BETSY came to Dr. Martin for a second — or rather, a sixth — opinion. Over a year, she had seen five other physicians for a “rapid heartbeat” and “feeling stressed.” After extensive testing, she had finally been referred for psychological counseling for an anxiety disorder.
The careful history Dr. Martin took revealed that Betsy was taking an over-the-counter weight loss product that contained ephedrine. (I have changed their names for privacy’s sake.) When she stopped taking the remedy, her symptoms also stopped. Asked why she hadn’t mentioned this information before, she said she’d “never been asked.” Until then, her providers would sooner order tests than take the time to talk with her about the problem.
Betsy’s case was fortunate; poor communication often has much worse consequences. A review of reports by the Joint Commission, a nonprofit that provides accreditation to health care organizations, found that communication failure (rather than a provider’s lack of technical skill) was at the root of over 70 percent of serious adverse health outcomes in hospitals.
A doctor’s ability to explain, listen and empathize has a profound impact on a patient’s care. Yet, as one survey found, two out of every three patients are discharged from the hospital without even knowing their diagnosis. Another study discovered that in over 60 percent of cases, patients misunderstood directions after a visit to their doctor’s office. And on average, physicians wait just 18 seconds before interrupting patients’ narratives of their symptoms. Evidently, we have a long way to go.
Three years ago, my colleagues and I started a program in Harrisburg designed to improve doctors’ communication with their patients. This large urban hospital system serves a city with a population of about 50,000, together with the surrounding metropolitan area of more than 550,000 people.
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Jeffrey R. Ungvary
When we are patients, we want our doctors to make recommendations that are in our best interests as individuals. As physicians, we strive to do the same for our patients.
But financial forces largely hidden from the public are beginning to corrupt care and undermine the bond of trust between doctors and patients. Insurers, hospital networks and regulatory groups have put in place both rewards and punishments that can powerfully influence your doctor’s decisions.
Contracts for medical care that incorporate “pay for performance” direct physicians to meet strict metrics for testing and treatment. These metrics are population-based and generic, and do not take into account the individual characteristics and preferences of the patient or differing expert opinions on optimal practice.
For example, doctors are rewarded for keeping their patients’ cholesterol and blood pressure below certain target levels. For some patients, this is good medicine, but for others the benefits may not outweigh the risks. Treatment with drugs such as statins can cause significant side effects, including muscle pain and increased risk of diabetes. Blood-pressure therapy to meet an imposed target may lead to increased falls and fractures in older patients.
Physicians who meet their designated targets are not only rewarded with a bonus from the insurer but are also given high ratings on insurer websites. Physicians who deviate from such metrics are financially penalized through lower payments and are publicly shamed, listed on insurer websites in a lower tier. Further, their patients may be required to pay higher co-payments.
These measures are clearly designed to coerce physicians to comply with the metrics. Thus doctors may feel pressured to withhold treatment that they feel is required or feel forced to recommend treatment whose risks may outweigh benefits.
It is not just treatment targets but also the particular medications to be used that are now often dictated by insurers. Commonly this is done by assigning a larger co-payment to certain drugs, a negative incentive for patients to choose higher-cost medications.
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Jeffrey R. Ungvary President