Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A “Bitter Pill”: Weighing In On Our Broken Healthcare System

An article in Time Magazine (titled “Bitter Pill”) recently chronicled the high costs of medication and other hospital services.

For those of us who are chronically ill, we know all too well that the financial costs of healthcare are extremely high, and can add a lot of stress to an already over-taxing situation.  So too are the emotional costs. 

It’s stressful when things don’t go the way you planned.  And I don’t just mean medications working the way they’re supposed to, test results, etc., I mean something as basic as procuring a prescription.  And it’s not just that these experiences are annoying.  They are unnecessary. 

Here’s an example:

When I started a new medication a few months ago, I was told that the prescription had been submitted to the hospital pharmacy where my rheumatologist’s office is.  I went to the pharmacy, and of course, they had no record of the prescription. 

I went up to my rheum’s office and talked to a receptionist.  I was informed that the prescription had been accidentally submitted to the student health center pharmacy, and that my doctor would have to redo the whole thing.

You would have thought I was a drug addict “jonesing for a fix”.  I’m not.  The problem was that there are very specific instructions for lab work that has to occur at certain times and at regular intervals.  To make it easier on myself, I had decided to do the blood work on Tuesdays, as I am already at the hospital to volunteer.  If I wouldn’t have been able to get the medication, I would have had to change my whole plan.

I called the student health center and they confirmed three things I pretty much already knew:

   1)      They could not fill this prescription because they do not stock the medication.

   2)     My insurance would only cover the prescription at a specialty pharmacy, which the student health center is not.

   3)     Because my doctor does not practice at the student health center, they could not have filled the prescription anyway, regardless of numbers 1 and 2 just mentioned.

So why did the system even allow it to get submitted there in the first place?

Ultimately, despite what I had been told, the student health center was able to call the hospital pharmacy and transfer the prescription over.  And I was able to get it that day.  But what started out as a 15-minute errand, turned into a nearly two-hour ordeal.

This directly speaks to the use of technology in the healthcare realm.  For the first time, patients are able to interact with their medical records and health information in truly amazing ways.  However, this technology has its pros and cons.  I talked about this at length in my post, “The Trials And Tribulations Of Electronic Medical Records And E-Prescribing* **”. 

As I suggested in that post, E-Prescribing doesn’t seem to work very well.  If you cannot get all of your prescriptions at one pharmacy, this is not something the system can deal with.  Similarly, the system defaults in ways that can cause the wrong pharmacy to be chosen or the wrong medication, wrong dose, wrong administration, etc. 

This technology makes doctors lazy.  They type stuff in without making sure that what gets submitted is correct.  And that’s what happened in this case. Because UMHS and UHS are very similar, my rheum thought he had selected one, when he had actually selected the other.

Then these things get sent out into the ether, and you only find out if there is a problem when you go to pick up the prescription and it hasn’t been filled for whatever reason.

And then it becomes the patient’s job to slog through the system to find out what went wrong where, and what can be done to fix the problem.

And since some insurance companies require different pharmacies for certain medications, drug interactions are a real concern, especially when the patient deals with four separate pharmacies for their various medications.

If that’s not stressful, I don’t know what is.  It means that the patient – who is often sick, tired, and unable to be a real advocate – really has to be on top of everything. 

On the one hand, you would think that it’s great to be an empowered patient with the technology that is available, but the way the system works has the opposite effect, and in fact, can be very disempowering. 

When obtaining a new prescription is like running a marathon, it’s very easy to want to beg out.  It’s overwhelming.  In some ways, the big things should be stressful, but these little things should not have to happen at all. 

I can’t imagine what it’s like for those who can’t do what I did or don’t have someone to do it for them, to hunker down and wait until the situation is resolved.  Not that I enjoy spending hours going on a wild goose chase, because I absolutely don’t, but I can.  I don’t take no for an answer.

It’s not easy to be chronically ill.  It’s downright stressful.  That’s why these “small” stresses brought upon by the healthcare system are so maddening.  Is it too much to ask for something to go smoothly, just once?  Yes, apparently it is.

Sometimes too much technology is a bad thing.  While, again, I do think that there are definite benefits to patients having so much of a direct connection to their health information, I also think that the system, as it currently stands, relies too much on technology that isn’t designed to deal with the nuances that come with having a chronic illness.   

Technology is supposed to make things easier, and maybe as far as healthcare is concerned, it does in the realm where healing time is quickened, procedures are made less invasive, things like that.  But in the realm that is the doctor, the patient, insurance companies, and the receptionists and pharmacists, it makes things more complicated.

Sometimes I want to scream, “Just give me a damned piece of paper.”  That’s an old-fashioned notion, I know.  But if I, the patient, could take the prescription to the correct pharmacy on the first try, it would certainly make things less stressful.  Or if I had that paper, and three prescriptions need to go to three different pharmacies, I could take care of that – and get it right – on my own. 

I think the most stressful part about this, however, is that in some ways, my life is in the hands of these people, and they don’t get it, they could care less.  The sense of urgency that I feel doesn’t register in their world.  So I take control.  I have to be my own – and best – advocate.  And yet, no matter how I hard I try, I sometimes find myself on the losing end anyway. 

Chronic illness is stressful.  And it would be nice if just once in awhile, one of the many people in the healthcare arena got it.  That they could feel your pain, or sense your frustration, and offer to lighten the load a bit.  But that rarely happens.  Instead, I’m stuck talking to technology that doesn’t respond.  I’m fighting a system that cannot be fought.  And while I appreciate the technological advances, I have seen firsthand, time and time again, the wisdom of a paper prescription that your doctor has to write out and sign.  That you agree to the terms and leave, prescription in hand, feeling empowered, feeling like the master of your dominion. 

Instead, I feel like a lame duck, like I’m stuck in a cycle of ridiculousness.  I leave feeling acutely that I’m chronically ill, knowing that my healthy counterparts deal with the system so much less often, and probably much more smoothly on the occasions that they do.

So my pills are a constant reminder of the struggle I face.  Even though they may be hard to get my hands on, I swallow them dutifully, albeit, even though they leave a bitter taste in my mouth, the remnant of fighting for my health and my life, in a system that seems to serve everyone other than the patient.


  1. I just went through this very thing! My dr's office submitted a script to my regular in town pharmacy instead of to my mail order provider. And of course my insurance wasn't going to pay for that, so it went round and round between the dr's office and the pharmacies! So aggravating!

  2. Yikes! I am sorry you had to be on the receiving end of a novice process. I am a nurse working in the health IT field. I too have a chronic illness - Crohns. I can only imagine what you felt like. I am sorry the system failed you. If I can share any hope is that as healthcare providers get used to using systems and as patients like us begin having more access to our records through the use of patient portals healthcare providers will have to be more accountable for their mistakes and pay more attention to detail. I know it's hard as a clinicians to be on high alert for everything since I used to work at the bedside but in time systems will become more familiar to everyone.