Tuesday, January 17, 2012

I'm Your Cook, Not Your Doctor

Today on NBC's today show, celebrity chef Paula Deen confirmed she had Type 2 diabetes.  She was diagnosed 3 years ago, but only decided to come out today.  She also mentioned that she is a paid spokesperson for drug company Novo Nordisk, maker of several diabetes drugs. (Click here to view Al Roker's interview).

When the news started breaking earlier this week, I had mixed emotions about Deen as a spokesperson for diabetes. Blogger and health care marketer Richard Meyer at worldofdtcmarketing.com  posted This is a spokesperson for Novo?  Deen is of course known for her southern style of cooking, which typically involves very fattening ingredients. At one her restaurants she famously serves a hamburger with bacon and egg on a donut instead of a bun.
Rich correctly asks, "What message does this send to people ? That it’s OK to eat really bad food because diabetes can be treated with Rx drugs ?"

I commented on his blog that if Dean actually changes her ways, and focuses on healthier cooking, providing healthier recipes to her fans and other diabetics, she might actually make the perfect spokesperson.  Americans have not been paying attention to what we eat and obesity has now become an epidemic, leading to increasing numbers of patients with type 2 diabetes.

After seeing the Today show video, I remain on the fence.  Her interview was not the redemption story I was hoping for.  Give journalistic kudos to Al Roker who pressed Deen on whether she had changed her ways or changed her cooking. She responded essentially stating that she has always eaten (and suggested others eat) in moderation, claiming that her weekly cooking show is only 30 days out of a full year and that no one should eat that kind of food every day. According to Deen, when asked a similar line of questions from Oprah, she responded, "I'm your cook, not your doctor."

Deen did state that she and her sons would work to come up with lighter recipes (available on Novo's web site) and recommended people go to their doctor, get tested and "get on a program."   On the website diabetes in a new light,  Deen does say that she had to give up sweet tea.  In fact, rigid diet and exercise programs do not work all that well in reducing weight or improving diabetes, since patients have a hard time sticking to them, so her mantra "I wasn't about to change my life, but I have made simple changes in my life" may have some merit.

However, I believe there is still a difference between promotion of healthy lifestyle and realistic changes in diet and exercise and "everything in moderation" and "it's OK to have that little piece of pie." Paula doesn't have to become the next Richard Simmons or Jillian Michaels, but I would have liked to seen a little more "mea culpa." 
I am interested to see how this plays out in the media and in public opinion. This is a terrible disease and the prevalence is getting worse.  Ms. Deen has the potential to make a major impact.  I hope she takes her spokesperson role seriously. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Nicotine Patches Do Work!

Here is another example of less than responsible journalism. Both the Wall Street Journal and Fox News report "Quit smoking: A new case for going cold turkey." Even NPR asked Do Nicotine Patches And Gum Help Smokers Quit? Other reports similarly headline with questions regarding the effectiveness of the nicotine patch, which has been a tried and true treatment to help smokers quit. All these reports stem from a study done by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Massachusetts in Boston and published online in the journal Tobacco Control, that found that over a 5-year period, former smokers who used nicotine-replacement products were just as likely to relapse as those who quit on their own.

This is indeed an important study because it shows that relapse rates are high, and nicotine patches may be insufficient to prevent quitters from relapsing.  Indeed, other methods should be sought for recent quitters to prevent them from relapsing. 

The problem with the way the media is reporting the study is that it is confusing quitting and relapse.  Countless studies show that nicotine replacement about doubles the chance that you will successful quit, which is usually defined as not one cigarette for 12 weeks (though better studies use 52 weeks to define quitting).  In this study, all the people studied had recently quit.  
This study was not measuring whether or not the patch helped these folks quit, but whether people who had quit using the patch were any different than people who had quit without the patch in terms of relapse several years down the road.  

People interested in quitting smoking should not be confused by the reports in the media.  Nicotine replacement will help you quit. The evidence for using medication (nicotine, bupropion, varenicline) is so strong that the US Surgeon General's guidelines recommends that all smokers (even those at risk to medication side effects such as heart patients and pregnant women) be offered some form of medication, since it is so effective. 
Again, the study is an important one because it shows we need to look beyond nicotine replacement to prevent long term relapse.  However, the journalists who reported on this study shouldn't have suggested that smokers consider going cold turkey. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Retainer, Concierge and Boutique Medicine are Not the Same Thing

Health care is in crisis. Reimbursements from insurance companies continue to dwindle, while the expenses of running an office continue to rise.  Looming cuts in Medicare are only weeks away, and many physicians may stop taking Medicare.  If these cuts go into affect, it is possible that primary care physicians could lose up to 50% of their salary.  Just recently CNN reported that some doctors are going bankrupt.

How to fix our health care system is an ongoing debate, but not surprisingly, many physicians have decided not to wait for the government to solve this problem and have taken matters into their own hands. One solution is to simply stop taking insurance altogether.  “Cash only” doctors are now commonplace in many major metropolitan areas.  Another solution is charging a regular, out of pocket fee (usually) in addition to what insurance will pay for treatment.  A version of this model that is becoming popular is called retainer medicine.  Sometimes, retainer medicine is referred to a “boutique” or “concierge” even by physicians and others involved in health care (as evidenced by this article in the AMA News, which prompted me to post on this topic).

However, “retainer”, “concierge” and “boutique” are not the same thing. Names are important, and the terms “concierge” and “boutique” tend to have negative connotations. Thus, it is important to describe the differences.

In a retainer model, patients pay a fee (not covered by insurance) to be part of a physician’s practice.  This is similar to clients paying a retainer fee to hire a specific lawyer.  With reimbursements from insurance companies being so low, the only way an insurance based physician can increase revenues is to increase the volume of patients they see.  Unfortunately, when physicians increase the number of patients they see, it leads to rushed patient visits, long waits in the waiting room, and decreased access to physicians including difficulty in getting appointments or responses phone call messages.  By accepting a retainer fee, the physician no longer needs to rely on insurance revenue alone, and in fact can decrease the amount of patients he or she sees on a regular basis. This allows for increased access (usually same day or next day appointments and 24/7 phone access) and longer appointment times (usually 30-60 minutes) for patients willing to pay a retainer fee.  The typical insurance based primary care physician has about 2500-3000 patients in their practice, and sees about 25 patients a day.  The typical retainer physician has about 500 patients and sees only a handful of patients each day.  Retainer fees and the amount of access patients get for what they pay vary widely, but the average retainer fee is about $1500 per year. 

Some have argued that retainer medicine is unethical because not everyone can afford $1500 a year.  First, the typical retainer fee amounts to about $4 a day, which is what many Americans pay (or more) for a Starbucks coffee. Secondly, one could also argue that it is also unethical for insurance based physicians to see complex patients in brief visits and/or not being able to see them in a timely fashion due to lack of access. 

Concierge medicine is somewhat different, and in my opinion, should not be used synonymously with retainer medicine. 

According to Wikipedia;
“A concierge is an employee who either works in shifts within, or lives on the premises of an apartment building or a hotel and serves guests with duties similar to those of a butler. The term "concierge" evolved from the French Comte Des Cierges, The Keeper of the Candles, who tended to visiting nobles in castles of the medieval era.”

Just like the concierge at a hotel, who can get you good seats at a ticketed event, a reservation at a popular restaurant, or even run an errand; a concierge physician can get you timely appointments with the best specialists, usually doing the scheduling themselves.  Many concierge physicians will even accompany patients to procedures or diagnostics tests, and some will even make house calls. Though some retainer practice physicians may perform concierge services (usually the ones charging well over the usual $1500 fee), the terms are not the same.  Many retainer physicians will assist in coordinating specialist appointments, but this is as far as they go. In fact, some “cash only” physicians perform concierge services to attract more patients, and some doctors (even insurances based physicians) will charge an extra-fee for some concierge services, such as a house call.

Boutique medicine is also completely different. Again, from Wikipedia:

“A boutique is a small shopping outlet, especially one that specializes in elite and fashionable items such as clothing and jewelry. It can also refer to a specialised firm such as a boutique investment bank or boutique law firm. In the strictest sense of the word, boutiques would be one-of-a-kind but more generally speaking, some chains can be referred to as boutiques if they specialize in particularly stylish offerings.”

I think the key words in this definition are “specilalized” “stylish” and “elite.” The first word is something commonplace in medicine, but the later two words are something usually not associated with medical practice. “Luxury” is also implied in the word “botique.”  Thus, in my opinion, a boutique doctor is one that specializes in unique, often luxurious services, that are not offered by others and which will therefore cost a little extra.  These services include, but are not limited to, cosmetic procedures (botox, laser hair removal), medical spa services, comprehensive screenings (i.e. body scans), and herbs or supplements.  Though both retainer and concierge physicians may provide boutique services, this is generally not the norm.  In fact, many insurance based primary care physicians have started to add these services as a way of keeping their practice running. (Ethics could be questioned here as well).

I am not arguing that retainer medicine is the solution for all of our nation’s health care woes. It certainly is not.  However, given that it solves some of the issues with 3rd party payors, is a model that continues to grow, and patients and providers enrolled seem to be very satisfied; it is something that deserves attention.  Another model that is garnering some attention is direct access primary care.  In this model, patients pay a monthly fee (usually about $70/month) and receive enhanced access and communication as well as primary care and urgent care services. Though the cost is slightly less ($1500/yr vs. $840/yr) and access to your personal may not be 24/7, this is a similar model to the retainer concept. (Proponents have called this retainer medicine for the masses).

Thus, using terms “concierge” and “boutique” that have connotations of elitism, luxury and unnecessary care synonymously with retainer medicine discredits a potentially viable health care model for many Americans.  I would request that physicians, policy makers and journalists no longer use these terms as if they were the same.