Cutting Employer Healthcare Costs

Over the past 20+ years larger companies have tried many tactics to control the growth of their healthcare spending, including HMOs, consumer-directed healthcare, wellness programs, value-based insurance design, selective contracting for high-cost procedures, personal health assessments, etc.  While some of those efforts temporarily reduced employers’ healthcare spending, they did not change the long-term trends, in part because they only targeted employees and did not focus on high or very high cost individuals – many of whom are not active workers. [A recent Health Affairs article analyzing conditions associated with employee healthcare spending reflects this “searching under the streetlamp” phenomenon.]

Company Health Benefit Costs Do Not Equal Employees’ Healthcare Spending

The cost of providing health benefits for most larger companies includes not only the health benefits for employees, but also costs for retirees, and spouses and dependents of active workers. In addition, these “other” groups represent a disproportionate amount of health benefits costs because they are generally older and/or in poorer health. The importance of this factor is depicted in the chart below that illustrates how healthcare spending is not uniform across a group of people, e.g., all the individuals covered by a company’s health plan, or Medicare beneficiaries. While the actual spending per person changes significantly depending on the specific group, the general shape of the curve remains the same with about 5-10% of the people accounting for 20-40% of all the spending. For companies’ health benefit programs – as mentioned above – retirees, spouses and dependents make up a disproportionate share of individuals in the yellow and red zones.

[Y-Axis = Percentage of spending;  X-Axis = Percentage of people in the group]

In addition, these high cost individuals are also the people who have the most complicated (and usually chronic) healthcare problems, and thus whose healthcare quality and health status can be improved the most.

Challenges in Targeting High Cost Individuals

Companies have typically focused health improvement and wellness initiatives on active workers because they were the individuals the company had the greatest direct interaction with, i.e., they were the people seen in the workplace. This situation reflects the analogy about potential analytical biases where a person will search for dropped keys under the streetlight because that is the only visible area, i.e. information about what is outside the arc of the streetlight is unavailable.*

[Source: “Fixing the US Healthcare System,” 2008 – Unpublished]

While some employers are starting to focus initiatives on high and very high cost individuals, they face several challenges in creating and implementing these programs.  For example, since these individuals are more likely to be spouses, dependents or retirees under the age of 65, it can be more difficult for companies to reach them.  Other challenges that companies’ health benefits programs face in interacting more closely with these people are:

  • HIPAA privacy concerns.
  • For retirees under the age of 65, expecting that they will soon by on Medicare, and thus the company may not see any economic benefits.
  • Lack of potential benefits to the company by improving health and productivity for people who are not active workers. (However, improving the health of high cost dependents and spouses of active workers can reduce the employees’ absenteeism by decreasing the time they spend providing caregiving and care-assisting help to their family members.)

How to Improve Health Delivery and Control Spending for High Cost Individuals

Controlling healthcare spending for high cost people is not easy, nor is it inexpensive. Actions to control spending for these individuals generally involves making care more efficient and reducing errors and complications – which also improves the individual’s health status, i.e. it is a Win-Win situation with improved clinical and economic outcomes.

Specific actions to control spending for high cost individuals includes initiatives such as:

  • Case management e.g., nurse case management and/or tele-medicine
  • Team based care e.g., patient-centered medical homes
  • Integrated care e.g., quality monitoring and fiscal incentives for quality and economic performance

The common theme among these actions is that they are all designed to ensure that nothing falls through the cracks leading to very expensive cascades of poor clinical outcomes and complications. An additional benefit is that these initiatives can also help direct care for people with costly chronic conditions towards the places/locations/providers that are more efficient and higher quality – and often less costly. (Some companies are doing this for elective surgeries, and incentivizing individuals to use specified providers by offering reduced or zero cost sharing, as well as paying their travel costs.)

Does Better Care for High Cost Individuals Pay Dividends?

Financial calculations can quantify the direct value of these efforts. For example if high and very high cost individuals are costing the company more than $10,000 or $25,000 per year, an investment of $1,000, (such as for intensive case management), that reduces spending by 10% provides at least a break-even ROI.  Spending reductions of this magnitude are very achievable for people with complicated diabetes or congestive heart failure. And some healthcare innovations have been shown to reduce spending by 20-30% for people with those conditions. However, not all “case management” or “disease management” programs are the same. As a general rule, “you get what you pay for,” i.e., programs that are less expensive and/or not integrated into the patient’s healthcare team-flow, tend to not benefit individuals with serious chronic illnesses – or deliver a positive ROI. (This was evident in the Medicare Case Management Demo I referenced in a 2009 article on this blog.)

Of course, not all people who fall into the high cost category can have their spending easily controlled through better case management or integrated team-based care. Thus, companies will not see a positive ROI through better healthcare management for all high cost individuals. Some diseases and conditions are just unexpected, inherently expensive, or have long lag times before positive benefits are seen. For example, cancer rates (and spending) can be reduced through exercise, nutrient and smoking cessation – as well as early detection – but the timeframe for those improvements can be long.

Accidents outside the workplace are also frequently cited as high cost medical cases that cannot be prevented. However, alcohol (or abuse of other substances) and/or mental health conditions are often contributing factors for accidents – factors which can be addressed through the healthcare system.  Unfortunately, because of the fuzziness of the ROI calculations, privacy issues, or other concerns, these areas have not generally been a focus for employers.  In addition, in some professions, these medical problems can lead to loss of employment or advancement opportunities, making them especially difficult to address as part of a person’s comprehensive medical care.

Identifying High Cost Cases

Before value-producing interventions can help high cost individuals, these people need to be identified so that they can be engaged to participate in these programs. Fortunately, there are increasingly sophisticated and efficient ways to identify high cost people:

  • Claims analysis conducted by the employer’s insurance company.  (Having the insurance company analyze the claims data creates an important information firewall to address HIPAA privacy concerns. Because of privacy issues, an insurance company – or managed care company – is also in a better position to directly contact and engage individuals for participation in any programs.)
  • EMR database analysis by individual health systems or large provider groups.
  • Asking physicians to identify their medically fragile and high utilizing patients, and then engaging/enrolling them in the appropriate care management programs.  (However, this approach works best for community-wide initiatives rather than individual employer populations since it could be inefficient and unusual for physicians to separately analyze or engage their patients by employer.)

Preventing High Cost Situations

A related set of challenges is identifying people who are not yet high cost individuals, but are sliding toward that end of the scale, (e.g., pre-diabetes, unrecognized diabetes, high blood pressure, smokers, etc.), and preventing them from becoming high cost cases. Some individuals may be easy to identify, (particularly with a high quality EMR system that can do practice-wide analyses), but changing an individual’s potential healthcare trajectory is hard. Changing community norms and expectations for smoking, exercise, and nutrition can be effective foundational actions – and are good initiatives for reaching non-workers such as retirees and spouses.  However, changing personal behaviors on a shorter time frame generally requires one-on-one engagement and encouragement.  This can start with the person’s medical care team, with a non-physician clinician, (such as a diabetic educator, nurse specialist, or health coach), who can provide on-going support as well as referrals to services and resources in the community through organizations such as the YMCA.


Controlling the long term growth of the cost of employers’ health benefits programs, (i.e., bending the “cost curve”), requires focusing on individuals who are costing the most, as well as preventing individuals who are smoldering with early-stage or unrecognized conditions from exploding into expensive complex chronic disease situations.  For self-insured companies, investing in disease and case management programs, tools, and services requires resources, spine, and compassion, but the financial and human-value returns (including company loyalty and appreciation) can be significant. Few smaller companies can marshal the time and resources for these programs, but as technology improves and health insurance markets become more efficient, these services should become more readily available through purchased insurance products – including those offered through the ACA created state-based insurance exchanges.  This should happen with the next 2-5 years since, “it’s where the money is.”


* The parable about looking for lost keys on a street at night illustrates the pitfalls of operating with limited information while trying to solve a problem.  The tendency is to look under the streetlights because that is the only place where you can easily see, i.e., this is where there is easy access to the “data” about what is on the ground to see if the keys are there or not. However, it is also possible that the keys are outside of the corona of the streetlights.  But looking outside those circles takes both imagination to realize that the street exists outside the circles of light, having access to data about what lies outside the circle of light, (possibly with “technology” such as a flashlight), and making the effort to seek and understand this “new” data. [Source: “Fixing the US Healthcare System,” 2008 – Unpublished]

Doctors are Not Terrorists, But…….

Changing behavior is very complex.  Many management books, philosophical tomes, and academic psychology articles have been written on this subject, so I’m going to simply and quickly get to the connections among doctors, terrorists, and health reform.

1. Changing people’s behavior requires appealing to basic motivating factors. Different individuals have different motivators, but everyone has them.

2. Physicians are a key part of the healthcare system.  Improving quality and controlling healthcare spending will require physicians to do some things differently – particularly how they work with other clinicians (i.e., in teams), prescribe treatments, order tests, make referrals, and interact with patients and their families.  (Physicians receive about 20 cents of every healthcare dollar, but control about 80 cents. And an old axiom is that the most expensive piece of medical equipment is a pen in a physician’s hand – although soon it may be their hands on a keyboard.)

3. Money is a key motivator for many people…. But it’s not the only one. For many clinical thought-leaders and decision-makers, money may be of secondary concern.

Physicians, and Terrorists, and Everyone are Motivated By Specific Factors
I’ve long believed that aligning non-financial motivators is crucial for successful health reform because success will require changing individual attitudes and actions. But I didn’t realize how broadly powerful non-financial influencing factors could be until I read “Counterstrike,” the recent book by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eric Schmitt and his co-author Thom Shanker. This book describes how, in the mid-2000s, US anti-terrorism organizations saw markedly greater success by shifting their strategy from prioritizing “find-capture-kill” operations to taking actions that pivot potential terrorists’ motivational forces – in part by similarly pivoting the support potential terrorists receive from their families, communities, and religious leaders.  Some of these non-financial factors are:

  • Personal reputation
  • Personal glory
  • Network cohesion and dependability
  • Well-being of their family

As can be seen from this list, some of the factors that influence terrorists are similar to what could also motivate physicians, i.e. professional recognition, influence within their organizations, community status, etc.

Desired Outcomes
The face of successful health reform will be physicians enthusiastically doing things differently because they recognize that their actions are making their patients and communities healthier, making their own lives better, and also easing the “economic dragooning” that the healthcare system was imposing on society.

Successful Health Reform = Changing Physician Behaviors
Achieving these outcomes will depend upon changing physician behaviors, as described in #2 above. And while financial incentives* supporting those behavior changes are being incorporated into new delivery models – such as Medical Homes and Accountable Care Organizations – the organizations that successfully build these new models will utilize other motivating factors in their quest for higher quality, lower costs, and better care experiences for both physicians and patients.  As I noted in the opening paragraph, many pages have been written on changing behaviors, but the fundamental elements were described in general terms by Everett Rogers in his book, “Adoption of Innovation”:

  1. Relative Advantage
  2. Compatibility (with existing or connected practices and actions)
  3. Simplicity
  4. Observability
  5. Trialability

These principles are important because changing behaviors is synonymous with adopting innovations, e.g., using an ATM rather than a bank teller, writing on a computer rather than a typewriter, inhaling insulin** rather than injecting it. And thus, achieving successful behavior changes and producing our desired three aims will require change leaders to incorporate these elements – and both financial and non-financial factors – into their strategies for motivating physicians, patients, and all groups who make up the healthcare system.


*These incentives are generally described as rewarding value and quality rather than volume of services, and include pay-for-performance, shared savings/risk, bundled payments, and capitation.

** Not all innovations are successful – at least in their first iteration.

Why Healthcare Spending is Slowing – A New Normal?

The growth in healthcare spending has slowed in recent years.  Many experts and pundits have sought to explain why – while also worrying, (or predicting), that this slowing is only temporary, i.e. past performance will predict the future.

Healthcare Delivery and Financing are Dynamically Evolving

The future will be significantly different than the past because our healthcare system, society, and economy are evolving into what might be called a “New Normal” state.  Assuming current priorities and pressures continue, public and private sector organizations at all levels will increasingly emphasize value¹ in their decisions about spending and preferences for healthcare services – including choices about substituting one treatment option for another.  For public entities, these choices involve coverage and budgeting for programs ranging from Medicare, Medicaid, and Veterans’ healthcare, to benefits for government employees – as well as rules for insurance exchanges. For private organizations, these choices range from health insurance benefits provided by large employers to the decisions individuals make for their insurance coverage – as well as the clinical and lifestyle choices individuals make inside and outside doctors’ offices.

While those choices will collectively mold our future healthcare system, many changes have occurred in the last five years that are creating a new environment for making these choices and pushing us into a “New Normal” state, i.e., these evolutionary forces have already started bending the cost/spending curve.  This progress towards more value oriented healthcare will continue unless the driving forces are hampered, hindered, or blocked by future actions.

The Times They Are a-Changin”
                             Robert Zimmerman

Listed below – in my estimated rough order of importance – are reasons why healthcare spending has slowed and will continue to be less than had been projected.

  1. Dipping Economy: The economic slowdown has decreased the amount of healthcare people are seeking – as well as creating a temporary disruptive environment for making other changes in stakeholders’ attitude and latitudes of practice. Whether the decrease in healthcare utilization is because people have mostly declined or delayed unnecessary or truly discretionary healthcare services and treatments, or are foregoing many important preventive actions and therapies – which will lead to higher costs and morbidity in the future – remains to be determined.
  2. Private Insurance Benefit Design Changes: People with private insurance have shifted to higher deductible plans², (a.k.a. consumer directed plans), which have lower monthly premiums and higher deductibles, and sometimes increased co-payments/co-insurance.  This change has been in both employer sponsored plans – where individuals may not have a choice – as well as for people (and families) buying insurance as individuals or through small business plans.  Like #1 above, economic incentives have led people to be more selective in what healthcare services and products they are using, but the wisdom of these choices and their long-term effects on costs and quality of care (and life) are not yet fully understood.
  3. Medicare Outpatient Prescription Drug Benefit: The Medicare outpatient prescription drug benefit, (a.k.a. Part D), started in 2006.  If the general premise that prescription medicines are the most clinically and cost-effective form of healthcare is correct, then the greater use of prescription medicines by Medicare enrollees should be reducing spending growth in other Parts of Medicare, e.g. hospitalizations and doctor visits.
  4. Mindset Changes for Patients and Clinicians: The economic downturn, various provisions of the Accountable Care Act, and changes in healthcare benefit design – particularly more high deductible health insurance plans – are making patients and clinicians more attuned to the economic implications of healthcare choices and the value of integrated, multidisciplinary, (a.k.a. team-based), care delivery. Resistance to shifting to such integrated care from the old one-patient/one-doctor Marcus Welby, MD-esque mindset will impede progress in some areas – particularly the adoption of EMRs and regional health information systems, which require up-front spending, and where the long-term benefits are derived from providers participating in such team-based care paradigms.
  5. Change to Healthcare Delivery System:
    1. Integrated care delivery systems and the purchase or affiliation of physicians’ practices;
    2. Geographically uneven changes;
    3. Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs);
    4. Patient Centered Medical Homes (PCMH);
    5. Concierge medical practices;
    6. Greater use of tele-medicine for remote monitoring, management, and consultations;
    7. Greater use of non-physician clinicians, community based healthcare coordinators, and home care services – including more old-fashioned house calls.
  6. Change to Financial Incentives: (Besides high-deductible insurance plans)
    1. Pay for Reporting (P4R) – usually tied to quality metrics, but also used for EMR capabilities;
    2. Pay for Performance (P4P) – similar to P4R, but for actually performance, not just reporting;
    3. Global or bundled payments, e.g. ACOs shared savings and risk sharing arrangements with Medicare and private payers;
    4. Non-payment for “never events”.
  7. Trans-Fat Labeling: FDA regulations have required food labels to list trans-fats since 2006, which has had a two-fold effect which should be driving down long-term health spending: Making people more aware of trans-fats as an unhealthy choice, and inducing food companies to both remove trans-fats from their products and advertise that fact. The results have been significant. Earlier this year the CDC reported that blood levels of trans-fats have declined from 2000 to 2009: “The 58 percent decline shows substantial progress that should help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease in adults”. I suspect that CBO or others didn’t project savings to Medicare or Medicaid from the food labeling requirement.  However, shifts to healthier lifestyles will need more environmental changes like these, e.g. bike sharing programs; walking paths; programs connecting individuals with shared goals; healthier food options at cafeterias, restaurants, and grocery stores, etc.
  8. Price Transparency and Accountability for Outcomes: More transparency about prices and quality of care delivered by individual clinicians and providers is placing greater pressure on healthcare prices. In addition, since healthcare prices in the US are higher than in other countries, globalization will increasingly create downward pricing pressure – especially for products and services where people, (or their specimens), can easily travel to other countries, such as for elective surgery, or DNA testing. [Note – accountability for quality, accuracy, and fraud prevention will be necessary to ensure that foreign services with lower prices represent higher value rather than just greater waste and harm to patients.]
  9. Innovations – Better Therapies, Diagnostics, and Prevention:
    Healthcare innovations range from biopharmaceuticals, genetic tests, HIT/tele-medicine, to validated best practices including checklists and clinical decision support.  Some innovations increase costs. Some improve clinical outcomes. Some do one but not the other. Some do both.  As metrics demonstrating the value of innovations become more granular and can be determined more rapidly, clinicians and providers will be under greater pressure to demonstrate – and be accountable for – the outcomes they are delivering. However, this will only occur in a balanced way as long at patient-centric quality outcomes are measured alongside economic outcomes.  The danger is that clinical outcomes will only be determined on a population basis, but then applied to patient care decisions without considering individual patient characteristics or priorities.
  10. Smoking Restrictions.  Restrictions on smoking in public places is reducing exposure to second-hand smoke.  Some studies have shown rapid declines in heart attacks for people working in restaurants and bars after smoking in those workplaces was prohibited.  (FYI – LEED certified residential buildings treat second-hand cigarette smoke as a pollutant and often prohibit smoking inside the entire building – including people’s apartments, as well as outside doors and windows. And the DC Department of Health has been publicizing the toxic nature of second-hand cigarette smoke from adjacent apartments.)
  11. Tougher Enforcement Against Fraud and Abuse. Cracking down on fraud and abuse may be reducing healthcare spending by deterring such criminal activity.  These efforts have been aided by improvements to healthcare IT – and this will only improve in the future.
  12. There certainly should be a 12th reason – since all good lists have 12 items – but I can’t think of one right now…. Any suggestions?

Not a Simple Picture

The dynamic interactions among many of the factors listed above makes it very difficult to determine the contribution each one makes to reducing healthcare spending for a particular condition, population, or US healthcare spending overall. For example, improvements to healthcare IT are enabling improvements to delivery system operations and financial incentives – which are also linked to each other.  Each of these also affect the mindsets of  patients and clinicians, i.e., HIT systems are elevating patients’ and clinicians’ expectations for better information about treatment options and less waste. And financial incentives are evolving to support the use of such information to achieve better outcomes. Together these and other changes are altering patients and clinicians attitudes and actions towards the entire healthcare system to be accountable for delivering greater value. This hyper-cross-connected situation is analogous to the biomedical research field of systems biology, which is seeking to understand how multiple physiological systems cause specific diseases – and how combination therapies may be needed to treat such complex illnesses.


1. Value in healthcare can be a tricky concept, but it generally encompasses the clinical and economic outcomes produced by the intervention compared to the total costs, risks, and potential adverse effects of the treatment option.
2. Haviland A., et. al., “Growth Of Consumer-Directed Health Plans To One-Half Of All Employer-Sponsored Insurance Could Save $57 Billion Annually,” Health Affairs, May 2012 31:5,1009-1015

Healthcare Turkey Talk

Thanksgiving is a great occasion for learning what people think about the future of the US healthcare system.*  This year, I’m going to find out what people are thinking about some of the coming health delivery system changes – particularly Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) and Patient-Centered Medical Homes (PCMH).

I’ve conducted this two-question informal survey with handfuls of people and found their level of knowledge and positive reactions equivalent to Congress’s approval rating, i.e. 9%.  This is worrisome, since if transforming the US healthcare system to increase value and quality will be partially based on ACOs’ and PCMHs’ superior care coordinating abilities, it will be hard to improve cost, quality, and access at the local level if the average person/patient doesn’t know what these organization are, there is inherent aversion to their names, or there is resistant to unexplained “changes.” (For example, several people I’ve talked to have thought Accountable Care Organizations seem like HMOs, and Patient-Centered Medical Homes are home care, nursing homes or hospice.)

So fair readers of this blog, let me know what you hear at your Turkey dinners and associated holiday events – and I’ll post back next week what I heard from my disparate and decidedly unrestrained friends and relatives.


*Unlike most meals and gathering of family and friends, Thanksgiving dinner goes on for a long time, there are no ceremonial interludes, and it is generally a sit-down affair so you can’t move on to someone else – or out the door. This means “Aunt Sally” can pull your ear or kick your leg (either figuratively or literally) for upwards of 2 hours about what’s wrong with the US healthcare system and what how to fix it.  My advice is to ask questions to find out root concerns and to gauge people’s understanding of the coming ACA changes in both healthcare delivery and insurance coverage.  Also, if you find yourself referring to a recent study from Commonwealth or Kaiser Family Foundation, (or a similar organization or government group), STOP, put food in your mouth and nod encouragement for them to keep talking, because quoting the best studies to someone impassioned about their healthcare will be about as successful as convincing your 7-year-old cousin that 3.14159 is a great dessert.

Smoking is So Bad For You That……..It Makes Me Sick

The evidence for the ill effects of smoking keeps getting stronger and scarier.  If one were to construct a balance sheet of tobacco’s pros and cons it would look much worse than the one Bernie Madoff was hiding from his investors and the SEC.

Making the Risk of Smoking Personal

I was recently talking with one of my IT consultants and we started discussing tobacco use since he thought his smoking might have been one reason he’d been denied health insurance. What he – and many people – don’t realize is that the major health risk from smoking is not lung cancer, but how damaging it is to the heart and blood vessels, i.e., your cardiovascular system:

  • On Monday USA Today reported on a study showing that smoking cigarettes doubles a person’s risk of stroke.
  • Studies have shown that second-hand smoke increases the risk of heart attacks – which is why many states and even the country of Ireland have prohibited smoking in bars and restaurants.
  • When Ireland banned smoking in pubs the rate of hospital admissions for heart attacks dropped by more than 10% in the following year.

Additional evidence about the risks of smoking is pervasive – sort of like finding a piece of hay in a bale of hay – including a report from the US Surgeon General indicating that smoking ONE CIGARETTE can increase the risk of heart disease as well as cancer. In scientific terminology this means that there is no lower limit or threshold below which tobacco causes no harm.

Similarly, the concept that tobacco in forms other than cigarettes aren’t so bad is, well BS: cigars and “chewing tobacco” are bad for you too – just in different ways depending on how they are used and how often. And the propaganda that hookahs (smoking flavored tobacco through a water pipe) are safe is hooey – smoking a hookah for an hour can be like smoking ONE HUNDRED (100) cigarettes.

So after going through these facts to help my IT consultant put smoking cigarettes into perspective, (i.e., tobacco damages your heart and blood vessels etc.) – and adding a few points about how smoking increases a person’s risk for dementia, Alzheimer’s, other cancers besides lung cancer, and sexual dysfunction – I prioritizing the bad things he could possibly be doing to himself:

  1. Crystal Meth – which rewires your brain in very bad ways that are hard or impossible to reverse
  2. Heroin
  3. Having unprotected sex with multiple IV drug abusers
  4. Smoking cigarettes…. or using any form of tobacco

The Positive Attributes of Tobacco

The positive side of tobacco’s “balance sheet” is pretty slim:

  • Income for tobacco farmers
  • Income for companies that make and sell cigarettes and other tobacco products
  • There are a few rare conditions where nicotine may help prevent flare-ups
  • It’s “cool” and it makes people appear older. (Smoking actually does make people look older by causing skin changes on the hands and face, including wrinkles that can make a 35-year-old smoker look 45 or 50.)

Bottom Line

So adding this all up into a Bernie Madoff-type balance sheet it seems that smoking cigarettes is like:

  • Driving without a seat belt – and twenty bowling balls and big pieces of broken glass in your passenger seat
  • Sleeping with a loaded gun in the waistband of your pajamas
  • Scuba diving or flying an airplane without lessons
  • Riding a motorcycle while juggling

Like smoking, there will be people who might be able to do these things for years without ever developing a “problem.” But I suspect that most smokers don’t understand the real risks they are taking, and certainly wouldn’t take similar risks for themselves or their children by doing other things like replacing their smoke detectors with oil lamps.

And lastly, I believe healthcare professionals are not doing enough to help people stop smoking.  Kicking the nicotine addiction isn’t easy, but there are ways to help: counseling, support groups, prescription and OTC medications, and even financial incentives from health insurers and employer including higher (or lower) insurance premiums.  As an additional incentive, some companies are not hiring people who smoke – although some states have passed laws protecting smokers’ off-duty “rights” to such self-injurious conduct. So unless you’re living in an alternative universe where the job market is “smoking,” putting yourself at a disadvantage for getting a job (or a better job) because you smoke doesn’t seem like a very good career move. It might be better to have committed felony financial fraud since at least that demonstrates some math skills and not just the ability to suck in poisons.

Patient-Centered Care? Or Not?

The term “patient-centered care” has increasingly been used to describe healthcare structures that deliver better quality care – as well as often doing so with lower costs.  And today there was a news story about how some medical schools are assessing applicants’ interpersonal skills, something that is fundamental for being a patient-centric clinician.

While there are have been numerous articles demonstrating the value of patient-centered care and concluding that it is better and should be promoted – including those looking at the ill named “Patient-Centered Medical Homes” – I’ve found myself pondering the following questions:

“What type of care have clinicians been providing if it hasn’t been patient-centered? Has it been clinician/physician centered? Or revenue centered? Or just intentionally confusing and impersonal care designed to stymie the adoption of evidence based standards of care?”

“And along those lines, is the widespread delivery of non-patient-centered care the reason why the IOM concluded that it takes about 17 years for valuable healthcare information to be adopted into clinical practice? Or why Atul Gawande found that hospitals in other countries have widely adopted surgical checklists to reduce medical errors and adverse outcomes, while only 25% of US hospitals are using these checklists?”

I’m just asking….

Medical Homes (PCMH) in 2011 – Patient and Consumer Centric

Patient-Centered Medical Homes (PCMH) are continuing to be a bigger and broader part of the real-world discussions about health reform and transformation in the US. According to the the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) at the end of 2010 there were 7,676 clinicians in 1,506 recognized PCMH practices in the US. This information was released last week by NCQA with their updated 2011 PCMH Standards.

Patient Centered Medical Homes 2010

Another marker of medical homes’ increasing pervasiveness is the blurb – “Home sweet medical home” – in the March 2011 issue of Consumer Reports magazine that starts with, “If you haven’t already heard the term ‘patient-centered medical home,’ chances are you will soon.”

Consumer Reports – “Home Sweet Medical Home”
The Consumer Reports blurb is part of an article about what primary care physicians wish their patients knew. Interestingly this longish blurb notes that any practice can be more patient-centric without being officially certified, and it lists the important features patients should look for:

  1. Can you get an urgent appointment within 24 hours?
  2. Can you reach somebody in the practice by phone at night or on weekends?
  3. Can you get test results quickly via e-mail or telephone, or on-line?
  4. If you have a chronic condition, is there a system for tracking how you’re doing?
  5. Does the practice include non-MD staff members such as nutritionists or nurse practitioners to help you manage your medications or chronic conditions?
  6. Does your primary-care doctor keep track of your treatment by specialists?

NCQA’s 2011 PCMH Recognition Standards, Elements, and Factors
The 2011 PCMH Standards NCQA released last week are much more detailed about what a primary care practice should look like to provide high quality primary care – and they are a logical evolution from their 2008 Standards. Specifically they:

  • Reduce the number of Standards from 9 to 6 – which should make them easier to understand and implement.
    • The 6 Standards have multiple Elements. And each Element has various Factors that contribute to the scoring for that Element.
  • Integrate newer health IT standards and requirements.
    • NCQA provides a cross-walk between the Elements and the corresponding Federal Meaningful Use requirements for health IT that enable clinicians to receive higher Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements.
  • Include a patient survey, which will be available in 2012.
    • The optional survey will provide more patient-centric feedback about people’s experiences and  enable practices to score extra points towards the recognition Tiers.

NCQA also continues to have three Tiers of possible recognition – with Tier 3 being the highest.The new NCQA standards also continue to have “Must-Pass” Elements (in bold/italics below) for the 6 Standards. And practices must score at at least 50% on all those Elements to receive any recognition Tier.

Standard 1: Enhance Access and Continuity
Access During Office Hours
, e.g., same day appointments and telephone or email communications

Standard 2: Identify and Manage Patient Populations
Use Data for Population Management, e.g., using medical record data to remind patients about getting evidence-based care for specific preventive services and treatments for chronic conditions

Standard 3: Plan and Manage Care
Care Management
, e.g., individually written care plans and addressing barriers to patients achieving their treatment goals

Standard 4: Provide Self-Care and Community Support
Support Self-Care Process
, e.g., providing educational resources and tools to enable patients to improve their self-care and healthy lifestyles/behaviors

Standard 5: Track and Coordinate Care
Referral Tracking and Follow-Up
, e.g., coordinating and following-up on referrals to specialists, including testing done by specialists and their recommended treatments

Standard 6: Measure and Improve Performance
Implement Continuous Quality Improvement
, e.g., setting goals and acting to improve care for patients with chronic conditions, (such as diabetes, heart disease and depression), and preventive services, (such as immunizations, and cancer and osteoporosis screening)

It is also worth noting that among the various Factors that make up the Elements, NCQA designate some as “Critical Factors,” i.e., they are required for any scoring on that Element.  And two of these Critical Factors are for Must-Pass Elements:

  • “Providing same-day appointments”
  • “Develops and documents self-management plans and goals in collaboration with at least 50% of patients/families”

Thus, to achieve any level of recognition as a PCMH from NCQA, practices must have these two capabilities.

While it may be coincidental that Consumer Reports lists 6 criteria for patients to consider in evaluating primary care practices for their “medical homeness,” and NCQA has 6 Must-Pass Elements, the two lists do parallel each other.

NCQA and Consumer Reports are targeting different groups of stakeholders – which is appropriate. NCQA’s requirements enable practices and providers to become recognized, while also informing payers and regulators so they can determine how to utilize a practice’s recognition in their policies and practices – including reimbursement levels.

Similarly, Consumer Reports is seeking to educate consumers, (a.k.a. patients and families). What is reassuring is that Consumers Reports doesn’t try to compare medical homes or clinics using its normal format of tables of numbers and those great red and black circle symbols.  That type of evaluation works well for commodities like TVs, but medical care is a process not a product, and it needs to be individualized for the patient – so what is a good medical home for one person may not be as appropriate for another.  (Atul Gawande’s recent New Yorker article “Hot Spotter” includes some examples of how cultural appropriateness can be a determining factor for the success of care for severely ill people.)

NCQA’s standards focus on structures and processes, and thus are not the beginning and end of what is needed for a successful patient-centered medical home. But certainly rigorous structural and process standards, combined with consumer education – along with other contributing drivers like cultural change motivators and incentives for achieving better outcomes – should lead to better quality, value, and efficiency in our health care system.

Let me know what you think about Medical Homes.

[Full Disclosure: I was given the Consumer Reports magazine by a friend who bought it because it has an article about TVs – and now I have to help her go buy a TV.]

Doctors Communications to Patient’s Family

The great writer John McPhee’s article in the February 8th issue of the New Yorker is primarily about his experiences fishing for pickerel in New Hampshire, but the subtext is his connecting to his dying father who is in the hospital after a severe stroke.

While the article is extremely warm and heart-felt, two short sections stand out because of his visceral reaction to his father’s doctor:

“His room had a south-facing window.  My mother, in a flood of light, eighty-seven, looked even smaller than she was, and space was limited around her, with me, my brother, my sister and a young doctor together beside the bed. I was startled by the candor of the doctor.  He said the patient did not have many days to live, and he described cerebral events in language only the patient, among those present, was equipped to understand.  But the patient did not understand: ‘He can’t comprehend anything, his eyes follow nothing, he is finished,’ the doctor said, and we should prepare ourselves.

“Wordlessly, I said to him, ‘You fucking bastard.’ My father may not have been comprehending, but my mother was right there before him, and his words, like everything else in those hours, were falling upon her and dripping away like rain.  Nor did he stop. There was more of the same, until he finally excused himself to continue on his rounds.”
“The young doctor returned, twenty-four hours exactly after his earlier visit. He touched the patient with his fingers and steel, and qualified for compensation. [emphasis added] He said there had been no change and not to expect any; the patient’s comprehension would not improve. He went on as had the day before.  My father, across the years, had always seemed incapable of speaking critically of another doctor, perhaps in a paradoxical way, because he had been present in the operating room where the mistake of another doctor had ended his mother’s life. Even-tempered as he generally appeared to be, my father could blow his top, and I wondered, with respect to his profession, to what extent this situation would be testing him he were able to listen, comprehend, and speak.”

To be fair – and maybe overly fair – perhaps the physician taking care of Dr. McPhee was focused on the outcome of his patient, and realizing that improvement would not happen wanted to set realistic expectations for the family. However, what is clear from John McPhee’s prose is that the physician didn’t see the patient’s family within his care continuum.  He didn’t treat them as if they were his patients who needed his compassion.  If he had, he might have realized that while he – and medical science – could do very little for Dr. McPhee after his stroke, there was a lot that he could do for the family by being more compassionate and empathetic in his interactions as he was explaining the diagnosis and prognosis.

In addition – although John McPhee doesn’t mention it in his article – hopefully there were other components of the care team besides the one physician, since a well-coordinated care team should provide additional information and support to the family.  It would be unrealistic for a single physician to provide all the information and support to a critically ill patient and their family – even when there is no hope and no interventions to ease the patient’s condition. Expecting a physician to do all this alone is like asking an NBA basketball player to go 1 on 5 against another team.  Even the greats of Chamberlain,  Jordan, or Bryant wouldn’t have been able to do that.

I applaud John McPhee for his great writing and for including his direct feelings about his encounter with the medical care system.  His article would be good reading for clinicians in training and practice since it so deeply illuminates how patients and their families can view clinicians, their words, and how they deliver them. Similarly, his article would be a great reading for students and policy makers interested in the relationships and communications between clinicians and patients – and their families – as well as for those interested in improving compassionate caregiving.

Thanksgiving Conversations About Health – Engage With Grace Blog Rally

For many years I’ve used the Thanksgiving dinner table conversation as a model for discussions about healthcare – but usually I’ve put it in the context of people who work for healthcare companies, (e.g. pharmaceutical or managed care), trying to address, rebuff and rebut the criticisms they might get from family members, (e.g. Aunt Lilly), about the problems with the US healthcare system and the actions or positions of various companies or industries.  However, last year – and again this year – several bloggers have been cooperating to promote Thanksgiving weekend discussions about end of life care issues.  This effort has been called the Engage with Grace, and last year it was a great success, with over 100 bloggers participating.

The original mission of this “blog rally” was to get more and more people talking about their end of life wishes. But because this year has had quite intensive public debate about health reform, the decision was made for this year to do something a bit different and add a bit of levity to the efforts to promote discussions.

At the heart of Engage With Grace are five questions designed to get the conversation started, but to put a slightly lighter spin on these questions, the first set below has a less serious tone – the “real” Engage With Grace questions are at the end of this post – and I’ve interjected five other humorous ones in between. They’re not easy questions, but they are important – and the goal of both the serious and lighter questions are to get people talking, since if you can’t talk about the funny questions, then how can families and friends expect to seriously talk about the difficult and important ones?

Engage With Grace Questions - Set 1

  1. Which one of your family members would you trade for a celebrity or professional athlete, and who would you trade them for?
  2. After you made that trade, would you want the celebrity or professional athlete to cook or do the dishes at your holiday meal?
  3. Would you want that celebrity or professional athlete to be on your post holiday meal team for Charades or Monopoly?
  4. Would you want that celebrity or professional athlete to be named on your advanced directive or living will so they could make decisions about your healthcare needs and choices if you were unable to do so?
  5. Would you want that celebrity or professional athlete to represent you in the US Congress to make decisions about Medicare and health reform?

Engage With Grace Questions - Set 2

Have a good holiday season – and go with grace.

Encouraging Communications About Patients’ Goals

I attended a great event yesterday where experts discussed how to improve healthcare quality and safety by increasing patients’ involvement in making healthcare decisions.

This seminar, “Patient-Centeredness and Patient Safety: How Are They Interconnected,” was organized by the Kenneth B. Schwartz Center and sponsored by the Massachusetts Medical Society and CRICO/RMFDon Berwick (President & CEO of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement) was the main speaker followed by a panel consisting of two patient safety leaders from local hospitals and a patient involved with promoting patient engagement in quality improvement.

To start the event, Dr. Berwick discussed how his thinking about healthcare quality had evolved over several decades, and his increasing belief in the importance of patient involvement. He discussed his Health Affairs article on Patient-Centered care, and summarized his current thinking about how to design patient-centered care in 8 bullets:

  1. Place the patient at the center
  2. Individualize
  3. Welcome family and loved ones
  4. Maximize health influences within care
  5. Maximize health influences outside of care
  6. Rely on sophisticated, disciplined evidence
  7. Use all relevant capabilities – waste nothing
  8. Connect helping influences with each other

Communications Is Crucial for Achieving Patient-Centerdness and Goal Sharing
The essence of the panel’s discussion was about how to improve communications among patients and their clinicians so that each others’ goals were shared and understood.  One example raised by a panelist was initiatives to prevent patients from falling in the hospital.  Patients may see nurses being in bathrooms with them as intrusive or uncomfortable, but discussing their shared goal of not having patients fall and hurt themselves shifts the context of the nurse’s action and enables it to be embraced by the patient rather than resisted.

From the patient’s perspective too often clinicians may have their own ideas about what the goals of the treatment should be, but without understanding the patient’s life interests and goals the two may be disconnected.  For example, clinicians often ask patients what they do for work to understand if the treatment or the outcomes will be compatible with their jobs, but often patient’s happiness or life fulfillment is related to something outside of work, such as playing the piano, playing with grandchildren, rollerblading, hiking with their dogs in the mountains, or hang-gliding.  Treating a patient’s injury or illness so they can do (or be able to try to do) those activities may be very different than what would be indicated if the goal was to enable them to work in an office.

Creating Policies to Promote Communications and Goal Sharing
Dr. Berwick’s presentation also included a brief discussion of how evidence based medicine (EBM) can improve patient safety by avoiding unnecessary care and setting realistic expectations about the outcomes for chosen treatments.  This is captured in his 6th bullet above. One of the challenges in the current push towards more EBM – and comparative effectiveness research (CER) – is what to actually measure in this research. Combining the health system’s desire for optimal outcomes with patient-centeredness, (i.e., his 2nd bullet – “Individualize”), could be achieved by including the patient’s goals for their treatment as one of the outcomes measured in EBM and CER programs.

Benefits of Measuring Achievement of Patients’ Goals as an “Outcome”
Process measures, (such as percentage of patients who’ve received a recommended treatment), are usually easier to evaluate, but are really proxies for clinical outcomes.  Actual outcomes like mortality or hospitalization can be harder to evaluate, in part because of individual patient differences and thus the raw data needs to be risk adjusted. However, measuring achievement of the patient’s goals could be very important and valuable to add to these evaluations – and could be a rough way to inherently risk adjust the data, i.e. the “goals” of treating a broken hip may be different for a 50 year old person than someone who is 70.  The actual measurement of such goal achievement could be done based upon answering the question of “how well were the patient’s goals met?”  Clearly this would have to be quantified in some way – and perhaps that could be done by the patients themselves on an 11 point scale from 0-100%.

Not only would measuring this “patient goal achievement” outcome add a useful dimension to some research, but it would also put the question of “what are the patient’s goals?” right at the front of the patient-clinician conversation.  And in the context of health reform and system improvement, by using the dictum of, “we manage what we measure,” measuring how well delivery systems and clinicians are achieving patients’ goals could be an important force for transforming care delivery.

Bottom Line for Patients and Clinicians
The next time you’re a patient talking to a clinician, be sure to talk about your goals for treating whatever ailment caused you to see that clinician.  And clinicians need to tell their patients what goals they expect to achieve from the treatment they’re recommending.  This is the start of a conversation since the patient’s expectations may not be realistic – such as for a patient with a severe fracture who wants to run a marathon in three weeks.  But by understanding each others goals and expectations they can agree on what should be done and how to proceed.

Need for Continuity of Care and Primary Care Clinicians
Of course some patients may seek to “doctor shop” looking for a clinician who will promise to achieve their goals.  This can be good if the first clinician isn’t attuned to the patient’s wishes, but it can also be bad if the patient’s expectations are unrealistic.  That is why having a trusted relationship with a primary care clinician can be so important, since their PCC can help them evaluate and digest other clinicians’ recommendations.  Again, it comes down to ongoing and two-way communications to understand goals and jointly develop treatment plans and decisions.