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The Front Line of Medicine

Dec 18, 2014, 9:00 AM

For the 25th anniversary of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP), the Human Capital Blog is publishing scholar profiles, some reprinted from the program’s website. SMDEP is a six-week academic enrichment program that has created a pathway for more than 22,000 participants, opening the doors to life-changing opportunities. Following is a profile of Juan Jose Ferreris, MD, a member of the Class of 1989.

It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.’

The words of abolitionist Frederick Douglass resonate for Juan Jose Ferreris, a pediatrician and assistant clinical adjunct professor at University of Texas Health Science Center. He sees a straight line between the public funds allocated for children’s care and their well-being as adults.

“Kids receive less than 20 cents of every health care dollar. Meanwhile, 80 percent goes to adult end-of-life care. Why aren’t we spending those funds on people when they’re young, when it could make a genuine difference?”

Ferreris contends that money also shapes health in less obvious ways. Salaries of primary care physicians are well below those of more “glamorous” specialists. Some fledgling MDs, burdened with medical school debt, reason that they can’t afford not to specialize. Consequently, he says, only 3 percent of medical students choose primary care.

For Ferreris, who is both humbled and inspired by his young patients, building a Culture of Health necessitates recalibrating priorities.

“Nobody’s concentrating on the whole; they’re only looking at one part. And they’re not paying attention to the human—the brain, the spirit, the soul.

“We overlook that aspect...but it’s where I believe the primary care doctor has irreplaceable value.”

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Helping Physicians Do What They Got Into Medicine to Do

Sep 25, 2014, 10:02 AM, Posted by Anne Weiss

A patient pays a receptionist at a doctors office.

“Health care was never intended to be the behemoth it's become. It was intended to be the place where people could get help for medical problems so they can return to living a healthy life.”

For me, this statement—from an internist I met last month—is a refreshing take on the value of the health care system in a Culture of Health. It’s an inspiring vision for those of us focused on the usual litany of problems: Our health care system costs too much, and delivers outcomes that lag behind other countries to such a degree that it threatens our economic health and social fabric.

Last year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) invested in five markets—Maine, Minnesota, Oregon, Colorado, and the St. Louis region—where there is the will and ability to measure health care costs and quality, and use that information to drive change. In each of these markets, we’re working with multi-stakeholder organizations who are members of the Network for Regional Health Improvement (NHRI). Each organization will produce reports that compare the cost of treating patients in each primary care practice in their market. (You can learn more about this project here.)

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Exactly How Much DOES That Appendectomy Cost?

Aug 1, 2014, 4:29 PM, Posted by Andrea Ducas

A nurse conferring with a doctor in a hospital.

Want to know one of health care’s dirty little secrets? While we know how much the country spends on care each year, we have little understanding of what it actually costs to provide care.

Think, for example, about an appendectomy. What does it really “cost” the health care system to perform that procedure? The answer is complex, and of course it includes everyone’s time—from the surgeon to housekeeping staff—and it also includes the drugs, equipment, space, and overhead associated with your stay.

The cost of your visit will also depend on who is delivering your care. A consult with a registered nurse (RN) is less costly to the hospital than one with a physician.

Then, consider insurance. If the price your carrier pays for that RN consult is $85, but the price another carrier pays is only $65, what does it actually cost the hospital—and how do those variances affect what you pay both out-of-pocket and for insurance premiums? Moreover, health care providers are currently not trained to think about the costs of the care they provide—and often have no incentive or means to even consider those costs.

These complexities have made it difficult to reform the way we purchase and pay for health care.

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RWJF Clinical Scholars Video Podcast: Joshua Sharfstein on Hospital Incentives

Jun 19, 2014, 2:00 PM

One of the challenges of health care reform is to realign financial incentives so that providers and hospitals have economic inducements to keep patients healthy, rather than just treating them when they’re ill.

In the latest Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Clinical Scholars Health Policy Podcast, Maryland Secretary of Health & Mental Hygiene Joshua Sharfstein, MD, discusses a hospital in Hagerstown, Md., that took charge of the local public school health program, hiring school nurses and more “because it’d be an economic winner for them.” The hospital’s economic incentives were such that, “If they did it well, and helped kids with asthma control their asthma so they didn’t need to go to the emergency room, [the hospital] would save money on ER visits,” Sharfstein explains.

Sharfstein is interviewed by Clinical Scholar Loren Robinson, MD. The video podcast is part of a series of RWJF Clinical Scholars Health Policy Podcasts, co-produced with Penn’s Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics.

The video is republished with permission from the Leonard Davis Institute.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.

Choosing Wisely: Intensifying the Spotlight On Health Care of Dubious Value

Apr 30, 2014, 8:52 AM, Posted by Susan Dentzer

“If you study the kinds of decisions that people make, and the outcomes of those decisions, you’ll find that humanity doesn’t have a particularly impressive track record,” write the brothers Chip and Dan Heath in their masterful book Decisive. Invoking research from psychology and behavioral economics, the Heath brothers demonstrate how people often make decisions by looking at what’s in the “spotlight”—the information immediately before them, sparse as it may be.

But what’s in that spotlight “will rarely be everything we need to make a good decision,” the Heaths counsel. To choose wisely, we need to broaden our focus, or “shift the light.”

That’s especially true in health care, where the consequences of any decision, poorly made or not, may be life or death.

Enter Choosing Wisely, a program that shifts the spotlight onto many of the tests and treatments that both providers and patients should question, if not abandon completely.

(Editor's note: On May 2, 2014, RWJF held a First Friday GoogleHangout to explore how Choosing Wiselysprang from critical examination of the overuse of medical care in the United States—and how it’s changing how care is delivered in communities. Watch an archived version of the Hangout, above.)

This two-year old campaign, launched in 2012 by the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation, has identified more than 250 tests and procedures that warrant scrutiny because they are ineffective, unnecessary, unsupported by evidence, or possibly harmful. Even so, physicians and other clinicians perform them regularly, and patients sometimes request them.

Fifty-four of the nation’s premier medical specialty societies have joined the Choosing Wisely effort, and most of these have contributed to their own lists of questionable care. This week, three non-physician groups will also sign on to the campaign. Among the categories of dubious care identified on various societies’ “top five” lists are these:

  • Excessive imaging: CT or MRI scans for low back pain shouldn’t be ordered within the first six weeks of treating a patient, unless there are severe neurological symptoms, while patients with minor head injuries shouldn’t routinely get a head CT unless they have a skull fracture or are bleeding. Excessive scans expose patients to radiation that increases their lifetime risk of cancer.
  • Unnecessary medications: Antibiotics are not effective against viruses and should not be prescribed for viral illnesses such as sinus infections or bronchitis, particularly in children. But doctors say they frequently feel pressured to write these prescriptions by anxious parents.
  • Superfluous screening or diagnostic tests: Patients with no symptoms of heart disease and are at low risk of developing it are still frequently subjected to electrocardiograms when they get routine physical exams, despite evidence that this routine screening doesn’t improve patient outcomes. By the same token, hospitalized patients may have their blood drawn countless times for costly diagnostic testing that often yield little useful information, and can contribute to anemia.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is supporting Choosing Wisely with a $2.5 million grant to extend the influence of these lists beyond medical specialty societies and into communities. State medical societies in Texas, Oregon, Minnesota, Tennessee, Washington, and Massachusetts have undertaken steps to promote the lists, including developing continuing medical education courses for doctors. So have ten regional health collaboratives, such as Maine Quality Counts and the Washington Health Alliance outside Seattle (both are among RWJF’s Aligning Forces For Quality communities as well).

Consumer Reports and AARP are among organizations that have taken the lead in publicizing the lists for consumers. All told, these efforts have reached an estimated 170,000 or more physicians and 16 million-plus consumers. There’s even a Wikipedia page for the campaign, with the lists of tests and procedures curated by a “Wikipedian” in residence.

Caveats: Although more than 200 articles have been written about aspects of the campaign in medical journals, there is as yet little hard evidence that is has reduced superfluous care. A recent perspective in the New England Journal of Medicine noted that the specialty societies’ lists “vary widely in terms of their potential impact on care and spending”—and suggests that some societies omitted lucrative elective procedures, such as knee replacement surgery, that also aren’t appropriate for many patients.

The bottom line: As a nation, we need to shine a spotlight on an even broader range of questionable health care in the future. But for now, the Choosing Wisely campaign is illuminating plenty of “care” that we can clearly pass up with impunity as we pursue our real objective:  better health.


How Can Health Systems Effectively Serve Minority Communities? Shift the Cost-Access-Quality Axis.

Apr 29, 2014, 10:30 AM

To mark National Minority Health Month, the Human Capital Blog asked several Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) scholars to respond to questions about improving health care for all. In this post, Italo M. Brown, MPH, a rising fourth-year medical student at Meharry Medical College, responds to the question, “What are the challenges, needs, or opportunities for health systems to effectively serve minority communities?” Brown holds a BS from Morehouse College and an MPH from Boston University, School of Public Health. He is an alumnus of the Health Policy Scholars Program at the RWJF Center for Health Policy at Meharry Medical College.

In our domestic health care system, we nurture the drive to improve patient outcomes, and apply evidence-based knowledge to solve contemporary health care challenges. Yet, studies have demonstrated that minorities are disproportionately affected by chronic conditions, and on average are less likely to receive ongoing care/management of their comorbidities. In addition, public health experts have asserted that social determinants of health (e.g., education level, family income, social capital) directly impact the minority community, and effectively convolute the pathway to care. 

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Heavy Workloads for Hospitalists Correlate to Longer Patient Stays

Apr 9, 2014, 9:00 AM

When workloads increase for hospitalists—the physicians who care exclusively for hospitalized patients—length of stay (LOS) and costs increase, too, according to a study published by JAMA Internal Medicine.

Researchers at Christiana Care Health System, a large academic community hospital system in Delaware, analyzed 20,241 inpatient admissions for 13,916 patients over a three-year period. Hospitalists had an average of 15.5 patient encounters per day, and LOS increased from 5.5 to 7.5 days as workloads increased at hospitals with occupancies under 75 percent.

Each additional patient seen by hospitalists increased costs by $262, although increasing workload did not affect outcomes such as mortality, 30-day readmission rates, and patient satisfaction.

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What's Next Health: Designing an Elegant Health Care Process

Mar 20, 2014, 8:00 AM, Posted by Pioneer Blog Team

Jay Parkinson, founder of Sherpaa Jay Parkinson, founder of Sherpaa

Each month, What’s Next Health talks with leading thinkers with big ideas about the future of health and health care. Recently, we talked with Jay Parkinson, founder of Sherpaa, who challenged us to consider what a more "beautifully designed" health care system might look like. As you'll read in his post below, Jay’s trying to do just that through his work at Sherpaa. (Jay’s opinions are not necessarily those of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.)

By Jay Parkinson

Everything great comes from an elegantly designed process. Just think of all of the experiences we love and use on a daily basis. Consider the iPhone. Apple re-imagined what a phone, or rather, a tiny computer in your pocket, could be and created a revolutionary device. Steve Jobs designed not only the interface that changed computing forever, but Tim Cook designed the manufacturing and material sourcing processes that enabled them to produce a remarkably complicated device at a relatively inexpensive price. They understood that, in order to deliver an exceptional user experience, they had to design the entire process, from the interface to the factory.

Health care was never designed. It just happened, revolving mostly around doctors’ needs and wants, in a culture that strongly believed “doctor knows best.” But our culture changed with the democratization of health information and other industries quickly evolved, raising consumers’ expectations of what health care could and should be.

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ACOG Issues New Guidelines to Curb Overuse of C-Sections

Feb 27, 2014, 5:27 PM, Posted by Tara Oakman

Tara Oakman holding her twin babies. Tara Oakman

While I knew that having children would turn my world upside down, I assumed that this transition would be more metaphorical than literal. Ha! Moments before I was discharged from a Maryland hospital a few days after my twins were delivered by c-section, the ground shook violently. My husband had just left the hospital room to get the car, so I was alone with two newborns and a painful surgical wound. All I could think was ... “This is an earthquake! I have two babies. And I can’t move!

One of the scariest parts of the experience was that I couldn’t respond to my maternal instinct to quickly pick up and protect my babies because I had just had major abdominal surgery. Granted, managing in an earthquake is not a common part of recovery from a C-section, but there can be many other dangerous complications that occur more frequently, such as infection, emergency hysterectomy or heavy blood loss. It can also lead to greater difficulty with breastfeeding. C-sections are also very costly, even if there are no major complications. They are much more expensive than vaginal delivery.

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A Year of Dramatic Increase in Insurance Coverage

Jan 27, 2014, 9:00 AM


2014 marks the start of coverage for those who are newly insured via the health insurance exchanges. In general, healthy behaviors and lifestyle are probably the most important inputs to health, especially for those of us free of serious chronic conditions. But for those of us who are sick, quality health care and access to drugs is crucial for health and happiness. We will soon know to what extent the health insurance exchanges have overcome their implementation problems and have connected previously uninsured Americans to health care.
When markets for health insurance work efficiently, they can deliver access to crucial health services to those who need and want them most. Unfortunately, free, unregulated markets for health insurance rarely function efficiently. The market failures in health care have long been noted by economists, most famously by Nobel Prize winner Kenneth Arrow, MA, PhD. In my view, one the most important changes that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) brings with it is an attempt to address and correct market failures via the exchanges.

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