Freeing the “Doc in a Box”

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The American healthcare system is set up to care for a certain subset of the population – sick people – people with chronic disease, acute illness, acute injury, and complex disorders like cancer or metabolic issues.

The problem is, this set up doesn’t create market incentives to care for the well effectively, or to identify those at risk for disease and efficiently and reliably intervene, at scale.

To reconcile this cognitive dissonance between sick-care and health-care, government agencies like CMS, are now funding population-based care strategies. The idea is, the healthcare system should anticipate patient needs at the population level, stratify those needs by risk, and disseminate preventative interventions locally, based on traditional indices like blood tests and screening protocols and emerging metrics like ICD-10 z-codes to identify social determinants of health.

Now that the federal government is redefining the relationship between communities and health systems, it seems logical to anticipate future opportunities to redesign one of the most outdated physician roles – the “doc in the box.”

But the baffling thing is, that is not what is happening.

Despite CMS’ new Accountable Health Communities Model and the NIH’s recent Precision Medicine Initiative, it seems the latest innovations in healthcare delivery are aiming to do what we are already doing – better – to map the genome, decipher codes in our blood, and screen with increasing precision to identify disease earlier and decrease associated health complications and systems costs.

But the building-based, physician-centric, model of medicine America has relied on for decades, maybe even centuries, isn’t serving us well anymore. The hands-on, face-to-face, one-on-one, physician-patient relationship is changing and the bedside, fee-for-service paradigm doesn’t fit how patients access information and more importantly, doesn’t pay for keeping patients well.

Thinking outside the “doc in a box”

In the future, instead of caring for thousands of people in a primary care panel, I think physicians will “care” for hundreds of thousands of people across a grid. And they will provide that care, in teams.

The grid will be color-coded by risk factors. Incorporating data from smartphone usage, credit card spending behaviors, typographical maps of cities that chart access points for public transit, healthy food, parks and recreation, public learning, and other staples of public life. Those access points will be rated by the degree of mobility they generate – socially, economically, and physically. High-rated areas will become models for low-rated areas, and low-rated areas will be first in-line for public resources to re-engineer the environment people live and grow in. This model places mobility, equity, and the capacity to maximize human potential at the center of innovations that create and sustain health.

It also positions physicians among a team of professionals who operate integrated public systems. Those systems will be powered by data algorithms that understand the connections between human physiology and the lived experiences that nurture or threaten that physiology, to ultimately predict risk rather than simply identify existing disease, early.

If future systems can predict risk at scale and are oriented to respond those risks with mitigating resources or information that informs and supports patient decisions, then in the future, physicians will also be expected to be architects of resource distribution, partners in city planning, advocates for social justice, and champions of equity.

There will likely always be a need for physical care of patients with ailments that require  treatments best administered at the bedside. But the advent of technology to provide remote care, analyze multi-variant data that predicts human behavior, and supports patient and provider decision-making with rapid access to information and resources, shifts the future of medical practice outside of buildings.

With a new legion of ancillary providers, it is time to free the “doc in the box” and expand the vision of medical care to include the future of physician practice.

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On Ferguson: A Call to Medicine

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There is little to say once you’ve said this before. Although the sadness brings fresh tears, they are also old tears. The grief becomes familiar and so too the inevitable resumption of everyday life. The pain bores to the soul but settles in the subconscious, where it rests, privately born and quietly hidden, lest frustration and bitterness mire the work we do – trying to forget, but ever-reminded. So although there is nothing new to say, perhaps there is something new to do.

Here, I am looking squarely at you, my fellow physicians. We, who deal in health and disease must think critically and act effectively to address the issues raised by the death of Michael Brown and those who came before him. We are the trusted public servants charged with protecting the populations in our care, to promote health and prevent and treat disease. But are not health and disease simply the crude boundaries of life and death? Then, how will we move to protect the lives of black and brown youth that are threatened by violence? How will we confront the reality that the #1 cause of death for black males aged 10-24 is homicide? What are we doing about the death rate for young black males that is the highest among all adolescents in America? Black male teenagers are 37% more likely to die than any of their peers. And according to the CDC, because these deaths are secondary to external injury, they are by definition, preventable.

So I will ask again, what are we doing about it?

Because, despite the vaccines given to ward off the threat of disease, and the medications prescribed to prevent seizures, kill cancer, and treat infections, black males may not make it out of adolescence alive if we don’t address the violence.

In preventative medicine, we talk about risk factors to identify patients who may suffer from an illness in the future, and prevent it, before suffering and/or death could ever occur. In oncology, we talk about getting to the diagnosis and treatment early, so that in cases where it makes a difference, everything that can be done, will be done. And yet, as black youth die in the streets because of where they live, and how they dress, and the volume at which they listen to their music, we are silent. We, as a collective field, say nothing and we do nothing.

Black lives matter because all lives matter and no one gets that more than we do. So as young black bodies line our streets without reason or recourse, we must start asking what that means for all of us. We must start changing the way we teach and practice medicine. Because if we fail to protect these youth, because we don’t understand their music, or we don’t like the way they dress, or we don’t feel comfortable with the way they speak – whatever the because – then we fail ALL of our youth. We fail to do service to the highest honor of our profession, to protect the lives we care for.

Now, this issue is complicated and deeply rooted in the legacy of discrimination that defines American history and continues to inform America’s present. And you may even avoid talking about it in your personal life, let alone your clinical practice. But your, or my, discomfort does not make it any less our responsibility.

So let’s start dealing with it. I’m talking about poverty. I’m talking about racism. I’m talking about structural inequality. I’m talking about the gender wage gap, the academic achievement gap, and the housing equity gap so wide whole generations fell in and got lost. It is time to engage these topics as legitimate and enduring parts of medical education, public health messaging, and clinical prevention strategy.

No excuses.

If you don’t have the faculty to teach this material, call upon our colleagues in the social sciences to share their expertise. If you don’t know how to address community violence, reach out to non-profits who have made this struggle their life’s work. And if you shy away from the institutional failings that underlie the policies that contribute to the disparities, then call on your local, state, and federal policy makers to change the law.

There is literally no time to waste. Every faceless, nameless brown child who drops dead in the streets could have and should have been prevented. Let this issue not settle in the subconscious recess of our field while children suffer. Because in the end, it is not about Ferguson, it is not about Michael Brown, it is not about the countless others who met a similar fate, it is about what we are doing to ensure that all lives matter, regardless of the color of that life’s skin.

Fighting for Failing Care: How Hospital Closures May Impact the Safety Net

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In the post-Affordable Care Act healthcare landscape, sweeping hospital closures have created new barriers to access in a system already criticized for its fragmentation and saturation. Looking back over the past 20 years, urban hospitals, and urban trauma centers in particular, bore the brunt of this impact, closing at the highest rates in the country. Now, evidence suggests the impact of urban hospital closures may disproportionately affect those living in poverty, racial and ethnic minorities, and the uninsured.

This concerning trend begs an important question:

If urban hospitals are a trusted point of access for low-income communities of color, does their closure undermine the national safety net OR does it create opportunities to deploy lower-cost, higher-quality delivery models for vulnerable populations?

To answer this question, let’s look at the contentious 2007 closure of Martin Luther King Jr. Harbor Hospital in Los Angeles.

As a bit of background, MLK-Harbor opened in the wake of the 1965 Watts riots and general unrest regarding the lack of sufficient public investment in communities of color in South Central (now termed South LA). The hospital was to provide healthcare in one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in LA. At the time of its closure, it remained the only public hospital to serve a large part of South LA, treating more trauma patients than almost all other hospitals in the region. Its closure was prompted by a series of egregious medical errors that eventually threatened the hospital’s accreditation.

Mounting quality concerns aside, what was most notable about its closure, was the staunch community protest. In the face of unquestionably dangerous medical practices, the community rallied to protect their safety net; even garnering the support of Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who rose to the cause’s defense in 2004. Despite their efforts, the trauma center was shut down in 2004 and the general acute care hospital closed thereafter in 2007.

So why would a community fight for the failing care of their discredited hospital? Is the safety net worth protecting when it is offering poor care or is the community’s advocacy tacit admission that poor care is better than no care at all? And ultimately, does “no care” threaten the safety net or does it provide an opportunity for something better?

Let’s dissect these questions piece by piece.

First, it is a basic human instinct to protect what you perceive as yours. Even if what you have is broken. Now superimpose on that instinct, a history of having no say in what is taken from you; a history of abandonment by public institutions charged with investing in your community infrastructure; and a history of displacement driven largely by resource scarcity and discrimination. When viewed in this structural context, the motivations to fight to protect resources become obvious.

Second, let’s explore the idea of fighting for “failing” or “poor” care. Here, the assumption is that low-income communities of color either don’t understand or don’t want, quality. Why else would they protest the closure of a bad hospital, right? In this case, I think we’ve got the assumption wrong. Americans love a deal. We want more for less. Whether it’s super-sizing our french fries or buying into the housing market at the right time, we want quality and we want it at a bargain price. In this way, quality is an American value that translates across the economic spectrum. But sometimes, “the deal” trumps quality. So the real question is, what is the “deal”?

In the case of MLK-Harbor, if there is not another medical facility near your home and public transportation is unreliable, or if you are uninsured and you cannot afford a second opinion, or if the medical specialty you need is only available at your local provider; then the deal is access, the deal is cost-savings, the deal is specialization. This is why low-income populations are vulnerable. Because their lack of resources offers them a bad deal, around which there is little leverage.

So it is not that poor care is better than no care. It is that no care should no longer be an option, but for many, that is the deal they are left with. So as engineers of the system, we have to create something better.

And herein lies the answer to our initial question. It does both.

Because urban hospitals are a trusted point of access for low-income communities of color, their closure undermines the national safety net AND creates opportunities to deploy lower-cost, higher-quality delivery models for vulnerable populations.

In attempting to forge a better healthcare system in the midst of our broken one, every failure is an opportunity for improvement.* As the Affordable Care Act re-organizes the medical landscape into regionalized, micro-systems that are accountable for local populations, it provides the opportunity to consider our past failures and the global impact of shifting costs and shifting care on the vulnerable.

The tension between eliminating inefficiency, maintaining quality, and controlling cost while elevating the voice of the community and prioritizing the needs of the under-served, remains. These are the challenges that loom at the forefront of a healthcare system that seeks to cut costs and maximize quality for all. But this is a cause worth fighting for and I’m all in. Are you with me?

* To see how MLK-Harbor (now MLK Community) is improving their system to re-open in 2015, click the link.