For Robert Fogerty, MD, MPH, it’s more than just a story. It’s a nightmare that he only narrowly avoided.
Now a hospitalist at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn., Dr. Fogerty was an economics major in his senior year of college when he was diagnosed with metastatic testicular cancer. Early in the course of his treatment, amid multiple rounds of chemotherapy and before a major surgery, his insurance company informed him that his benefits had been exhausted. Even with family resources, the remaining bills would have been crippling. Luckily, he went to college in Massachusetts, where a state law allowed him to enroll in an individual insurance plan by exempting him from the normal pre-existing condition exclusion. Two years later, he got his life back in order and enrolled in medical school.
“What stuck with me is, yes, I was sick, and yes, I lost all my hair, and yes, I went to my final exams bald with my nausea medicine and my steroids in my pocket and all of those things,” he says. “But after that was all gone, after my hair grew back, and I had my last chemo and my surgery, and I was really starting to get my life back on track, the financial implications of that disease were still there. The financial impact of my illness outlasted the pathological impact of my illness, and the financial burdens could easily have been just as life-altering as a permanent disability.”
Although he was “unbelievably lucky” to escape with manageable medical bills, Dr. Fogerty says, other patients haven’t been as fortunate. That lesson is why he identifies so much with his patients. It’s why he posted his own story to the Costs of Care website, which stresses the importance of cost awareness in healthcare. And it’s why he has committed himself to helping other medical students and residents “remove the blinders” to understand healthcare’s often devastating financial impact.
“When I was going through my residency, I learned a lot about low sodium, and I learned a lot about bloodstream infections and what to do when someone can’t breathe and how to do a skin exam, and all of these things,” Dr. Fogerty says. “But all of these other components that were so devastating to me as a patient weren’t really a main portion of the education that we’re providing tomorrow’s doctors. I thought that was an opportunity to really change things."
By combining his clinical and economics expertise, Dr. Fogerty helped to develop a program called the Interactive Cost-Awareness Resident Exercise, or I-CARE. Launched in 2011, I-CARE seeks to make the abstract problem of healthcare costs—including unnecessary ones—more accessible to trainees. The concept is deceptively simple: Residents compete to see who can reach the correct diagnosis for a given case using the fewest possible resources.
By talking through each case, both trainees and faculty can discuss concepts like waste prevention and financial stewardship in a safe environment. Giving young doctors that “basic set of vocabulary,” Dr. Fogerty says, may help them engage in real decisions later on about a group or health system’s financial pressures and obligations.
The program has since spread to other medical centers, and what began as a cost-awareness exercise has blossomed into a broader discussion about minimizing the cost and burden to patients while maximizing safety and good medicine. TH