Expert Perspective

Neurologic Care Isn’t Reducible to a Code

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Neurology, once considered a “diagnose and adios” specialty, is gaining newfound, scientific respect. Our vastly improved understanding of neurologic pathophysiology has led to many Food and Drug Administration–approved medications that can specifically enhance treatment outcomes. Medications for migraine, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and other chronic neurological diseases have been extended and modernized; for millions of patients, these medicines fulfill their long-awaited needs.

Daily, I evaluate and treat patients with challenging issues who require hours of time beyond the physical examination. I pour over previous medical records and focus on conversations with my patients to glean diagnostic and treatment perspectives, in the hopes of developing a stratified work-up and treatment approach to meet their unique, unmet medical needs. I have yet to evaluate a neurology patient who wholly mirrors another. Effective healthcare, I believe, is not the result of any disease-dependent intellectual exercise, but rather of a lifelong effort to help a patient gain control over his circumstance. As Sir William Osler noted, “The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.”

What would Dr Osler have said if he witnessed today’s definition of the practice of medicine? As singular as our patients and their disorders are, the delivery of care is anything but. The processes in the delivery of this care have created many unforeseen twists and turns, thanks to the electronic health record (EHR), the resource-based relative value scale (RBRVS), evaluation and management (E&M) coding, and private health insurance (PHI).

From a neurologist’s perspective, I will elaborate upon these changes that have affected our day-to-day neurology practices. I have practiced general neurology and headache medicine both in private and academic practices, evaluating and treating thousands of inpatients and outpatients in urban and rural healthcare facilities since 1986.

The EHR

Despite herculean, lofty, and sustained efforts by the medical business world to promote EHR adoption worldwide, goals remain unmet. Intended to improve the quality of care and patient outcomes, reduce medical errors, and crystalize communications among providers and with patients, it is instead associated with physician burnout (B), lack of usability (U) and interoperability (I), has likability (L) issues, and provides no productive physician direction (D) – there is an enormous need to BUILD it better.

In my own practice, it is inevitable that I will use my EHR laptop with an unknowing patient. If so, I try to make her feel comfortable in its presence as I strive to stay intent on our discussion. Yet I invariably split my concentration between machine and patient. The machine often gets my full attention, with its confusing and unnecessary medical record notes, tech glitches and screen interruptions, let alone its complicated web of tabs, buttons, links, and obscure prompts. As for fulfilling CMS’ meaningful use criteria to reap financial benefits, I long ago abandoned that effort if earning benefits and reaching the desired patient outcome weren’t on the same path.

We are required to read numerous EHR windows, deal with misused, template-based medical records and the usually faulty copy-and-paste function, which results in flagrant errors. A common example is templating or copy-and-pasting normal examination findings such as “pupils equal, round, and reactive to light and accommodation (PERRLA),” without making modifications for a patient who has obvious abnormal pupillary findings. It is the EHR that often induces these types of documentation errors.

The EHR, as it exists now, intrudes into our time with patients. But for the past 30 years, the RBRVs have defined how we are compensated for our services. This compensation scale was created to provide a standard system of paying physicians’ services based on resource costs associated with patient care. The resource components are physician work, practice expense, and professional liability insurance. These components make our compensation based on effort rather than effect.

Payments are calculated into relative value units (RVUs), which are often structured into physician employment contracts.1 There are many RVU calculations and formulas that determine physician reimbursement and compensation; these are not entirely straightforward and too often lack transparency. Despite Dr Osler’s plea in Aequanimitas for physicians to maintain imperturbability and equanimity, that plea goes to the wayside when debating the value of the RBRVS. This system dilutes the complexities of the physician visit, especially for patients with comorbidities, polypharmacy, and cognitive and social concerns.2

Another frustrating, time-absorbing business requirement is E&M coding; the codes came about around the same time as RBRVs. Congress established E&M in the mid-1990s to facilitate medical billing by translating physician-patient encounters into 5-digit codes. In a neurology office, this authentication takes considerable effort, detracts from the patient’s visit, and adds to the documentation requirement to receive insured patient payments.

Years ago, I reviewed neurology insurance claims for a global health service company. I remember the considerable discussion over subjective documentation technicalities, attempting to justify the submitted E&M code. The onerous administrative burden E&M has created continues to evolve, with no end in sight.

Private insurance

When was the last time that you did not have to submit a prior authorization (PA) request to a payer in a week’s worth of days?

PA requests impede timely, efficient, and much-needed vital care while usurping a physician’s decision-making process. In 2020, the American Medical Association released the responses of 1000 physicians who were asked about making PA requests.3 Physicians said that the time delays affected their patients’ health and created adverse events, including hospitalizations. PAs are not only requested for new drugs; physicians report that the increase in the volume of PAs includes requests for existing drugs and services.

It takes staff days to make the requests; most medical practices interact with dozens of different health plans, all with different requirements related to PAs. Insurers often follow the lead of Medicare, and Medicare does not cover most self-injectable medications.4

I can report the same experiences. Ten years ago, private insurers rejected ~20% of my practice’s PA requests. Today, more than half of my patients need a PA from their insurer—often for 2 or 3 prescriptions each—and at least half of the requests are rejected. And, unlike 10 years ago, most of my requests are still denied after an appeal.

My patients are mostly migraine patients. When appropriate, I discuss with them the new acute and preventive anti–calcitonin gene-related peptides (anti-CGRPs), which, for the chronic migraine patient, can be a small slice of heaven. Reality strikes, however, when we discuss the likely PA process. This shift no longer focuses on getting likely migraine relief, but instead on the insurance company or companies approving the PA.

Sometimes the PA approval process is only accomplished by patients fighting the PA battle for themselves. One patient recently had to convince her PA oversight insurance representative that, if her PA was denied, her suicide would follow.

And what do patients do if the PA has been denied? Sometimes I must treat a patient with something else, which is often less appropriate for that patient. I have had many patients who have given up during the process.

Industry sees PAs in a different light. A survey5 of 44 payers conducted in 2019 found that PAs save money, improve evidence-based care, and so on. Physicians asking for the PAs were singled out as the reasons PAs were denied, as these physicians did not follow proper protocols.

Despite government and PHI policies that are supposed to enhance healthcare delivery and stabilize costs, US healthcare costs stand at $3.6 trillion.6,7 These medical practice transitions have increased administrative burden, accounting for 34% of US total healthcare expenditures vs 17% in Canada.8,9

In neurology, successful outcomes are predicated on recognizing the singularity of each patient. The current health system’s need for homogenization is making such recognition difficult. I invite you to read my commentary entitled The Practice of Medicine - Hazy or Invisible Lines, which discusses the unintended consequences of these well-intentioned medical practice adjustments.

Comments from Alan Rapoport, MD

Editor in Chief, Neurology Reviews

Professor Landy’s article excellently details just some of the roadblocks all neurologists face in providing patient-centric care. Prescribing medication or devices alone does not provide such care, but that is what many doctors must do because of limited time with the patient. Dr Osler was correct; we have to treat the patient who has the disease, not the disease the patient has. Taking an adequate history, conducting a full neurologic examination, documenting both, reviewing outside records, discussing the diagnosis and plan with the patient, ordering appropriate testing, and dictating all of the above in 20 or 30 minutes is impossible to do well. Going forward, we can expect computers and some form of artificial intelligence will help us to be more efficient, but we must keep the patient in the center. No wonder patients are not as happy with the healthcare system and their doctors as they used to be.

Alan Rapoport, MD

Clinical Professor of Neurology

The David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Los Angeles, California

Past President

The International Headache Society (IHS)

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