Tech

Tech

The Mess That is MACRA

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MACRA (the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act) is a mess. It is extremely difficult to comprehend, it is based on assumptions that defy commonsense and research, and it may raise costs.

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) would never say what I have just said, but MedPAC definitely understands MACRA’s defects. The transcripts of MedPAC’s October 8, 2015 and January 15, 2016 meetings indicate that members and staff perceive daunting impediments to the implementation of MACRA. But those transcripts also suggest that MedPAC won’t tell Congress to rewrite or repeal MACRA. Rather, the evidence suggests MedPAC will mince words. It appears MedPAC will send CMS and Congress a few wishes dressed up as “principles” and wait for MACRA’s inevitable failure before offering more useful advice.

Before I attempt to explain MACRA, let me first convey to you MACRA’s mind-numbing complexity by quoting four commissioners. Each statement below is followed by the last name of the commissioner who made it, the date the statement was made, and the page number of the transcript where the statement appears.

Is Pornography Creating a Public Health Crisis?

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flying cadeuciiWell, it’s not Zika and it won’t kill you, but pornography is being discussed—seriously—as a public health problem, even a “crisis.”

The path to this claim is a long one, with a slow burn over many years.  It was kicked into higher gear in recent months with:(a) legislative action in one state;(b) a coverstory in TIME magazine (April 11 issue);(c) a Washington Post op-ed piece by anti-porn advocate Gail Dines; (d) a response to that in Atlantic Monthly; and (e) the publication of two books that discuss at length the effect of porn and the new sexual culture on teen girls—American Girls-Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers by Mary Jo Sales and Girls & Sex-Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein.

The legislative action took place in Utah.  The Republican-led House of Representatives in that state became the first legislative body in the nation to pass a resolution declaring pornography “a public health hazard leading to a broad spectrum of individual and public health impacts and societal harms.” Dines and her fellow anti-porn crusaders want to carry that fight to other states.

This is going to be fun to watch! (Pun intended.)

Beyond the Valley of Hype and the Plateau of Despair

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I can’t get Dan Lyons out of my head.

Lyons is the author of Disrupted, the buzzy new book about what happens when a curmudgeonly fifty-ish tech writer gets unceremoniously dumped from a plum role at Newsweek and takes a job as a “content generator” at Hubspot, a white-hot Boston startup selling marketing software.

Best known for creating a “Fake Steve Jobs” blog, and more recently for his work on the writing team for HBO’s achingly funny Silicon Valley, Lyons has a taste for the absurd, and his prologue (excerpt here)–describing his initial experience at Hubspot–is a laugh-out-loud takedown of tech startup culture.

The fun only lasts a few chapters, however (captured perfectly in this review by Erin Griffith), as Lyons hopes to convey a more serious point (conveniently summarized in an op-ed in today’s New York Times): that the excitement around technology companies is largely empty hype, enthusiasm used to sucker naïve young adults to work for peanuts (and candy), and to enrich savvy founders and venture capital investors, and the investment bankers who enable them, at the expense of the gullible mom and pop investors who buy shares of these fast-growing but often profitless companies after they go public.

Your Personal Healthcare System in the Year 2030

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Against your better judgment, you’ve just checked your contact lens-enabled news feed. You’re annoyed, because President Meghan McCain has just used the Trump Doctrine to “fire” Medicare’s lead administrator over the botched roll-out of the Agency’s block-chain claims payment system.  The mild spike in sweat stress chemicals detected by your clothing sensors prompts a boost in the transcutaneous dosing of the blood pressure pharmaceuticals from the networked skin patch on your thigh.

It’s the year 2030, and personalized “eDxTx” (ecosystems of Diagnosis and Treatment) has arrived for a lucky few who are able to afford it. That has created political headaches for the President and her campaign promise to bring Medicare out of the 20th century. Your decision to opt out of “Medicare for All” (a.k.a “TrumpCare”) has been expensive, but worth it because your Geico insurance plan includes eHealth as a covered benefit.  Geico’s ability to automate all underwriting and claims handling means high service standards and keeping costs down. Plus, those video ads are still cool.

Thanks to ubiquitous wireless connectivity, cloud-based machine intelligence and mass-personalized medicine, you and your private doctor’s team were able to configure a suite of customizable off-the-shelf apps that meet your goals for living well as well as long.  The first step was your $2 psychometric, biomic and genetic testing (the expense of a mitochondrial analysis was offset with an agreement with the laboratory, Theranos, to pool your data with other customers) that spotlighted the optimum mix of nutrition and pharmaceuticals to blunt your risk of Type 15 Hypertension and GAB15a-linked gastrointestinal cancer.

Stephen Curry’s Health Care Plan

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The 3 point shot has revolutionized basketball and turned the NBA upside down. The smartphone has revolutionized health care and turned the doctor-patient relationship upside down.

Let’s examine those two statements.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Martin Johnson describes the dramatic changes that the creation of the 3 point shot has created. The prior era in was dominated by a dominating big man-  Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlin, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar.  As Johnson writes, “This made intuitive sense: The better a team is at protecting its basket, the better its defense should be.”

Suddenly, the rules changed and the 3 point shot was created.

With new rules, new values.

With new rules, new math, new economics for the NBA.

What had been valuable- the dominant big center to defend the basket- is no longer as valuable.

What had not been as valuable- a small, quick, long distance shooting guard, and those best suited to defend against them- now are a valued resource.

The evidence of this ‘transformative innovation’ is everywhere; from Stephen Curry, a small nimble, excellent shooting guard, winning the NBA MVP award to the NBA finals between the Cavaliers and the Warriors- where the defense is as fierce at the 3 point line as it is right under the basket.

So the  new rule establishing the 3 point line has turned the game inside out, shifting the focus from the ‘big man’ to a new type of player – as John Hollinger, the Memphis Grizzlies vice president of basketball operations, states in the Journal, “It has completely changed the way players are valued on the market.  Now we put a premium on length and basketball IQ.”

Forget Patient-Facing Apps. Yes, You Read That Correctly.

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flying cadeuciiSeveral years ago both Microsoft and Google invested millions of dollars on a flawed assumption: If they built a useful and free healthcare application, people would flock to it. In both cases, the effort failed. At its peak Microsoft HealthVault was only able to enroll a few thousand—largely inactive—users. Google Health was discontinued after a few years.

The problem was (and is) that unlike almost any other business, healthcare is a negative good.

Even if it’s “free,” as was the case with both the Microsoft and Google offerings, most people find tracking their health to be, in some sense, an admission of frailty, imperfection and mortality. Except for occasional blips related more to vanity (weight loss is the prime example), when it comes to our health most of us are in denial. So when people talk about technology for patient engagement, I tend to pause and wonder: Should we be building apps and services just for patients, or for the people who care about them too?

No Mandate Required

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flying cadeuciiA reporter who covers healthcare asked me a thought provoking question recently: Is there a mandate for the adoption of telehealth?  The inquiry makes sense. After all, from hospitals to health plans, employers to private practices, it is expected that the global telemedicine market will expand at an annual rate of 14.3 percent through 2020. Surely the explanation has something to do with the presence of a national requirement.

And it is the case with other health technology. As many in the industry know, the federal government mandated the adoption of electronic medical records (EMRs).The US Department of Health and Human Services spent billions to implement the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act. And providers were incentivized and penalized based not only on their adoption of electronic health records, but on the efficacy of their “meaningful use” of these new tools.

Meaningful Use: RIP

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Richard Gunderman goodA decade ago, electronic health records were aggressively promoted for a number of reasons.  Proponents claimed that they would facilitate the sharing of health information, reduce error rates in healthcare, increase healthcare efficiency, and lower costs.  Enthusiasts included the technology companies, consultants, and IT specialists who stood to reap substantial financial rewards from a system-wide switch to electronic records. 

Even some health professionals shared in the enthusiasm.  Compared to the three ring-binders that once held the medical records of many hospitalized patients, electronic records would reduce errors attributable to poor penmanship, improve the speed with which health professionals could access information, and serve as searchable information repositories, enabling new breakthroughs through the mining of “big data.”

To promote the transition to electronic records, the federal government launched what it called its “Meaningful Use” program, a system of financial rewards and penalties intended to ensure that patients would benefit.  Naturally, this raised an important question: if digitizing health records was such a good idea, why did the federal government need to impose penalties for health professionals who failed to adopt them?  Perhaps electronic health records were not so self-evidently beneficial as proponents suggested.

Research Bites Dog

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Screen Shot 2016-04-03 at 10.42.56 AMWe live in a headline/hyperlinked world.  A couple of years back, I learned through happenstance that my most popular blog posts all had catchy titles.  I’m pretty confident that people who read this blog do more than scan the titles, but there is so much information coming at us these days, it’s often difficult to get much beyond the headline.  Another phenomenon of information overload is that we naturally apply heuristics or short cuts in our thinking to avoid dealing with a high degree of complexity.  Let’s face it: it’s work to think!

In this context, I thought it would be worth talking about two recent headlines that seem to be set backs for the inexorable forward march of connected health.  These come in the form of peer reviewed studies, so our instinct is to pay close attention.

In fact, one comes from an undisputed leader in the field, Dr. Eric Topol.  His group recently published a paper where they examined the utility of a series of medical/health tracking devices as tools for health improvement in a cohort of folks with chronic illness.  In our parlance, they put a feedback loop into these patients’ lives.  It’s hard to say for sure from the study description, but it sounds like the intervention was mostly about giving patients insights from their own data.  I don’t see much in the paper about coaching, motivation, etc.

If it is true that the interactivity/coaching/motivation component was light, that may explain the lackluster results.  We find that the feedback loops alone are relatively weak motivators.  It is also possible that, because the sample included a mix of chronic illnesses, it would be harder to see a positive effect.  One principle of clinical trial design is to try to minimize all variables between the comparison groups, except the intervention.  Having a group with varying diseases makes it harder to say for sure that any effects (or lack of effects) were due to the intervention itself.

Dr. Topol is an experienced researcher and academician.  When they designed the study, I am confident they had the right intentions in mind.  My guess is they felt like they were studying the effect of mobile health and wearable technology on health (more on that at the end of the post). But you can see that, in retrospect, the likelihood of teasing out a positive effect was relatively low.

Telemedicine: Competition and Coopitition

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In 1985 I had the good fortune to study in Sweden. I made many good friends and loved the natural beauty. I also learned a lot about healthcare in what is essentially a socialist country.

Sweden was (and is) by no means perfect. Progressive taxation had disincentivized hard work leading to something of a brain drain. Many of the physicians I met were looking to emigrate. On the flip side, Swedish healthcare was accessible and high quality. The government viewed healthcare as a responsibility and right rather than an option. The relatively small and homogeneous population (8 million in 1985) allowed central planning. On the campus of the Karolinska Institute, their version of the NIH, there were regional specialty hospitals: a hospital for the heart, the G.I. tract, the nervous system, etc.

This contrasts with American healthcare where hospitals offer specialty services on nearly every corner. Here in Phoenix, a patient with cancer can choose from Banner / MD Anderson, Mayo Clinic, Dignity Health / UA Cancer Center, and Cancer Treatment Centers of America, along with several other institutes. How did such choice come about? As a nation, we hold certain truths to be self-evident. Near the top of the list, we believe competition is a good thing. In just about every business open markets lead to higher quality goods and services and ever decreasing prices. Right? So how come on almost every measure Swedish healthcare trumps the American system? Sweden spends half as much per capita

[JL1]  but on average its citizens live four years longer