicians help product manufacturers, we could bring our own ideas forward. For example, I know a family physician in Kentucky who has developed an app that allows practices to offer after-hours visits via a smartphone. With ever improving technology, not every visit needs to be face to face.
Tech developers could certainly benefit from our experience. Too often, physicians have been the victims of well-intended technology that was developed without sufficient physician input. Technology should be a tool, not a burden.
Do you have ideas for new or improved tools that could benefit our patients and our practices?
Wanda Filer, M.D., M.B.A., is president-elect of the AAFP.
New AAFP Guideline Adds to Evidence Supporting VBAC
It has been more than four years since the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists updated its recommendations for vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC), stating that VBAC is "a safe and appropriate choice" for most women who have had a cesarean delivery. Still, women are frequently denied labor after cesarean (LAC) because of hospital or practice policies that conflict with evidence-based guidelines.
Fortunately, this hasn't been an issue for me or my patients at either of the hospitals where I provide maternity care. My practice encourages VBAC whenever possible because the overall risks associated with a vaginal delivery are actually lower than the risks associated with a C-section, and certainly with subsequent C-sections. The recovery time is much faster with VBAC, and that shorter recovery contributes to a more positive experience for moms and also makes it easier for them to do other things, such as breastfeeding their babies.
LAC, of course, doesn't always lead to a vaginal delivery. In fact, less than a third of my patients who attempt it are actually successful. The two main challenges have been maternal exhaustion and the inability to help labor along with certain medications.
That second challenge, however, is changing. Although ACOG's recommendation statement offered limited and somewhat conflicting information about the use of oxytocin to induce labor, the majority of research in this area pointed to an increased risk of uterine rupture. Regarding the use of oxytocin to augment contractions, however, "The varying outcomes of available studies and small absolute magnitude of the risk reported in those studies support that oxytocin augmentation may be used in patients undergoing (trial of labor after cesarean)."
For me, that wasn't a strong enough endorsement at the time. But now, the AAFP has published a new VBAC guideline that also supports the use of oxytocin for induction and augmentation of labor.
In fact, the guideline states that "there does not appear to be an increased risk of uterine rupture associated with oxytocin augmentation of labor." It also says that "augmentation of labor with oxytocin is associated with a 68 percent rate of VBAC."
For my practice, this changes everything and provides a new pathway to help my patients who want to try LAC. Having that chance is so important because some moms who want a vaginal delivery feel bad and blame themselves when they have to have a C-section. Having an attempt at vaginal delivery -- even if unsuccessful -- takes away some of that guilt because they know they did everything they could. This aspect shouldn't be overlooked given the importance of mental well-being during the postpartum period.
And when these moms succeed, the joy is immeasurable. They not only have the pride and happiness that is typical of a new mother, but they have accomplished something they previously were told they could not do and achieved the kind of delivery they wanted the first time.
Emily Briggs, M.D., M.P.H., is the new physician member of the AAFP Board of Directors.
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