Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Free Market Strikes Again!

I spend less than $1,000 a year for supplies, so giving them out gratis is no sacrifice. Two or three times a year, I place an order at a pharmaceutical web site. It’s easy, but sometimes I get a jolt.   

I hand out doxycycline, an old antibiotic and the recommended treatment for the most common pneumonia and the most common sexually transmitted disease. In 2012 I paid $50 for a bottle of five hundred. That’s twenty-five treatments which works out to $2.00 apiece. I was running low, so I decided to reorder. Checking the web revealed that five hundred seemed to cost $1,655. That couldn’t be right, so I looked around, but it wasn’t a typo. So I ordered azithromycin, equally effective and about $4.00 per treatment.

This happens regularly. Remember penicillin? You may think it’s obsolete, but it remains a superb antibiotic and a fine treatment for common infections from strep throat to syphilis. Twenty years ago it was as cheap as aspirin. I could buy a thousand for $30. Now the price is about $200 and rising.

Here’s what happens. As a drug gets older and older, it gets cheaper and cheaper. But doctors like newer drugs. Everyone (you included) believes they are immune to advertising, but they’re not, and doctors are no different.

It’s a good rule that any drug in an ad is wildly expensive and not superior. Look at the ad: if it doesn’t say the drug is the best, it isn’t. A few years ago Avelox or Levoquin would cure your pneumonia as well as doxycycline at thirty times the cost. Doxycycline still costs less but not by as much.

As doctors incline toward a new drug, they prescribe the older one less. Pharmacies buy less. Pharmaceutical companies stop making it. Eventually the remaining companies notice the absence of competition, and “wham!!”  The free market strikes again.    

Friday, February 21, 2014

Cheating Medicare

Hearing my fee, the guest announced that he was on Medicare. I explained that I am not a Medicare doctor, so he would have to pay me up front. Unlike most elderly callers, he preferred another source of care, so I gave directions to a local clinic. I know all the urgent care clinics.

Medicare pays much less than the going rate for a housecall or an office visit. I don’t know any hotel doctor who accepts Medicare. Among the ninety percent of office physicians who bill Medicare, many work hard to tack on extra charges for tests and procedures and length-of-visit to compensate for the low reimbursement. This is cheating, but doctors routinely cheat Medicare. After all, they point out, Medicare cheats them.

Most doctors are conservative, so they blame Medicare’s behavior on stupid government bureaucrats. Being liberal, I blame society. The U.S. is a democracy, and most Americans don’t want to pay enough taxes to finance Medicare adequately. No elected representative, Republican or Democrat, would dream of suggesting otherwise.

As a result, a Medicare bureaucrat behaves like any intelligent person forced to pay bills without enough money. He quibbles, quarrels, delays, discovers errors in the invoice, makes partial payments and sometimes no payment at all. This infuriates doctors but allows the Medicare budget to last out the year. Paying bills promptly would exhaust the money early, infuriating the bureaucrat’s boss. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Dog-Eat-Dog Business - Part 4

Danielle, chief concierge of the Ritz-Carlton, called me when her allergies were acting up, but this wasn’t the reason. It was an awkward situation, she explained, but she hoped I’d understand. A guest has complained, I thought. I racked my brain to think who it might be.

If it were up to her, she added, I would be the Ritz-Carlton’s doctor no matter what. Unfortunately, other concierges were putting pressure on her. Another hotel doctor had approached, offering thirty dollars for every referral. She had brushed him off, but her colleagues objected. They reminded her that vendors who want a hotel’s business (limousine services, tours, florists, masseurs) routinely tip the concierges. Why should doctors be exempt?

Here’s a suggestion, she said. Why didn’t I simply match his offer?

I told her that I’m happy to provide free care to hotel staff, but it’s unethical for a doctor to pay for a referral. It’s also illegal. No problem, she assured me. I would still be the Ritz-Carlton’s doctor.

Danielle might continue to call, but I’m less certain about her colleagues.

This exchange reminded me that I hadn’t written the California Medical Board in a few years, so I sent off another letter complaining about other hotel doctors paying referral fees. I’ve sent several. The board is legally obligated to respond to every complaint, and it duly responded, assuring me that it was aware of the problem. It has never taken action, probably because the Medical Board gives priority to protecting patients from doctors. It shows less interest in protecting doctors from each other.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Miracle Drug

I examined the vial a guest handed me. Its label was in Spanish, but technical terms are recognizable in any language, so I had no trouble deciphering its mixture of vitamins and minerals. And cortisone.

That was disturbing. The guest’s wife’s rheumatoid arthritis occasionally flared up, and her doctor in Argentina wanted to make sure this didn’t spoil their vacation.

Discovered in the 1940s, cortisone seemed miraculous. Patients crippled with arthritis saw their pain melt away. Ugly psoriatic plaques disappeared. Hay fever vanished. Eczema victims who had been scratching for years stopped after a few doses of cortisone.

A cure for cancer could not have produced more excitement. The Nobel committee, which prefers to wait decades, rewarded cortisone in 1950 - just as doctors were realizing that symptoms return when the effect wears off, and repeated use produced disastrous side-effects.

Creams are fairly safe, and cortisone taken internally remains a life-saver for many serious diseases but a bad idea for ongoing symptoms (generalized pain, itching, inflammation). Large amounts for a short period are safe provided the problem is also short-lived. I give a huge dose for poison ivy but stop after two weeks. By that time the poison ivy has run its course.

A rare shot is probably OK for arthritis, but this family’s G.P. used it generously, a common tactic because the short-term effect is so good. There are no benign treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, but many are safer than cortisone, so I suggested they seek out a specialist.  

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Something Better Than the Best

She had a fourteen hour flight to Australia, explained a woman with a thick French accent. Unfortunately, she had thrown her back out again. Would I come and give something to relax her muscles for that long journey?

I don’t know any medicine that does that, but if knew what her French doctor used, I might have no objection. I suspected she didn’t know the name, and she didn’t, but she was certain that, in the past, he had prescribed something that did the trick. 

She was already taking the usual pain remedies, so there was no point in a housecall. The woman agreed, but she was clearly disappointed. I know she wondered if I was truly on the ball.

It’s a popular medical belief (remember reader: all popular medical beliefs are wrong) that if you are sick, the doctor will do his best. But if you absolutely must feel well – you have a vacation, important business, a wedding – a smart physician will make a special effort and come up with something even better.   

As a hotel doctor, I deal with this yearning all the time. Since doctors are tenderhearted, it’s tempting to prescribe a placebo if no useful medicine exists. Placebos work although not as dramatically as enthusiasts claim.

The problem is that they’re not available. Decades ago, drug companies sold pills labeled “placebo,” but, perhaps for medicolegal reasons, they stopped. The result is that when a doctor decides you need a placebo, he prescribes a real medicine in the full knowledge that he’s doing something wrong. As I’ve written repeatedly, the advantage of alternative, folk, holistic, and herbal healing is that their medicines are harmless. Our medicines have side-effects, so we’re not supposed to prescribe them unless they’ll help.

Life is easier for doctors who ignore this, so many do. I don’t, but if I decide that someone needs a placebo and then don’t give one, the patient often feels that I’ve missed the boat.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

An Unwelcome Visitor From the Past

A young man’s cough, present for two week, had grown worse. He had a fever, and my stethoscope revealed lung noises typical of pneumonia.

I enjoy diagnosing pneumonia because, in an otherwise healthy person, it’s the only common illness with a cough that doctors can cure. Everything else is a virus. 

I didn’t like this particular diagnosis. It takes a tough germ to cause pneumonia in most people, so unpleasant symptoms begin quickly. This man’s cough had persisted for some time. Furthermore, he was gay and admitted to having unprotected sex. I suspected, correctly, that he had a pneumocystis infection. Pneumocystis is a fungus so benign that it lives in the lungs of most of us, causing no trouble.

Until thirty years ago, it was rare, affecting patients already sick with cancer or other serious diseases requiring drugs that suppressed immunity. Doctors were mystified when Pneumocystis began attacking previously healthy young men during the 1980s. It turned out to be the most common sign of AIDS.

It’s rare again today because we track immune cells of HIV patients and prescribe preventive drugs when the numbers drop. This young man had not been tested, but he was no fool. Dipping into the internet had given him the usual frightening information.

My news was mildly reassuring. AIDS is no longer a death sentence but a chronic illness that can be controlled with a great deal of input from the medical profession. Like diabetes.

He cut short his visit and returned home.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Glamorous Life of the Call Girl

At one a.m. in 1994, I received a call from Le Montrose, a boutique hotel in West Hollywood. The guest told me the problem was “personal.”

The man who opened the door was past sixty, short, plump, balding, and tieless, wearing a rumpled suit which I suspected he’d put on to greet me. Across the room, wearing a bathrobe, a young woman sat on the bed, staring sullenly at the floor.

“There’s been an accident,” he said.

Neither guest seemed injured, so I knew I wasn’t going to get off easy. This proved true as he explained that his friend seemed to have an object in her rectum. He provided no details.

Bizarre incidents fascinate doctors no less than laymen. Around the cafeteria table, interns and residents compete in relating the latest. Outside of working hours, they remain a mainstay for impressing girls at parties.

Central to this adolescent obsession is the genre of things-that-end-up-in-people’s-rectums. I no longer find these amusing, not only because I’m a grown-up but because they make me nervous. I hate situations that I might not be able to handle. Removing something from the rectum often requires tools such as a proctoscope which I didn’t carry. Also skills. I had never done that.

But I had to try. After introducing myself to the woman, I put on a rubber glove and went to work. There is more space than you’d think inside the rectum; I felt a hard object touch my fingertip and then drift away. When something lies out of reach, it’s natural to stretch, and my desperate efforts caused her to groan with pain.

Suddenly, I snagged something and pulled out a shot glass. I almost danced with joy and relief. Although I expected an outpouring of gratitude, none appeared. Gathering up her clothes, the woman disappeared into the bathroom. The man nodded agreeably as if this were routine business. Filling out my invoice, I asked the woman’s name.

“Elizabeth Anderson.” He hesitated before answering, revealing that he had invented the name. Call girls lead a glamorous life in Hollywood movies, but the reality is often miserable. I handed him the invoice. He examined it thoughtfully. “That’s a lot of money,” he said. “You only spent five minutes here.”

In 1994 my fee for a wee-hour call was $180. He had not objected when I informed him earlier. If guests balk during the initial phone call, I say I’ll accept whatever they consider fair. They often reconsider after the visit and pay my regular fee.

I told him I’d accept whatever he considered fair. He handed over $80. I don’t want to think how the woman made out.