Friday, November 14, 2008

Hospital Drug Deals

My in-laws' lengthy hospitalization at Inlaks in Pune exposed me to the gamut of practices and attitudes of the doctors prescribing drugs. Most of my observations are applicable to medical practitioners elsewhere in India and the world, including in the US. An eye-opener for me is how largely unseen doctors like pathologists can steer expensive drugs to patients.

But first the main takeaway: it can help a lot to seek multiple inputs, even informally, especially when expensive drugs or treatment are involved. I managed to identify some good and caring doctors and asked them questions like, "If our patient were your own parent, then what would you do or advise?"

As elsewhere, the Inlaks doctors can be divided according to their prescribing behavior into three types.

Type 1 had close ties with the pharma reps who frequent hospital hallways and waiting areas. These doctors aggressively prescribed expensive brand name drugs (when cheaper generics or substitutes were available), and especially so if you appeared to be a patient of some means. My in-laws were regarded as such because Anita and I live in the US.

Type 2 were the bystanders or silent collaborators of the Type 1's. They didn't actively push the most (unnecessarily) expensive drugs themselves, but tended to concur with colleagues who did, when specifically pressed on the issue, or consulted for a second opinion.

Type 3 were the ones I truly liked and respected. They were strongly guided by their patients' physical as well as financial well-being. They recommended expensive drugs and treatments if they felt we could afford these, AND if these had significant advantages over cheaper options. They also laid out any trade offs fairly. More importantly, they were uncomfortable enough with the behavior of Type 1's to be willing to call them out.

My sense of the Inlaks doctors is that about 20% of them are Type 1, 70% are Type 2 and 10% are Type 3. Dr. Y, a Type 3 whom I came to like a lot wryly noted that most doctors will support their colleagues because they expect to be similarly served when their own actions are questioned. That's why there are so many Type 2's, apart from this being the path of least resistance.

I had noteworthy experiences with some Type 1 and Type 3 doctors.

I regretfully categorized Dr. R as a Type 1 because he otherwise had many positives. He was highly experienced and competent, with a great bedside manner. It was his quick conclusion that Daddy may need emergency surgery, his ordering immediate tests and alerting the surgeon Dr. P that helped saved Daddy's life. Dr. R also sized up Mummy's condition and treatment well. But he spent much more time with pharma reps than his colleagues did. He prescribed a lot of expensive drugs for Daddy that his colleagues felt were unnecessary, or where cheaper substitutes could have worked as well. It's possible that Dr. R genuinely believed in the greater efficacy of the more expensive options, but I sought other opinions to settle nagging doubts.

It was also revealing to see how the Inlaks pathologist Dr. A and his staff from behind the scenes could foist expensive drugs on to patients. Their role may or may not have been in concert with others like Dr. R. Dr. A performed culture and sensitivity tests on Daddy's sputum and other samples. In this, the harmful bacteria present in the sample is cultured for 2-3 days and tested with various antibiotics to see which ones kill it and should be given. The only thing is, Dr. A only tested some of the costliest versions of some drug categories, and omitted the cheap ones that may have worked just as well.

Such practices create broader problems that go beyond draining patients financially. You, see, a lot of these costly new drugs have been introduced to combat germs that are resistant to the cheap conventional ones. They should be sparingly used only when others don't work, or else we'll quickly end up with bacterial strains that are resistant to the new drugs as well.

Case in point: Dr. A's lab tested tigecyclin to combat Daddy's infection caused by the pseudomonas bacterium. This tigecyclin is a tetracyclin-variant drug patented by Wyeth. It was shown to work, but costed $500 - $700, and they never tested for basic tetracyclin or its off-patent versions like doxycycline that cost as little as $20.

I learned about this only because I routinely sought out the opinions of other doctors, two of whom turned out to be Type 3's. One was Daddy's surgeon, Dr. P whom I've talked about in the previous post. The other was Dr. Y in the ICU who was passionate about his patients and visibly worked up over any instances of their inadequate care by the hospital staff.

I asked Dr. A why the much cheaper alternatives to tigecyclin were not tested on Daddy's sputum sample. Dr. A's unsatisfactory response was that he stocked a limited number of drugs for testing, and that his lab "did not concern itself with the costs (of the drugs)." When I expressed my dissatisfaction he agreed to test a fresh sputum sample against drugs that other doctors suggested, like doxycyclin, so I had a fresh sample submitted. But we still had to start Daddy's treatment with the costly tigecyclin since we couldn't wait another 2 - 3 days for the new culture and sensitivity results.

Then Dr. A quietly "rejected" Daddy's new sputum sample as being insufficient in quantity and discarded it without testing. By then it was too late to test another sample since Daddy's tigecyclin treatment had already started and killed off the invading pathogens.

I'm convinced Dr. A acted this way to avoid being exposed if the cheap doxycyclin turned out to be just as effective as tigecyclin. I voiced my concerns to the Inlaks Medical Superintendent who oversees all medical matters. She promised to thoroughly look into these practices though I wonder if anything came of it.

What I do know is the immense value of identifying and dealing with Type 3 doctors. I relied on four of them at Inlaks - apart from Dr. P and Dr. Y, there was the head of surgery Dr. L and orthopedic surgeon Dr. D. Even though we ended up using tigecyclin we were spared other unnecessary treatments.

But being a Type 3 isn't easy. I could see the pressure on Dr. P who was Daddy's attending physician. Guided by his convictions Dr. P would cut out treatments (especially costly ones) that he felt were unnecessary. This often put him at odds with more senior colleagues like Dr. R who could impact his professional career, yet he followed his conscience. I hope he and others like him are appreciated and do well.

No comments: