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Knowing What Not to Do

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“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”  Michael Porter.

It is so often the case that organizations try to do things they should not do.  Call it irrational exuberance; getting out in front of the curve; or a bridge too far.  Hospital systems are examples of that.  Already large, complex organizations doing incredibly challenging things with billions of dollars flowing through their systemic blood vessels, they are understandably tempted to do more.  They always are.  That is the inevitable urge of active hospital board members and ambitious executives.  Do more; not do less.  After all, who arrives to such an exalted position to do less?

Their collective corporate eye is cast toward health insurers who have been called bloated and inefficient; dinosaurs; dim witted at best.  The President of the United States, no less, disparaged insurers while promoting the ACA, labelling them the “villains” of the healthcare system.  Speaker Pelosi called them “immoral.”  How difficult can it be to do health insurance better than the insurers have done it? Should be easy for people as smart as those who run complex healthcare delivery systems.

“Hospitals think this is a way to cut out the middle person, tailor care more closely and save a lot of extra money, but there’s a history to this and it generally doesn’t work,” said Howard Berliner, a visiting professor of health policy at NYU. “It sounds easy, but it winds up being incredibly complicated.”

National Coordinator 6.0: A Blueprint For Success

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Now that it’s public, I’ll offer my thoughts on the next steps for Don and ONC.  Don Rucker is a good pick for the nation, and will be a great National Coordinator.  I’ve gone on record as saying that some others are not qualified, and as many of you know – I don’t mince words.  Don is smart, focused, thoughtful, intentional, and will make good decisions for ONC and HHS.  I have known Don for 20 years.  He’s got a long track record of integrity, he’s a nice person, he deeply understands the challenges, limitations, and opportunities of Health IT.  I have no doubt that he’ll do a good job.  He’s got a lot on his plate.

Where should he focus?

  1. Stay the course with health IT certification.  I disagree with the growing meme that ONC has broadened its certification scope too far.  Certification has one purpose:  to provide consumers with a way to be confident that the product they are purchasing will do what the seller says it does.  Some people seem to have forgotten (or don’t know) that some of the companies that sell health IT solutions have claimed that the products do things they do not do.  There needs to be a process by which these claims are tested, verified and, yes, certified.  If this program is scaled back, health IT systems will be less safe, less interoperable, less usable, and less reliable.  #KeepCertification. 

    2.Keep the Enhanced Oversight Rule in place.  My former colleagues (and Don’s former colleagues) in the vendor community will disagree, as do some of the house Republicans.  As Don will learn first hand in his initial few weeks as NC, some of the companies that have been selling certified health IT products have been misbehaving.  In some cases, products have been de-certified.  In other cases, there have been investigations and resolution of problems without de-certification.  ONC is protecting the public by doing what Congress asked it to do initially.  The certification program is more than testing of products in a petri dish, it’s about what happens with the products in the real world.  Surveillance is therefore a necessary part of making sure that the products do what they were certified to do.  #KeepOversight.

Resist the Evil Fiction That Is Health Insurance

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It has come to pass. President Donald J. Trump. Are you scared? Are you planning to “resist” the policies you imagine President Trump will pursue by tweeting furiously with clever hashtags galore? Would you prefer to move my fastidious quotation marks from “resist” to “President”? This is after all, the first President in a very long time to take office without the blessings and financial support of established “world order” leaders. It must be rather disconcerting to proceed without clear guidance from our betters, especially seeing how well they served us over the last decades, and particularly when it comes to affordability of health care in America.

Are you binge-watching the Obamacare drama playing on America’s center stage these days? Are you tweeting and retweeting every shred of information that proves Obamacare is a huge success, and its repeal will mean certain death for millions? Or are you busy proclaiming your faith in free markets, the (undemocratic) government of Singapore, or the charitable nature of Americans in general and doctors in particular?  Is President Obama your tragic hero, or your shifty villain? Is President Trump your great liberator (although he promised not to do anything you really want), or the Grinch who will steal health care (although he promised to preserve everything you really like)? Are you not entertained? Pass the bread, please.

Giving Cancer Hell

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There are 80,000 new cases of primary brain tumors diagnosed every year in the United States.  About 26,000 of these cases are of the malignant variety – and John McCain unfortunately joined their ranks last week.  In cancer, fate is defined by cell type, and the adage is of particular relevance here.

Cancer is akin to a mutiny arising within the body, formed of regular every day cells that have forgotten the purpose they were born with. In the case of brain tumors, the mutinous cell frequently happens to not be the brain cell, but rather the lowly astrocyte that normally forms a matrix of support for brain cells.  Tumors made up of astrocytes are called astrocytomas.  Classification schemes for brain tumors in the era of molecular subtypes has grown enormously complex, but a helpful framework is provided by the appearance of these tumors under a microscope.  Grade 1 tumors are indolent, with little invasive capacity, while Grade 4 tumors are highly invasive, marked under the microscope as dense, sheets of cells that can even be seen to grow their own blood supply.  Senator McCain has a grade 4 astrocytoma, otherwise known a a glioblastoma (GBM) – the worst kind.   Social media from all sides of the political spectrum lit up with well wishes – with most casting the disease as something to be defeated.

Others within the medical community took a different take.

Mehreen is right.  GBM is a deadly disease,  the 5-year survival rate for patients with GBMs is <3%.  The majority of GBM patients live less than a year.  Yet, the medical community of neurosurgeons and oncologists that treat these tumors go to battle with these tumors.  Why?

I asked a very busy neurosurgeon this same question.   I asked him what he told patients. He told me that he never mentions the word cure.  There is no cure.  The goal is to manage the disease and buy more time.

Median survival for GBM is measured in weeks, not years.  Do nothing, and expect 14 weeks; combining surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy may give you 45 weeks.

chart

What we describe is median survival, of course, and as Stephen J Gould eloquently put in his diatribe against statistics in cancer – the median is hardly the message.   The oncologist you want is the one who doesn’t tell you about median survival when breaking the news to you of your cancer – she implicitly understands each GBM has a different path.  Here are three such paths.

Failure to Translate: Why Have Evidence-Based EHR Interventions Not Generalized?

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The adoption of electronic health records (EHRs) has increased substantially in hospitals and clinician offices in large part due to the “meaningful use” program of the Health Information Technology for Clinical and Economic Health (HITECH) Act. The motivation for increasing EHR use in the HITECH Act was supported by evidence-based interventions for known significant problems in healthcare.

In spite of widespread adoption, EHRs have become a significant burden to physicians in terms of time and dissatisfaction with practice. This raises a question as to why EHR interventions have been difficult to generalize across the health care system, despite evidence that they contribute to addressing major challenges in health care.

America’s Health and The 2016 Election: An Unexpected Connection

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Donald Trump’s stunning upset victory has occasioned a lot of searching among political analysts for an underlying explanation for the unexpected turn in voter sentiment. Many point to Trump’s galvanizing support among white working class and middle income Americans in economically depressed regions of the US- particularly Appalachia and the upper middle west “Rust Belt” – as the main factor that put him in office.

While the Democrats concentrated on the so-called “coalition of the ascendant”- voter groups like Hispanics and Millennials that are growing, Trump rode to victory on a “coalition of the forgotten”- working class Americans in economically depressed regions of the U.S. who had been left behind by the economic expansion of the past seven years.

When the Economist searched for a more powerful predictor of the Trump victory than white non-college status, they found a surprise winner: a composite measure of poor health (comprised of diabetes prevalence, heavy alcohol consumption, lack of physical activity, obesity and life expectancy). Believe it or not. this measure of health status predicted a remarkable 43% of the improvement of Trump’s vote percentage compared with the 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney, compared to 41% for white/non-college.

A month after the election, the Centers for Disease Control released its 2015 morbidity and mortality trends in the US.  The CDC Report showed that  Americans’ life expectancy actually declined for the first time in 22 years. Except for cancer where we saw continued progress, death rates rose for eight out of the ten leading causes of death, most sharply for Alzheimer’s Disease.  The decline in life expectancy was confined entirely to the under 65 population!

Hobson’s Wrong Answer

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Thomas Hobson was his name, a licensed carrier of passengers, letters, and parcels between Cambridge and London in the years surrounding 1600. He kept horses for such purpose, and rented them when he wasn’t using them. Naturally, the students all wanted the best horses, and as a result, Mr. Hobson’s better mounts became badly overworked. To remedy this situation, he began a strict rotation system, giving each customer the choice of taking the horse nearest the stable door or none at all. This rule became known as Hobson’s Choice, and soon people were using that term to mean “no choice at all” in all kinds of situations.

Not to be confused with Sophie’s Choice, the title of a 1979 novel by William Styron, about a Polish woman in a Nazi concentration camp who was forced to decide which of her two children would live and which would die. That phrase has become shorthand for a terrible choice between two difficult options.

Both Choices come to mind when reading this week’s Boston Globe article titled Hope for Devastating Child Disease Comes at a Cost: $750,000 a Year. The headline, as is too often the case, is inaccurate. It’s $750,000 for the first year, and $375,000 annually after that. But let us not quibble. That equals a lot of resource.

Mylan Fiasco May Be “The Shot Heard Round the World”

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The Mylan EpiPen debacle may have inadvertently weakened the grip Big Pharma on U.S. lawmakers.  Last week, a bill proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders was narrowly rejected by a vote of 52-46.  Unexpectedly, 12 Republicans and 1 Independent voted with Senator Sanders in favor of allowing pharmacists and distributors to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada and other foreign countries (something typically favored by Democrats.)  The winds of change are starting to blow in the bipartisan direction when it comes to the pharmaceutical industry.    

U.S. Healthcare needs a revolution ; ‘the shot heard round the world’ often refers to the opening shots of the American Revolution in 1775.  The Big Pharma lobby is holding the American people hostage with their exorbitant ransom demands.  Last summer, Mylan Pharmaceuticals, led by CEO Heather Bresch, overplayed their hand.  Mylan came under fire for a 400% price increase in the EpiPen two-pack.  This device is considered life-saving for children and adults with anaphylactic reactions to various food, insect, or environmental insults.  Ms. Bresch insisted the significant price increase ($600-$700 for a medication which costs pennies) was justified due to the more ergonomic appearance of the delivery device and improved safety profile.  Her miscalculation seems to have indirectly incited the war on Big Pharma by angering the public, the media, and the government simultaneously. 

Is Trumpcare Dead?
Was It Ever Really Alive?

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Senators Mike Lee and Jerry Moran said yesterday that they would not vote for the Better Care Reconciliation Act, effectively killing the legislation.  As anybody who has been following this story would have predicted, President Trump reacted publicly on Twitter on Tuesday morning, vowing to let the ACA marketplace collapse and then rewrite the plan later.

Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell attempted a quick punt this morning, calling for an immediate Senate vote on the House bill, a trick card that if it worked, would give Republicans two years to work things out.

Unfortunately for McConnell, it probably won’t.

The White House sees the failure as saying more about the political establishment in Washington than itself, which shouldn’t be all that surprising. Caught up in the drama of the Watergate-Russia emails-Trump family narrative, major media outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times see a historic defeat rather than a temporary setback. That may or may not turn out to be true. Predictably, conservative commentators and the alt-right believe the defeat says more about the mainstream media and the Deep State than it does about the Trump Presidency. For their part, Democrats clearly think they have found their issue and can be expected to continue to exploit it using legislative Viet Cong tactics (attack on social media, melt into the jungle, lob snarky public Molotov cocktails) to punish Republicans and keep the story on the front page.

One thing is clear. Instead of repealing and replacing Obamacare, the GOP now has to rewrite and replace its own plan. Doing that would be difficult under the best of circumstances, but in the current climate in Washington it is difficult to see how it would be possible without a major shift in the political landscape.

All of this is bad news for hospitals and health plans and a frightening development for consumers, although not the really bad news some had feared. The President’s threat to let the insurance marketplace die and then “figure it out” sounds good as a rallying cry to the troops on social media, but is not the kind of thing that investors and CEOs like to hear.  Realistically though, at this point everybody knew that the uncertainty would likely continue through the year (best case) or a year or longer (worst case) as the gridlock in Washington plays out. As depressing and frustrating as it is that the uncertainty will continue, by this point the industry is used to it. Insiders will continue to look for ways to minimize risk and for business opportunities to capitalize on the uncertainty.

Trump’s plan to allow the insurance exchanges to collapse is the kind of confrontational talk Trump and his advisors relish. In theory, the idea could work. There are in fact signs that it already is, as major insurers leave the marketplace and consumers hesitate before committing to expensive insurance policies.  In reality, however, the collapsing exchanges will create a political crisis that is even worse than the current one for the administration, with news cycle after news cycle dominated by stories of terminally ill cancer patients and parents with children with horrible diseases and no insurance coverage. At this point, it will be difficult for the party doing the collapsing to point at the other side and say “It was them. They did it!”

Non-Alternative Facts About the Healthcare System

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The economic fundamentals of healthcare in the United States are unique, amazingly complex, multi-layered and opaque. It takes a lot of work and time to understand them, work and time that few of the experts opining about healthcare on television have done. Once you do understand them, it takes serious independence, a big ornery streak, and maybe a bit of a career death wish to speak publicly about how the industry that pays your speaking and consulting fees should, can, and must strive to make half as much money. Well, I turn 67 this year and I’m cranky as hell, so let’s go.

The Wrong Question

We are back again in the cage fight over healthcare in Congress. But in all these fights we are only arguing over one question: Who pays? The government, your employer, you? A different answer to that question will distribute the pain differently, but it won’t cut the pain in half.

There are other questions to ask whose answers could get us there, such as:

  • Who do we pay?
  • How do we pay them?
  • For what, exactly, are we paying?

Because the way we are paying now ineluctably drives us toward paying too much, for not enough, and for things we don’t even need.

A few facts, the old-fashioned non-alternative kind:

  • Cost: Healthcare in the U.S., the whole system, costs us something like $3.4 trillion per year. Yes, that’s “trillion” with a “T”. If U.S. healthcare were a country on its own it would be the fifth largest economy in the world.
  • Waste: About a third of that is wasted on tests and procedures and devices that we really don’t need, that don’t help, that even hurt us. That’s the conservative estimate in a number of expert analyses, and based on the opinions of doctors about their own specialties. Some analyses say more: Some say half. Even that conservative estimate (one third) is a big wow: over $1.2 trillion per year, something like twice the entire U.S. military budget, thrown away on waste.
  • Prices: The prices are nuts. It’s not just pharmaceuticals. Across the board, from devices to procedures, hospital room charges to implants to diagnostic tests, the prices actually paid in the U.S. are three, five, 10 times what they are in other medically advanced countries like France, Germany, and the U.K.