Missing Pieces of Health Reform

At a briefing in Washington DC this morning, two very well respected and reasonable economists talked about how the increasing prevalence of chronic diseases and care delivery in outpatient settings are driving up costs in Medicare.  They also asserted that a greater focus on real cost containment – and possibly cost reduction – should be the focus of health reform, and that this could be achieved by increasing team based care coordination and increasing personal responsibility for care and costs, among other focused initiatives that might require political courage…..which one of them noted appears to be currently in short supply.

Their conclusions and analyses are all well reasoned and reasonable, but having listened to these types of analyses and briefings for more than 20 years I was stuck by two things.  First, what they were saying wasn’t significantly different from what people had been saying for, well, more than 20 years.  And second, like most presentations about health reform, they focused on what needs to be changed but didn’t talk about how to create that change – except to focus on altering economic incentives.  (It is worth noting that one of the panelists recommended that government programs such as Medicare should consider not just creating incentives for people and providers to do certain things, (like use electronic medical records),  but rather should say, “if you want to get paid by us, you will do things this way.” Clearly this type of ‘my way or the highway’ approach can be effective, but it also faces much higher political barriers because it could result in a number of doctors and other care providers being excluded from Medicare.)

Motivators Other Than Economic Incentives
What also struck me about their focusing on economic incentive as the driver of change is that this can work for some people and organizations, but in healthcare, there are other factors driving people’s behavior – particularly the behavior of patients and community practicing physicians.  For patients, if they were to act the way economic models would predict, (i.e., always in their best economic interests), everyone would brush their teeth and floss more often, exercise regularly and rarely eat anything that came out of a frozen box or a deep fryer.  But such economic modeling assuming that people act based upon full knowledge AND that their economic interests are the overriding force behind their decisions.  And in the real world, neither of those assumptions are true.

So what’s missing from the health reform prescriptions based upon changing economic incentives for physicians, patients and others?  First,  increasing relevant and useful information can help increase the impact of whatever economic incentives are created.  For example, showing physicians that their practice patterns are different that their local peers can help motivate them to change how they care for certain conditions in ways that economic incentives may not.

And second, non-economic motivators for behavior change can be created that are aligned with  financial incentives (and disincentives) to change actions and attitudes.  These types of motivators are particularly important for individuals – whether they be patients or individual physicians.  In addition, initiatives to change individual behaviors and actions need to recognize the 80-20 rule, where 80% of people go one way and 20% don’t.  In promoting care delivery changes it might be more accurate to call it the 10-70-20 rule, where 10% of clinicians are early adopters, followed by another 70%, with 20% resisting the adoption.  Thus, the key to changing clinical practices at the individual level, (i.e. getting real world clinicians to adopt the care practices of “evidence based medicine” that health reformers talk about), is to get the early adopters to rapidly adopt the better care practices, and for them to become active  teachers and proselytizers for these changes with the receptive 70% of their peers.  (Note: the early adopting 10% are sometimes called change agents or agents of change.)

The remaining 20% who resist change should slowly be convinced by their peers resulting in longer term improvements. And in the shorter term, getting 80% adoption of changed care practices that improve quality and reduce costs would equate to some tremendous improvements for patients and society.

Returning to the Book
How to develop and implement initiatives involving such non-economic motivators and pair them with economic incentives to transform healthcare delivery – resulting in increased quality and reduced costs – is a core part of the book I’ve been writing.  Unfortunately, I’ve been trying to figure out how to make the book relevant within the rapidly evolving health reform environment over the last 2+ years.  Now that the dynamic has shifted back to fiscal responsibility and cost containment, and health policy is all about health politics, it may be time to finish the book so that it will be available for policy makers and stakeholders when health reform initiatives return in 2011 and beyond. If you have any thoughts or suggestions about these issues or the book, please feel free to comment here or contact me at the physical or email addresses on my contact page.

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