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Is Therapy Worth It? Here’s What You Should Know.

By Kay O’Laughlin, Ed.D. |1/25/18
Licensed Psychologist

Some of the reasons people start psychotherapy might surprise you. The most obvious reasons for seeing a therapist include:

• Relationship problems

Overwhelming sadness or depression

Grief over death or other serious losses

• Intense anxiety

Thoughts of hurting oneself or others

But people also choose to see a therapist when they feel stuck or lost. For example, having no sense of direction about a career path or feeling that something is missing from life.

Others decide to talk to a therapist when they realize they are using addictive behaviors to cope with stress and it’s not working. The addiction may be overeating, overusing alcohol, misusing drugs, or even compulsively over-exercising. Of course, the trap is that such behaviors create new problems instead of solving the old ones.

Therapy helps to identify negative thought patterns, misperceptions, and unhelpful behavior patterns—and then make plans for changing them.

You may wonder what therapy is and whether it really helps. Psychotherapy is generally known as “talk therapy,” though today many therapists incorporate specialized approaches such as cognitive-behavioral techniques, EMDR, guided imagery, mindfulness, and forms of deep relaxation.

Interestingly, research tells us that the most crucial factor in successful therapy is a positive connection between the client and therapist, meaning that the client feels the therapist both understands and empathizes. The American Psychological Association reported major research showing that 50% of people in therapy improved noticeably after eight sessions, and 75% improved noticeably by the six-month point. In recent years numerous rigorous studies have shown therapy has positive effects on one’s overall health and immune system.

So, in a nutshell, therapy helps most people who give it a try.

Therapists include psychologists, psychiatrists, psych nurse practitioners, social workers, pastoral counselors, and licensed mental health counselors. All of these disciplines involve licensing at a state level. Your insurance company keeps a list of providers in their network, but you should also ask whether they cover out-of-network therapists. Your doctor may be familiar with local therapists and able to recommend someone in particular.

If you need medication, a psychiatrist or psych nurse practitioner can prescribe. They may also do talk-therapy, but some prefer to work in conjunction with therapists from other fields. Often primary care doctors are comfortable with first-level medication for anxiety and depression.

All therapists help clients deal with relationship issues and solve problems. When you first meet a therapist, notice whether that person actively listens to you, seems to understand, and helps you formulate a roadmap of where you want to go and how to get there. You should feel comfortable and safe in the office environment.

One of the benefits of therapy is having time during a week devoted solely to you—how often does that happen in your busy life?

Often, people who are nervous about starting therapy soon find themselves looking forward to each session. One of the biggest surprises for many clients is how much they enjoy therapy and the sense of growing strength, clarity, and focus. I tell my new clients that the work may be intense at times, but along the way we’ll also find humor and reasons to laugh.

Are you considering talk therapy as an option? Check out these websites to help you find a therapist online.

Hospitals Take Aim at Generic Drug Companies

By Mark A. Kelley, MD |1/22/18
Founder, HealthWeb Navigator

In a previous blog, I mentioned how the prices of many generic drugs have skyrocketed. In some cases the price of a single pill has increased over 500%.

But help may be on the way. Recently several large and respected non-profit hospital systems indicated that they will “fire a shot across the bow” of the generic drug business. That would be a game-changer.

Why has the price of generics skyrocketed?

Some large drug companies have purchased (or outcompeted) generic drug manufacturers. This has created a monopoly for some widely used and long-standing products, such as the EpiPen and the albuterol inhaler. In effect, the companies can set whatever price the market will bear. In many cases, the market (i.e patients) has no choice but to accept these prices since no one else makes the drugs.

As if that strategy were not enough, some analysts have suggested another motive. By raising the price of generics and controlling the supply, monopolies could also introduce new “copycat” drugs that resemble the generics and are protected by patents. Both of these maneuvers could improve the stock market value of these drug manufacturers.

The issue is that prescription drugs operate in a market that does not include the patient. Health insurance companies negotiate drug prices and then pass them on to employers and their employees. Compared to hospital costs, most generic drugs are minor costs for the employer. Furthermore, through deductibles, any new drug costs can be passed on to the patient.

Federal regulation might seem like be a good way to solve this problem. Most other developed countries set drug prices for their national health programs. However, Congress has historically forbidden the federal government to set drug prices for Medicare. Regulating the pharmaceutical industry seems unlikely.

What can a hospital consortium do? The hospital industry spends billions of dollars on drugs to treat patients in the hospital and in ambulatory practice. Most insurance plans pay hospitals a fixed price per hospital admission. If drug prices rise, either the insurance company must pay more or the hospital loses money. Lately the drug prices have jumped, especially for generics.

On the ambulatory side, the scenario is no different. Hospitals with outpatient practices are under increased pressure to reduce costs. Among the largest is prescribed drugs.

Another problem for hospitals is the shortage of many commonly used drugs whose patents have expired. Companies simply are not interested in keeping high inventories to meet the challenges of demand.

A nationwide hospital consortium could have tremendous market leverage since these facilities care for millions of patients. Currently, the consortium has enrolled 300 hospitals. That market power could be used to negotiate reasonable prices with the pharmaceutical industry. However, such a plan is complicated and might face legal and regulatory challenges.

The other option is for the consortium to create a nonprofit company that makes generic drugs and sets fair and reasonable prices. That is bold move that would create a true free market. Generic drugs account for almost 80% of all prescribed medications.

Rather than rely on for-profit manufacturers, hospital systems and their patients would have access to the same drugs at lower prices. In effect the providers would eliminate the middleman by controlling the supply of most drug products.

It is unclear how this proposal will evolve because it threatens the status quo. There is sure to be opposition—but not from patients. They will root for any plan that protects them from more out-of-pocket spending.

We need to reduce health care costs and, for once, here is an approach that offers an innovative and sensible solution for patients everywhere.

It’s an idea whose time has come.

Why Everyone Should Get a Flu Shot (Yes, Even You)

By Mark A. Kelley, MD |1/15/18
Founder, HealthWeb Navigator

According to the Centers for Disease Control, we are in the midst of a significant flu season. Headlines tend to amplify danger, but when it comes to the flu, there is reason to worry. After all, the 2012-2013 flu season killed an estimated 56,000 Americans.

Influenza is highly contagious. Even those with mild symptoms can infect others in the first day of their illness. And once the flu virus is in the community, it can spread quickly.

There are two viruses that cause influenza: Type A and B. Type A changes its molecular appearance frequently. That means a strain that caused an epidemic one year may not be the next year’s culprit.

Sometimes a new flu strain emerges that is particularly aggressive and has a higher mortality rate. These frequent changes in the flu virus mean that humans cannot develop long-lasting immunity to its infection.

The solution is to provide a new vaccine each year that protects against the strains of virus that seem most likely to cause a new epidemic. But that prediction is imperfect. It takes six months to develop the vaccine, and in that time the targeted viruses may mutate. Some years, the vaccine hits the target and provides excellent protection. In other years—the aim is not as good.

For most healthy people, the flu is usually an inconvenient sickness from which they recover. But there are exceptions. Even healthy people can die from the flu.

Who’s At Risk and Why?

Children are particularly at risk, as are the elderly, pregnant women, and those with chronic illness. These groups account for most of the flu-related deaths every year.

So what makes the flu so deadly?

Research suggests that the flu virus can overwhelm those with weakened immune systems. Normally, our immune system fights off infection pretty well. But for children—whose immune systems aren’t fully developed—and adults over the age of 65, the immune system loses some of its effectiveness. Patients with chronic disease and pregnant women are especially susceptible to the additional stress.

These weaknesses allow the flu more time to invade the body before the immune system can stop it. The most common complication is pneumonia, which can lead to other infections elsewhere. These series of events can also lead to organ failure, long hospitalization, and even death.

Thankfully medical science is able to create the flu vaccine, reducing the flu-risk for millions of Americans.

Why You Should Get the Flu Vaccine

Here are some quick facts about this live-saving vaccine:

1. The flu shot reduces flu-related adult hospitalization by 57%, and as much as 70% in the elderly. For children, the flu vaccine reduces mortality by a whopping 65%.

2. Even if you get the flu, the vaccine will reduce the length of illness and reduce the risk of complications. And you will likely get back on your feet sooner.

3. The flu vaccine helps you protect others. If you are a healthy young or middle-aged adult, you will likely survive the flu—but you will also expose the rest of your family to the virus. Vulnerable family members are more likely to have complications from the flu, and have higher risks of hospitalization and even death. No one wants to expose loved ones to such danger.

The flu vaccine comes with little risk and protects all of us, particularly our children, the elderly, and those with health challenges. If you are healthy, the flu may not pose a great danger to you. But if you pass the virus on to someone who is vulnerable, it may threaten their life.

That alone is a good reason to get a flu shot every year.

Should I Get the Shingles Vaccine?

By Mark A. Kelley, MD |1/11/17
Founder, HealthWeb Navigator

I have seen more and more friends and patients who have suffered with shingles. For no apparent reason, a very painful rash appears, most often on the chest or abdomen. The rash eventually disappears but the pain can last for weeks.

Fortunately, this condition can be prevented.

What Causes Shingles?

Shingles can’t be “caught,” and you can’t get shingles if you’ve never had chickenpox. Both chickenpox and shingles are caused by the varicella zoster virus.

In chickenpox, the virus spreads through the body because the patient has no immunity to it. Once immunity develops and controls the virus, the patient recovers.

However, some of the virus hibernates in our nerve cells, locked away by our immune system. As we age, our immune system is not as effective in keeping the virus in check.

For some folks, the zoster virus emerges and spreads along the nerve cells, causing them to become painfully inflamed. The result is a localized rash that resembles chickenpox. Weeping fluid from the rash contains live zoster virus and can cause chickenpox in anyone who has never been exposed to zoster, such as infants.

With shingles, the body usually fights off the virus successfully. However, it takes a long time for the inflamed nerves to settle down and for the pain to subside. Ask anyone who has had shingles and you will be impressed with how disabling the pain can be.

Roughly 1 in 4 adults will develop shingles at some point during their lifetime. Those odds increase with age.

In a healthy person, shingles is usually not life-threatening, but it can lead to chronic pain or, if it affects the eye, can cause blindness. More serious complications, including death, can occur in patients whose immune systems are weakened by anti-inflammatory drugs, chemotherapy, or chronic disease.

What Are My Options?

Currently there are two injectable vaccines that can prevent shingles.

Zostavax is a single injection that delivers a weak form of varicella zoster. That exposure awakens the immune system to quickly fight off the virus. This vaccine prevents shingles in about 50% of patients, but that protection is only good for about 5 years. However, for immunized patients who develop shingles, the vaccine reduces the severity of the symptoms.

Shingrix is a new vaccine that was engineered to look like the zoster virus to our immune system. Since it is not a real virus, it cannot cause any infection. The vaccine requires two separate shots and may be more effective than Zostavax. In numerous trials, the Shingrix vaccine has protected over 90% of elderly patients from shingles for about 8 years. Zostavax, on the other hand, has protected only half of similarly aged patients. Shingrix is approved by the FDA but will not be available until later this year.

Is the Shingles Vaccine Right for Me?

The CDC’s current recommendation is that every adult over the age of 60 should be immunized with Zostavax, whether or not they have had chickenpox. The reason is that most American adults have antibodies to varicella, suggesting they were once infected with the virus. There has been no consensus on whether to recommend periodic booster shots. Younger patients with immune systems weakened by disease or treatments may also be considered for the vaccine.

These recommendations may change to favor the newer vaccine Shingrix, because it appears to be more protective. No formal policy has yet been published, although one is expected later this year.

The retail price for both vaccines is about the same. The single shot of Zostavax costs about $220, and the two shots of Shingrix together are estimated to cost about $240. Insurance or discount coupons may cover some or all of this cost. It pays to check with your insurance company and shop around.

I think the shingles vaccine makes sense for most patients over the age of 60. It substantially reduces the risk of developing a very painful condition that can last weeks. We now have one—and soon two—safe, effective vaccines.

Consult your physician to see if and when the shingles immunization is right for you.

Radiology Imaging Tests: The Basics

By Carla Dellaporta |12/8/17
Director of Education, NeedyMeds

You’re out walking your dog, enjoying the fresh air and holiday decorations, when suddenly — bam! Down you go on a patch of black ice. Standing, you realize you can’t put weight on your ankle.

The doctor says she’s not quite sure how bad the damage is. To get a better idea, she wants to schedule what she calls a “radiology imaging test.”

Say what now? Isn’t radiology like, nuclear?

Medical jargon gets thrown around left and right these days. Thankfully this one’s pretty simple. “Radiology” is the branch of medicine that relies on technology to diagnose or treat diseases. And “imaging” means the technology involved to take pictures inside your body.

So your doctor is saying she needs to get a better picture—literally—of what’s going on inside you.

There are many radiology tests out there. They differ in terms of the technologies used to produce images of your body. Some common radiology tests requested by doctors include:

X-ray: Uses a small dose of radiation.

CT scan: Combines multiple X-ray images.

Ultrasound: Uses high frequency sound waves.

MRI: Uses magnetic fields and radio waves.

From 2000-2010, imaging services and costs grew at twice the rate of other healthcare technologies. One reason why may be what’s called “defensive medicine.” This term refers to doctors prescribing or recommending unnecessary tests to protect themselves from potential malpractice lawsuits.

A recent study estimated that unnecessary medical tests cost the U.S. nearly $7 billion dollars annually. Overly cautious medicine is a common practice that, unfortunately, comes at the patient’s expense. Don’t rush to get a test without having a clear idea of what your options are and whether or not you can afford treatment.

Below, we’ll cover some questions to ask before scheduling your radiology imaging test. That way you’ll know you’re getting the best bang for your buck.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor Before Scheduling the Test

Do I need this test? You’ll want to understand why you need a scan and how the results will change your course of treatment. If the doctor can’t justify how the results of the test would change the treatment course, then you probably can do without it. No use in wasting time or money on unnecessary tests.

Are there safer alternatives? A CT scan exposes you to much more radiation than a standard X-ray. An MRI, on the other hand, doesn’t use radiation at all. Because radiation can potentially cause DNA damage, you want to limit your long-term exposure. Ask whether there are any lower-radiation but still effective options.

How much will this test cost? Imaging fees vary widely between hospitals, private facilities, geographic location, etc. Always ask for the bottom line cost before scheduling a test. Keep in mind, there’s something called a “global fee” you’ll want to be aware of. This fee charges for the test itself as well as the professional interpretation of the results. Being aware of the global fee ensures you won’t be blindsided when the bill arrives.

How long before I get the results? Radiology test results are generally read on-site by a trained radiologist. However, it’s the doctor who usually delivers those results to the patient, and a variety of factors will influence when you’ll receive them. Ease your mind by asking up front how long this process will take. Consider calling if you haven’t received your test results after five days.

Some Final Cost-Saving Tips

Confirm which location(s) your health insurer considers in-network and how much they cover. Few people know that most of the time, imaging tests cost more when performed at a hospital rather than private facility. Contact your health insurance company directly to find out which facilities they consider in-network. By staying in-network, you won’t have to pay the for the full price of care. There’s a reason you have health insurance—let your insurer help cover the costs!

Ask for a cash discount or sliding scale payment plan. Paying out-of-pocket doesn’t mean you’re doomed to pay up-front and in-full. Most healthcare centers will work with your financial situation, but first you have to ask. A payment plan is a much more reasonable choice compared to putting the total fee on a credit card. You wind up paying a lot more money in interest if you can’t pay off your credit card bill immediately.

Check the credentials of the imaging facility. You know you can trust a facility if it’s been accredited by the American College of Radiology. That means the center has undergone a rigorous evaluation process led by experts in the imaging field. Generally, accreditation can tell you if the center’s radiologists are experienced, and whether or not the center’s equipment and staff meet/exceed nationally accepted standards. Obviously you want the best care for your money.

To learn more about the field of radiology imaging, our reviewers recommend RadiologyInfo.org as a great introductory resource. This website explains the various forms of medical imaging including their indications, complications, and relevant tips for patients undergoing tests. Read our full review for more information.

Why Prescription Drugs are Expensive and What We Can Do About It

By Mark A. Kelley, MD |11/28/17
Founder, HealthWeb Navigator

As the healthcare debate drags on in Congress, prescription drug costs continue to rise by almost 10% annually. It is the rare patient who is spared this expense.

Over the years, I have seen how these costs have affected my patients. At first, most patients had little in the way of co-pays. However, once the local economy deteriorated, co-pays skyrocketed as employers tried to curb their healthcare expenses. Now, monstrous co-pays are the norm for health insurance plans across the nation.

The solution to this problem appeared simple. Drugs with expired patents are usually much cheaper for patients. Insurance companies encouraged physicians to prescribe these “generics” and used this practice as a metric to measure quality.

That strategy has indeed worked. Generic drugs now account for 89% of all prescriptions but only 26% of all drug expenditures.

Unfortunately, this success has not prevented drug inflation. Countless new drugs have emerged over the last thirty years. Some have been “blockbusters” that substantially change medical practice, but the rest have had much less impact. All of these new drugs, blockbusters or not, are protected by patents and promoted by aggressive marketing. They command high prices and subsequently drive up the average cost of prescribed drugs.

Recently, several events have given me a deeper appreciation of the reality experienced by our patients.

The first “surprise” was witnessing a 400 percent increase in the cost of the albuterol inhaler, an asthma product that has been around for decades. Because the inhaler propellant was changed, the manufacturer sold this product as a newly patented “delivery system.” This patent loophole is a common tactic in the drug industry. In this case, the FDA predicted that the loophole would cost consumers $8 billion before the patent expired in 2017.

The second revelation was a variation of the same theme. One of my patients watched the market price of a skin medication double in just four years. The reason was that the company’s drug patent was about to expire. The final price tag for the drug was $300 — for a six-week supply. This is another common industry tactic.

But the most surprising outcome has been the emergence of “competitive” generic drugs. Most generics have a low price point. However, if a large generic manufacturer has little competition, it can act like a monopoly and raise prices on its own terms.

A well-publicized example was the dramatic rise in the price of the “Epipen.” This pre-loaded injector of epinephrine can be life saving during severe allergic attacks. In 2007, one injection cost $50. By 2016 the price was $300 — for the same drug and injector. This tactic, termed “price gouging,” is now illegal in the state of Maryland. Other states may soon follow.

These pricing maneuvers have made drug prescribing more complicated for both patients and their physicians. Generics may no longer be “safe bets” for low costs. New and more expensive drugs may not be any better than generics. And drugs may have different co-pays, depending on the insurance plan.

How is one to know? The answer is simple: the patient and the doctor need to communicate.

I learned that lesson with my own new prescription. My doctor explained carefully why she preferred this brand-name product. When I picked up the prescription, the price tag was $420 for a 75-day supply!

When I mentioned this cost to my physician, she was even more astounded than me. She quickly changed the prescription to a generic product that cost $29 for the same duration of treatment. She felt the advantage of the first medication was minor compared to its overwhelming cost, which was 14 times more expensive.

Pharmacists have told me that this “sticker shock” is becoming more common among patients picking up their meds. But that situation is preventable. Doctors should know the prices and efficacy of the drugs they commonly prescribe, and patients should ask for the drug prices up front. In my case, both my physician and I should have done that homework. Thankfully, all that was needed to solve the problem was a painless follow-up discussion.

Drug price information is easy to find online, since pharmacies compete fiercely for business. The market price for most drugs is available via a simple Google search of the specific drug name with the term “price.” Here on HealthWeb Navigator, you can find several websites that help patients locate and compare drug prices.

If the drug is expensive (e.g. three digits for a typical 30 day prescription), the out-of-pocket cost (co-pay or deductible) is likely to be significant. If the local pharmacist has the patient’s insurance information, s/he can quickly quote how much the patient must pay. If the out-of-pocket cost is high, a less expensive yet effective drug may be preferable. If the patient cannot afford the drug, there are organizations such as NeedyMeds that can help with discounts.

Healthcare economics may be complicated, but drug cost is where patients and their doctors can team up. Patients want to be healthy but don’t want to go broke in the process. Informed doctors are in the best position to advise patients of the trade-offs between cost and benefit. Working together, doctor and patient can make an informed choice.

There is a lot of room for improvement. In a recent poll, 60% of patients feel their doctor is unaware of how much they pay for drugs. Doctors need to be better informed about drug costs and help patients deal with this challenge. 

If you are looking for a perfect model of patient-centered care, this is it. After all, as my own story illustrates, when doctors become patients, we face the same reality as everyone else.

Physician Burnout and the Battle for Time

By Mark A. Kelley, MD |11/10/17
Founder, HealthWeb Navigator

According to published reports, over 50% of doctors are burned out. The reason? They are overwhelmed by payment and quality rules as well as poor information technology.

It’s no secret that physicians spend long hours seeing patients. But as financial pressures have mounted within hospitals, doctors are forced to perform more administrative tasks. In fact, administrative tasks account for nearly a quarter of the average doctor’s schedule. That’s all time diverted away from patient care.

Many physicians feel a loss of autonomy, a major factor in burnout. The National Academy of Science now sees burnout as a major threat to maintaining our physician workforce.

The key issue is how we want healthcare professionals to spend their time. Instead of asking them to do more, we should ask, “Do more of what …and why?”

Our current system is based on assumptions and technologies that are outdated and interfere with the delivery of modern health care. Three problems are clear:

• Physicians in the United States must provide exhaustive documentation to justify their services. No other health system in the world imposes such onerous rules.

• Health IT systems are designed primarily to support tedious billing documentation rather than clinical care. For practicing physicians, this issue tops the list of frustrations.

• Payers and other advocates have promoted different measures and incentives, leaving both physicians and patients searching for a single, meaningful quality agenda. That goal remains elusive, trapping physicians in many time-consuming quality tasks of dubious value.

These three problems have forced physicians to perform more tasks that take time away from patient contact. The result is the “ten-minute patient encounter,” during which the physician spends most of the time on a computer to document and bill for the visit.

This contrasts with how other professionals spend their time. Imagine if we expected airline pilots to sell tickets, load the baggage, and fill the fuel tank before flying the plane!

Several innovations would help solve these problems.

1. Modernize healthcare transactions to be efficient and understandable. Documentation has devoured clinical practice. Originally designed to curb costs and prevent fraud, the current system is an obsolete instrument. In businesses such as the credit card industry, electronic algorithms and analytics detect fraudulent behavior. Such technology should replace arcane documentation rules and their toxic effects on clinical practice.

Beyond the documentation problem, the healthcare industry operates an economic system that bewilders patients, providers, and most business experts. Private insurance rules vary widely by plan, location, facility, and provider. If health care were a consumer-based business, it would have been “out of business” long ago.

2. Focus IT on healthcare analytics. The depth and breadth of medical information is growing exponentially. To serve their patients, physicians must process complex data and perform multiple tasks rapidly. Well-designed informatics can save time, reduce errors, and distill information. Sadly, we are far from reaching that goal.

The current health IT systems are heavy on billing and documentation, and light on usability and analytics. While medicine has aspirations for using “Big Data” in patient care, its information systems are poorly prepared to do anything more than print reports and bills. The healthcare industry needs “smart systems” that make medical practice highly reliable, safe, and more efficient.

Outside of health care, new IT solutions are thriving. Patients can purchase a $50 voice recognition device to browse the internet, play music or news, and perform calculations. However, their doctors and hospitals are stuck with expensive billing systems that are clumsy at retrieving and organizing patient information. That embarrassment would end if healthcare IT focused more on patient care instead of billing.

3. Prioritize national quality goals that matter. Our nation needs to justify the assignments it imposes on physicians. The major advances in healthcare quality have been successful because both patients and physicians understood their importance. These advances, such as cardiac prevention, were planned and tested to blend into practice. Physicians will support important quality programs that meet these standards…but not low-impact measures designed in a conference room.

Medicine is the ultimate human service, whose value to the patient is quality time—time spent with the physician. That bond should not be threatened by putting “business” processes ahead of patient care.

If we lose that battle, both patients and their physicians will be casualties in the war to save medical professionalism.

Quality Reports for Hospitals and Doctors: Interesting but Flawed

By Mark A. Kelley, MD |10/18/17
Founder, HealthWeb Navigator

Every patient eventually asks the same question: “How can I find the best hospitals and doctors?”

The solution might seem easy, since we live in world where information is readily available on the internet. In a few clicks we can shop for goods, review consumer products, market ourselves on social media, and complete financial transactions instantly. You would think that health care, which accounts for 17% of the GDP, would have all these same features.

Think again. Healthcare information for consumers is woefully unsophisticated compared to other industries. Ask anyone who has ever attempted to find prices for healthcare services, interpret a medical bill, or schedule an appointment online.

Healthcare information is primitive because it focuses on finances rather than customers—that is, the patients. As a result, hospital and physician offices are skilled at sending bills but often can’t help patients with much else.

Federal regulations have helped improve online medical records and lab results. But information about healthcare quality is still lacking. The lack of standardization about what is important, credible, and measurable leads to confusion.

HealthWeb Navigator lists the most common online hospital rating websites. Unfortunately for patients, there is no consistency among these many rating tools. Research shows that hospitals ranked highly in one system often score poorly in another…and vice versa.

The reason? These rating systems all use different measurement criteria, as well as different statistics to compute results. Some are heavily influenced by reputation rather than clinical outcomes. Even Medicare’s rating system—Hospital Compare—isn’t very helpful since it’s hard to navigate and most hospitals come out “OK”. Many patients choose not to use these “quality” tools due to the inconsistency among them.

Report cards about doctors are not much better. Medicare’s Physician Compare suffers from the same problems as its hospital-focused counterpart. The average visitor has difficulty sorting out the information most valuable to them. Some websites promote doctors who pay to be listed on the website. Others feature those doctors with regional and/or national reputation. This approach is common in regional publications magazines like Boston Magazine that list the “best” local specialists.

Finally, the newest “report card” for hospitals and doctors is the popular website Yelp. Reports featured on Yelp remain controversial, as they are based on consumer opinions rather than a more data-driven methodology. Despite the flaws, Yelp reviews are extremely popular among consumers.

In the midst of all this confusion, how can someone find a good hospital or doctor?

Most physicians, including me, think that the best source is still a recommendation from a trusted friend, preferably a health professional. Those in health care usually have a network of helpful contacts. Of course many other factors can influence patient choice. Most patients prefer medical care that is conveniently close to home. Others, especially those with complex conditions, may prefer to see a specialist in a large medical center far from home.

Once a hospital recommendation is made, the patient and their family can examine the hospital’s website to evaluate its staff and their credentials. Some hospitals publish their staff’s expertise and experience in certain specialties. Such voluntary public reporting is becoming more common among hospitals that perform at a high level. If a hospital does not list such metrics, it is worth asking for them.

As for doctors, you can check out their background on several websites featured in our “Physicians” section. Most hospitals list the educational credentials of their medical staff, including board certification.

Clinical experience is highly important when choosing a physician. That information may not be listed on a website, but every physician can and should be able to summarize their experience to interested patients. HealthWeb Navigator covers how to choose a doctor in more depth on a previous post.

In summary, publicly reported hospital and physician “scorecards” are interesting and sometimes helpful—but not necessarily authoritative. We have a long way to go before “public reporting” in health care represents an accurate reflection of clinical performance in ways that consumers can understand.

In the meantime, the best approach is to contact a trusted source, especially a physician or nurse. Ask them where or to whom they would send their loved ones in times of need. That recommendation is bound to be reliable.

Rising Costs: The Greatest Threat to Health Reform

By Mark A. Kelley, MD |9/21/17
Founder, HealthWeb Navigator

The main character in the popular film Groundhog Day is caught in a time loop where he must repeat the same day over and over again.

The U.S. Senate is now having its own “Groundhog Day” moment as it debates (yet again) a law to replace the Affordable Care Act. To add to the drama, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is promoting his single payer alternative popularly branded as “Medicare for All.” In a recent TV interview he raises many of the same points I raised in my previous post.

Meanwhile, the average person watches their health care costs spiral out of sight, something our elected officials seldom discuss. How did that happen? Who is to blame?

The answer is no one…and everyone. Human history is full of examples when humans exhausted their resources. This is believed to be the reason why Easter Island’s inhabitants disappeared, eradicated by their own unchecked “ecocide.”

In North America, humans wiped out 50% of the large animal population in the geologic blink of an eye. Of course no one planned these extinctions. But we humans seem to have trouble learning that excessive demand eventually devours resources.

We have the same problem when it comes to health care. Over the last 40 years, health care has become one of the most innovative and profitable sectors of our economy. However, its costs are now taking big bites from the budgets of government, industry, and private citizens.

Until recently, this toxic effect was hidden behind spectacular successes in medicine: new technologies and cures, improved public health, better quality of care, etc.

For businesses, the success has been equally impressive. Health care has been profitable for insurance companies, hospitals, device manufacturers, and the pharmaceutical industry. These sectors thrived because the government and employers could afford to pay the costs, very little of which was passed on to patients.

But those “good times” ended a decade ago when health costs pushed the U.S. auto industry into bankruptcy. After the
Great Recession of 2008, most companies faced the same challenge and were forced to cut their health benefits to stay afloat.

As a result, employees now pay more for health care out of pocket, while the average worker’s income has flatlined. You don’t have to be a math major to figure out that health care will soon be too expensive for most people. Meanwhile, the big business of health care has shown few signs of slowing down. Nearly all companies remain profitable.

However, there are some cracks in the armor. The profits of some hospitals and systems have dropped off, and several have closed as a result. Physician incomes are stable, but the pressures of practice are becoming intolerable. Many physicians are suffering from burnout, causing them to leave practice.

Health care is a major sector of the economy, accounting for 17% of the GDP. It is a field with many powerful constituents who support—and wield substantial influence over—members of Congress. That fact alone makes legislative reform difficult.

How will change occur? Possibly, though not ideally, from America’s most common instrument of change—a national crisis.

Despite what many experts believe, health care is not “too big to fail.” It has few price controls and bears no resemblance to a free market. The industry cannot survive without employer and government subsidies. As a nation, we have become gluttons for health care that is inefficient and becoming prohibitively expensive. There is no clearer path toward extinction.

Left unchecked, healthcare prices will continue to rise. Unless those costs are subsidized or controlled, more consumers will choose to be uninsured and seek care in hospital emergency rooms, leaving other patients to foot the bill.

If employers retreat from health insurance, the consequences will be catastrophic. The uninsured will flood the country’s delivery system of doctors and hospitals. Without federal bailouts, the system will bleed itself dry and suffer a full-blown meltdown.

That may happen no matter what Congress decides in the coming months. If Congress reduces current federal subsidies, more Americans will find themselves instantly uninsured, triggering a political and financial crisis. But even if the subsidies survive, costs will continue to rise, eventually resulting in catastrophe for all.

Unwittingly, with health care we have created a game that the public simply cannot win. The time has come to change the rules in our favor.

The Affordable Care Act: Moving the Public Closer to “Medicare for All”?

By Mark A. Kelley, MD |8/30/17
Founder, HealthWeb Navigator

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) debate resumes when Congress returns from its summer recess on September 4th. In the meantime, the debate has already had major effects on public opinion.

A recent report describes how Americans currently view the ACA. According to national polls, over 90% of Americans would change the current law. Most Democrats would expand ACA coverage while most Republicans would reduce ACA benefits or rewrite the law completely. Only 8% of those polled would repeal the ACA without a replacement.

The most surprising result is the public’s response to the following statement: “It is the responsibility of the federal government to ensure that all Americans have health coverage.”

Last year, 51% of Americans agreed with that statement. In 2017, the approval rate jumped to 60%. It appears that a government health insurance option is gaining popularity.

Meanwhile, contrary to some reports, the ACA program is stable. Most regions of the country still have private insurance plans available through the ACA. Many insurers increased premiums to cover losses, but that one-time intervention seems to have stabilized the markets.

The reality of health insurance is that it must be profitable to cover unexpected losses. The insurance company has several tools to ensure a profit: charge high premiums, select consumers with low risk, or limit the services and/or payments of coverage.

The ACA eliminated most of these options. High-risk consumers could not be denied coverage or be overcharged. Further, every health plan was required to pay for a standard portfolio of services.

To offset losses, the federal government has provided supplements to cover costs on a year-to-year basis. The ACA has proven even more expensive than anticipated because the uninsured have been much sicker. The ACA had plans to offset these costs but they have had no major effect to date.

To force Congress to pass a new law to replace the ACA, President Trump has threatened to stop its federal supplements. That threat has already caused some insurance companies to leave the ACA. Congress, however, does not favor this action since it would leave millions of Americans without health insurance.

This situation has exposed the major weakness of the ACA — its financial fragility.

• The ACA required all Americans to purchase health insurance to create a new funding source. That plan failed because the law was poorly enforced. Now the ACA has no consistent source of revenue to offset costs.

• On the costs, the ACA is also vulnerable. The ACA insurance plans are managed by the private insurance industry. As long as insurance companies can rely on federal subsidies, they have little incentive to reduce costs.

• The bottom line is that the federal government must continue to subsidize the ACA.

This challenge is not new. With Medicare for the elderly, the federal government has a long experience with publicly supported health insurance. Medicare is a popular plan that is predictable, understandable, and accepted across the nation. Because it controls national pricing, Medicare has kept inflation low compared to private insurance.

“Medicare for All” was popular with some voters during the 2016 presidential campaign. Many now wonder why they cannot have the same federal insurance plan as their parents and grandparents.

That is a timely question. For most Americans, employee health insurance has become too expensive and unwieldy. Our U.S economy rewards workers who have geographic mobility and job flexibility. For such employees, finding health insurance in differing local markets can be a nightmare. A national health plan, like Medicare, solves that problem.

Companies see the rising cost of employee health insurance as a threat to the bottom line. Many businesses pass these costs to their employees through higher deductibles, co-pays, and co-insurance. That maneuver may reduce company costs, but it puts economic stress on employees and does little to curb medical inflation.

Americans are beginning to understand these issues and envision a future where the federal government ensures access to health care for everyone. During the ACA debate, voters sent several strong signals to Congress:

• Do not repeal the ACA without a replacement plan in place.

• Do not reduce current benefits.

• Do not interrupt or threaten any current insurance.

The message seems clear: most Americans want Congress to improve the ACA and move forward—not backwards. The only institution with the experience, power, and resources to lead the way is the federal government. If that happens, the country will be on the path to a “public option” like Medicare where the federal government is the insurer.

That option was proposed for the ACA in 2010 but was withdrawn due to political pressure from the insurance industry. Reviving the public option will likely provoke the same industry reaction. However, if voter support continues to grow, the public option could prevail. That will be a game-changer.

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