Care Coordination in Cancer – Are We There Yet?

Care coordination [1] in medicine is a gold standard goal – it’s a core part of quality improvement efforts across the healthcare system. But, in the words of every kid in the back seat of a car on a family road trip, “are we there yet?” The answer is, “no, but we’re getting closer.”

The US Dept. of Health and Human Services Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services – a mouthful reduced to the acronym “CMS”, thankfully – initiated an Oncology Care Model [2] in 2015, which impacts Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, as well as people covered by private insurance payers participating in the program. There’s an interactive map of participating oncology practices here [3].

What this means on the front lines of cancer treatment – in oncology clinics – is that there is a core set of measures for care coordination [4] that any oncology group can follow, like a road map. Looking at the actual map, linked in the previous paragraph, of where the cancer care coordination model is in use reminds me of cyberpunk sci-fi author William Gibson’s evergreen quote [5], “the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

One of the reasons that coordination of care is hard in the American healthcare system is that we don’t really have a national healthcare system [6], we have a patchwork of 50 state systems for private-payer and Medicaid coverage, with a national system for those on Medicare. Coordination of care in the United States requires being able to take information from a variety of sources, some of which are in competition with each other over revenue they gain from having that information. CMS, as a national care system, has some policy and market power to dictate [7] “you guys will cooperate, or we’ll take action to make you cooperate,” but given political realities, that power is sometimes blunted by industry influence.

“Are we there yet?” “No, but we’re getting closer.”

What this means, on the ground and in the real world of cancer treatment, is that there’s an opportunity for patients to improve the coordination of their own care, and communities to push for better care in cancer treatment clinics, using this same road map of care coordination measures.

If you, or someone in your family, is dealing with a cancer diagnosis, here are my recommendations for turning the Oncology Care Model into your own care coordination road map:

  • If an oncology practice in your community is participating in the CMS Oncology Care Model program, consider them as a first-choice option, and find out if that practice is in-network on your health insurance plan
  • Ask the oncology practice treating you if they provide 24/7 access to clinical staff who can see your medical record, and who can answer questions about your treatment, including side effects and other issues that can arise during cancer treatment
  • Ask if the practice treating you has patient navigators who can help coordinate care within and outside the oncology clinic – with your primary care team, other clinical teams for any other chronic or acute health conditions you may have
  • Ask if the practice treating you has financial counselors who can help you with figuring out costs for your treatment, what costs are covered by your insurance, and how to get help with out of pocket expenses related to deductibles and co-pays
  • Ask your oncologist how your treatment protocol is supported by nationally recognized clinical guidelines for treatment of your type of cancer

It’s only when patients and clinical care teams work together that treatment outcomes improve, and quality improvement efforts across the care delivery system also improve. Care coordination – are we there yet? Now, but we’re getting closer … if we all work on this together.


Resource Links:

[1] Care coordination

[2] Oncology Care Model

[3] Where Innovation is Happening

[4] Oncology Care Model Overview

[5] William Gibson’s evergreen quote

[6] An International Perspective On The Paradoxes Of US Health Care

[7] Information Blocking

Bias in Medicine – An Untreated Epidemic

Bias – noun – prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.

Humans are, by nature, biased in favor of their own group – village, country, race, social status – over “others” from outside that group. This tendency toward bias against those different from us is rooted in how humans process the information they get from their surroundings – “is that friend or foe?” is a pretty basic processing form. If someone looks, talks, or smells “different,” the most basic parts of the human brain can start firing warnings about stranger danger. That’s called a cognitive filter, or cognitive distortion [1].

How does this impact medicine? Since medicine is a human endeavor, everyone involved is bringing their own implicit biases [2] into the room with them. It’s human to feel a little uncomfortable with someone who looks, or acts differently than you. However, in a medical setting, what happens when a clinician “others” a patient? Or when a patient does the same thing to a clinician? My educated guess is that this drives down positive health outcomes, creating burnout in clinical staff and hampering recovery in patients.

I’m not the only one asking questions about bias in medicine. My fellow funny person (I am, after all, the “comedy health analyst [3]”) John Oliver devoted most of a recent episode of his HBO series “Last Week Tonight” to the topic [4], which I’d say is required viewing for anyone interested in this segment of health policy. In the piece, Oliver and his crew stack up some serious evidence of racial and gender bias in medicine, particularly in the cases of women having heart attacks [5], and women of color giving birth [6].

How should we – all of us, patients and the clinicians who prove our medical care – address this issue? A good first step would be to recognize that we’re all a bit racist [7] (link is to a Psychology Today article with that very title), which would at least put us in a frame of mind to question our assumptions about the person in front of us in the clinic, or the exam room, or the hospital bed – whichever side of the stethoscope we’re on.

If you’re willing to take that first step, your next step could include taking any of the Teaching Tolerance Project Implicit [8] self-tests on bias with regard to gender or race.

“I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it” is a quote often attributed to Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan [9] – a perceptive twist on the “seeing is believing” aphorism, one that asks us to challenge our assumptions about the people we encounter in our daily lives, in medicine and beyond.

Self-awareness leads to a better understanding of others. Better understanding of others leads to less distrust, and more cooperation between individual humans, and among the groups we gather in. Which just might improve human health overall. Let’s test that theory, shall we?


Resource Links

[1] cognitive filter, or cognitive distortion

[2] implicit biases

[3] comedy health analyst

[4] devoted most of a recent episode of his HBO series “Last Week Tonight” to the topic

[5] women having heart attacks

[6] women of color giving birth

[7] we’re all a bit racist

[8] Teaching Tolerance Project Implicit

[9] Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan

“Fake News” Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

In a recent post, I talked about the trust that’s required for effective peer health discussions. That trust issue is even more critical when it comes to the science of medicine, and its inclusion in those peer health discussions – as in, is what’s being shared in peer health groups scientifically sound, or snake oil?

One of the downsides of giving everyone a voice – one of the foundational goals of the web, according to Tim Berners-Lee, its creator, “its true potential would only be unleashed if anyone, anywhere could use it without paying a fee or having to ask for permission”- is that everyone has an opinion and a place to express it, but opinions are not facts.

Which brings me to today’s web, where anyone with a smartphone can share an opinion, call it a fact, and gather a community around that opinion-in-fact-clothing. There is dangerous “fake news” mushrooming across the globe, thanks to the web, with the most egregious versions of it driving bad decisions about human health. One example of that is what’s called the anti-vaxx movement, where a debunked article by a disgraced scientist named Andrew Wakefield has continued to drive a mistaken belief that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine given to children under two years old causes autism. (Spoiler: it does not.)

That’s only one example. There are a host of others, including bogus cancer cures that proliferate on Facebook and YouTube, and recommendations that drinking bleach can cure autism. So what’s a patient community member to do? And where’s the clinician community on this issue?

In a powerful op-ed in the New York Times in December of last year, “Dr. Google Is a Liar,”cardiologist Dr. Haider Warraich said that Silicon Valley needs to own their part of this problem, that journalists need to do a better job of covering health and science news, and that the scientific community itself needs to be more transparent and easy to understand when they talk about new discoveries.

It turns out that the cardiology team is playing hard on the side of truth here, publishing an editorial in February 2019 in more than two dozen cardiology-related scientific journals around the world, saying that the medical community needs to help the public vet the message they’re getting from whatever sources they use for health information. The American Heart Association even has a short and snappy video – it qualifies as a thirty second ad that could run on television – “5 tips for finding trustworthy health information online” that recommends: Top of FormBottom of Form

  1. Look for government sites, medical professional societies, and reputable medical schools as information sources
  2. Look for sites that stay current, that refer to updated information and current science
  3. Make sure the information on the site is reviewed by a medical professional
  4. Beware of sites that promote “miracle cures” (and that run ads for those “miracles”)
  5. Verify what you read with your clinical care team

The clinician community has joined the fight against fake news in medical science. The patient community needs to make the same commitment to fighting junk science in our circles. What should be on our list of recommendations for avoiding falling for “fake news”? And should we develop a code of ethics for patient community leaders that covers the information we share online?

I welcome all suggestions, and I’ll include them in a future post. Just hit me up on Twitter, using the hashtag #PtLeaderEthics, or via email. Let’s fight fake science news together, shall we?

Access To Healthcare As A Human Right

One of the keys to health literacy is understanding your role, as a patient, in the care delivery process chain: learning what you need to know to ask questions that can help clarify decisions with your clinical team; how to assess the information you’re given to understand what you need to do, or to consider, as next steps in your treatment journey; who to consult for expert input and guidance to fact-check, and gut-check, the information you’re processing and the decisions you’re making.

It’s a lot, particularly when you’re dealing with the impact of what I (and Firesign Theater) like to call “a really big disease.” It’s even more – way beyond “a lot” – if you have to also fight for the right to access treatment for your diagnosis.

This may seem like a problem that belongs to someone in a developing country, not one that happens in the USA, but that’s not the case, far too often. In America, a person given a diagnosis of cancer, or of Parkinson’s disease, or any other “really big” condition, not only has to navigate learning all about that condition, but also has to figure out how to pay for the treatment for it.

In a recent survey from West Health and Gallup, some alarming stats surfaced about Americans and access to medical care:

  • 45% of people surveyed feared bankruptcy if they had a major health event (“really big disease” or accident)
  • 77% feared that rising costs will significantly damage the U.S. economy
  • More than 3 million people borrowed more than $10,000 to cover medical expenses in the past year

Which brings me to my main point here – access to medical care is, I believe, a basic human right. If the system that’s providing your care has been priced out of your reach, and you wind up bankrupting yourself, and your family, to access care, is that really “care,” or a symptom of a broken system?

Sure, the doctors and nurses, as well as the hospitals and clinics where they work, deserve to be compensated for their work. I’m not suggesting that medical care be free. What I am suggesting is that, in the US at least, the goal of the “system” has been to protect the status quo – the revenue stream, which at last official count (2017, from the US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) was $3.5 trillion, of which about $1 trillion is estimated to be waste. Does that sound like a healthcare system, or a RICO scheme? Asking for millions of friends.

Until we, as a nation, confront this issue of access to medical care, and the inequity of access caused by the “chaos behind a veil of secrecy” that marks the pricing of that access, we’ll be stuck in the loop we’ve been in since the end of WWII, when Harry Truman tried to initiate a national healthcare program and got beaten up on the White House lawn by Congress, and the American Medical Association.

America is founded on the idea that every person has a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It’s hard to have life, or liberty, or happiness without access to healthcare. Let’s live up to our founding principles, and guarantee healthcare access to all. Anything less, and we’re betraying the American promise.

Peer to Peer Health Networks, Trust … and Facebook

Unless you’ve been visiting another planet lately, you’ve probably seen a headline or two (or maybe fifty) about the rising sense that the social network called Facebook might not be trustworthy when it comes to data privacy for the network’s users. Not that the barrage of headlines over the last year have been the first time the company has had to go into crisis communications mode over data privacy issues – there was a dustup over user privacy that led to a US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) consent decree in 2011, which Facebook has apparently ignored in the ensuing eight years – but the current contretemps over betraying user privacy makes the 2011 headlines look like a radar blip.

The impact on Facebook patient communities, who have made extensive use of the Facebook Groups product to gather together to provide support and resources for people dealing with conditions from ALS to rare disease to hereditary cancer risk, is only just starting to break through the noise over the Cambridge Analytica story, which was how the privacy leaks on the platform were first discovered. The ongoing saga of “did the Russians hack the 2016 election,” with Facebook’s likely, if (maybe) unwitting, part in that, adds to the thundering chorus of “what the heck, Zuckerberg” that’s echoing across the globe.

Peer to peer health advice has become part of any person-who-finds-themselves-a-patient’s self-advocacy routine – just ask internet geologist Susannah Fox, who has made a successful career out of observing what people do with the information access bonanza known as “The Internet.” Facebook has become the go-to platform where people gather to discuss their health issues, usually in Closed or Secret Groups, where all kinds of deeply personal and intimate details of their lives, and health conditions, get shared. Discovering that those personal, intimate details had basically been released into the wilds of the web, willy-nilly, with no way to track where that data wound up, has rocked communities around the world who relied on Facebook to provide the connections they’ve come to depend on to manage their health conditions.

In the slow-motion train wreck that the reveal of this data leakage/breach has been, cybersecurity researchers Andrea Downing and Fred Trotter get a lot of credit for digging into the Facebook API to figure out how a Closed Group could become a data-slurping bonanza for any jackass on the internet. Trotter and health-tech legal eagle David Harlow filed a complaint with the FTC, co-signed by Downing and bioinformatics guru Matt Might, spelling out exactly how Facebook had played fast and loose with their Terms of Service for the product, and also allowing their Developer platform to become a data-miner’s paradise with a “there are no rules, really” accountability framework when it came to data snagging.

Since discovering the security vulnerability in 2018, reporting it to Facebook, getting what amounted to a “so what?” response from the platform, and then trying to figure out how to keep community members’ data safe, Andrea Downing, along with Fred Trotter, David Harlow and, full disclosure, yours truly, along with a host of other patient activists, have formed a collective to figure out how to create a community platform for patient communities *off* of Facebook. Stay tuned for updates, that’s going to be a big job, and it’s going to take time and some serious deep thinking and heavy lifting.

In a piece on the Tincture health channel on Medium, “Our Cancer Support Group On Facebook Is Trapped,” Andrea spells out the issue clearly, emphasizing that the promise of connected community that Facebook offered exists nowhere else … yet. And until it does, patient communities are indeed trapped on the network, since that’s still where they get and give the support so deeply needed by people who get a diagnosis, and who want to find out from someone who’s been there, done that, what their own future might hold.

It’s not an easy-to-solve problem, this betrayal of trust that creates a pressing need for the creation of a safe harbor. I’m putting it before you on the Patient Empowerment Network since I know that everyone who reads the pieces posted here has a stake in peer to peer health, and the trust framework that’s required for peer health resources to be effective. If trust is the new network effect, it’s incumbent on those of us who advocate for robust online peer interaction in health, and healthcare, to call for more trustworthy platforms to support our work.

Let’s get on that.

Health Literacy + Clinical Trials = Your Mileage May Vary

I spent Thursday, April 11, 2019 at a National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) workshop titled “Health Literacy in Clinical Trials: Practice and Impact” – this meeting is part of the NASEM’s ongoing Roundtable on Health Literacy. I got an invite due to a tipoff from #BSCM co-founder (and one of my besties) Alicia Staley, who was on the agenda. Since health literacy is one of my foundational interests, and part of my own work in healthcare system transformation, I was happy to trek to Washington DC for the day to see and hear what was shared in the meeting.

Statistics on clinical trial enrollment in the US, for cancer or any other medical condition, are pretty disheartening on the public engagement front. In an article in the journal Contemporary Clinical Trials titled “Clinical trials recruitment planning: A proposed framework from the Clinical Trials Transformation Initiative,” the authors said, “A 2015 analysis of registered trials revealed that 19% were closed or terminated early because they could not accrue enough participants. Trials can also experience significant delays related to recruitment. As much as 86% of clinical trials do not reach recruitment targets within their specified time periods. Data suggest that study timelines have potentially doubled beyond planned enrollment periods due to low recruitment rates. Failures in meeting recruitment goals have important scientific, financial, ethical, and policy implications.”

It seems likely that a good chunk of that lack-of-engagement is due to one or more of these factors:

  • Low health literacy
  • Lack of community trust in medical research (Henrietta Lacks, anyone?)
  • Too many frontline clinicians – primary care MDs, NPs, RNs; community health workers – don’t have time to find trials for their patients in minutes-long clinic visits
  • Little widespread community-based messaging about the value of participating in medical research

On that last bullet, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched the All Of Us research program last year with more public messaging than I’ve seen previously for a health research project, with 200,000 of the one million participant target registered in the program as of March 2019. By the way, I’m one of those 200,000, and you can be, too.

The keynotes, panels, and discussions at the workshop kept circling back to some core points, which seem to be foundational to making clinical research more accessible, and leading to the accelerated discovery that the public, the clinical community, and the research community are all interested in. Here are my key takeaways:

  • It’s the relationship, kids. Like all of healthcare, building relationships is the key to good outcomes, whether it’s one person working on managing their own health or a cancer community seeking clinical trial options.
  • You can’t rush relationship building. This creates tension for researchers, who are often on a one- or two-year long cycle of grant writing to secure funding for a clinical trial. Researchers can start a conversation with communities and clinics who’d be interested in participating, but holding that interest for the year or more long process of securing funding, navigating the IRB process, and launching the trial is a challenge.
  • “Informed consent” needs to be shifted to “educated consent,” with the people working on a decision about enrolling in a trial – the ones called “participants” or “subjects” (not my favorite word) – given all the knowledge-building material they might want or need to make a fully educated choice.

If you’d like a flavor of the conversation that took place in real time during the workshop, there was a vibrant one on Twitter with the hashtag #HealthLitRT (Health Literacy Roundtable). There was consensus, both in the room and in the online discussion, that clinical trials are themselves an outstanding health literacy building opportunity. The key will be to help the patient and research communities work together on creating the literacy tools, and the delivery processes, that will turn clinical research into a virtuous cycle of discovery, and delivery of new treatments.

Let’s get to work.

“The Future Is Here, It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed.”

Too often, healthcare outcomes on the ground level feel like a roll of the dice – there seems to be very little certainty about what’s going to happen, despite clinicians’ efforts to explain treatment options and patients’ attempts to understand what’s happening in the treatment process. The endless drumbeat of “scientific breakthrough” headlines of varying accuracy, or even veracity, adds even more of a casino-odds vibe to the experience of dealing with a challenging diagnosis like cancer or Parkinson’s.

The title of this post is an apocryphal quote attributed to cyberpunk writer William Gibson (his Twitter handle is @GreatDismal, and he’s definitely worth a follow) – it’s an aphorism I find myself using almost daily at this point, particularly when I’m participating in conversations, either in person or digital, about emerging trends in clinical research, clinical trials, and health system innovation. There are strong indications that healthcare, and the science that underpins it, is moving in a direction that will deliver up the “faster cures” that everyone affected by challenging or life-threatening conditions is anxiously awaiting.

Some of the signal I’m picking up comes from the scientific community itself, with organizations like Cochrane working to make science more accessible, and accurately reported, for everyone. Cochrane runs a rigorous systematic review process on clinical research studies and trials reporting, and has built a Consumer Network and a public-facing platform called Cochrane Crowd where anyone can become a citizen scientist (there’s a training program!) and then jump in to help assess and review clinical studies. I wrote an overview of Cochrane last year after attending the 2018 Cochrane Colloquium annual meeting in Edinburgh last September, which you can read here for a full 411 on all things Cochrane.

Another signal source for emerging indications of “future is here” is the increasing number of journal articles talking about making public engagement in research, and in healthcare system redesign and innovation, an actual thing vs. a “nice to have” or a box to check on a list from the marketing department. A recent example on that one is “Public engagement can fight against health inequalities—but only if we do it right” by Imran Khan, Head of Public Engagement at the Wellcome Trust, in The BMJ. Another example is a one day conference I attended recently, put together by the Clinical Trials Transformation Initiative (CTTI) and the US FDA, “Enhancing the Incorporation of Patient Perspectives in Clinical Trials.” I attend a lot of scientific and policy conferences and events, where I usually find myself grinding my teeth at the still-evident paternalism and “we’ve always done it this way” thinking that threads through medical science and health policymaking.

The CTTI/FDA event didn’t get my jaw clenched (much) – there were patients with lived experience and expertise on each panel at the event, with Donna Cryer, a lawyer and liver disease expert/advocate/activist, giving the opening keynote. Life sciences companies like Eli Lilly, Pfizer, and Takeda had representation, too, and all spoke clearly about the need for people/patients to be in on creating clinical trial protocol design that includes data release to study participants, and better research questions developed with patient input. On the revolutionary-thinking “future is here” front, there’s even an emerging idea of establishing clinical trial participant benefit trusts, where people who participate in drug trials are beneficiaries of trust funds established with stock options for drugs that are approved, and go to market. I’ll give you three guesses on who stepped up to the microphone in the Q&A session to talk about that idea [spoiler: yes, it was me].

My point is that the future is here, and it will be as evenly distributed as you, I, and the rest of the community at large – the public! – work to spread it around. The distribution network is us. Join Cochrane Consumer Network, start participating on Cochrane Crowd, spread the word on clinical trials that can benefit your community, and encourage your community to reach out to researchers at local universities and medical centers to offer to help design and launch clinical studies and trials that matter to the community itself. Citizen science isn’t just an idea, it’s jet fuel to get us to the future, faster.

A Warrior’s Perspective on Cancer

First, full disclosure: I’m not a member of the armed forces. I am a member of a multi-generation career military family, though, so my syntax is flavored with warrior-isms, from throw-weight to battle-ready.

I’ll ask you this: are you battle-ready for an engagement with cancer? I can say that I was not fully prepared for my own personal war on cancer, but who is really ready to hear their name and the word “cancer” in a sentence? It’s a subject that anyone who plans to live past 40 should become intimately familiar with, though, because every day you live on the planet increases your cancer risk.

We are indeed lucky to live in an era where medical discoveries are as accelerated as they are in the early 21st century. The core challenge that faces us, though, is how we live with the biological impact of our technological advancement: plastic in our food, chemical effluent from tech manufacturing in our air and water, and many other human-created biological threats.

Humans have internal challenges on the cancer front, too – just ask anyone with a genetically driven cancer risk, like BRCA1 or BRCA2. Until the last half-century or so, it was hard to know if we were staring down the barrel of a genetic howitzer until nature fired a round. Now it’s possible, via genomic testing, to know our risk of cancer and other illnesses long before they manifest … but what can we do with that knowledge on the prevention side, really? Again, we can ask people in the hereditary cancer community about that. Many women, and some men, in the BRCA community have taken proactive steps, such as prophylactic (preventive) bilateral mastectomies and oophorectomies (ovary removal), but how many people can freely make that choice and receive good, effective care?

As someone who self-identifies as a cancer warrior – I don’t care for the term “survivor,” since it suggests victimology to me – I think about this stuff all the time. I thought about it before I heard my name and the word “cancer” in a sentence, but not as hard, or as much, as I have since.

My thinking tends to revolve around how to make genomic testing available to everyone, not just those who can afford it. It runs toward community crowdsourcing of ideas on how to clean up after ourselves in ways that don’t mean resigning ourselves to eating plastic, or to becoming Luddites to avoid the side effects of technology. It embraces the idea that we can put our biology and technology more in sync – to be the Cro-Magnons with smartphones that we really are in the 21st century.

Healthcare works within human biology. Fully understanding human biology requires that we embrace that biome, and drill as far into it as possible to unleash our full human potential. That does not equate with patenting human genes (yes, Myriad Genetics, I’m looking at you) – it does equate with embracing data input from every possible source to learn how to defeat cancer.

This warrior asks you to grab what weapons you have at your disposal, and put them to use in the fight. We’re all in this together – the cure for cancer won’t be one thing, it will be many. It will come from many places. It must be available to all. And it will never end.

One way to get directly involved is to join the Count Me In project at the Broad Institute. As they say on their website, “Patient-partnered research is changing the future of cancer” – there are countless people across the country, and around the world, working to unlock new information about what triggers cancer cell mutation, and how to find its “off” switch.

Suit up, and join the fight. And if you know of projects working to make the war on cancer an artifact of history, share it on a #PatientChat. Let’s win this one.

Finding the Funny When the Diagnosis Isn’t

It’s not easy hearing your name and [insert dread diagnosis here]. I know this only too well after having to find the funny in my own journey through cancer. Cancer is, however, most often a diagnosis that you fight to a defined end. What’s it like to find the funny in a chronic condition like multiple sclerosis, or HIV, or diabetes?

I have a number of friends dealing with the life-long aftermath of an MS diagnosis. One of them tipped me off to Jim Sweeney several years ago. Jim’s MS journey started with vision problems in 1985, he was officially diagnosed in 1990, and has been wrestling with the impact of that diagnosis – finding the funny most of the time – ever since. Jim’s body of work includes decades of live improv, and his one-man show “My MS & Me,” which you can hear on the BBC Radio 1 site. His MS has progressed to the point that he’s now in a wheelchair, and his public presence is mostly limited to Twitter, where his profile says he “can’t complain but sometimes do,” and YouTube.

Some other sterling examples of funny-or-die in managing chronic disease are Mark S. King’s fabulously funny My Fabulous Disease blog. Mark is HIV+, so he shares information, resources, and myth-busting about all things HIV in his posts and videos. He’s brutally honest about pretty much everything, with plenty of humor to soften the impact of what it’s really like to live with what anti-retroviral treatments have made a chronic illness, not the death sentence it too often was in the first two decades after the viral epidemic started in 1980.

Then there’s the “laugh out loud at the absurdity” Six Until Me site from Kerri Marrone Sparling, who writes about her life as a Type 1 diabetic. She covers everything from exceedingly random TSA security agent behavior when confronted with diabetes-related medical devices, to “pregnant while diabetic” to dealing with the emotional impact of living with a busted pancreas, all with a good dose of highly-readable snark.

How much courage does it take to laugh out loud, in public, at an incurable disease? Jim, and Mark, and Kerri certainly have courage – and comedy chops! – at the level required.

On the provider side, there are a number of docs who are breaking up the waiting rooms and wards.

The most visible of these comedic clinicians is Dr. Zubin Damania, a/k/a ZDoggMD  – “Slightly Funnier Than Placebo” was his tagline for years, before he shifted to “The Voice of Health 3.0.” ZDogg is a hospital medicine specialist who’s built an empire of snark over the last decade plus, some G-rated and some most definitely NSFW. His videos alone guarantee hours of laughter, and he’s one of the best users of Facebook Live around.

I’ve even found a scholarly article entitled The Use of Humor to Promote Patient Centered Care – be warned, though, that (1) it’s a “scholarly article,” meaning that it’s had all the laughs surgically removed and (2) they want $42.50 for it. You have been warned.

What’s my point here? I actually have two:

1. Laughter really is the best medicine.

Humor keeps us in touch with our humanity, and – unless it’s insult comedy, which I do not recommend in the health care arena, unless it’s insulting bad health care – it helps to comfort others in the same situation.

2. Patients and providers need to work together to help each other find the funny.

If you’re a doctor, don’t just say “you’ve got [insert dread diagnosis here], here’s the treatment plan, call if you have any questions, … NEXT!” Look your patients in the eye, and channel your inner comedian whenever it’s appropriate. If you’re a patient, connect with other people in your situation and see how they’re finding the funny. And help your doctors find their funny. If they can’t find it, you should find another doctor.

We all need to work together to break each other up. Laughter can comfort, can calm, it can even heal.

That’s real disruptive health care, no prescription required.

All I Want For Christmas Is Customer Service at My Doctor’s Office

I have this crazy dream. It’s about how, when I make an appointment to see my doctor – my primary care physician, my radiologist, my orthopedist, my whatever-ologist – the process is easy, honors my time as much as it does my doctor’s, and winds up running smoothly for both sides of the transaction.

The dream starts this way: I realize it’s time for an initial or follow-up visit to any of my doctors. I open up my browser, point it to my doctor’s website, and log in to the secure patient portal. The one where I can see all my prescriptions, my personal health record, make an appointment (using the handy calendar function), request a prescription refill, ask the nurse or doctor a question via email, or download a PDF of my health record.

In my dream, using the handy scheduling function in the portal, I select a date and time for my appointment. The portal auto-populates that date and time with my name and insurance/contact info, since I logged in and it knows who I am. The system asks me if any information has changed. I click “no”. If I click “yes,” the next screen asks me to make the changes, and “submit”.

I select the reason for my visit from the list of appointment types. I enter any information I need to related to this appointment request (i.e. “Doc, I have this pain…”). Then I click “submit” and the system sends me a confirmation email or text (I picked which one I prefer when I set up my profile on the portal). It also schedules me for a blood draw in the week prior to the appointment, sending me a confirmation for a walk-in at the lab.

The scene in my dream shifts to the day of my doctor’s appointment. I’m scheduled to be seen at 11:00am. I get a text at 10:00am – or an email, whichever I selected when setting up my portal profile – saying that the doctor’s running about 30 minutes behind. I can either come in at 11:30am, or select one of the alternate appointment times in the text/email and be re-scheduled.

I select 11:30am, and I arrive a few minutes before that time. Signing in involves scanning a key tag, or a bar code on a mobile app – just like the one you use at your favorite supermarket – which lets everyone in the practice, from the receptionist to the doctor, know that I’m there, and on time.

If the admin staff needs to talk to me for any reason, they’ll see me on their screen (usually because, in the day-before review, they checked the “confirm insurance details” or “update pharmacy info” or “collect co-pay” radio button) and invite me to have a private conversation. By using my first name only. No sign-in sheet (potential HIPAA violation) or yodeling my full name across a crowded waiting room (definite HIPAA violation).

By the way, in my dream the co-pay is collected by the system without having to get me or the staff involved. I’ve given the practice my credit/debit card number, and signed a consent form to allow automatic collection of my payment when I scan in for my appointment at the office.

I take a seat in the waiting room…for about 5 minutes. I’m called – first name only – by the nurse, who takes me back to an exam room. I scan in again in the room, and s/he checks my blood pressure, temperature, and heart rate using equipment tied into the practice’s IT network. Since I scanned in, the readings are loaded into my record instantly.

S/he and I chat for a minute or two, and then I’m left alone to disrobe. The doctor arrives minutes later, and proceeds with my exam. S/he enters information on a tablet, but spends most of the time talking to me about how I’m feeling lately, the results from my blood work, what my exercise program is these days, how about those Giants/Redskins/Bears/whoever, and if I’ve had any meds side-effects that I haven’t mentioned.

The doc tells me that my blood work shows everything’s A-OK, all my numbers look good. I’m up a few pounds, time to hit the gym a little harder to stop expanding midriff syndrome in its tracks. (It’s a dream, but it could become a nightmare.)

Face time. Real face time. Only about 10 minutes, yet I feel like I’ve been listened to, and engaged with, by my doctor. I feel like I’m recognized as a human participating in my healthcare, not a meat-puppet on a conveyor belt.

OK, I’m awake now. In a world where all of the technology tools to turn my dream into reality exist…but aren’t being used in any consistent way. Why not? Usually, I hear “they’re too expensive” or, my personal fave, “my staff doesn’t like technology.”

Guys, it’s the 21st century. It’s time for some technology-enabled user interface/user experience – called UI/UX in the design business – across the entire medical industrial complex. All of the technology I’ve dreamed out loud above exists, but it’s not in wide use across all medical providers. And EHR systems still don’t talk to each other, so even if one of my doctors has all of the tech-enabled features I’ve outlined working in their system, the data in their system can’t show up in another of my doctor’s systems … even if they’re part of the same healthcare provider system, on the same EHR.

Time to storm the castle, with people – the ones called “patients” – demanding actual customer service from the healthcare delivery system? I think so. Who’s with me?

The Biggest Question No One Is Asking in Healthcare

There is a really big question in healthcare, one that could shift the entire industry toward more patient-focused care while simultaneously driving down healthcare costs. Very few people even think about this question. In my experience even fewer, if any, of those who do ask it are involved in developing healthcare policy at the federal or state level.

This one question, if deployed, would start to solve the issues facing patients, clinicians, payers, hospitals – everyone involved in getting or receiving medical care.

What’s the question?

“How much is that?”

There are two things in play in the healthcare industry that fly in the face of marketplace sense. First is the lack of price transparency. Imagine going to the grocery store and seeing aisles upon aisles of food … without any prices posted.

“How much is that package of chicken breasts?” “That depends. How are you paying for it?”

My guess is that you wouldn’t shop in that store again. Healthcare is the only consumer-facing industry in the US that doesn’t have price transparency. Worse, if you ask for pricing, you’re often met with blank stares and “I have no idea” or, worse, “we can’t tell you because [insert name of health insurer here] considers that to be proprietary business information.”

Second is how the prices are set. You’ve heard of the medical billing codes – the Holy Codes that outline Medicaid, Medicare, and health insurance reimbursement payments for everything from lab tests to joint replacement. The price values for each of those billing codes is set by an American Medical Association (AMA) committee called the RUC: the Specialty Society Relative Value Scale Update Committee (for my personal take on the RUC, see this piece). The RUC meets behind closed doors, creates the pricing list for every single medical procedure and billing code, and then publishes it. This is not price fixing, since they hand the list to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) for publication, the AMA does not publish the list on its own.

Here’s a critical health policy issue: creating price transparency. One starting point could be requiring providers to know, and share, the cost of the services they provide to the customers they serve: THE PATIENTS. On the employer sponsored insurance (ESI) front, employers are starting to push for this with reference-based pricing in their benefits packages. On the state and federal policy front, there are a rising number of discussions about all-payer claims databases (APCDs) – for a really good explainer on that, I’ll point you toward this piece from July 2018 on the Health Affairs blog, “Transparency In Health Care: Where We Stand And What Policy Makers Can Do Now.” Both of these, either in tandem or singly, might accomplish what all the healthcare blue-ribbon committees and working groups in DC haven’t been able to pull off since the 1960s: downward pressure on healthcare costs.

In 2003, the late Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt published an article in Health Affairs titled, “It’s The Prices, Stupid: Why The United States Is So Different From Other Countries.” Fifteen years later (on March 13, 2018 to be exact), WBUR in Boston published “Why Are U.S. Health Costs The World’s Highest? Study Affirms ‘It’s The Prices, Stupid’” – we haven’t made much progress since 2003.

Think about that as you evaluate your choices in the voting booth on November 6, and hold your representatives at the state and federal level to account after they take office. Whether you love the Affordable Care Act or not, you know that the healthcare system in the US must change, for the health of our families and communities as well as the financial health of our national economy.

And the next time you’re buying healthcare services, ask that really important question: “How much is that?” If you don’t get an answer, consider shopping in another healthcare store.

That could start bending the cost curve.

Reinventing the Clinical Trial: Start at Ground Level

If each of us humans is a snowflake, unique in our genomic makeup, where’s my snowflake medicine? I asked that question from the platform at the ePharma Summit in New York in 2013, and have yet to get an answer. The challenge for the bioscience industry is, I believe, the classic randomized clinical trial. That design goes through four phases:

  • Phase 1: a small group of people are given the drug under study evaluate its safety, determine a safe dosage range, and identify side effects
  • Phase 2: a larger group is given the drug to evaluate its efficacy and safety in a larger population
  • Phase 3: large groups – plural – of people are given the drug to confirm its effectiveness, monitor side effects, compare it to other commonly-used treatments, and collect information that will allow the drug /treatment to be used safely
  • Phase 4: the drug is marketed while study continues to assess long-term effects and efficacy

Of course, before they even get to Phase 1, there have to be both the idea for the new treatment, and animal studies to determine what the substance or compound under study might do to a mouse or a monkey.

Science isn’t easy. The phrase “trial and error” came out of science labs, with many trials running up against the error wall by Phase 2. Since bioscience companies can sink about $1 billion-with-a-B into getting just one drug to market, it seems that the traditional clinical trial has turned into a pathway to NOT making scientific discoveries that can benefit humankind.

Then there’s the whole “who’s in charge here?” question. Clinical trials are now a global effort, with US and European pharma companies testing new treatments in Latin America, Russia, and China to gain traction in those emerging markets while simultaneously developing me-too drugs for their domestic markets. So, who’s in charge, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)? The European Medicines Agency (EMEA)? A player to be named later? The answer to the question seems to be “all of the above,” which adds to the complexity of the clinical trial process.

As digital technology has made data easier to collect and share, it would seem that clinical trials would be a great place to start intersecting with the quantified-self movement. The shift to electronic health records, the widening adoption of all sorts of health tracking devices, and the rise of (relatively) cheap genomic sequencing should signal an ability to identify conditions, and populations, eager to participate in clinical investigations. But so far, it hasn’t.

What might challenge that stasis? In November 2013, three major pharma companies – Novartis, Pfizer, and Eli Lilly – announced via the White House’s website that they had joined together in a clinical open innovation effort. That page on the White House’s site is gone now – changes in Presidential administrations will do that – but here’s a direct quote from that announcement:

“In order to connect patients and researchers, Novartis, Pfizer and Eli Lilly and Company, are partnering in the U.S. to provide a new platform to improve access to information about clinical trials. The platform will enhance clinicaltrials.gov and will provide more detailed and patient-friendly information about the trials, including a machine readable ‘target health profile’ to improve the ability of healthcare software to match individual health profiles to applicable clinical trials. As part of the project, patients can search for trials using their own Blue Button data.”

Five years later, and we’re still stuck on the slow train when it comes to really reinventing the clinical trial.

I’m one of a growing group of people who think that the entire life-sciences process chain needs to be re-tooled for the 21st century. In my view, the best place to start that re-tool is at ground level, with the patients and clinicians who deal with challenging medical conditions daily. If a doctor has a number of patients who might benefit from some clinical study, why isn’t there an easy way to find a researcher looking into that condition? If a patient has an idea for a clinical investigation into his or her illness or condition, why can’t they find a researcher who’s interested in the same condition to team up and start a science project?

I can only hope that the regulatory agencies involved in life science oversight (hello, FDA!) can move beyond the aftermath of Thalidomide – for which epic disaster we’re still paying a price when it comes to the timeline for drug approval in the US – and toward a process of “all deliberate speed” that doesn’t forsake speed for deliberation. Both are necessary, neither should be more heavily weighted than the other.

We all can, and should, take part in scientific exploration into human life, and human health. Got an idea for a clinical trial? Share that idea in the patient communities you hang out in, and ask your tribe to help you bring that trial to life. To quote Arthur Ashe, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

We’ve got to start somewhere, right?

Talking To Your Family About Clinical Trial Decisions

Hearing your name and the word “cancer” in the same sentence is a world-shaking moment. After getting a cancer diagnosis, telling your family about it is another big step, one that can be fraught with as much emotion as hearing that diagnosis yourself.

Once the emotional dust has settled, talking with your family about treatment options, including clinical trials, can raise the emotional temperature again. If your family is like mine, everyone has an opinion, and is more than ready to share it. Even in families where everyone is calm about big issues like this – I question that those families exist, but I’ve heard they might – talking about clinical trials as a treatment option means being ready to field questions, and guide the conversation.

The American Cancer Society has a great set of resources for people who are assessing whether clinical trials are a good option for their treatment. I’ll use some of those as a framework for a discussion guide you can use to walk your family through your decision to explore clinical trials for your cancer:

  • Why do I want to participate in a clinical trial?
    • Your reasons can be anything from “I want to try cutting edge treatments” to “my cancer is advanced stage, and I want to throw everything but the kitchen sink at it.” The key here is to have an answer ready to this question when you discuss treatment options with your family.What are the risks?
  • What are the risks?
    • Here’s another question you’ll want to gather answers for, for yourself, before opening a conversation with your family about enrolling in a trial. Your oncology team can help you put together a risk profile for trials, and further help you target the right trials via molecular profiling of your cancer.
  • Will my insurance cover the trial?
    • Federal law requires that most insurers cover routine costs of cancer trials. However, like so much about US health insurance, the answer can still be “it depends.” There’s a great tip-sheet on the National Cancer Institute’s site that addresses this topic. You, and your family, and your oncology team, will be working together to make sure your costs are covered, either by your insurer or the trial sponsor.
  • What happens if I’m harmed by the trial – what treatment will I be entitled to?
    • Here’s another “it depends” situation. Addressing harm to trial participants is an ongoing ethics issue in the US. The key here is to review all trial enrollment documentation fully – with help from a medical ethicist or legal eagle who’s not involved with the trial, or your oncology team – and have any potential harm scenario fully spelled out, including who will address the remedy for harm, and how that remedy will be delivered.

Having solid family support is a key factor in managing cancer treatment, and in thriving as a cancer survivor. Getting your family involved in your care by talking through your options and decisions with them will give them a sense of involvement in your care, and its outcome. They can help you through the down days when side effects have you feeling punky, and celebrate the bright days with you when scans show progress against your cancer.

Curing cancer is a team sport. You, your family, and your oncologists are all on that team. Work together toward a win, which often includes unlocking the power of precision medicine via clinical trials – which can become a win for other cancer patients, too.

Health Insurance and Cancer: Your Mileage (and Coverage) May Vary

Financial toxicity is the phrase used to describe the impact of the cost of treatment on patients. The NIH describes financial toxicity as “problems a patient has related to the cost of treatment.” No matter what kind of health coverage plan you have, if you get a cancer diagnosis you’ll quickly discover all the things you’ll have to pay for, from co-pays on chemotherapy infusion drugs to the intricacies of “co-insurance,” where an insurer will pay a percentage, usually 70-80%, of the cost, with the patient responsible for the remaining percentage.

Financial toxicity isn’t limited to cancer – ask any person with diabetes who relies on insulin to stay alive about that – but the cost of cancer treatments is high, and rising higher. Cancer patients are put in the position of having to decide whether they’ll get the treatment their oncology team prescribes, or if they’ll put it off until they have the money for it. Patient assistance programs at pharmaceutical companies can offer some help, but there is no guarantee that a patient assistance program for a specific cancer drug will help everyone who can’t afford the drug.

An NPR piece covered this last year, framing the story around a man with advanced lung cancer whose oncologist prescribed a new drug, Alecensa, for his treatment. Alecensa’s annual list-price cost is $159,000, with Medicare patients like the man in the NPR piece paying $3,200 per calendar year. The patient in the story was prescribed the drug in late 2016, but decided to forego filling the prescription until January 2017, to avoid having to pay $6,400 within 60 days for the treatment.

This is part of a pattern of cost shifting across the health payment landscape. Premiums for private insurance rose 170% from 1999 to 2011, far higher than the average increase in wages in the same time frame. Prescription co-pays also rose dramatically with the introduction of tiered drug coverage plans that passed more cost to the patient. For example, from 2000 to 2012, the proportion of individuals with a drug plan that had three tiers increased from 27% to 63%.

Exacerbating the immediate financial anxiety of negotiating for a treatment that could mean the difference between life and death, there’s the impact of medical bills on a patient’s long-term financial health. A Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report in 2014 revealed that almost 20% of credit reports had medical debt reported on them. In 2016, the Commonweath Fund noted that, “As of late 2016, 28 percent of U.S. adults ages 19 to 64 who were insured all year were underinsured — or an estimated 41 million people. […] Half (52%) of underinsured adults reported problems with medical bills or debt and more than two of five (45%) reported not getting needed care because of cost.”

I’ll put a face on this issue by introducing you to a friend of mine, Linnea Olson, who has been successfully beating Stage IV lung cancer for over a decade. Linnea has insurance coverage under COBRA, which is costly, but helps keep her alive by covering the costs of treatment that aren’t covered by the clinical trials she’s been part of over the years. She recently got a notice that her insurance had been terminated – the story on that is here, on her blog – which put her in the “high anxiety” zone, to say the least. That post is a very clear example of how financial toxicity impacts someone with cancer. Her situation lit fires across the cancer patient activist community, launching a campaign to get her coverage back. Four days later, she received word that her coverage had been reinstated. She shared that news publicly on her blog, too.

My point here is that this should not be way Americans are expected to deal with a cancer diagnosis – by facing the fight of their life while their financial lives are laid waste. The costs of treatment shouldn’t be the first thing someone has to think of when facing a life-threatening illness. The patient community is in sync on that. The oncology clinical community agrees that treatment costs, and financial toxicity, are in need of clearer discussion. The American Society of Clinical Oncology published a report in 2017 that included a recommendation that discussion of treatment cost and coverage “would […] facilitate rational discussions of efforts to use more cost-efficient regimens, use less expensive alternatives, or perhaps forego extremely expensive and toxic options that have little chance to provide meaningful benefit.”

I recommend that we keep advocating for more transparency in insurance coverage, and in the in-clinic discussion of the costs and benefits of cancer treatments. It also couldn’t hurt to advocate that our elected representatives craft legislation that makes that transparency a requirement, not an option.

Show Me the Evidence

A habit of basing convictions upon evidence, and of giving to them only that degree or certainty which the evidence warrants, would, if it became general, cure most of the ills from which the world suffers. ~ Bertrand Russell 

If you follow science and medicine headlines – which I do – you’ll find yourself wondering which headlines to believe, and which to discount. Do I believe that cancer has been cured after seeing that headline in a newspaper? No, because the headline usually skips mentioning that the “cure” was “in mice,” and only a couple of mice. But what about a headline that says a new screening protocol can catch a cancer that’s usually not discovered until it’s metastatic?

Prescription? Follow the evidence.

That prescription can be a challenge, since wading through the science behind the headlines isn’t a short and easy process. But you’re up to that challenge, since there’s a handy-dandy “How to Read Scientific Papers” post to help you navigate the science.

However, I’m not going to just say “go forth, and read science!” Here are two resources to help you figure out what’s real, and what’s just a shiny object, when it comes to the evidence behind medical treatments.

  • Cochrane Crowd is a new project from the folks at Cochrane, the global collaborative with the mission to systematically review the scientific studies that medical evidence is based on – Crowd puts you on the systematic review team. They have training modules to get you up to speed on understanding how to assess scientific studies:
    • Treatments can harm
    • Anecdotes are unreliable
    • Expert opinion alone is not enough
    • The role of comparison
    • Comparing like with like
    • The role of blinding
    • Size matters
  • Health Evidence is a database created and maintained by McMaster University in Canada, where anyone can search for evidence reviews, which are rated on a color scale. Wrapped around this database are a “how to use this” video tutorial, ongoing webinars, a comprehensive glossary (pack a lunch!), and workshops on using evidence in public health policy and decision-making.

If you’re new to the evidence based medicine discussion, I’d recommend starting with Cochrane Crowd, since that’s aimed at getting the public involved in evaluating the evidence alongside professional scientists. The presentation of information is laid out in slices, with the initial 7 training modules leading you into a couple of interactive training sessions with clinical trial , where you’ll

Health Evidence is a deeper dive, aimed at a professional audience, but presented in a way that anyone who can read at an 8th grade level can understand, and use.

Evidence is what the work of science is – forming a hypothesis, testing that hypothesis, and then proving or disproving it. Making the leap from “one mouse now has no tumors after we did this experiment on it” to “we’ve cured cancer!” is one that gets turned into clickbait headlines almost daily. But that linguistic leap does not represent actual scientific advancement.

Science is the slow, steady testing and retesting that happens in studies and trials across the globe. Once those studies and trials are complete, and reported in journals, the work continues to review those results against studies that look to replicate the results of the initial experiments. Then come the systematic reviews of all those experiments, and the assessment of whether what they’ve presented is evidence … or more questions that need to be answered. One mouse without tumors does not human medical evidence make.

Science is a process, and it’s always under review. The more of us who get involved, the more evidence will be proven, with less airtime given to unproven false promises. Get involved, because your life just might depend on it.