The Reinvented Wheel, Now Square

Twenty years ago, I changed the name and focus of the “annual physical” I offered my patients. I designed a new form on my laptop with Geoworks, my favorite DOS-based (pre-Windows) desktop publishing program, and rolled out my “Annual Health Review”.

I explained to patients that many of the things we used to do in routine physicals every year had proven to be of little value, but there were more and more screening and preventive services we simply needed to talk about. It was also a time to do a thorough review of systems, and to update the family history.

When patients started talking about sore knees, allergies or frequent urination, I would try to gently steer the conversation by saying something like “those are things we can look into some time, but today I’d like to focus on the big health issues that could kill you”.

This approach was generally well accepted, and my homemade form made documentation quick and efficient. As the years went by, and as guidelines changed, some things disappeared from my routine. For example, screening or baseline EKGs were proven to be of little value, and I also stopped doing visual screenings on adults, because I wanted them to go to an eye doctor to get their intraocular pressure checked. My own Schiotz tonometer had become a veritable museum piece as it is so much more awkward for patients than modern tonometers.

I never did have a set of routine blood tests for a routine physical. Even when PSA testing for prostate cancer screening was de rigueur, I reasoned “this is America, and nobody has to do anything; who am I to boss people around by requiring that they have certain tests?” Ordering blood test was something I always did with the patient’s informed consent. Even with cholesterol, I always had plenty of patients who felt they had a healthy lifestyle and simply didn’t want to know what their cholesterol was.

I talked with patients about diet, alcohol, seat belts and all kinds of lifestyle issues. But I didn’t screen for things we essentially cannot treat, like early dementia. In our annual conversations, I usually got a good sense of who was high-tech in terms of wanting “everything done” in case of a cardiorespiratory arrest, but I admit I wasn’t quite systematic in collecting Advance Directives.

Of course, my Annual Health Review was not covered by Medicare, since it was perhaps technically a physical. But Medicare did pay for long visits where three or four chronic health conditions, even stable ones, were reviewed, so sometimes it was possible to add the Annual at no charge to a chronic care visit.

The other doctors in my practice used the same form, but I know each one carried a slightly different conversation with their patients. This visit was in the hands of my colleagues a reflection of each one’s style and of their patients’ preference. Dr. A ordered a few more blood tests, Dr. B recommended vitamins and supplements, and Dr. C promoted exercise with more passion than I did, and so on. These differences caused patients to gravitate to the one doctor among us that resonated most with their own ideas. This was personalized health care before patient-centeredness became formalized and formulaic.

All of us were pretty comfortable with our combined physical and health review visits.

Fast forward twenty years.

Today, under the new world order, doctors are mandated to perform Annual Wellness Visits on their Medicare patients, but not according to their own best efforts or their patients stated preference – one item missed or omitted out of deference to conflicting guidelines or common sense, like the kindergarten-style visual exam for new Medicare beneficiaries in their first six months of coverage, and no payment is collected. And similarly, check a few basic things like lung or heart sounds, the presence of leg edema or skin cancer, and the free insurance benefit is forfeited.

What was a naturally evolved focused physical combined with an individualized health risk assessment has been replaced by a tightly scripted no-touch session that leaves many doctors and most patients confused and bemused.

This new “Annual” feels like an administratively reinvented wheel, downright square and not rolling very well at all, at least on the roads where I travel.

1 Response to “The Reinvented Wheel, Now Square”

  1. 1 meyati November 3, 2015 at 7:59 am

    You got it right. Since I joined Medicare, I had to beg for two fecal occults. Nobody wants to touch me, but I bathe every day and brush my teeth, clean underware and clothes too. The lab gives a cumbersome kit, and they say flush the paper down the toilet. It did plug up the toilet. I was diagnosed with IBS in 1965. Other doctors did an annual fecal occult because of my stomach.
    When I joined the HMO- they gave me a health history form. I complained, because it had obesity, heart problems, and diabetes. All of those are strange words in my family, most who lived into their late 90s or longer. They didn’t ask about cancer at all.
    The doctors are enlisted to fight dictated wars–War on cholestrol, War on Breast cancer, War on diabetes, War on obesity. The problem is that I’m not the enemy, and I wish the medical system run by nitwits, would quit treating me as though I were the enemy.

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