Question: When is a Screening Colonoscopy not a Screening Colonoscopy?

Answer: When the insurance company decides it is not.


A Healthcare Puzzle

The definition of screening, from a health prevention viewpoint, seems pretty straight forward: “a strategy used in a population to identify an unrecognized disease in individuals without signs or symptoms.”[1] Typically these services are covered at 100%. However,  insurance companies avoid appropriate payments for their members by changing the coding of a preventive service (which is covered 100%) into a diagnostic procedure, which is paid based on whatever the patient’s coverage allows. This change in coverage occurs because a polyp is found during the exam, which is of course, the whole point of doing the procedure: Screening and removing a polyp so that it never becomes cancer.   Patients with high deductibles suddenly owe several hundred dollars in unexpected healthcare bills for a procedure they were told was covered. This is ethical and appropriate corporate policy?

And I can’t help but mention that the insurance company fancying itself a “Healthcare” company, promoting health and well-being, is the worst offender.

Subsequent colonoscopies that must be done five years later for individuals with polyps, instead of ten years,  can arguably be called diagnostic. But changing the definition of a procedure solely to avoid paying for an appropriate screening exam, is another example of non-transparency, regardless of how well you explain it in the patient’s policy description.




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The Importance of Being on the Same Page

No doctor is perfect. My guess is that orthopedic surgeons are as tired of talking about the importance of weight loss and exercise as I am to what seems to be deaf ears. Worse, it’s unprofessional to complain about other specialists[1], but my last two weeks have been a bit frustrating. 

  • Patient was seen two years ago with “mild arthritis” in a joint. She was told by two orthopedic specialists that she didn’t need surgery. Neither of them recommended physical therapy or for that matter, any movement whatsoever. Apparently that’s what she didn’t do–move (or so I’ve been told by a friend). Now she’s scheduled for a joint replacement having never been offered the option of physical therapy. I cannot help but think her inactivity accelerated her joint problem.[2]
  • I encourage my patients with knee and hip pain to exercise and especially to lose weight. If I send them to an orthopedist they come back to me and deny that the orthopedist recommended weight loss. I think they just didn’t hear what they don’t want to hear but many times, there is nothing in the referral note indicating that they were told to lose weight. 
  • Last week two patients came to me after they saw their orthopedic surgeons asking ME to send them to physical therapy. Why? Because the surgeon didn’t recommend it. 
Several years ago a friend of mine was sitting in an orthopedist office. After looking around the orthopedic’s waiting room, she began a diet and exercise program the next morning. She told me “Except for the athletes, every person over 50 in that office was at least 30 pounds overweight. How can you miss the message there?” At that time she was in her early forties. Now ten years later she has kept the 10 pounds she shed off and exercises at least four times weekly.

Day in and day out I understand how frustrating it is to try to motivate patients to exercise and lose weight. Many of my orthopedic colleagues DO emphasize these things and my sense is that they are improving in that regard. In a society where obesity is ever more the norm, we’ve all got to be on the same page to help patients make changes, especially if you are the expert in the patient’s eyes.[3] 
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Cynical Thoughts about Medical Insurance

Is anyone else irritated by medical insurance companies’ efforts to improve the health of their members by encouraging them to do recommended tests based on claims-made data? Recently, a patient asked me if he should get the pulmonary function tests his insurance company recommended based on his asthma diagnosis. He does have mild intermittent asthma. He uses a steroid inhaler once a year during the spring for about a month and might use his rescue inhaler with exercise four or five other times during the year. If you check the guidelines put out by the National Asthma Education and Prevention Program it is recommended that a spirometry test or PFTs be performed annually to assess any changes in lung function. The fact is, this patient has been treating his asthma the same way for about fifteen years. He feels fine. So will doing PFTs make a difference? We discussed it (over Christmas and through the patient portal, which I love) and decided that doing testing was unlikely to cause a change in therapy. Since he had better things to do than PFTs he would prefer to skip the tests. Hopefully he won’t see an increase in his premium for refusing to follow his insurance company’s medical advice. Does this make me worry about becoming nothing more than a flunky ordering tests for patients based on Humana or Aetna or Anthem’s “best practices”? In a word, yes.

What irritates me more, is being faxed long lists of patient names with recommendations for mammograms, colonoscopies or diabetic eye exams. Our office is supposed to pull those charts and encourage patients to have their preventive exams. Of course if we do pull them, it turns out the “claims-made” data from the insurance company isn’t all that accurate and many patients have already had their tests done. Thus another waste of the office employees’ time pulling charts. Hopefully it will be easier with electronic records.

I suppose the cynic in me wonders “What’s the angle here?”. Does the the upper management of these companies really care about the members they insure that much? Is that what it takes to continue to make the obscene salaries their positions pay (see chart below)? When Humana sends me yet another envelope full of “healthy” coupons in their quarterly newsletter that shows me how much money they saved me with my last doctor visit, complete with lots of “healthy advice” enclosed, why does it make me roll my eyes?

When I want medical advice I will talk to my doctor or find an expert on-line, I will not talk to my insurance company. I do not want or need coupons from Humana. Nor do I want my insurance company to remind me of preventive care visits via my telephone. My patients are thrilled by it, however. “Humana pays for me to go to Silver Sneakers! Isn’t that great?” or “A free 30-day Jenny Craig membership is available, what do you think doc?” 

Just call me Thomas, because I am a doubter. Nothing is truly free in the insurance business, so somewhere along the line the consumer is paying for the SilverSneaker membership and the salary of the individual who is soliciting companies to provide coupons from the insurance company. Please, just pay my claims and not give me such a headache trying to obtain my prescription from your 90 day pharmacy service. That’s what I would call good service! 

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Flu Shot Day

It’s the time of year when my MA chases me around the office until I acquiesce and let her give me the flu shot. There is no rationale for this. I don’t even mind shots but for some reason I put it off as long as I think it is safe. I feel the same way about clothes shopping, which is why I mostly do it on line. But no one ever died because they didn’t go shopping for jeans.

So for anyone who has a reason for not getting the flu shot please watch the following. If you’ve already had yours, you might want to watch this anyway cause it’s slightly funnier than placebo (and a little off-color):

And for those people who “never get sick” and therefore don’t get the flu shot, please see this by Zubin Damania.

Thanks. (OK, now where did my MA go…)

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