Sunday, January 29, 2012

Drug Marketing and Data Mining: Free Speech or Free Ride?

Pharm Tractor Mining Physician Data

Drug reps come to our office fairly regularly, but not as often as they used to. Some of them look like regular folks, but many still look a lot like Barbie and Ken. These guys have a tough job. It’s hard to cultivate relationships when you can’t pay off physicians with free trips or offers of remuneration for serving as a ‘consultant’. Remember ‘dine and dash’?

Despite these prior excesses, I do not disparage pharm reps, many of whom are ethical professionals who have developed vertical knowledge on a narrow niche of medicine. I have learned from them, but I remember that they are salesmen. Caveat emptor.

Drug reps face other challenges beyond the ban on ballgame and theater tickets. We physicians are often constrained by insurance company formularies that dictate what we can prescribe. The insurance companies would balk at that statement and would offer a lawyerly response that, of course, we physicians can prescribe any drug that we believe best serves the patient’s medical interest, but that this selection may not be a covered benefit. Get the idea?

One tool that pharmaceutical companies have relied on for years is to purchase individual physician’s prescription data from pharmacies. This data mining gives pharmaceutical companies lists of physicians by name and the drugs prescribed by each doctor. In other words, the Nexium rep can learn how much or how little of the drug I prescribe compared to its competitors. (No patient identifying data is included.) Drug reps can be given sales goals based on this data.

Memo to Barbie and Ken

Kirsch is prescribing too much Prevacid, which is giving the corporate folks heartburn. More aggressive sales techniques required. Launch OperationBURYPREV ASAP.

Physicians have always hated this open secret in the pharmaceutical industry. It’s open because we all know it is practiced and it’s secret because drug folks won’t talk about it. Doctors, test this the next time a drug rep wanders into your office. Use the following ice breaker as a guide.

“Yo Rep, can I see my individual prescribing data that your company has mined on me?”

At that moment, you will be amazed at the stillness of the lips and larynx that are facing you. An orifice that is usually a portal for endless chatter becomes a hollow cavern. It’s almost a miracle.

The Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 vote at the end of their term last year that data mining by pharmaceutical companies is constitutional. Vermont had previously passed a law restricting this practice, which the Court has struck down.

I respect the decision because the Supreme Court’s responsibility is to determine if an action is legal, not to make policy. The court did so to protect free speech. Drug reps, however, won’t be speaking freely on this to physicians. Wonder how they and their bosses would feel if we mined their data. Would they agree that free speech goes both ways?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Concierge Medicine and Boutique Medical Practices: Cure or Disease?

Some time ago, I rented a car during a visit to another city. I chose among the various categories of vehicles which are listed from the last expensive to the most costly. Here were my choices.

• Economy

• Compact

• Intermediate

• Standard

• Full Size

• Premium

• Luxury

As I have pointed out on this blog with regard to medical care, people spend other people’s money much more easily than they spend their own. This is why I have argued that patients need to have some ‘skin in the game’ to serve as a brake on profligate medical spending. There may be other effective brakes to consider, but diagnostic and therapeutic restraint demanded by patients is a potent and reasonable option.

In the rental car case, I was not on someone else’s expense account, but was handing over Kirsch cash. I chose a standard sized vehicle. Of course, I could have saved $$$ by driving off in an economy vehicle, but rental cars are priced like movie popcorn. For a few dollars more per day, you can drive a bigger car. It is a brilliant pricing strategy that encourages the consumer to upgrade.

Here’s the point. I ordered and paid for a standard sized car. I cannot expect that I will be presented with a luxury automobile when I arrive at the rental car lot. Of course, I can upgrade to a higher category, but I will have to pay more. Isn’t this fair? If you are paying for a Chevy, don’t expect to drive away in a Cadillac.

This concept relates to the practice of concierge medicine, also known by the even more derogatory description of boutique medicine. In these practices, patients pay a premium to the physician in return for higher level medical services. These physicians can earn the same income, or more, while caring for much fewer patients.

Why Do Insured Patients Pay More For Concierge Care?

• Same day appointments

• On time office visits that last as long as needed

• Direct access to the physician’s cell phone

• Physicians accompanying patients to specialists’ offices

• Comprehensive annual physical examinations and health review

• Emphasis on preventive medicine, nutrition and wellness

• Posh waiting rooms with New Age soothing music

Concierge Medicine Criticisms

• It’s not fair

• Insured patients should be getting these services anyway

• It’s elitist

• It siphons primary care physicians away from those who can’t afford concierge care

Concierge medicine didn’t emerge in a vacuum. It was not concocted by greedy physicians who were seeking to provide Cadillac care so they could continue to drive Cadillacs.

1903 Cadillac

Boutique medical practices have become popular because private practice primary care physicians faced three mounting challenges.

• Financial pressure with declining reimbursements and rising overhead

• Declining quality of care from seeing higher volume of patients

• Burnout

Concierge medicine is a response to this reality. Concierge practices are financially solvent and provide premier quality medical care to a smaller group of patients. This is not exclusively a benefit for the wealthy. Many average income folks have decided that spending $100 each month for superior medical services is worth it for them and their families. How much do you spend each month on your cell phone? Is concierge medical care more important to you than an iPad, a smart phone or joining a pricey gym? We all make choices in how we spend our money.

For those who want this higher level service for their families, they may need to cut back on other expenses. What kind of car are your driving now? Full size? Luxury? Sports Car? Hybrid? Perhaps, it is worth downsizing your wheels and upgrading your medical care.

I realize that many folks don’t have this option right now, particularly under current economic conditions. We all wish that they, and everyone, could receive concierge level medical care, but this is not how our society works.

Concierge medicine isn’t the avaricious aggressor here. It’s self-defense.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Does Revised American College of Physicians Ethics Manual Need Revision?

I regard myself as a spirited patient advocate. (What doctor doesn’t?) When facing a patient, I try to focus entirely on the patient’s interest. My advice is hopefully not tainted by the patient’s insurance status or external influences. A patient without medical insurance should receive the same medical advice as a corporate CEO, although the former may reject the medical advice for financial reasons.

As Whistleblower readers know, I am a conservative practitioner of the art and science of gastroenterology. I first developed this medical world view as an intern and resident, and remained a parsimonious practitioner even after completing a gastroenterology fellowship at an institution where patients were routinely subjected to a tsunami of testing.

I don’t pull the colonoscopy trigger easily or order many imaging studies. I prefer to prescribe a tincture of time instead of a test. Most patients appreciate this measured approach, although some prefer the tsunami.

I don’t practice conservatively because it is cost-effective. I do so because I think it’s best for patients. I think it is inarguable that our patients are over imaged, over treated and over tested. I am convinced that there is more than enough wasted money in the health care system to rescue it. Reminiscent of Eisenhower’s warning of a military industrial complex, we are now trying to chip away at a medical industrial complex that is an expanding hydra that takes no prisoners. This is not to suggest that I support Obamacare as a remedy,.  I don't. For a fuller airing of my Obamacare opposition, I invite you to wander through the Health Care Reform Quality category on this blog. But, our health care system surely needs better health. It has inadequate access for millions of patients, conflicts of interests, misaligned incentives and quality lapses that must be addressed. I think that Obamacare aims to restrain excesses and remedy deficiencies by settling for mediocrity. I’d rather strive for excellence.

Physicians are strongly advised to practice cost-effective medicine, a practice that is often resisted by patients who interpret this as an effort to save money at their expense. Of course, the term cost-effective communicates that the mission is to save dollars and not save lives. Perhaps, the medical linguists who have concocted phrases including pay-for-performance and medical provider and pharmacy benefit manager can create a more appealing label. Here are some suggestions.

  • No Frills Medicine
  • Cheapo Medicine
  • Medicine on Five Dollars a Day
Seriously, even the hackneyed evidenced base medicine (EBM) phrase would be a step forward. However, EBM is limited since so many clinical issues that doctors face must be addressed without any available medical evidence to guide us. Perhaps, readers have a suggestion of a better phrase than cost-effective

Recently, the American College of Physicians issued revised guidelines in its newly published ethics manual that instructs physicians that our responsibility extends beyond the patient before us. Here’s an excerpt.

Physicians have a responsibility to practice effective and efficient health care and to use health care resources responsibly.

This is an ethical game changer. According to the updated ethics manual, physicians should consider preserving health care resources for the population at large, which may conflict with our patient’s interest. Now, we are told that we are ethically obligated not only to advocate for our own patient, but also for hundreds of millions of other patients. If this becomes standard operating procedure, how will it impact the doctor-patient relationship? Will patients, who are increasingly skeptical of the medical profession, trust us? Will they suspect that we are restraining their care to serve the greater good?

I think that the merits of cost-effective medicine can be persuasively made to individual patients without having to consider society’s needs. Of course, preserving medical resources and health care reform are legitimate issues. But, do they belong in the exam room?

How would patients respond to the following question?

When seeing your doctor in the office, do you expect that he is focused on

(a) your medical interests exclusively?

(b) your medical interests exclusively on Mondays and Wednesdays?

(c) your medical interests exclusively if you are a concierge medical patient?

(d) your medical interests and society’s need to save money?

Physicians are trained advocates. Remind me, who are we advocating for?

As always, your comments are most welcome.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Cigarette Warning Labels May Go Up in Smoke

We live in a free society. One of our most treasured freedoms is our right to free speech. This means that we are free to advertise goods and services to potential customers, although commercial speech does not enjoy the same constitutional protection as does noncommercial speech. Some advertised products are good for us and others aren’t. In many cases, the worth and value of the product are in dispute. Nevertheless, if a product is legal, the manufacturer is entitled to advertise and to lure customers.

While an advertisement may not be false, it may not be the complete truth either. We expect that these pitches will be buffed and sanitized to present the product in a favorable light. That’s why they’re called advertisements, and not testimony.

It would be absurd for a company to include negative material about its products in its promotional materials, barring a legal requirement to do so. While issuing product warnings and legal disclaimers may be a laudable public interest maneuver, it’s not a way to run a company.

Imagine the following scenarios.

Join Our Tanning Salon. Get skin cancer!

Join Our Gym. Have a stroke on our treadmills!

Dine at our Family Restaurant. We don't wash hands!

Computer Protective Services Our PCs have viruses!

Expert Car Repair. We're Crooks!

The tobacco companies, the mother of all villains, had been required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to include graphic and dire death and illness warnings prominently on their packages. One of the warnings depicts a corpse with the traditional autopsy incision visible. I don’t dispute the accuracy of the health claims. Indeed, I’ve often issued them personally as a doctor in my office. But is it fair, reasonable and necessary to compel cigarette companies to scare folks from purchasing their legal products? It would be more rational and intellectually honest for the FDA and the federal government to declare tobacco to be illegal. How can they permit a product so dangerous to be freely sold to the public? The reasons that restrain them from doing so are self-evident. Readers are free to offer their own views on the government’s paradoxical (in)action.

A federal judge recently issued a preliminary injunction against the FDA’s edict arguing that the cigarette companies were likely to prevail in a First Amendment challenge. The judge recognized that graphic and macabre material likely exceeded a reasonable government requirement to inform smokers of health risks on cigarette packaging. Their purpose was quite transparently to shock, not inform. Not surprising, my beloved liberal New York Times has editorialized that the judge’s injunction was wrong. This judge, in my view, was spot on. I predict that his ruling will be upheld on appeal.

As an aside, are there folks out there who are not aware that smoking cigarettes is not a salubrious activity?

Our medical office needs new promotional material. Since I’m a taxpayer, perhaps the FDA can assist me. Here's my draft.

Michael Kirsch, MD

Specialist in Screening Colonoscopy

 He Has Perforated Many Colons.
You Might End Up Here!


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Can Spiral CT Scans Detect Curable Lung Cancer? But Wait, There's More!

A hundred bucks doesn’t buy much these days. A crisp Ben Franklin can be exchanged for

  • 50 Big Macs
  • A Broadway show ticket
  • A night in a New York City hotel (just joking)
  • A college textbook (paperback)
  • Your life
Your life? Yes, 5 crumpled Andy Jacksons can save your life, as was reported earlier this year in a front page article in The Plain Dealer, Cleveland’s only daily newspaper. University Hospitals is now offering a $99 spiral computed tomography (CT scans) of the chest in individuals who are at increased risk of developing lung cancer. The rationale is that if cancers can be detected early, then the cure rate for surgical removal is very high.

Gary Schwitzer, medical blogger and press watchdog, tries to bring some balance to the distorted media coverage of CT lung cancer reportage.

The test is not covered by insurance, so consumers will have to hand over 10 Al Hamiltons to get in the door.

I’m a deep skeptic of this effort, and predict that with some more time, the promised benefits will prove to have been exaggerated and the drawbacks will become clear. Although one national study suggested that spiral CT scanning was effective, one study shouldn’t change the course of medical practice. If you’ve been reading medical journals for a while, as I have, you realize that today’s breakthrough may break apart tomorrow. Let’s see what future studies on screening for lung cancer with spiral CT scans conclude. I predict growing medical dissent on this issue.

Although I am uncertain about the early promise of saving lives, I am quite certain that the scans will uncover zillions of 'abnormalities'. Undoubtedly, folks will be discovered with benign, insignificant lung lesions, which physicians call incidentalomas. This term refers to abnormalities found by radiologic tests that have no medical significance, but inexorably generate a cascade of medical testing. Every physician can attest to this phenomenon.

Most lesions that spiral CT scans discover will be incidentalomas. Of course, unless there exists a prior CT scan that would prove that the lesion was present years ago and is unchanged, then the incidentaloma will be described as suspicious. So, although most of the abnormalities are benign, they will have a malignant effect on patients and their families. Here is what these folks have to look forward to.

  • Anxiety that cancer is present
  • Diminishment of quality of life
  • Referral to a pulmonary specialist for more fun and games
  • Prospect of periodic CT scans for 2 years to verify the lesion is stable
  • Consideration of a biopsy of the lesion (Ouch!)
  • Consideration of surgery to remove the lesion (Mega-ouch!)
  • Medical complications from biopsy or surgery
  • Waste of health care dollars
Although The Plain Dealer’s piece was gushing, there is another side to the story. Is University Hospital pursuing this for medical or for marketing reasons? Will other area hospitals start hawking their own screening CT scans so as not to be left out? Will a bidding war begin driving prices down. This sounds like it could become a 2 a.m. TV telemarketing pitch.

“You won’t pay $250, or even $200. No, you won’t pay $150. For just 5 easy payments of $19.99, you get a state-of-the-art spiral CT scan. And, if you order in the next 10 minutes, we will include a set of Japanese steak knives guaranteed for life. These knives alone are a $200 value. But wait, there’s more. If you promise to tell a friend about this special TV offer, we will include a cigarette lighter that opens up to form an ashtray. No smoker should be without one. And, if for any reason, you are not completely satisfied with your scan, we will return the full purchase price, minus a shipping and handling charge, no questions asked. Return the knives, but keep the lighter/ashtray as our gift.”

My view? I recommend that smokers find a better use for 20 Abe Lincolns than a spiral CT scan. My suggestion? See a Broadway show.

Happy New Year to All!