Only Anecdotal

No numbers, just stories

Archive for February 2013

Experts

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As I was driving to a meeting last week for the Dual-Eligible Demonstration Project, a man stood out near the stoplight. He was holding a sign, “I do not drink. I had a stroke and am homeless.” I nearly picked him up and took him to the meeting.

His story–the story reported on his sign–is far from unusual in my world. But it is unusual enough that the experts who treat strokes as an acute medical event still fail to understand the repercussions of health conditions on everything else in life–and likewise fail to understand the effects of everything else in life upon health conditions.

I am not talking about behaviors that are within an individual’s control; I am referring more to the chronic situations that come about first because of that acute medical event, and the difficulty not so much with the illness or accident itself as with the struggles in day-to-day life afterward.

The vision of projects that attempt to coordinate care for dual-eligible Medicare and Medicaid recipients makes a lot of sense, and could allow for the flexibility that can make an enormous in the quality of life of those individuals, and hence, in health outcomes.

But flexibility comes only when there is an understanding of the full picture of a person within the context of life, rather than within the context of a healthcare setting. This is where expertise of assessment comes into play, and where I fear that we are in real danger of getting tripped up by that very definition of expertise.

What is an expert? I see the established healthcare’s system respect for degrees and licenses, and see a structure that is resistant to accepting the expertise of the individual receiving treatment–except, sometimes, within the context of that treatment and the immediate needs around it.

It is not enough to share decision making, or to create a participatory system. More than that, the entire system needs to be flipped where the expertise of lived experience is valued as much as the expertise in the medical field. That clinical expertise is essential, of course. But it does not outweigh the practical aspects of life and the necessity of understanding how life changes all around when an individual’s health changes–and what can be done in all respects to improve the situation. We joke about a school of hard knocks, but the degrees we receive from life are just as valuable as those that we receive from studies within a well-established hierarchical system.

Part of the difficulty comes, too, from the harm that has come from years of medical arrogance. There have always been caring, wonderful medical professionals, and there always will be. In spite of any individuals, though, the power dynamic has allowed an enormous abuse, particular of people with disabilities, whose medical status amounts on a systemic basis to a problem either to cure or to ignore. The harm of this attitude is that mistrust of that system leads to mistrust of individuals–particularly in times of change where the powerful name the game–and where that power base remains so heavily weighted within the existing paradigm. More mistrust leads to defensive tactics, and to cynicism instead of listening, understanding, and working together.

Can the paradigm really shift in favor of the consumer in this new age of healthcare? I don’t know. I see vastly different attitudes about health and medicine in general in many other countries, where a broader range of health seems to be covered. But culturally those attitudes are so enormously different from the way we approach life here in the United States.. and we may not want to pay the taxes necessary to support such systems, even if we could accept that level of overt governmental control over our healthcare. But more flexibility? is it possible? Can we shift our system of medical care to one of health care, of care for people, that works, that truly supports the value of life, as is lived, itself? Time will tell.

Written by Only Anecdotal

25 Feb 2013 at 10:12pm

Payment Source and Isolation

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I once spoke to the owner of a home care agency who told me of his experiences with people new to the long-term area of health care. He told me that time after time, individuals insisted that their particular Medicare plan would pay for home care and personal care services in the home. He encountered others, whose private insurance was the best offered by their company, who held the same conviction and unshakeable faith in their coverage.

Then, soon after, he listened to the yelling, the anger, the incredulous voice at the other end of the phone, faced suddenly with the fact that our regular old insurance does not work so well when our needs switch from acute to chronic. It is a bitter pill to swallow, and a generic, over-the-counter, non-reimbursable one at that.

My colleague’s solution was to let calls go to voice mail: let another agency break that news, and lose the business (shoot the messenger). Often, after hearing the same news from enough sources, people simply realize that they have to pay up if they want long-term help at home… if they can.

If they cannot, they may enter into a new segment of the population: the Medicaid-eligible.

We all have been watching states grapple with their Medicaid plans in recent times, and have heard the normal complaints about the program. Part of the issue, I am sure, is the perception of Medicaid and its relationship with “welfare”, entitlements, free care. It is the insurance of the poor. It is also the insurance of one in four children, of many people with disabilities, and of 70% of nursing home residents. It is the only insurance that pays for any sort of long-term care at home, too, those these options are still too limited and often too restrictive–and Medicaid too hard to navigate–in my humble opinion.

But it is more than this: I wonder how it is that Medicaid is the only insurer to pay for any sort of long-term care. How did we fail to require this of our private insurers, or indeed, of Medicare?

As I was watching last week, as the Dual-Eligible (Medicare-Medicaid) demonstration project rolls out in Massachusetts, I realized that there is an enormous gap in understanding within traditional private insurance about how long-term care works, or even what it really means.

The issue, I believe, is that “long-term care” implies just that: it is care that goes on for a long time–or forever. And in this, it becomes the ordinary, an actual part of a person’s life, and not simply a single medical event, or even a number of them. Where a medical professional may well be able to impart some expertise on medical treatments for specific acute conditions, it is far more difficult for the same doctor to be the expert on a person’s day-to-day needs that come about as the result of a disability or illness–much less, to be the expert on a person’s wishes and preferences.

It matters, because prescribing ineffective doses of the wrong medicine in a person’s life will do harm,  within a system whose intention first is to do no harm.

Ineffective doses could mean too few personal care hours. Wrong medicine could mean an ill-fitting wheelchair, or meals on wheels instead of assistance with grocery shopping. On paper, figuring out “appropriate” services seems easy: in reality, it will be the biggest challenge of the demonstration to determine how those dollars are spent. How much flexibility will this system allow? How long will it take for a new system to understand that the wrong equipment may lead to more hospitalizations? or that the agency-based personal care attendant’s refusal to show up at specific hours or to do specific tasks really will affect the long-term health of the individual needing those services?

For the lucky few who will never have to rely on Medicaid, extensive and often lavish options remain. Perhaps the limitations to private insurance and Medicare will still surprise, but the freedom of choice remains for those who can pay for it.

A medical model has always relied on a separation between healthy and sick, between abled and disabled, between normal and abnormal. And a medical model relies on maintaining these notions, on care that keeps the chronically ill, disabled, “abnormal”–and dare I say, poor–population isolated, for a long time–or forever. If private insurance and Medicare treat only the curable, then our payors isolate, as well, by refusing the reality of day-to-day needs inherent to medical conditions that will not be cured. In this isolation, a person becomes defined by a medical condition.

A person is not a medical condition. To isolate in this way is to deny the very humanity of that individual. Is this a responsibility that we as a society are willing to assume?

Written by Only Anecdotal

11 Feb 2013 at 9:13pm

My Inspiration

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My mom died around midnight Saturday night.

She had been struggling for many years with a number of chronic conditions, all beginning with a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis in her forties. Over time, things became harder and harder, her lungs and heart weaker. She rallied forth, every time. She was strong, invincible I thought. But the cold she caught in a short-term rehabilitation unit was finally too much. An infection developed, and within two days, her kidneys failed. There were no heroic efforts to intubate or dialyze–my mom knew a long time ago that she never wanted those things. She talked to us for as long as she could, until she faded, and never awoke. I will always laugh as I think that she said she was sorry she would miss Downton Abbey this week.

My mom died an ideal death. The one blessing of losing my dad in 1985 was that it gave us plenty of time as a family to discuss death, and not to fear it. My dad had lung cancer, and was sentenced to certain death over three months before he actually died. In that time, we as a family spent our time in an endless cycle of work, dinner, hospital, home. Repeat. Several panics before the end–this is it–he pulled through, only to writhe in pain. I remember even as a twenty year old thinking that the fears of morphine addiction seemed ill-placed, as did the very arrogance that surgery on a dying man is a good idea. As I recall, we were never given a choice of what should happen, and if we were, we were probably still seduced by the notion of medical miracles. The last words I remember hearing from my dad are “It’s all right. It will be over soon.” He must have seen my frightened face, my anguish at the intensity of his suffering. I avoided all doctors and hospitals as much as possible–for years–until my own children were born.

I have spent an enormous amount of time in hospitals since then, in all sorts of situations. I have to say, I am most often impressed by the care and knowledge I see, and my mom had remarkably good care at the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit of St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City.

If the acute care of her final days was beyond excellent, the long-term care options preceding that time were filled with anxiety and frustration. Too little money to afford assisted living or private home care, she pieced things together, accepted mediocre services until they became more cumbersome to allow than to refuse. (The one exception was the man she found to drive her on errands. His name is Diego, and he could not have been kinder.) My mom worried, a lot, and she became sicker.

I was frustrated, because I am supposed to know my way around this. But then again, looking at the fantastic facilities where my mom died, considering the costs of those heroic efforts that many people do try, thinking of the enormous blessing that my mom’s Medicare and supplemental insurance will pay for it all… I imagine we can create long-term care services of similar quality. As we see the shift in the years to come from the sexy world of specialties and surgeries to primary care and prevention, we will feel the difference in our lives, all of our lives. We have to.

Written by Only Anecdotal

4 Feb 2013 at 5:26pm