Entries in Gelb, Laurie (24)


Misdirection Can Be Fatal 

by Laurie Gelb, March 17, 2009

ETHEX has initiated a retail-level recall of tablets found after the fact to have been manufactured in non-cGMP conditions. A Blues plan finally sent out a one-page masterpiece of misdirection, one that I'm confident was replicated similarly nationwide, to patients for whom one of the affected scripts was reimbursed. Unfortunately, in this case, misdirection could potentially be fatal, so a communication like this is worth delving into.

First, the letter is dated February 2009, though received in March. ETHEX PR is dated Jan. 28, so there's been a communication delay.

The salutation, despite the fact that these letters are obviously databased from PBM records, is the time-honored "Dear Valued Member." So what would cue a member that this letter, unlike several others received this quarter, should actually be read? The outer envelope holds no clue, either.

The sentence announcing the recall is in bold. That seems scary and necessitating action, doesn't it? But no.

We read that these prescriptions were no longer processed by the PBM as of January 30. If I were comparing this with recalls for cars or food, that would mean that I should take it back and get something fixed or refunded, yes?

Not here. Of course, use of the word "recall" isn't the plan's doing, but there remains the responsibility to explain it.

About halfway down the page, we read "...it is recommended that you continue to take them [the medications] in accordance with your prescriptions, as the risk of suddenly stopping needed medications may increase your risk for side effects."

Side effects -- not quite the term that most clinicians would characterize as the risk of suddenly d/c'ing nitrates or beta blockers. So this letter is presuming that the patient knows why s/he is on each medication (and remember, each of these is listed only under its full generic name). Alas, if the good ship Argo...and since the letter lists each of the recalled tabs, without specifying which one(s) were filled for the patient, it would be easy to skim this long, complex list and not see the connection. Another form letter gone astray, one might think.

But let's say the patient does recognize one of these meds. She should be thinking that she should do nothing, right? Side effects and all that. But the very next sentence advises: "Your physician is in the best position to help you slowly discontinue use of the medication..."

Wait a second. So the member is supposed to "discontinue?" That sounds like "stop?" But that logic fails when there's no mention of getting a replacement supply, because, of course, the letter is not really recommending that anyone d/c her meds. It's just saying that if you wanted to, you should let your doc in. In fact, it's not saying anything at all, but merely palming patients off on the Ethex customer service number or the MedWatch URL.

The closing: "Thank you for your attention to this matter," once again suggests that you should do something, but by this time, we're immune to confusion (and conclusions). Time to cue up the David Bowie song, "Changes."

This letter mentions five different organizations by name: the plan, its PBM, its pharmacy "consultant," ETHEX and the FDA. However, nowhere does the letter explain any of their responsibilities, roles, accountability or possible usefulness in sorting out any of the letter's contents.

Some of the recalled tabs may be over-generous with the active ingredients. Nowhere in this letter does this fact appear. What to do about refills when shortages for some of the compounds in question have been news for months is nowhere addressed (some patients have been switched over to immediate release vs. extended release metoprolol, for example). Even if the PBM is fully stocked, that reassurance is not made. Nor are terms like cGMP explained. Nor is it identified which drug(s) on the list may apply to the patient (we call it a mail merge with a form field). A single-spaced missive that fills a page, this letter raises more questions than it answers, yet it hints delicately at clinical implications.

When you read polls about distrust, mistrust and misunderstanding of the health insurance industry, remember this letter. A patient who is on a recalled med, based on the PBM's data, is sent a letter in a 8.5 x 11" envelope, signed by a PharmD. There's bold face type and mention of the FDA. It seems serious and worth reading, (well, if you get past the first sentence regarding "changes to prescription drugs in the marketplace"). But, in the end, it's not only unhelpful, it's anxiety-producing or a sedative, depending on which sentences one reads. The tone is cold, formal, impenetrable and replete with jargon. Health plan as robot? We are here.

What would the LA Times think and write about a physician who sent this letter? A hospital? What would you think? Need a plan somehow avoid any visible role in medication management beyond formulary access? The plan will certainly assume a broader role when it comes to hospitalization, surgery, medical devices, etc. and patients know this very well.

So to the Blues plan and your sisters and brothers: After the next recall, if you can't acknowledge the facts for whatever reason (and remember, there's more than one general counsel in the sea), please send your members somewhere that offers actual answers. For example, see the simple language about this recall at the Facts & Comparisons Web site: http://www.factsandcomparisons.com/News/ArticlePage.aspx?id=8294. Ironically, this para is written for HCPs, but is simpler than many of your letters to members.

And next time, don't delay. Spring for a mail merge that produces a personalized salutation and short name rx info. A member with a condition serious enough to justify a drug that you're paying for deserves personhood, not to mention the fact that you might want to converse with that person in the future. Names of drugs and people are a good start. Run your next effort by some real patients, please, and if you can't come to grips with the fact that these are sick people, you might want to think about finding a vertical with lower stakes.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.


Easy Answers Make Poor Gifts

By Laurie Gelb

A new political era is upon us, and the red herrings that should be frolicking in the wild somehow never left the boardroom.

You’ve heard them all. Members are lazy slugs. Docs are mercenaries with stethoscopes. Pharmas suck the last dollar out of destitute Part D recipients. Often, the pharmacy chains come out best in this narrative – their low generic pricing is actually both market-driven and good for adherence. But improved outcomes are unlikely to be driven in large part by CVS or Walgreens in the current regulatory environment. So what’s next?

Recently, I’ve explored scores of managed care and health system Web sites as a strategist and competition judge. As I’ve pointed and clicked across this year’s domains of top-tier AMCs and health plans, I’ve reflected on my MCOL presentations of the last few years.

Many of us preach the need for customized decision support that validates the complexity and importance of stakeholder choices. Yet the health Web on evidence in 2008 continues to propagate the false dichotomies of idiot vs. expert, with information accessible through clunky largely static pages, with only the most rudimentary support for critical decisions like choosing a physician or evaluating the urgency [often confused with indications] for surgery.

If all you care about in selecting a doc is gender, languages spoken and hospital affiliations, you’re in the right place. If Flash first-reads displaying ethnically diverse docs and patients are your idea of immersive storyline, Google “hospital” or “health plan” and go to town. If your idea of a surgical consult on the Web is a pretty graphic and a few FAQs, welcome to the Net. But don’t we spend a lot of offline ink telling members that they need to ask much more probing questions?

Has Revolution Health and/or HealthGrades provided a quantum leap here? Hardly. Rate-a-doc portals? These probably eliminate some docs from consideration lists, but there’s scant evidence that they are helping distinguish the incompetent from the competent. The “rate a drug” racket probably does more for the raters than the readers.

Finally, hospital rankings and mortality stats, flawed in so many obvious ways, also divert attention from the notion of physician selection as a starting point, not to mention the idea of a medical home. Yes, the data quality is improving, but the support for the right ways to use it is not!

Instead of directly addressing patient and caregiver reasons for fear, loathing and denial of clinical realities (such as very few placebo-equivalent drugs or no-risk surgeries), content developers often seem to think that simply acknowledging the existence of these phenomena solves the problem. The proposition that “I’m OK, you’re OK, disease is OK” is in danger of replacing actual decision support in the health digisphere. With a President-elect who admits incomplete smoking cessation but exercises diligently, might we have a teachable moment here?

As for rational consideration of potential health decisions, the mass media’s tendency to discuss competing risks using anything but anecdotal evidence has increasingly obscured the differences between population-level statistics and individual considerations. And judging from the conflict-of-interest stories sprouting like mushrooms, no one at an academic medical center ever took money from pharma or device manufacturers till recently (NOT!) Another walk away from the real, toward the valley of oversimplification.
Disease is a real entity, with disability and death possibilities for everyone every day “We’re never promised tomorrow,” as Chief Daniels noted during one of his Polonius moments on Hill Street Blues. At the very least, addressing unpleasant facts so as to minimize risks entails the willingness to believe that decision-making can entail choosing among suboptimal choices. When members lose sight of the complexity, the effort, the costs of acquiring and acting on the best information, we’re only letting them kid themselves.

Baby talk is maybe talk. “Eat less simple sugar today! You can do it!” Passive voice is well, passive.
How honest, precise and strong are your communications?


Can decision support consist of more than threats, promises and stiff upper lips?

By Laurie Gelb

Can decision support consist of more than threats, promises and stiff upper

Here's where domains, measures and thresholds come in.

Here's where the rubber hits the road.

In one study, sufferers, clinicians and payors were asked how they would
measure the value of a drug for a condition for which disease- modifying
therapy did not yet exist. The same methodology works whether options are
plentiful, mediocre, whatever.  But in this case--

Physicians highlighted clinical results in one or more domains, all of which
have a demonstrable impact on quality of life.
Patients focused on being able to experience things they have not been able
to experience recently.
Payors wanted to see statistically significant differences from placebo on
some objective measures, not really caring which -- the FDA's job.

Every stakeholder was able to specify domains (pain being one, just so we're
clear on what a domain is) that were relevant to him, and whether or not an
improvement in that particular domain would in itself justify
prescribing/taking/reimbursing therapy. Obviously, not all domains were
salient to every stakeholder.

Every stakeholder was able to specify how improvements in salient domains
would be measured (numerically and/or categorically) as well as her
threshold for that improvement -- what number or value or outcome would
constitute sufficient reason to act.

But the answers were different for everyone.  (So were the questions, of
course -- computer-assisted interviewing uses previous answers to frame
relevant questions).

So, when you're doing stakeholder research, instead of dragging out a stack
(real or virtual) of static scenario cards for tradeoff analysis and
sorting, instead of asking about abstractions like preference and
satisfaction that aren't used in real life, what if you asked about:

Domains that are salient
Measures that are used to measure change or value in those domains
Thresholds applied to those measures to justify action

Bear in mind, these are studies that run (very) low five figures and a few
weeks, all told -- this is a framework for frequent studies, not once a
decade. So you can track how the findings change as the environment does.

What next? You might design decision support that makes very clear...

What domain(s) are affected by the intervention you recommend or wish
considered What measures show change when the intervention is used, in whom,
and how frequently. how predictably To what extent any particular threshold
of change can be predicted, guaranteed or even hoped for

Of course, you update this as the data come in and time goes on.

Presto! User-centric decision support can be yours.
And it can be theirs.
If you do all this on the Web, kiosk or CD-ROM, you can develop a "wizard"
that enables the user to "buy in" to their choice using their own criteria.

The decision that's owned is the result that's achieved.

We're not just talking about justifying or avoiding therapy -- this is about
staff/physician recruitment/retention, open enrollment and a thousand other

Effective decision support reduces and supports the burden of choice.
How is yours doing?
Any stories to share?


“Personal” is more than a word

By Laure Gelb
In my last post, I speculated as to whether 2008 might be the year that disease management communication from MCOs finally got personal. The next one-page MCO piece I saw (an EOB insert) offered the following snippets:  


“We think getting personal is a healthy idea.”
“We know that nothing is more personal than your health.”
“Do you take a healthy interest in good health?”
This piece of paper attempts to induce enrollment in the personal health coach program. But where are the benefits offered for this proactive behavior?  


“If you qualify…one person to call for answers and advice. It’s confidential and it’s free.”
o      OK, so you want me to transfer the expectation that my physician will offer answers and advice, to a nurse whom I’ll never meet.

o      You want me to believe that it’s confidential, when I’m reading every week about health insurance data privacy breaches.

o      And you want me to celebrate that it’s “free,” when my premiums and copays have never been higher.

 Health coaching should ideally align with the patient’s medical home. Can we more strongly link that proposition to premiums and copays? Talking points could include:


  • The relationship between OOP costs, medical errors and drug interactions
  • The higher risk of unidentified ME/DI among patients with multiple conditions/polypharmacy
  • The opportunities for improved outcomes that multiple conditions can obscure
  • The importance of a “medical home” in reducing ME/DI
  • What a health coach actually does, and indications that having a coach might help; how the coach and the medical home can support each other
 Although managed care has been “doing” disease management since the 80’s, a patient’s “buy-in” to disease management, with the time, effort and emotional costs it entails, will be short-lived unless it’s obtained through honest discussion of its potential benefits, rather than demanded or condescendingly waved in front of someone with many conflicting priorities. And I haven’t seen an EOB insert yet that addressed questions like:


  • Why I am on two drugs that are supposedly “contraindicated” in combination?
  • Does anyone at the MCO know or care about all that treatments I’ve had?
  • Isn’t a health coach going to refer me to a doctor for the tough calls anyway?
  • How will a stranger get me to do all the things I already know I should do?
  • Why can’t the health plan just find me a better physician?
There’s a real shortage of health content in member communication, and it’s no wonder that members find it difficult to read, let alone remember (or act on) any of it. The next time you want to change a member’s mind or otherwise influence behavior, you might want to check your communiqué for a few basic points:


  1. Is it clear what you are asking members to do?
  2. Is a coherent value proposition for them to take this action presented and are potential objections addressed?
  3. If members to whom your request is directed are not appropriate candidates, how will they know?
  4. Is there a high ratio of important content to buzzwords like “personal,” “healthy” and “wellness”?
 All this is no more than Marketing 101, of course. When disease management diverges from marketing exchange theory (equal value achieved by all parties to a transaction), it is less likely that any transaction, change or improved outcome will result. And, at the end of the day, the evidence suggests that clinical outcomes are more durably and significantly improved by self-imposed than externally-imposed change. Yes, the MCO (and the physician, nurse, et.al.) can help present the rationale for change, a means for implementing it and incentives for doing so. But only the patient “pulls the switch” each and every day. Every day brings new health decisions (like self-dosing qd), challenges and opportunities. It takes more than a few clichés to frame and support optimal choices. And there has to be a balance between “happy talk” and the certain knowledge that some “good” decisions and intentions go horribly wrong.
Next month: domains, measures and thresholds -- the keys to behavioral change.

Can 2008 be the year that health communication gets personal?

By Laurie Gelb

It's safe to assume that your organization's 2008 objectives include some combination of member/clinician behavior change and cost containment. To that end, consider the following. 

Scenario 1: An organization sends you snail mail and e-mail that obviously is the same for everyone. It references products you don't need, ignores your previous transactions, frequently repeats the same message and offers you no way to personalize its communication to you.

Scenario 2: (a la Amazon.com) An organization sends you snail mail and e-mail that clearly has entailed an analysis of your pre-existing relationship with the organization. Future purchases are recommended, reminders are tailored to the interval at which you made previous purchases, etc. You are also offered the opportunity to personalize the offers and reminders you receive, and to update this information when you see fit.

Which organization are you more likely to do more business with? Recommend?

Now consider what last year was like for one of your members (every example below is from actual MCO communications). He is male and receives a letter that clearly recognizes that fact (it's addressed to Mr. Smith). The letter references the fact that he might be pregnant. It also invites him to call a "local number" to reach a health coach, for which the area code is an hour away and actually a toll call. The signature on this invitation is a typewriter font.

Does any of this seem personalized?

He receives two successive letters "from his doc," via a joint initiative, that encourage him to get an A1c and includes a form wherein he can have a lab tech sign off on the test, send in the form, and receive a trivial incentive. This is right after the visit at which he and the doc went over the results of his recommended interval A1c test.

He receives an EOB with an insert encouraging him to get a flu shot.  The EOB is for his recent flu shot. Every EOB he receives over a six month period includes the flu shot insert, long after he has received the shot. 

He tries to order rx refills from his PBM over the Web. He finds out by trying to do this (over a half hour with increasing frustration) that his former user ID is no longer valid. When he tries to create a new one, he gets repeated, incomprehensible error messages with no information as to how to resolve the issue. Ultimately, he has to call the refills in, but after explaining the issue to the representative, he receives no information on how to fix the log-in.  The member hangs up still unsure whether he will ever again be able to refill rx on the Web, and with no incentive to pursue the matter.

Do personalized mail merges and sorts cost more? You be the judge.  One thing is sure -- if we stipulate that the "informed health consumer" expects a win/win relationship with her payor, it's hard to see how that relationship is fostered by "one size fits all" communication. Consider how easy it is to complete a transaction on amazon.com (or at any one of thousands of Web sites) that actually begins and maintains a personalized relationship, as opposed to the feedback members receive from an MCO or PBM transaction. It's not just a matter of behavioral change; think of all the goodwill you're losing, and all the adversarial baselines you're creating, by seemingly refusing to treat members as people.

It's easy to say that health communication is a two-way street, that patients need to take responsibility for ontrollable risks and lifestyle factors. It's more difficult, but ultimately more rewarding, to walk the walk from a payor standpoint. Tools that support plan design choices came into being several years ago. Have tools to support health decisions and encourage appropriate behavior matched that early promise? Not yet.

Need evidence that any of this matters? A modest proposal would be to run some pilots that compare "one size fits all" messaging with something that takes previous information into account. Pretend that you're at an organization where "one size fits all" communications simply aren't done.  What would you do to stratify your members? You might begin with gender...

Happy 2008 to all, hopefully a year in which all of our initiatives increasingly facilitate appropriate prevention, screening, diagnosis and treatment.