Discussing financial issues before medical issues: Be more thoughtful

Well over a year ago, I advised my 80-year-old patient and her children that due to progression of her Parkinson’s disease.  Because of her frail nature, she needed a higher level of assistance and care if she wished to remain in her home.  She was extremely unsteady walking and several courses of physical therapy had not improved the situation. The patient was feisty and would only allow help to come for 4 hours per day despite having a long term care policy that paid for significantly more.

She lost her balance recently, fell and landed on her back. She could not get up or get to a phone or her alert bracelet and was found seven hours later on the floor by her aide arriving for work.  In the emergency room x-rays revealed several acute fractures of her vertebrae that accounted for her severe pain with movement and inability to stand, bear weight or walk.

I hustled over to the ER and examined her and called the interventional radiologist to see if he could perform a procedure called a kyphoplasty that would cement the fractures and remove the pain. It was early Friday afternoon and the traditional back specialists were unavailable until the next day.

The radiologist came promptly, was professional and very pleasant explaining that he could do the procedure but because she took a baby aspirin for prevention of stroke, he would not perform it until the aspirin wore off in 5–7 days because of fear of excessive bleeding around the spinal cord.  He suggested we send her home with pain medications and round the clock assistance or keep her in the hospital until the aspirin wore off and he felt comfortable performing the procedure.  He was courteous and a credit to any profession.

Since the patient was in great pain with any movement, I chose to admit her to the hospital while we sorted things out.  I admitted her as an inpatient because she is extremely elderly and frail with medical conditions that led to this injury which an expert had just told me required surgery to fix. She could not walk or transfer to a chair or wheelchair to get food, water or get to the bathroom. She had no arrangements for additional help at home to assist her. She could not, in my professional opinion, go home safely at this point.

The next day I was making rounds late in the day for me at noon, reviewing the situation with the patient and her son when the physician assistant (PA) for the back surgeons, Andy, walked in and introduced himself. They had not seen her Friday evening or Saturday morning and this was their first contact with the patient.  My consult request and phone call had been quite clear. I wanted to know how they viewed the injury and what options did they feel were best to fix the problem. I additionally asked them how their approach would differ, if at all, from the approach of interventional radiology.  I had seen Andy around the facility and said “hello” but never formally met him so it was an introduction for me as well.

“Hi, my name is Andy, and I work for Doctors Y and Z.  We have a little problem with your insurance.  You have a Medicare Advantage plan and we are not part of that plan. Most of the time, about 95% of the time, we eventually get paid for our services but we need to know how we will get paid for performing a procedure on you to fix your back before we proceed further. In these situations we usually ask the patient to pay the bill up front ($1000–$1200) and then we submit the charges to your insurance company. If we get reimbursed from the insurance we return the money to you.”

I took a deep breath and wondered if maybe I was overreacting to the brusque inappropriate presentation to a groggy senior who had been given a narcotic 30 minutes before for pain and was really in no condition to listen to any presentation or sign away informed consent.  I cut Andy off in the middle of a sentence and reminded him that I had requested an opinion.

The son, an attorney by trade took up the fight and reminded the PA just how inappropriate his initial remarks were and that in this case money was not a problem but the manner of dealing with an elderly confused patient was.  I played mediator at this point and got the PA to explain that his employers had done several thousand of these procedures and handled many more complications than most interventional radiologists and that their success record spoke for itself.  He outlined a slightly different approach and once we got him talking about the reasons for his invitation onto the case, justified calling his group.

I am all in favor of physicians being paid for their professional services. This could have been handled differently by calling me first and informing me that they had concerns about payment and insurance and letting me address the issues. It could have been handled far gentler by answering the questions asked first and suggesting options and then reviewing the problems with the insurance. Had the gentleman performed a history and or exam rather than rely on the ER PA’s evaluation the day before, he would have seen that the patient was not in a position to comprehend what he was saying or sign for a procedure.

This is not a criticism of PA’s or nurse practitioners. It is a criticism of any practitioner who does not answer the questions asked by the referring physician or question the referring physician about payment before arriving for the consult if they have questions about getting paid for their time and expertise.

The post script is that the son wisely chose to use this group based on their talents and experience and put aside the rude and insensitive communication by the PA. The surgery went well and the patient will go home after spending three nights in the hospital.

There is still one obstacle to overcome. The hospital ignored my written order to make her status inpatient and made her status observation which will prevent her from receiving any post-surgery therapy or care which is paid for by her insurance. I will fix that. Keeping the phone number on my phone contact list of the Office of the Inspector General who investigates Medicare irregularities opens doors in situations like this.

It does not change the fact however that as practitioners we need to be much more thoughtful when we discuss financial issues before medical issues if we wish to continue to be considered a profession rather than another business.

Steven Reznick is an internal medicine physician and can be reached at Boca Raton Concierge Doctor.

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  • Deceased MD

    Beautifully stated. The sad piece is that many elders do not have that kind of advocacy. You shouldn’t have to have a son as a lawyer and a concierge MD, in order to receive care for something as horrific as that.

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