7 disruptive changes that will affect medicine

Generally we prefer calm seas but often they don’t get us anywhere.

We need disruptions, transformations to make the changes necessary for real progress in medicine. Sometimes it is a new technology; sometimes a cultural change. But then a refinement may occur. The refinement may not seem like a “disruption” but indeed it can be because the refinement may create a demand for change.

Here a few more disruptive changes or refinements that are leading to disruptions of the old ways.

Retainer based practices: Primary care physicians find that their incomes have been flat or reduced, their work hours increased, their time with each patient shortened and their frustrations with insurers heightened dramatically over recent years. Some are just saying “I can’t take it any longer” and switching to a different type of practice model. Some simply will not accept Medicare, telling their older patients that they must either pay out of pocket or go elsewhere.

Others are converting to “retainer-based” practices. Here the patient pays a flat fee each year, often $1500 to $2000, in return for having their PCP available by cell phone 24/7 and responsive by email. Appointments within 24 hours are guaranteed. The physician will see you in the ER, take care of you in the hospital and do home or nursing home visits as needed at no extra charge. But you still need your insurance in case you have need to see a specialist, have tests or imaging studies or are hospitalized. So the cost to you is extra. This is very disruptive of the standard approach today but I predict it will become very common in just a few years.

Smartphones: Physicians, especially younger physicians and residents, are becoming very reliant, although not dependent, on these devices. They use them as shortcuts to knowledge, to stay well informed, and to communicate, argue, and debate with one another, which is a excellent form of learning. Smart phones keep being refined and as they are, more and more physicians want them, use them, rely on them and become more effective physicians as a result.

Greater clarity with imaging: Today’s CT scanners and other devices can produce remarkable images of the body’s internal organs, better than those of a medical illustrator. And the clarity of the images increases dramatically each year with engineering refinements. Virtual colonoscopy using a CT scan, for example, can now be done in a manner such that the viewer can see a high resolution magnified image of the inside of the colon, capable of visualizing small details of a polyp, a diverticula or other anomaly. It can be projected on a large TV screen where a group can review it together and jointly consider the situation and make recommendations for care of the patient.

Surgical robotics: Today the daVinci robot is used primarily for cardiac surgery, prostate cancer surgery and some gynecologic surgery. But soon it will be used by other surgeons in diverse fields. An otolaryngologist for example, might perform surgery on the base of the tongue to remove a cancer while avoiding the critical nerves and blood vessels in the area. The visualization of the site is much better than with conventional surgical approaches, the margin of safety is improved and the patient’s outcome is bettered with more effective surgery, more salvage of critical anatomy and faster recovery. These refinements in the use of the robot will likely lead to considerable demand from both patients and physicians.

Image guidance: We tend to think of “X-rays” as being used for diagnostics and the newer technologies have dramatically improved this ability. But think of the surgeon who “wants no surprises” once inside and operating. The greatly improved ability to visualize organs makes no surprises a near reality. But the imaging can also guide the surgeon to improve on his or her technique during the procedure. Intra-operative CT scanning can be used intermittently and at low dose to assist the surgeon to know the location of critical vessels or nerves. Ultrasound can be used to give real time direction to the placement of radioactive seeds into the prostate to treat cancer. These and similar image guidance techniques improve safety and effectiveness.

Fewer general surgeons: It has been known for some years that there are too few general surgeons; fewer are entering the field and some areas, especially rural and urban poor areas, have all too few general surgeons today. The reasons for the reduced interest of graduating medical students is not completely clear but the trend is obvious.

Reduced career time as a minimally invasive surgeon: Laparoscopic or minimally invasive surgery spread across the country and the world with remarkable speed after its introduction some 20 years ago. The patient has smaller incisions, faster recovery time, less time in the hospital and the costs are lessened as well. Surgeons rapidly learned the techniques and patients demanded it. But there is a price not fully expected. Surgeons are developing a variety of occupational problems from carpel tunnel syndrome, to neck disorders, to low back pain. It is all about ergonomics – “the patient is better off but the surgeon is suffering.” Indeed it may well be that their practice lifetimes may be substantially curtailed unless these ergonomics issues are addressed and quickly.

There are many changes coming in medical practice and these are but a few. The ones noted here will have significant and ultimately disruptive effects on the way medicine is practiced today and tomorrow.

Stephen C. Schimpff is a retired CEO of the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore and is the author of The Future of Medicine — Megatrends in Healthcare. He blogs at Medical Megatrends and the Future of Medicine.

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