The strain of the COVID-19 pandemic on society and healthcare systems turned fine fault lines into gaping canyons. Reflecting on my writings about U.S. hospitals 5 years ago, I asked myself what had changed and what still must change to rebuild a healthcare system that can deliver medical care wherever and whenever it’s needed. What problems were prevalent in the healthcare system before the pandemic, and how did the pandemic highlight these deficiencies? In my day-to-day work as a doctor, what diverts my time and energy away from the most important and fulfilling aspect of doctoring – patient care?
Direct and effective communication with patients is the most important aspect of healthcare, in my view. A doctor working in the community who is licensed and certified has demonstrated a body of knowledge and skills to provide medical care within a certain scope of practice. Someone with a health concern is arguably not seeking the smartest doctor they can find; they want a doctor with whom they can communicate their concerns, understand their health issue, and make a mutually acceptable treatment plan. In daily practice, I feel that 95% of my time and energy are consumed by tasks that do not relate directly to patient care. Even more unfortunate is the fact that these 95% of tasks are the ones by which doctors are evaluated and compensated: clicking through electronic health records (EHR), wrestling with flawed communication systems (such as hospital phones, pagers, texting, and email) to receive and share information with other members of the healthcare team, answering “queries” from hospital administration for the purpose of billing patients and insurance companies, and wasting life-years trying to wrangle health information systems as mandated by hospital administrators and insurance companies.
1. The world wide web
The pandemic pushed the role of “telemedicine” (healthcare rendered by phone or digitally) into the foreground as a way to deliver healthcare efficiently while reducing the spread of the coronavirus. Regrettably the first and biggest problem with healthcare is internet connectivity and how EHR software sends and receives information between a doctor’s phone/computer and the hospital server. Even in the year 2020, reliable, high-speed internet is a scarce resource in the United States. Most Americans have no choice of internet service provider, if they are lucky to even have access to one. In a time where human resources are stretched thin and inefficiently used, trying to reach a human in the event of a service interruption can easily waste hours if not days waiting on hold or confined to chatbot purgatory. Many doctors now work remotely to a large extent, if not entirely. Reliable, fast internet is prerequisite to being able to deliver good healthcare. This is especially true because of the nature of EHRs, which use “Virtual Machines” and “Remote Desktops” that require a reliable, low-latency, high-speed internet connection. A client that runs at a snail’s speed and frequently disconnects, requiring 10 minutes to repeat the authentication process before dropping the connection again, is severely detrimental to patient care.
2. Electronic Health Records
EHRs are essentially spreadsheets in fancy packaging. They’re not smart in the sense that a phone is smart; they don’t learn, predict, or automate tasks. In fact software that is slow, requires a lot of clicking and non-intuitive behavior, and which wastes a lot of time with authentication and logging in, is not much better than typing text into the simplest text editor and saving it in a rudimentary database. That is the core of a hospital or clinic’s information system: text and media files saved chronologically and accessible to the right people at the right time. I prefer to type or dictate notes freestyle rather than use templates because it’s faster for me, gives me more control over the document, and helps me communicate my assessment and treatment plan more effectively than relying on a template created by someonen else who may conceptualize a diagnostic process and treatment plan much differently than their peers. An ideal EHR to me would simply be typed into a Unix terminal (for a reader unfamiliar with Unix, imagine a black screen with a flashing white cursor) and piped into a hospital server, which would then use the text to help doctors appreciate the clinical Gestalt or “big picture”: what could harm or kill the patient in the next few hours? And beyond the first 12-24 hours, how to safely discharge the patient? As an EHR user, I don’t want a fancy front-end trickling through a lagging virtual machine; I want a simple, low-latency, text-focused interface and a smart backend, in other words, very simple software that looks dumb but is actually smart.
On top of the pressure of having to synthesize a huge amount of dynamic information to make fast and sound decisions about patient care, doctors are inundated and constantly interrupted by communications from other members of the care team. Doctors work closely with nurses, aids, phlebotomists, lab and radiology technicians, doctors from different specialties, clerks, social workers, insurance companies, and hospital administrators. There is a lot of information constantly moving back and forth in real-time between all parties. This flow of information is often like a waterfall rather than a water faucet – the communications are not prioritized and frequently fail to reach the right person at the right time. There are times when a doctor’s attention should be focused entirely on the task at hand, for example when assessing or speaking with a patient at bedside. This is no time to be interrupted with billing queries or non-urgent questions about other patients’ care. A constant stream of unprioritized and unfocused information can make it extremely difficult to focus on the critical 1% of information which can hurt patients if this information is not processed correctly at the right time. In order to hold people accountable for their decisions, they need to be given a fair chance, with tools that work without draining life out of the users. A page or phone call that may or may not find the intended recipient, and a note left in the EHR saying, “tried to call you but you didn’t answer your phone,” is subjective and not constructive without a way for all parties to track communications from their origin to their destination.
In addition to the right tools, there is a need for sound systems. A doctor’s extensive education and training culminates in a highly specialized set of skills and knowledge. Doctors should take pride and joy in their work; they endured long, grueling training out of a desire to help humanity. Out of training, doctors traditionally became their own bosses, working in community hospitals or private clinics, practicing medicine the way they were taught in a style that becomes their own. Nowadays doctors are managed by administrators who are not doctors. There is a reason why healthcare systems look and function the way they do, an evolutionary end-product of decades of legislative, financial, operational, and societal forces exerting themselves on doctors and hospitals. Back in the day, doctors saw their own patients in their own clinic and treated their patients when they were hospitalized too. This is exceptional nowadays. There was no, “I’m your doctor for today,” or “I’m your doctor this shift, until 8pm.” The reality is that this mode of doctoring has become rare. Having experienced the modern-day flavor of corporate medicine in urban areas and the more traditional model in rural areas, I appreciate the pros and cons of both models. “I’m your doctor, period” can be spoken by a doctor lucky enough to escape corporate medicine, but also a doctor prepared to withstand the stress of not having any personal or protected time away from work. Too many talented doctors nowadays burn out after short-lived clinical careers, depriving patients of the care of great doctors who fell victim to the 95% non-clinical burden on top of the already stressful 5% clinical work.
4. More communication
There is a clear line between “outpatient” and “inpatient” medicine in most doctors’ minds, that is, healthcare delivered in a clinic, where a patient goes to an appointment and returns home, compared to a hospital, where a patient stays overnight. Patients don’t think in terms of “inpatient” and “outpatient.” A patient who wakes in the middle of the night with a fever and shortness of breath, or a patient with a growing breast lump, have concerns that needs to be addressed immediately by someone who actually cares. It sounds obvious, but I could not copy and paste this phrase too many times: by someone who actually cares. Not a voice menu, not a chatbot, not “Due to unusually high call volumes…,” and not a tired, under-paid clerk who is poorly equipped to do their job. A doctor has the knowledge to assess whether a problem is urgent or not urgent, concerning or likely harmless. It’s not fair or realistic to expect patients, lacking specialized knowledge, exposed to the vast informational waste littering cyberspace, biased by personal experience and anxiety about a health condition, to make those calls.
“Due to unusually high call volumes…” has become this year’s mantra. Nearly every call I attempt to place to an insurance company, hospital, or clinic is met with this phrase and indefinite wait times, now nine months since the start of the pandemic. Most negative feedback about doctors and hospitals relates to what goes on beyond the few minutes a doctor spends interacting directly with the patient: a medical assistant having a bad day, a disorganized clinic, the insurance labyrinth, bills…human concerns not being reciprocated by a human in a place to care and do something about it. Most of the time and energy spent by patients trying to get help for a health concern is burned in the friction of waiting on hold and clicking through websites to try and make appointments or navigate insurance and billing departments. Putting this burden on healthy people is absurd. This is a lot of life wasted by a lot of people. There needs to be a much less painful way to pick up the phone and route a health concern to someone with the expertise to address the concern. Putting this burden on someone who is sick and possibly dying is criminal.
5. Paying for healthcare
Healthcare is too expensive to fund primarily through private insurance. This is the clearest take-home point of the pandemic to me as a doctor and as a patient. I recently “downgraded” my health insurance because it is by far my biggest monthly expense after my mortgage. For the past year, I purchased expensive health insurance and hardly used it. Miss a payment, and insurance companies will not hesitate to end coverage as soon as the clock strikes twelve, as swiftly and thoughtlessly as a robot. I am fortunate enough to have a job. Many people do not and were already barely just getting by before the pandemic. We no longer have the luxury of deciding whether or not a single payer system is good for America. We are well past that point. Healthcare, especially now, can only be funded by a payer pool on a national level. In my view, healthcare is a human right. This is not a political issue to me. This is a human issue. Everyone should have access to at least a basic level of healthcare: when you have a health concern, you should be able to see a healthcare professional as quickly enough as the issue warrants, without breaking the bank, without bankrupting society.
I had the opportunity to work in German hospitals during my medical school international rotations. There is no such thing as uninsured in Germany, and many other countries with nationalized healthcare. Everyone can get urgent and non-urgent healthcare without going bankrupt. In my view, universal healthcare (and access to universally affordable education) is the foundation of a sound, healthy society. How much money one has in the bank should not delay access to healthcare. Those with the means to purchase private health insurance are free to do so, along with the benefits this might entail. The reality is that healthcare is expensive. Diagnostics and therapeutics – CT scans, MRIs, lab tests, prescription drugs – cost money to develop and deliver. We are all humans, and illness is inseparable from the human experience. Everyone will have contact with the healthcare system at some point in their life, and most Americans are born and die in hospitals. The sooner we accept this reality and have empathy for the suffering of others, the sooner we can make better decisions for how our healthcare system will look and function in the recovery period following the pandemic.
Omar Metwally, MD // 16 December 2020