Squeezed: Four Decades of the Juice Myth

Matt Freeman DNP, MPH

Tamara

I used to live down the street from a juice stand named “Tamara.” The juice was mouth-watering: whatever combination you could imagine. The passion fruit had a perfect tang, the grapefruit was sour, the oranges were ripe and sweet. Situated at the corner of Dizengof Street and Ben Gurion Boulevard, “Tamara” was the ideal location in Tel Aviv. It was easily accessible en route to the beach, on the way back from the beach, or while out for a stroll.

“Don’t you wish we invented, Tamara?” asked my friend, Ariel. “They just have a shack, some fruit, and they hire good-looking students to serve up the juice for the equivalent of US $6.

Ariel and I would chuckle at the juice bar across the street, which was staffed by a schlubby guy. He ne never had any customers. The Tamara brand exuded refreshing youthfulness.

Tamara never claimed to be anything but a juice bar. They served juice that tasted good; just a refreshing treat. They offered no illusion that they were serving some sort of magical elixir. To my knowledge, Tamara does not serve wheat grass.

An acquaintance, Nadav, made an odd claim about Tamara. “It’s a good place for smokers,” he explained. “They need the anti-oxidants so they do not get cancer.” Although not a smoker himself, quitting smoking did not seem to be on Nadav’s radar as a disease prevention strategy. And that’s when I started to think more about juice.

 

“I’ve gone back to juicing.”

I greeted one of my patients recently, and I asked how he had been feeling. “I’m in much better shape. I’ve gone back to juicing.” Paging Nadav.

In fact, many have embraced versions of Nadav’s scientific misconceptions. Oprah Winfrey, Mehmet Oz, Gwynneth Paltrow, and others have extolled the virtues of “juicing” as the key to a healthy weight and a healthy life. Forget flu vaccine, hand washing, seatbelts, or other self-explanatory measures to protect one’s health. The answer lies in juice.

Where does this appeal come from? Why has it been so sustainable?

Juice and Cleansing

Juicing—retail or homemade juice consumption—is frequently associated with the notion of “cleansing.” There are pervasive references for the need to cleanse the liver and colon.

Amid other functions, the liver converts fat-soluble toxins into water-soluble versions, which can be tossed into the colon via bile or into the kidney for excretion in urine.

The colon removes water and absorbs some nutrients, particularly vitamin K, B12, thiamine, and ribovlavin.

The liver and colon do this regardless of what one eats or drinks. In fact, the concept of “detoxifying” the liver is not a possibility. The liver itself detoxifies, so it cannot be detoxified by an external source.

Catherine Collins, a National Health Service dietitian at St George’s Hospital in London put it best. “It’ll probably give you a chance to reassess your drinking habits if you’re drinking too much. But the idea that your liver somehow needs to be ‘cleansed’ is ridiculous.”

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The liver would actually be dysfunctional if it were to be detoxified.

Cleansing advocates argue that toxins accumulate and line the interior of the colon. Moreover, these invisible toxins are weight-bearing and cleansing therefore leads to weight loss.

This is false. The colon is actually full of perhaps trillions of microbes: bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In fact, the bacteria in the colon serve to produce a small but significant proportion of vitamins.

Bowel obstructions can form from a variety of sources, but this is really just a version of constipation: not an accumulation of “heavy toxins.” A total detoxification of the colon would be disastrous in terms of eliminating beneficial bacteria (so called “normal flora.”) Microbes, by definition, are “microscopic,” and so they just cannot be large enough to contribute to body weight.

 

The Origins of Fruit- and Juice-Based Diets

According to restaurant analyst Andrew Freeman, the most significant introduction of juicing in popular culture was the Beverly Hills Juice Club in 1975. (I know Andy Freeman. He is a great guy. But we are not related—at least as far as we know.) Coincident with a resurgence of American “vitamania” in the late 1970s, juice became allied with the notion that it is a gateway to missing nutrients, and thus a ticket to better health.

The Beverly Hills Juice Club also shortly predated the “Scarsdale Medical Diet,” introduced in 1978. A bestseller, the Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet was the first “ultra low calorie diet.” Although not juice-specific, the Scarsdale Medical Diet permitted “sliced fruit: as much as desired.”

 

The Complete Scardsale Medical Diet

The Complete Scardsale Medical Diet was the invention of Herman Tarnower MD, a cardiologist. Whether deliberate or not, Tarnower’s low-carbohydrate, low-calorie, but fruit-permissive diet was remarkably reinforcing. Diet followers enjoyed significant weight loss at the beginning of their adoption of the diet plan. It is, in fact, the same technique used by pretty much any popular diet: caloric restriction. By swapping half a grapefruit for a meal, Scarsdale dieters were limiting themselves to fewer than 1,000 kilocalories per day.

The body responds with as one might expect in a state of starvation: it digs into energy stored as glycogen. Glycogen itself is connected to water, so there is a substantial fluid loss during the first week or two. The grapefruit or unlimited sliced fruit are not magic: it is just fluid loss.

One of Tarnower’s diet followers was his girlfriend, Jean Harris. Headmistress of the Madeira School in McLean, Virginia, Harris was losing extra pounds on the Complete Scarsdale Diet.

There was one additional element that “completed” the diet: amphetamines. Tarnower was prescribing speed for Harris, which undoubtedly led to further weight loss. The drugs also contributed to her shooting Tarnower to death in 1980. (Not to name drop again, but Jean Harris and I grew up on the same street.)

Over the coming decades, various reincarnations of The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet surfaced. All of them followed the same caloric restriction model.

Fruit and juice, however, came to the forefront with The Beverly Hills Diet.

 

The Beverly Hills Diet

Introduced in 1996, the Beverly Hills Diet was another bestseller. The diet was the invention of Judy Mazel, who had no formal education or credentials in nutrition or the health sciences.

The first ten days of the Beverly Hills Diet are limited to fruit. The diet actually encourages diarrhea, claiming that it is a sign that the diet is working. Just like the others, the fluid loss from diarrhea provides an immediate—but not sustainable—weight loss. The starvation-based approach of The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet seems benign in comparison with a diarrhea-based diet. According to the World Health Organization, diarrhea is the seventh leading cause of death worldwide (1.5 million deaths per year.)

I cannot help but recall my friend Kristen’s stories from med school. She had gone on some sort of educational program to Ecuador. She referred to a particular item at the breakfast table as “diarrhea juice.”

The Beverly Hills Diet later gave way to the Atkins, South Beach, and Paleo diets, all of which are variations on the caloric restriction theme.

 

Juice as a Nutritional Superpower

The combination of fruit-based diets and the Beverly Hills Juice Club evolved into the idea of “juicing.” This became an accessible option as household juicers became more affordable and retailers began selling wider varieties of juice combinations. Pomegranate/açai/blueberry smoothies are available at convenience stores. A countertop juicer sells for under $50.

No longer the domain of the Beverly Hills Juice Club, “juicing” became an option for everyone.

Authors of diet books were quick to capitalize on the availability of juice. One name emerged above all others: Joseph Mercola DO.

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Dr. Mercola and the Juice Miracle

On his web site, http://www.mercola.com, Joseph Mercola extols may benefits of juice, particularly how it is preferable in comparison with whole fruits and vegetables. Mercola claims that juice is preferable because, “most people have impaired digestion as a result of making less-than-optimal food choices over many years.” Mercola does not explain the pathophysiology behind his claim: would French fry consumption in the past lead to an inability to digest a banana?

Mercola’s argument is that juice permits one to “pre-digest” nutrients thereby facilitating their absorption. The notion of “pre-digestion” plays upon the same idea that previous dietary indiscretions are irreparable, and that one must consume nutrients in liquid form only.

Mercola has some particularly bizarre claims about juice. He states that it increases energy by “optimizing” the body’s pH. The acid/base balance in the body is complex and constantly adaptive system. The stomach’s buffering mechanisms allow juice to remain acidic in the stomach, but this does go beyond the stomach. If the stomach could not buffer juice, our bodies would be in miserable acidic states. Optimal pH is maintained by the body regardless of what one eats or drinks.

Mercola’s acid/base claim connects with his even more curious assertion that juice provides the body with “structured water,” and “living water.” In an insult to those who have studied the most basic chemistry class, Mercola explains that juice comes as H2O2 not H2O.

H2O2 is hydrogen peroxide. If one were to drink it, it just turns to foam, and eventually just to water. Water does not come in living or structured forms; water is always one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms.

 

Juice and Immunity

Mercola argues that juice “supercharges” the immune system, implying that a hyper-responsive immune system is favorable.

Immunity actually only comes two ways: deficient and adequate. There is no “supercharge” to the immune system. In fact, an inappropriately responsive immune response occurs in autoimmune diseases, in which the body attacks itself. These include systemic lupus erythematosis, scleroderma, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and others. The “supercharge” is to one’s detriment. Allergies, for example, a result of a “supercharged immune system.”

Commercial juice retailers are a bit more subdued. Jamba Juice argues that its Zinc and Antioxidant Boost “helps support your immune system” with a footnote, “These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” Tropicana omits the disclaimer, stating that an eight-ounce glass of its orange juice, “helps to support a healthy immune system.”

The only plausible way to argue “immune system support” from orange juice is that one might be spared from getting scurvy.

Mercola has a strange an futuristic explanation: “…juice supercharges your immune system” with “phytochemicals and biophotonic light energy.” I do not even know how to respond to that other than by asking, “what?”

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An antioxidant “boost” is not just dubious, it is dangerous. Nadav’s “smokers need juice” theory is problematic because antioxidants can actually exacerbate lung cancer and increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Antioxidants were long believed to reduce certain activity on the surface of cancerous cells. It seemed like a good idea until the Carotene and Retinol Efficacy Trial (CARET), in which people who were at high risk for lung cancer (smokers, those with a history of asbestos exposure) were given beta-carotene supplements. The CARET trial stopped before its planned end date because those participants who received antioxidant supplements had more cases of lung cancer. (Sorry to break the news to Nadav.)

 

Juice and Alzheimer Disease

Mercola states on his web site, that juice can “Support your brain health. People who drank juices (fruit and vegetable) more than three times per week, compared to less than once a week, were 76 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Kame Project

On the surface, the Kame project looks like a powerful endorsement for juice. In a study of 1,836 Japanese Americans in King County, Washington, who were followed for nine years. Those participants who drank juice once or twice per week had a hazard ratio of developing probable Alzheimer disease of 0.26. Those who did not report juice consumption had a hazard ratio of 0.84.

But a hazard ratio isn’t a measure of relative risk. Relative risk is the probability of an event occurring in an exposed group (juice drinkers) compared with an unexposed group (those who did not drink juice twice a week). For example, smokers have a relative risk of 20 of developing lung cancer: their risk twenty times that of nonsmokers.

Hazard ratios express the rate of an event occurring in one population (juice drinkers) versus a control population (non juice drinkers.) A test subject in a group with the higher hazard ratio has greater odds of reaching a specific endpoint first. In other words, the juice drinkers in the study had lower odds of developing Alzheimer Disease before those in the non-juice drinking group. A hazard ratio does not explain the extent of treatment benefit, so the dose of juice was not explained.

Furthermore, the Kame study only controlled for tobacco and alcohol use and a particular genotype found in Alzheimer Disease (ApoE). It did not control for significant predictors of dementia like family history or head trauma.

As an epidemiologist, one looks for certain key elements in research, such as a dose-response relationship and biologic plausibility. Mercola and the Kame study do not offer either of these core components of robust research.

Mercola’s claim that juice prevents Alzheimer Disease is not supported by the Kame study. The only possible claim is that there is evidence in one trial that drinking juice twice per week might forestall Alzheimer Disease in a specific population.

 

Joseph Mercola, the Questionable Advocate for Juicing

Perhaps Mercola is not the best advocate for juicing. Mercola was censured by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2005 for making illegal claims about supplements. He then received a warning one year later, and the FDA warned him again in 2011. One would think that a single action form the FDA would lead one to back off, but Mercola’s supplement and book sales must be so lucrative that he is willing to look beyond censure.

Although his license remains active without sanctions, Mercola reputedly had a three-year battle with the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, and he stopped practicing in 2012. In addition to his juice claims, Mercola opposes fluoridation, screening mammography, dental amalgams (fillings), and vitamin K administration to newborns. Although there are some debates about the appropriate ages and intervals for mammograms, these are not controversial subjects in public health.

Mercola’s allies are similarly problematic. His endorsements from a Dr. Andrew Saul are worrisome. Saul claims to have a “nontraditional PhD in ethology.” His other colleague, a Dr. Abram Hoffer, supported the use of niacin to treat schizophrenia. The research was later discredited because the diagnostic test to establish a diagnosis of schizophrenia was called into question.

Perhaps the juice industry would benefit from solid research rather than “expert” opinion from supplement profiteers like Joseph Mercola.

 

Is Juice Healthy?

Juice is not exactly a low-calorie, low-carbohydrate choice compared with soft drinks.

250 mL Serving Size

Carbohydrates kCal
Apple juice 28.97 110
Coca-Cola 35.18 105
Orange Juice 27.20 118
Pineapple Juice 32.18 140

 

One could argue that juice contains vitamins, which are not found in soft drinks. But a serving of apple juice, for example, contains only four percent of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin C. It really is just sugar and water. It is true that other juices fair better in terms of vitamin C content, but vitamin C is found in a wide range of other foods contained in the typical Western diet.

Fresh-squeezed juice, however delicious, is also troublesome from a food safety standpoint. In fact, one of the first cases I was assigned as an epidemiology student was an outbreak of salmonella at a Florida resort. The CDC referred to outbreak location as “Theme Park A” (no prizes for guessing: it is in Orlando and has a mouse mascot.) The acid in juice was deemed to be protective, but the sweeter nature of fresh-squeezed orange juice meant that it was less acidic and thus less likely to contain salmonella. Outbreaks of Escherichia coli 0157:H7 and cryptosporidia have struck apple juice and apple cider. So much for “detoxification.”

 

Make no mistake, juice is delicious. I love fresh-squeezed juice from Tamara, I take the risk and buy unpasteurized orange juice—enjoying a small glass with my coffee in the morning. But it is not a detoxifying superfood. It is a nice dose of sugar when I wake up. But I am under no illusions. I could just as easily have Coca-Cola, it is not going to lead to weight loss, and it certainly is not going to detoxify anything.

 

 

References

Barrett S. FDA Orders Dr. Joseph Mercola to Stop Illegal Claims . Quackwatch. 6 September 2015. http://www.quackwatch.org/11Ind/mercola.html Retrieved 20 December 2015.

Cassell DK, Gleaves DH, The Encyclopeida of Obesity and Eating Disorders: Third Edition. New York: Facts on File. 2006.

Cook KA, Dobbs TE, Hlady W, et al. Outbreak of Salmonella Serotype Hartford Infections Associated With Unpasteurized Orange Juice. JAMA. 1998;280(17):1504-1509. doi:10.1001/jama.280.17.1504.

Dai Q, Borenstein AR, Wu Y, Jackson JC, Larson EB. Fruit and Vegetable Juices and Alzheimer’s Disease: The Kame Project. The American journal of medicine. 2006;119(9):751-759.

Fatsecret.com https://www.fatsecret.com/ Retrieved 23 December 2015.

Jamba Juice. http://www.jambajuice.com/menu-and-nutrition/menu/boosts/boosts. Retrieved 20 December 2015

Kelm H. A Reply To The American Psychiatric Association Task Force Report on Megavitamin and Orthomolecular Therapy in Psychiatry: The HOD Test” Orthomolecular Psychiatry 1978: 258–262.

MacVean M. Juicing Trend Still Going Strong in 2015. The Los Angeles Times. 29 January 2015. http://www.latimes.com/health/la-he-juice-20150131-story.html. Retrieved 19 December 2015.

Mercola J. Health Benefits of Juicing. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2015/04/11/health-benefits-juicing.aspx

Mercola J. Juicing : How Healthy is It?http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/04/19/juicing-benefits.aspx Retrieved 20 December 2015.

Mercola, Joseph. Malpractice settlement 23 December 204, $387,925. https://www.idfpr.com/Applications/ProfessionProfile/ProfileDetails.aspx Retrieved 21 December 2015.

Mohammadi D. You can’t detox your body. It’s a myth. So how do you get healthy? The Guardian. 5 December 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/dec/05/detox-myth-health-diet-science-ignorance. Retrieved 20 December 2015.

Omenn GS. Chemoprevention of lung cancers: lessons from CARET, the beta-carotene and retinol efficacy trial, and prospects for the future. 2007. European Journal of Cancer Prevention. 16:184-191.

Saul, A. http://www.andrewsaul.com/bio/. Retrieved 21 December 2015.

Tropicana. http://www.tropicana.com/#/trop_healthbenefits/hbMain.swf Retrieved 20 December 2015.

Watson R & Hodgekiss A. Fruit juice should not count in our five-a-day because some versions ‘contain as much sugar as fizzy drinks. Daily Mail. 10 February 2014
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2555758/Fruit-juice-NOT-count-five-day-versions-contain-sugar-fizzy-drinks.html#ixzz3vCiNcpyB. Retrieved 23 December 2015

Wilson J. Juicing Pros and Cons. CNN 11 April 2014. http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/11/health/juicing-pros-cons/ Retrieved 20 December 2015.

World Health Organization. Top Ten Causes of Death http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs310/en/ Retrieved 20 December 2015

 

All images public domain

©2015

 

 

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10 out of 10: The Risks and Misuse of Patient Satisfaction Data

Matt Freeman DNP, MPH

 

“10 Out of 10”

When I purchased a car some years ago, I remember it as a favorable experience. The saleswoman was organized, cheerful, and I was given a generous discount. But the experience left a bitter taste in my mouth. As I left, she said, “You will receive a survey soon. Be sure to give me  ’10 out of 10′ on everything or I will lose my job.”

It seemed a little hyperbolic. How could one survey wreck this woman’s livelihood?

A Vice President for the particular car manufacturer had gone to my school, and I decided to send him an email. He called me within the hour. “That’s not how this is supposed to work,” he said. “If we only got ’10 out of 10′ on everything, why would we bother asking?”

AutoShowroom

Aside from the expectation that all customers will give a perfect score, Likert scales are easily misinterpreted. One can picture “metrics” displayed in the break room of the auto dealership: “Our average satisfaction went up from a 9.0 to a 9.25 last month!”

This is miscalculation. One cannot take a mean or average score of Likert survey responses. Using means or averages makes an assumption of equidistance: the difference between a “7” and an “8” is assumed to be the same as the difference between an “8” and a “9.” There are statistical methods for analyzing Likert data, but these are often absent from social science research, so one would be unlikely to see robust statistical models at an auto dealership.

The greater question is, “What are you going to do with the information?” Let us imagine that the auto dealership was earning a “2” from most of its clientele. What can the sales personnel do to correct this? Be nicer? Offer candy? Flirt? The salespeople arguably have little control over the ratings that their customers submit. Perhaps there is a red flag if one salesperson uniformly gets lower scores than everyone else, but one would assume that there would be other indications of a problem, such as a poor sales record.

 

The “10 out of 10” Expectation is Dangerous in Healthcare

“Every patient after every visit.” It is a line I have heard from multiple directors of primary care services. “Everyone gets a survey.” The goal seems to be to a mass of data collection.

It is hard to see how this information would not be skewed. At one HMO where I was a patient, I was asked to check survey boxes before I had even met with the clinician who was to take care of me. Only the most daring patient would write anything negative while his or her doctor, nurse, or other provider was sitting right there.

One can see how the advance survey might work in a healthcare provider’s interest. A patient might be about to receive bad news: “Here, give me a 10 out of 10, and then I will tell you about your poor prognosis, or how I want you to quit smoking, why you need to exercise more, or whatever else you might not want to hear.”

Survey

In clinics where I have worked, patients were given slips of paper with Likert scores immediately after their visits. Although anonymous, the results were typically pointless: “20 people gave us ‘5 out of 5’ this week.” It provides a nice pat on the back, a reassurance to management that our patients appeared to be happy, and we could conveniently say, “We got the same great scores a year ago.”

Even those surveys that offered the option for narrative responses, these were not constructive. Patients might write, “Everything was fine,” or “I like nurse Beth.” Nice to know that Beth is appreciated, but there is nothing to do with this information.

 

Satisfaction and Wellness Can Be Inversely Related

In a study of 52,000 patients, researchers from the University of California Davis identified that patients with the highest satisfaction scores had a mortality risk 26 percent higher than less satisfied patients. The most satisfied patients were less likely to have emergency department visits, but were more likely to end up hospitalized, have greater healthcare costs, and be on more prescription medications.

There are multiple theories as to why the most satisfied patients are dying sooner. Researchers particularly identified prescription drug expenditures as an indication that patient expectation guides clinician behavior. A patient expects a certain medication, and is satisfied if the prescriber orders it without respect to cost, risk, or medical necessity.

The satisfied patient may also be hearing only what he or she wants to hear. In order to boost survey scores, providers may be ignoring more difficult conversations about adherence to medication regimes, lifestyle issues like weight or smoking, or similar concerns that could upset a patient.

One physician explained to me that he and his colleagues abbreviated their physical examinations because the momentary immodesty or embarrassment lowered their patient satisfaction numbers. It is rather like saying, “We stopped giving tetanus vaccines because patients might complain that their arms became sore.”

 

Pay for Performance

Two years ago, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) began including patient satisfaction into hospital reimbursement. The stakes are high: about $1 billion in annual hospital payments is based upon responses to a 27-question patient satisfaction survey. The survey is not the only “pay for performance” measure used; hospitals and their staff are also evaluated on their adherence to standards of care, and other presumably measurable elements of patient care. The patient satisfaction survey accounts for 30 percent of the “pay for performance” payments.

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Hospitals have struggled because patient satisfaction is unpredictable. Furthermore, patients are not admitted to the hospital for a positive experience. “Do you think it is a great experience when I tell you that you have stage-four cancer and you may be dead in three months?” explained a chief nursing officer.

Another nurse executive recalled a patient who was fortunate to survive a stroke but complained that the meals in the hospital were too cold. Surviving a life-threatening illness and receiving high-quality care for a stroke still cost the hospital a pay cut because the food was not to the patient’s satisfaction.

HospitalFood

The circumstances can be far more hazardous than just lukewarm hospital food. A nurse questioned a South Carolina emergency department physician when he ordered hydromorphone (Dilaudid) for a woman with a toothache. Hydromorphone is a powerful narcotic that is actually used in executions by lethal injection. The physician explained that his patient satisfaction scores had dropped in the past month, so he was making any effort to please patients, even if it was a bizarre choice of an unnecessary and potentially hazardous medication.

A family practice physician explained to me that he prescribes codeine cough syrup to every patient with a cough “because they enjoy it.” Although not as potent or as dangerous as hydromorphone, codeine carries many risks, and should only be prescribed if the patient needs it, not for a good time.

Dilaudid

A Cheating Culture

A hospital executive explained to me that nursing staff were calling recently discharged patients to “coach” them on patient satisfaction surveys. Although the mechanism was unclear, there were rumors that the hospital staff found a method to ensure that the most problematic patients never receive the survey. When so much money is at stake, it is unsurprising that healthcare facilities would turn to dishonesty to manipulate survey results.

The manipulation of survey data is not unlike the scandal-fraught “pay for performance” efforts in public schools. Michelle Rhee introduced an elaborate pay for performance strategy when she became Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools. Rhee had grand displays of $8,000 to $10,000 checks given to teachers and administrators when their students’ scores increased on standardized tests. Journalists from USA Today identified that teachers were “correcting” their students’ test responses. Once the District enacted a security policy that prevented tampering with test responses, the students’ test scores plummeted.

MichelleRhee

Michelle Rhee

 

The DCPS scandal was one of many. In 2013, Beverly Hall, Superintendent of the Atlanta schools, was indicted in a similar test manipulation scheme. When the financial stakes are so high, student achievement and ethics are cast aside. Dr. Hall herself received $500,000 in performance bonuses. She was described as a leader who, “allowed cheating—at all levels—to go unchecked for years.”

 

“Satisfaction” in the Healthcare Context

Aside from food served at the right temperature, how can healthcare providers and facilities ensure high satisfaction ratings and thus higher pay?

The first problem is that patients are usually sick! No relationship is going to feel particularly great if it is in the setting of an illness, needles, surgeries, tests, anxiety, and so forth. Furthermore, people who struggle with psychiatric disorders that affect interpersonal relationships are over-represented in primary care clinics. Studies have estimated an 18 to 26 percent prevalence of borderline personality disorder at a primary care clinics. That seems like an overstatement, but one could safely argue that a variety of psychiatric conditions are over-represented in those seeking primary health care.

If one is looking for favorable patient satisfaction survey results, looking to those who do not feel well or those with personality disorders would not be good choices.

IllPatient

In some instances, satisfaction survey tools and expectations are not designed by anyone with a healthcare background. In one practice where I worked, there was a “zero tolerance” policy for patient complaints. This is absurd. If one is ill, perspectives can be blurred: anxiety and depression can be exacerbated, patients and their families may seek to blame someone for an illness. Above all, the costs of healthcare can trigger complaints. I covered my own employees by “accidentally” failing to mention complaints. These were almost never substantive, and I often did not even bother telling the physician, psychologist, or nurse that anyone had bothered to complain. There was nothing to gain from the complaint other than anxiety and self-doubt.

I supervised one physician who was often the subject of complaints. Patients felt that he was not warm or engaging enough. He had a cerebral, introverted, and thoughtful approach. His medical judgment was sound, and he had a fantastic sense of humor. He had top-ranked credentials, and offered meaningful insight when we worked together as a team. What was I going to do with the complaints? Turn to him and say, “Change your personality. Watch this video about how to be more ebullient or I will cut your pay.” I never said a word to him.

Anyone who has worked as a healthcare provider or in healthcare management recognizes that “10 out of 10” from every patient is an unreasonable expectation.

 
“It Was a Pleasure to Participate in Your Care Today”

My Israeli colleagues were teary-eyed with laughter when they watched American instructional videos about how to improve their relationships with patients. The videos seemed to imply that one had endless time during visits, and that “canned” statements replaced authenticity. They were must amused by running consent narrative that was deemed to be satisfaction enhancing. “I would now going to look into you ear, is that okay with you Mrs. Johnson?” It is hard to imagine that Mrs. Johnson really cared that much; she probably just wanted her earache to go away.

A friend at a large university medical center is required to conclude every visit with, “It was a pleasure participating in your care today.”

Instructional videos, workshops, and guides designed to elicit higher patient satisfaction omit variation among clinicians as well as a critical force in the provider/patient relationship: authenticity. It seems self-explanatory that patients would rather converse with a real person rather than someone using pre-programmed speech and phrases.

Asking permission to look in someone’s ear or the odd expression of “pleasure” in participating in a patient’s care overlook the more critical role in better patient care: shared goals. One would assume that the most satisfied patients have their needs met. A patient may need to just talk, may just need pain control, or may need reassurance that his or her symptoms will improve with time. A savvy clinician seeks to establish to make shared goals and expectations.

I have worked with adolescents and young adults for 15 years, and I have seen thousands of patients for pre-participation examinations for athletics. My usual line is, “Are you the kind of patient who would like a ‘play by play’ explanation of what I’m doing, or have you done this a lot before, and would you prefer me to just ‘get it over with?” Patients almost invariably choose the latter. In other words, the patient’s goal is to just get out of there with their paperwork signed. That scenario is never presented in patient satisfaction training modules.

 

Weighing Medical Judgment, Ethics, and Scores

Sometimes the signature is not an option. Saying “no” is a part of medicine. What if the teenager or young adult does not meet the medical requirements for the particular sport? You can forget customer satisfaction. The patient (and probably his or her parents) just wanted a signature regardless of the sound reasons to be concerned about the patient’s health. Even if the answer is a request for prior records, a chance to talk with another healthcare provider, or an additional test, the visit is catastrophic from a satisfaction standpoint. Cheerleading practice starts this afternoon, and the doctor just told the cheerleader that she has to wait until the x-ray results are back because her wrist appears broken. There will not be a “10 out of 10” for the doctor that day, and he or she may face a pay cut because of it.

In a similar example, patients with sleep apnea are required to undergo a commercial driving license examination every year instead of every two years. If a healthcare provider wanted higher satisfaction scores, he or she would be wise to ignore the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration guidance and issue a two-year license. But this action puts patient expectation and satisfaction a priority over the safety of the patient and the public.

Like a teacher in Washington or Atlanta shortchanging students’ educations in exchange for financial incentives, a doctor can easily be lured by the threat of a poor survey response. Maybe he or she will “accidentally” overlook a broken wrist or sleep apnea, or just not examine the patient’s wrists or ask about sleep apnea. Then everyone can be happy about the outcome of the visit. Attention to medical ethics and the long-term consequences to individual and public health do not provide cash incentives.

Patients may ask for medications that may harm them, tests they do not need, approval to continue health-compromising behavior, unlimited access to their providers, and other unrealistic expectations. Of course one should say “no” with a combination of professionalism and problem solving. But the answer is still “no,” regardless of how gently and sensitively the message is conveyed.

 

Online Reviews

Satisfaction surveys  impact reimbursement directly. Online reviews can prevent patients from coming in the first place, equally affecting a clinician’s income livelihood.

Yelp.com is the leader in online reviews. As with all of its reviews, Yelp does not verify if a patient was even a patient at all. Anyone can write a review any time. Restaurant owners bemoan Yelp reviews in which customers complain about the salmon but the restaurant does not even serve salmon. The same applies in healthcare: a Yelp reviewer does not even have to have met the doctor better yet visited as a patient.

In my case, Yelp was an invaluable resource. Without any money paid to Yelp, I ended up getting ranked “#1 Best Doctor” in my city. Patients flooded in. But it was not really fair. I was happy to have the business, but the Yelp reviews had nothing to do with my clinical acumen, education, or other abilities. In fact, subsequent practices consulted my Yelp reviews when they made the decisions to hire me.

Yelp

Some cases were baffling: one woman wrote about a negative experience with me but continued to see me as a patient. Although I did everything possible to remain objective, I desperately wanted to say, “You defamed me in a permanent, public fashion, and now you want me to treat you?” I quietly ignored the review since Yelp is theoretically anonymous. This also exemplifies the over-representation of borderline personality traits or borderline personality disorder in primary care (borderline patients tend to follow the pattern of, “I hate you; don’t leave me.”)

Yelp could have easily broken my practice, income, and future employment. A handful of negative reviews, and five stars drop to four. Yelp and other online review sites have proliferated, so one can only hope that favorable reviews outnumber the duds.

 

Empowerment versus Manipulation

Patients who are aware of the financial implications of an unfavorable survey or Yelp review can influence the objectivity of their care, even if it is to their own detriment.

A friend told me of a patient who threatened his primary care provider with a negative online review. Consequently the practice overlooked the patient’s unpaid bills and withheld addressing his poor adherence to medications and markedly unhealthy lifestyle. He was to receive large discounts and only good news about his health.

Another former colleague faced a woman who snapped, “I’m going on line and telling everyone about you” because she did not receive the antibiotic she thought she deserved.

In the expanding dictionary of medical slang, the most frightening patients are referred to as “bcc.” This refers to the email selection of “blind carbon copy,” a patient who says nothing to his or her treating provider but submits a negative survey response or derogatory online review.

A friend outside of the medical profession asked me if I ever felt badgered in to ordering an inappropriate test or prescribing the wrong medication due to fears of a negative survey or review. “Absolutely!” I replied. He was shocked. “The customer is always right, even when the customer is a patient and you are trying to keep him healthy.”

Patient satisfaction is not to be confused with patient empowerment. The empowered patient is an active participant in his or her care, knowledgeable about his or her health status, assertive, asking questions, and willing to request a second opinion. This is reasonable and helpful.

My least favorite patients say, “Whatever you say.” I would much rather have a patient who is willing to say, “I was reading about this before I came in.” That way, I know what might be worrying the patient, what tests or medications the patient expects, and might shed light on a diagnosis or treatment that I had not considered.

The empowered patient is not threatening or manipulative like a “bcc.” He or she is honest and informed, and expectations are articulated. Above all, an empowered patient feels safe asserting his or knowledge, needs, concerns, or even misgivings. An empowered patient is not necessarily going to balk if a doctor contradicts what the patient anticipates.

The manipulative patient may or may not voice his or her expectations, unreasonable expectations, a personality disorder, or any other confluence of factors that can lead to dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction can result in a form of “acting out:” the patient can argue that he or she has leverage in the form of surveys and reviews.

 

Moving Forward

Reviews and surveys have become embedded in American culture, and they are unlikely to go anywhere. But there are a few steps that could help make better use of the data collected:

  • Satisfaction scores should never be tied to compensation. This leaves far too much room for cheating, and it can produce a culture in which patients are given inappropriate or even dangerous medications, tests, procedures, and advice.
  • “Every patient, every time” collects an extraordinary amount of data, but it is unclear about how this can be used to improve patient experience. As with any survey tool, the first question to ask is, “How are we going to act on the results after we analyze the data?”
  • “10 out of 10” from every patient is unreasonable, and is incompatible with safe, effective healthcare. As the auto manufacturer vice president put it, “What is the point of asking if you get a perfect 10 every time?”
  • Any use of Likert scores should employ sound statistical models.
  • Canned phrases like, “It was a pleasure participating in your care” can be demeaning to patients. These really just indicate that the healthcare provider went through a training course, and that he or she is likely subject to evaluation. Authentic, genuine, honest, and respectful communication should be the expectation.
  • Healthcare providers and their employers have to remember that Yelp and similar online review sites are not a reliable measure of provider performance. In fact, healthcare facilities and providers should take the lead by educating the public on how online reviews maybe skewed. I write this knowing that Yelp was invaluable to me as I built a practice.
  • Except in emergencies, patients overwhelmingly have a choice in providers and facilities. If a patient is dissatisfied, he or she would be wise to just seek care elsewhere. Just as if one did not like the steak served at a restaurant, it seems wiser to go somewhere else next time rather than berate the chef in a satisfaction survey.

 

References

Adamy J. US Ties Hospital Payments to Making Patients Happy. The Wall Street Journal. 14 October 2012. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10000872396390443890304578010264156073132. Retrieved 11 December 2014.

Falkenberg K. Why Raiting Your Doctor Is Bad For Your Health. Forbes. 2 January 2013. http://www.forbes.com/sites/kaifalkenberg/2013/01/02/why-rating-your-doctor-is-bad-for-your-health/. Retrieved 11 December 2014.

Fausset R. Central Figure in the Atlanta Schools Cheating Scandal Dies. The New York Times. 2 March 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/03/us/central-figure-in-the-atlanta-schools-cheating-scandal-dies.html?_r=0. Retrieved 11 December 2014.

Fenton JJ, Jerant AF, Bertakis KD, & Franks P. The Cost of Satisfaction: A National Study of Patient Satisfaction, Health Care Utilization, Expenditures, and Mortality. Arch Intern Med. 2012; 172(5):405-411.

Gross R, Olson M, Gameroff M, Shea M, Feder, A, Fuentes M, Lantigua, M & Weissman M. Borderline Personality Disorder in Primary Care. Arch Intern Med. 2002; 162(1):53-60.

Whitmire R. The Bee Eater. New York, NY: Jossey-Bass. 2013.

©2014

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