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Sunday, May 15, 2016

How do we know who is a good doctor?

I am a following "the Incidental Economist" (Link) and Healthcare Triage News. Aaron Carroll blogged on pay for performance programs and wrote a commentary late last year on measuring quality (Link).  There was also an article in today's NYT examining narrow networks and limited access for patients to providers outside of their designated networks (Sorry, we don't take Obamacare - link). What do these items have in common? What they have in common is the need to be able to measure quality. Who care if you are locked into a narrow network if it delivers what you need well? We all sort of lock ourselves into narrow networks when we end up selecting specific physicians to deal with our health care problems.


As I see it, we have a very basic problem in that more often then not, those needing services are really not in a position to discern whether a given physician (or other health care provider) is really good at what we need them to be good at. (When I use the term physician, please view it as a short hand for health care professional delivering a service). Obviously for those physicians who do very specific life saving or function saving targeted interventions, we may be able to sort through who is at the top of the heap v. those at the bottom. Even that can be tricky. A good set of outcomes for an orthopedic surgeon who replaces hips may be due to the fact they are in a position to cherry pick or a less than optimal set may be due to them being the go-to person for difficult cases.


Even more challenging may be within the larger universe of providers who do deliver services where it is difficult to impossible to define what quality is? One can march through the different specialties in medicine and it is the exception rather than the rule that clear criteria can be defined which allows any given person to identify who delivers high quality care.  How does one determine whether a gastroenterologist is good at colonoscopy? Yes, one can look at complication rates but the primary purpose of the exam is not simply to avoid trouble. You can always avoid the complication of the procedure by not doing it. How can one determine if a thorough exam was actually done? Are more biopsies better than fewer? What are the actual deliverables? A similar situation may be relevant for dermatologists? What represents a good skin exam? How can this be measured?  For primary care physicians, what constitutes a good or excellent annual check up? Who is doing the best pelvic exams? Who is the best pathologist? Is it the ones who diagnose the most or the least cancers? How can one discern who are the best pediatricians?
Those with great technical skills may have less than optimal judgement, work ethic, or interpersonal skills. What problems do given physicians within specific specialties actually solve and just how good a job do they do in solving these problems? What information do we have at our disposal to address these issues? We do have the annual best doctors issues for local publications for most major cities. However, the selection process for these is a popularity contest which reminds me of elections for class president when I was in high school. It takes into account essentially no quality data. Furthermore, does any actual quality data linked to a given doctor or other provider reflect the physician competence or other aspects of the team over which they have little control?


It is not an unusual circumstance where I am asked by a friend to make a recommendation for care within my system. I know a number of my colleagues on a personal level but truth be told, I really have very limited insight into what type of physician they actually are. I have basically little or no access to hard numbers in terms of whether they solve the problems of patients who they see. There are exceptions (primarily those who I work with every day)  but for the most part I have not directly and consistently witnessed the bedside manner of most of my colleagues or have clinically significant knowledge regarding the quality of their problem solving skills.


Then move into a domain where people have marginal medical knowledge, experience, and insight and imagine how they make these determinations. They simply are flying blind. Patients and their families can determine if someone spends time with them, listens, and makes an attempt to communicate. These observations are important but may not track with the ability to fix whatever problem that needs to be fixed. The may be especially true when the services delivered are done so for goals which may be realized well in the future. Patients can be very impressed with the quality of a service delivered that they did not actually need. One can generate impressive numbers if one is in the business of delivering preventative care for diseases that never or only rarely happen.


This brings us back to the original question; what can we measure to determine who is the best? Perhaps even more important is what can we measure to determine who is simply good enough? Not everyone can access the best and always spending money to get the best may be a bad investment of someone's scare resources, especially if the stakes are not so high.  How can patients tell if the providers available within their networks will likely be able to meet their basic needs and goals?  I believe the path to being able to address this problem will require inputs from both those delivering care and those receiving care. It will mean looking at both high stakes environments and lower stakes environments. It will unquestionably require that we better define what the specific goals of care are. Service delivery without goals can never fail. As the saying goes if you have no destination anywhere you end up should be fine. Similarly service delivery without measurable goals can also never fail and service delivery where the measurements are not aligned with the patient goals will almost always fail.


The fact that measuring what is expedient has ended up not getting us to where we want to be should not come as a surprise and should not prompt us reject striving for measuring outcomes. For us to sink more and more money into an industry which has dismal quality control is simply not an option.

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