CER, HIT, and Women’s Health Research

Below is a video of my discussion with Phyllis Greenberger, President and CEO of the Society for Women’s Health Research, about the implications of comparative effectiveness research (CER) and information technology for women’s health and quality improvement.

What are your thoughts about CER and HIT?  Will they lead to higher quality, lower cost, or more efficient/better healthcare?  And if so, how soon?

FYI – The SWHR’s July 18-19 meeting mentioned in the video is “What a Difference an X Makes: The State of Women’s Health Research.”

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.

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.

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….

Health Law Is Reforming System Via Market Forces

All the controversial rhetoric about the new health reform law is missing a huge reality:  The law is driving dramatic changes in the real world.  Almost every major health delivery system is preparing to reorganize how they provide care to hundreds of millions of Americans by becoming Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs).

Health Systems are Voting With Their Wallets
The magnitude and level of financial interest in ACOs – and proof that it is not just cautious planning – were dramatically illuminated by recent actions and a Washington Post article:

  • On Thursday, HHS released the long anticipated proposed rule for ACOs and Medicare “Shared Savings.” For the rest of the day the Federal Register’s website was nearly shut down by people trying to download the 429 page document.
  • Today’s Washington Post article, “Complicated health-care law leads to payday for consultants,” includes figures about the tens of thousands of dollars consultants are charging for strategy sessions about how to think about ACOs, and the millions of dollars in fees they are getting for actually helping health systems to become ACOs. Health systems were signing consultants up for these engagements before the draft regulations were released because of their expectations of how dramatically competition among ACOs will change their financial incentives and structures. And some of the phrases in the article highlight the level of importance being placed on ACOs: “ACO frenzy,” “Oversubscribed,” “Glittering high fees” and, “I have never seen anything quite like this in my 35 years in this business.”

Bottom Line
I could write more about the proposed ACO rule, my interactions with health systems looking to become ACOs (and the organizations helping them), and how ACOs will very likely produce significantly more savings for Medicare than the Congressional Budget Office has projected, but the bottom line looks like this:

  • ACOs are happening.
  • The Medicare ACO/Shared Savings rule will shape their form, but not their creation.
  • ACOs – and their quality/efficiency incentives payments – will fundamentally transform health care in the US.
  • This transformation will be like an avalanche as health systems compete locally to demonstrate how much more Accountable they are to patients and payers, i.e. how they provide higher quality at lower costs than their competitors down the street or across the river.
  • While the official title of the new health law is the “Affordable Care Act,” it very easily – and perhaps more accurately – should have been called the “Accountable Care Act” because it is that part of the law which will actually lead to more affordable care for more people.

As always, stay tuned and keep your seat belts tightly fastened for the upcoming wild ride. Like a roller-coaster, the fun is just beginning.

Roller Coaster

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.]

Making Health Reform Work

The May issue of Health Affairs focuses on Reinventing Primary Care – a topic that has been part of health policy discussions for at least 20 years. A few things have changed in that time: now there is better evidence about the importance of primary care providers in coordinating care to improve quality and reduce costs; the structural concept of this care coordination has been codified under the new term the “Patient Centered Medical Home,” (which has also been given precise parameters by NCQA); the complexity of medical care has increased so that the need for care coordination is greater; and electronic information storage, analysis, and communications technologies have been developed which – in theory – should make care coordination and the resultant quality improvement and cost control easier and more practical.

Health Affairs held a briefing on Tuesday about their May issue at the National Press Club.  Keynoting the meeting was HHS Secretary Sebelius. She rightly pointed out that healthcare delivery in the US is a “truly broken system.”  Her remarks touched on the various parts of the new health reform law that would help fix what’s broken, but the reality is that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) is very heavily weighted toward health insurance/financing reform, with comparatively little addressing delivery system reform.  Similarly, the Health Affairs articles are very heavy on the situation with primary care, the problems with our delivery system, and what a reformed (or transformed) delivery system should look like, but aside from reimbursement reforms, the articles have very little about how to achieve this transformation.

No “How” to go along with the “Who,” “What,” “When,” and “Why”
Like a good news story, a successful reform initiative needs to address the basic concepts of Who, What, Why, When, and How.  Unfortunately, the “How” part is frequently missing or minimal in most health policy discussions and proposals – aside from financial rearrangements. This heavy emphasis on financial incentives is because government programs like Medicare and Medicaid are significantly limited in what they can change outside their payment amounts and methodologies. And in the private sector, changing financial incentives is also the easiest thing to do.  In other words, changing reimbursements and other financial incentives, (such as pay-for-performance or bonus payments), is the lever most often used because it is the one that policy leaders are most familiar with, and it is the easiest for them to pull or push.

Challenges of Reorganizing the Unmotivated
Even though transforming healthcare delivery is based upon reorganizing the structure of healthcare delivery there has been very little focus on how to actually get physicians to participate in this reorganization.  While economists and others keep pointing to the economic incentives lever, it is pretty clear that physicians are not interested in reorganizing for the sake of improving their incomes. David Rotherman’s review of Timothy Hoff’s book about primary care physicians’ practices at the back of the Health Affairs May issue discusses how physicians like the current situation and their incomes. In this review he notes that it doesn’t appear that “primary care physicians have substantial dissatisfaction with the current system or levels of pay,” and that, “They seem comfortable as pieceworkers, not professionals.”

Thus, while policy researchers and payers correctly describe the great need for and value in delivery system reform, those actually delivering care seem to like many parts of the system – particularly their steady income stream and ability to run their own operations.  And while delivery system integration could solve many things clinicians don’t like – such as insurance and paperwork hassles – convincing them that working in a larger organization will significantly improve their lives is a difficult concept to sell. The challenge here is to overcome the inertia of change and getting them to consider the value of shifting from the “devil that they know.”

Private Medical Practices are Small Businesses
Another way to look at this is to see primary care physicians as small businesspeople.  As Boedneheim and Pham illustrate in their Health Affairs article, “Primary Care: Current Problems and Proposed Solutions,” 88% of primary care physicians are in practices with 5 or fewer physicians: 32% in solo practice, 14% in two person practices, and 32% in groups with 3-5 physicians.

What distinguishes these small businesses from non-medical enterprises is that because reimbursement systems using fee schedules create fee-for-service volume incentives, these physicians have very few business incentives to change.  Since their businesses are generally making a profit, and most physicians’ training and skills are not in running an efficient business, they few reasons to change their businesses operations.  While classic economic theory would disagree with that statement, and posit that their incentive should be to improve efficiency to increase profits, the reality is that people don’t like change – and they generally need to believe there there will be a 2:1 return for their financial or psychological investment before they are willing to undertake changes.  And small business practicing physicians don’t want to make those changes because they are concerned that no matter what the policy rhetoric states, they believe that any changes will decrease their income.

In addition, physicians generally believe that proposed health delivery transformation changes will reduce their autonomy – something they may value as high, or higher, than their income since it may be one of the reasons they became physicians, it may be why they are practicing in a small group or solo practice, and autonomy of clinical decisions is part of how physicians are trained.

Conclusions – How to Go About Achieving Health Transformation
Transforming healthcare delivery in the US will not be as simple as paying more for primary care services, and/or training more primary care clinicians, and/or training all physicians to work in team-based environments rather than as autonomous clinicians.  While all those are good things that certainly should be done, reforming how clinicians are trained will take 20-30 years to produce significant changes in the makeup of the US clinician workforce – and maybe even longer to change the ratio of primary care to specialty practitioners.

Therefore, what is needed is more emphasis on non-financial levers that can be used to alter physicians’ attitudes and actions around improving healthcare delivery – including their immediate practice situations, and how they relate to other providers and their patients.  Changing financial incentives can certainly support this, but it is very unlikely to successfully produce these changes in isolation.

Rather, some of the general principles involving the adoption of innovations should be applied to bring physicians – and other community care leaders – to be more receptive and participatory in making delivery transformation both a reality and a success. These principles, (as described by researchers in the 70s and 80s), have been applied to improving the quality of hospital care by organizations like the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, and include providing information about how simple the proposed changes are and how comparable they are to the clinicians existing day-to-day actions, and making it possible for clinicians to observe and/or try out these changes before they have to adopt them.

One of the major catalysts for using these principles to successfully implement reforms is to use change agents to communicate the value and reality of the proposed practice changes, and to simultaneously diffuse misconceptions and fears about them.  Since the old adage about physicians is that you can tell them, but you can’t tell them much, the best change agents for leading physicians through this transformation are other physicians who have participated in and/or observed, and/or analyzed other practices that have gone through similar changes.  There are also two caveats about these change agent leaders.  First, they need to be seen as independent and not biased or conflicted for financial or other reasons.  And second, they must be able to culturally and geographically connect to the clinicians they are trying to educate and lead.  For example, information about practice transformations in Vermont aren’t going to have much traction with physicians in Texas, nor are the experiences of Philadelphia practices going to carry much weight with physicians in rural Illinois.

Afterward: “Making Health Reform Work” Book Project
These concepts and messages about care delivery transformation using the principles of innovation adoption and stakeholder engagement are at the core of what I’ve been trying to construct into a book containing logical and understandable prose and graphics.  The working title for the book is “Making Health Reform Work.” However, the passage of health reform and its impending implementation have overtaken my ability to finish it. Therefore, I wanted to put forward some of these ideas here to stimulate more discussion about these issues and concepts because I strongly believe that without a broad based and balanced approach to health delivery transformation, significant efforts and money will produce suboptimal results and leave a bad precedent for future transformation and quality improvement efforts.

The Internet Solves Everything in Healthcare – – – NOT

Improving healthcare will require people having better information.  That concept is generally agreed upon.  The challenge is getting the right information to the right people at the right time.  That is the interconnected goal of different facets of health information technology – from EMRs and PHRs, to health information exchanges.

People Are Complex
However, the complexity of medical care and individual variability – both human physiology and patient preferences – makes collecting and analyzing health information so that it is useful for individual clinical decisions much more difficult than presenting information about TVs, computers or cameras on a website such as CNET.

However, that distinction is not apparent to a friend of a friend who I had dinner with recently.  This person told me how the internet will solve everything in healthcare by making quality information from patients available to everyone else so that drugs don’t need to be approved by the FDA and doctors don’t need to be licensed. He also believes that this full access to information from other people about the quality of every health care option – from specific medicines to individual surgeons – will make health insurance unnecessary, since people will be able to decide what they want to pay for based upon how high a quality of care they want to obtain.

As a polite dinner guest of a friend I didn’t argue with his Libertarian perspectives.  Rather I tried to point out the complexity of analyzing health information because of different patient specific factors, and why risk adjustment is very difficult in assessing the quality of any healthcare option.  For example, I mentioned the piece I wrote last winter about a study of different assessments of hospital quality in Massachusetts, and how this showed the difficulty of exactly what this person believed should be easy and currently possible, e.g. if you were a patient in Massachusetts trying to decide which hospital you should  go to for a specific condition, how would you decide.  As I noted then, the different quality assessments came to conflicting conclusions.

Profit Seeking Isn’t Always A Good Thing
I also noted how the profit motive can lead unscrupulous people to sell fake medicines that can actually do more harm than no treatment at all – such as fake anti-malarial pills containing aspirin, which don’t treat the malaria but do reduce the fever so people think they are getting better. Similarly, the concept of modern snake oil salesmen taking advantage of people’s hope was reinforced by a recent cartoon in the New Yorker showing two people looking at a display of pill bottles adorned with a sign saying “As seen on TV,” and the caption reads, “The active ingredient is marketing.”

However, I found my insights didn’t make much of an impression, and I did make a faux pas by pointing out that there was $1.1 Billion in last year’s stimulus bill for research to get more of this type of information and make it available to people.  Unfortunately, this fact only elicited a shaking head in hands response which I took as his disgust at more wasted government/taxpayer money.

“Living is Easy With Eyes Closed, Misunderstanding All You See”
While for those of us not blinded by the limited wonders of computers and the internet, and who understand the complexity of actual healthcare decisions and analyses, the challenge is communicating this reality to people who believe that the internet is rapidly solving all our information problems…… As a society our goal should be to convey this knowledge to people before they or a family member becomes seriously ill – at which point the complexity of making healthcare decisions will be immediate and personal.  And just as there are no atheists in foxholes, people facing serious life altering medical decisions want validated and reliable information, not subjective, anonymous opinions from the internet – which may be fine for picking a restaurant, but is certainly problematic for picking a surgeon or a medicine.

Checklists and Physicians’ Behaviors

I recently heard Dr. Atul Gawande talk about his new book “The Checklist Manifesto.” While the evidence demonstrating the value of checklists for improving the quality of healthcare is increasingly abundant, in his presentation Atul talked about how in a study assessing a surgical checklist they ran into resistance from about 20% of physicians.

Another story he told involved his surgical group’s considering how they might manage bundled reimbursements, e.g. accepting a single payment for all the care and testing related to thyroid cancer surgery.  Their discussions came to a screeching halt when it became clear that this “might” mean less money for each of the surgeons. This uncertainty in personal income arose because accepting bundled payments would require them to distribute money among the people and organizations involved in the actual surgery, the pre and post surgical testing, and the follow-up, which can be a very complicated process.

His group of surgeons probably found this change too daunting because they didn’t have an overarching group/entity to help them assess how to distribute/divide a bundled payment, and actually manage and monitor the money and their financial performance.  While they are part of Partners in Boston – a large integrated health system that includes the  Mass General and Brigham and Women’s hospitals – it seems that Partners hasn’t reached the point of providing this type of support for their individual medical groups.

In the broader world of health deliver reform, to manage such bundled payments effectively physician groups might need to become part of – or affiliate with/have relationships with – medical homes and/or accountable care organizations.  If every group of physicians – particularly in a single specialty – had to figure out on their own how to accept and manage bundled payments, it is very unlikely to work, leaving us with our current perverse incentives of fee-for-service reimbursements that promote volume over quality.

What these two stories have in common is that they involve the barriers to positive transformations of clinical medicine.  Specifically, fee-for-service’s financial incentives give many clinicians few reasons to change to bundled payments or other reimbursement systems that don’t prioritize volume and don’t reward quality outcomes. Similarly, increasing the use of checklists and other care improving protocols faces significant barriers because while they don’t attack clinicians’ incomes, they can be seen as assaulting their professional autonomy.

Change Agents and Care Delivery Transformation
Part of the solution to both these challenges are support mechanisms to assuage clinicians’ concerns about loss of income and autonomy.  The simplest way to conceptualize these support mechanisms is as “Change Agents.”  For bundled payments, clinicians need some trusted group or organization that can help them understand how they will be compensated, what information they will get and how to use it, and how bundled payments may actually simplify their professional lives and even potentially increase their incomes – assuming they can practice more efficiently and effectively. For example, because medical care has become so complicated – with an ever expanding array of advanced diagnostic and therapeutic options – the use of checklists and protocols can help clinicians standardize the routine parts of care and thus cognitively free them up to focus on patients’ individual needs and goals, including how to optimize adherence to treatment plans. These changes will improve clinical outcomes, which is what patients want, and economic outcomes, which is what society wants because it will help stimulate the economy and make it easier to expand insurance coverage and access to care.

While Change Agents to support the successful adoption of bundled payments may be some combination of administrative groups and other clinicians who’ve successfully used the new reimbursement scheme, Change Agents for care innovations are most often other clinicians.  Typically these clinician Change Agents have real world experience showing how the innovation has actually improved the quality of care – particularly by saving an individual life or preventing a specific adverse event. (Dr. Gawande’s research group saw this in their surgical checklist study, and I found this in researching the use of telemedicine in intensive care units.)

Patients as Change Agents
Patients can also be Change Agents.  As I’ve previously written, if patients asked their doctors if they use checklists for things like surgery and inserting central IV lines, and then refused care from physicians (or institutions) that don’t use such checklists, there would likely be rapid adoption of these and other innovations as they are validated and their value communicated broadly.  Advocacy organizations can also fill this role, as can government agencies as part of their quality improvement activities through programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and the Veterans Health Administration – something I’ve also raised in a previous post.

Improving quality and slowing the grow in healthcare costs will require multipronged strategies.  What these strategies will have in common is that they will confront the significant barriers clinicians have in changing how they practice medicine.  Achieving this will require Change Agents – clinicians, patients, advocates, and government agencies who can demonstrate and support the value of care innovations.  Simple? No. Possible? Yes.  But as the pair of old sayings go: If it was easy anyone could do it. And if it was easy, someone would have done it already.