Category Archives: medicine

Hope and Skepticism about the New MCAT

by Karan Chhabra and Allan Joseph

The MCAT (better known as every pre-med’s recurring nightmare) just went live with some pretty big changes intended to better prepare premedical students for the healthcare system of tomorrow. We’ve got a guest post over at Dan Diamond’s Forbes blog examining and reacting to the changes. A small excerpt:

That’s why we applaud the AAMC for resisting this bias and placing social science, psychology, and the humanities on the same plane as pure science — where they belong. The new MCAT sends a new signal to aspiring docs: they need this knowledge just as much as they need hard science, and the medical community now demands they have it…

But unless admissions committees firmly commit to selecting “broader” applicants in all aspects of their applications, the newest version of the MCAT will fail in the same way its ancestor did.

This is something we’ve thought a lot about, but we’re really interested in hearing your thoughts — take a read and let us know your thoughts on Twitter (see below) or in the comments.

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Karan is a medical student at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and Duke graduate who previously worked in strategic research for hospital executives. Follow him on Twitter @KRChhabra.

Allan is a third-year medical student at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, where he is pursuing an MD/MPP. You can follow him on Twitter @allanmjoseph.

What are tomorrow’s policy problems?

by Allan Joseph

In a few weeks, my institution is hosting the AMA’s Northeast-region meeting for medical students who are interested in policy and advocacy, among other topics. I’ve been asked to give a presentation on the policy problems of the future, and ways for the attendees to prepare for those problems and to help shape their solutions.

I thought I’d take an informal poll to help guide my talk. So what do you see as the biggest healthcare policy problem of the next 1 year, 5 years, 10 years, and/or 25 years? What can medical students do to prepare for them, and how should physicians shape the solutions?

Send me your answers to any or all of those questions via email, on Twitter, or in the comments below.

Thanks!

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Allan Joseph is a second-year medical student at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, where he is pursuing an MD/MPH. You can follow him on Twitter @allanmjoseph.

Has med school changed for the better?

by Karan Chhabra

 

Every third-year has heard it.

…When I was in your position, I was taking 24-hour calls every other night. If my resident was there, I was there….

We’re regaled about the glory days, without shelf exams, without phlebotomists, and—by god—without those work-hour restrictions. The days when medical students wouldn’t dare ask their residents for help, or residents their chiefs, or chiefs their attendings, and so on. I hear a bit of romance: the heroism of providing total patient care, exactly when the patient needed it, unfettered by handoffs or outside interference. I envy the skill required to practice medicine almost-literally in one’s sleep.

As the veteran doc continues his (yes, usually his) soliloquy, he may admit that it wasn’t the safest model for patients, or the most humane for trainees. He may today be a better doctor for it, but he’s a bit ambivalent about whether it should remain exactly the same today. Presumably he wasn’t alone, because since the good ol’ days, the third year of medical school has morphed into something barely recognizable.

Now, rather than arriving before our residents and leaving after, our time is “protected” in many ways. We have lecture days devoid of patient care, service-learning commitments, and other activities designed to expand our learning beyond the hospital’s four walls. We have shelf exams demanding a much broader scope of knowledge than a typical day on the floor. Occasionally we’re granted a bit of time to study for said exams. Sometimes, we even have weekends.

This is progress, in many ways. Teachers with the right training are supervising patient care. We’re gaining exposure to ambulatory care, where the bulk of American medicine takes place. We’re acquiring the research skills to practice up-to-date medicine as it evolves, rather than learning from sheer repetition. We’re learning how to communicate humanistically and practice ethically. And, in fits and starts, each generation is learning a bit more about how the many pieces of the healthcare system fit together.

But I wonder how much has also been lost. Residents’ duties have gone from the bedside to the computer, where information flows in and orders stream out. We can “round” on vitals and labs at the nurses’ station without ever laying eyes (let alone hands) on the patient. Nurses, phlebotomists, and other members of the workforce have taken over so much of what we formerly called “patient care”—which in turn has evolved from a tactile task to a cognitive one. It’s no surprise that medical students’ experience has followed suit. By the end of a clerkship, we can rattle off pathology, pharmacology, and differential diagnoses till even the attendings fall asleep—but heaven forbid we’re asked to start a difficult IV. I worry I’ll end up in a new generation of well-read, friendly, ethical, system-conscious doctors who’ve learned the textbook but forgotten the patient.

As a student, the times when I’ve lacked longitudinal patient contact have been the most taxing. The hours spent chasing labs and consults or “rounding” at the nurses’ station are the ones that leave me wondering what medicine has become. And I have to ask if the apparent epidemic of physician burnout is really about too little human contact rather than too many hours on the floors. Some have decided that rather than returning to patient care, we should be learning on simulators instead. But to me, that would represent the pendulum swinging even farther away from those we must eventually serve. Lest the establishment forget, we will someday be treating patients rather than machines and multiple-choice problems. Will we be ready?

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Karan is a third-year student at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and Duke graduate who previously worked in strategic research for hospital executives.

Follow him on Twitter @KRChhabra or subscribe to the blog.

Is “progress” in medical education backfiring?

by Karan Chhabra

A good bit of fuss surrounds the evolution of medical education. The way we’re taught sometimes seems as susceptible to trends than the clothes we wear—one decade trumpets the “integrated,” systems-based curriculum, the next decade moves to the “flipped classroom,” and the cycle continues. Of course, these changes are based on educational theory, and their outcomes are often studied rigorously. But every now and then, when I rotate with a doctor trained the old-fashioned way, I wonder what has really been gained—and whether something has been lost—since the days they were taught.

I’ve seen how older physicians recollect tidbits from their preclinical years (decades ago) that my classmates and I can’t seem to remember past a few months. I wonder how much of this is the result of the way they were taught. Of course, there are many confounders here: our own intelligence versus those physicians’, our generation’s perpetual state of distraction, and perhaps the volume of material we’re expected to retain. The “old way” of teaching by discipline (anatomy, pathology, pharmacology, etc.) seems far less intuitive than the way we’re currently taught, by organ system (cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, etc.). To mentally switch from psoriasis to anti-arrhythmics in the same day seems like work.

But that may in fact be the secret to its success. I’m referring to research on “massed practice,” rapidly learning subjects en bloc, as opposed to “interleaved practice,” switching between learning tasks rapidly and revisiting the same topics day after day. A recent article (thanks Skeptical Scalpel) shows a relevant example:

 

Consider this study of thirty-eight surgical residents. They took a series of four short lessons in microsurgery: how to reattach tiny vessels… Half the docs completed all four lessons in a single day, which is the normal in-service schedule. The others completed the same four lessons but with a week’s interval between them.

 

…The difference in performance between the two groups was impressive. The residents who had taken all four sessions in a single day not only scored lower on all measures, but 16 percent of them damaged the rats’ vessels beyond repair and were unable to complete their surgeries.

 

Why is spaced practice more effective than massed practice? … Rapid fire practice leans on short-term memory. Durable learning, however, requires time for mental rehearsal and the other processes of consolidation. Hence, spaced practice works better. The increased effort required to retrieve the learning after a little forgetting has the effect of retriggering consolidation, further strengthening memory.

 

This effect isn’t limited to technical skills. The article also references cognitive tasks, like geometry problems. I wonder if it’d extend to preclinical medical education as well. I can personally relate to how a disease seen in one organ system, say in November, may literally never be seen again under an “integrated” curriculum.  It’s far easier to learn the pathogenesis of strokes and their treatment in the same week—but easier is not always better. Perhaps a trickier, thornier learning process is also sticker in the long run.

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Karan is a student at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and Duke graduate who previously worked in strategic research for hospital executives.

Follow him on Twitter @KRChhabra or subscribe to the blog.

PCMHs Don’t Work—Or Do They? Insights from Two Recent Studies (Of the Same Program)

by Tom Liu

A month ago, a JAMA study rocked the health wonk world by showing provocative evidence that Patient-Centered Medical Homes do not work. Evaluating 32 practices in the PA Chronic Care Initiative over a three-year period (2008-2011), the authors found that achieving NCQA PCMH recognition did not statistically reduce utilization or costs, and only improved one of 11 quality measures (nephropathy screening for diabetes). Aaron Carroll summarized the study and accompanying editorial over at The Incidental Economist. Mainstream media and health wonk blogs alike declared the death of the “touted medical homes model”.

That’s why I was surprised to read this headline last week:

Study: Medical homes cut costs for chronically ill members

The punch line: these two studies evaluated the same PA pilot project over the same time period (albeit with different practices and patient populations).

 

Medical Homes Work—But Only for High-Risk Patients

A close read of the studies reveals that their conclusions are not incongruous. Indeed, the more recent AJMC study found no significant decrease in utilization or costs across all patients, just as the JAMA study did. However, when the authors limited their analysis to the top 10% highest risk patients (defined by DxCG risk scores), they found significant decreases in inpatient utilization in all three program years, and significant decreases in costs in the first two.

We can’t discern if the JAMA study would’ve found the same significant effects if they did a sub-analysis of the highest risk patients. (Interestingly, they state in the Methods section, “we repeated our utilization and cost models among only patients with diabetes,” but the results of that analysis are nowhere to be found.)

These results underscore an insight that’s becoming increasingly clear: cost savings from care management are concentrated in the highest risk individuals.

But we can go one step further.

 

Cost Savings Came ONLY From High-Risk Patients

Among the 654 high-risk patients, the PCMH produced adjusted savings of $107 PMPM in the first year. That roughly comes out to an estimated $69,978 in overall savings. Almost all of this (and then some) came from an estimated 40 avoided hospitalizations (654 patients x 61 adjusted avoided hospitalizations / 1000 patients).

Among 6940 patients overall, the PCMH produced (statistically insignificant) adjusted savings of $10 PMPM in the first year—an estimated $69,400 in overall savings. Across this entire patient group there were an estimated 41-42 avoided hospitalizations.

In other words, this study didn’t just find that savings are concentrated among high-risk patients. Essentially all of the cost savings and avoided hospitalizations came from the top 10% high-risk patient cohort.

This doesn’t mean that other PCMH models couldn’t squeeze savings out of lower risk patients. It just means that this and many existing models haven’t found out how to.

 

How to Achieve “Risk-Targeted Population Health”?

That finding raises a broader question that these studies can’t answer: What prevented the hospitalizations among the high-risk patients, and more importantly, were those key interventions limited to only the high-risk patients?

For example, were the crucial interventions ones that were only used for high-risk patients, such as a dedicated care manager, targeted outreach messages, and special appointments for high-risk patients?

Or were they interventions that were indiscriminately used on all patients, such as standard patient education or practice-level infrastructure that all patients enjoyed (even if only high-risk patients “benefited” in terms of reduced hospitalizations)?

This question is important because all interventions (and the infrastructure to support them) have a cost. Developing patient registries, expanding EHR capabilities, maintaining after-hours access, and investing in new training all represent substantial financial investments. Less than $70,000 in savings among high-risk patients—while extremely meaningful and significant—would be wiped out by the $20,000 “practice support” and average $92,000 bonuses paid out to each PCP by the medical home program.

If all of the benefits and savings are coming from the high-risk patients, we need to devise ways to concentrate our costs as well. Implementing such “risk-targeted population health” may be the only way to make the financials work.

Some practices are trying to do this by using dedicated care managers for high-risk patients within their existing patient panels. Others are trying to create separate clinics entirely dedicated to high-risk patients—which would allow them to limit fixed costs to high-risk patients as well. In fact, the NHS in England announced this January they are piloting this latter approach, creating “complex care practices” of 400-500 high-risk patients drawn from surrounding practices.

Whichever approach proves most effective, one thing is clear from these two studies: we need to rethink our current PCMH model.

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Tom is a health care researcher with experience in public health and blindness prevention. Follow him on Twitter at @tliu14 or check out his blog.