Dartmouth Atlas Project

Craig GarthwaiteTwo weeks ago, the Kellogg School of Management was privileged to host Joe Doyle, an outstanding economist from MIT.

In a broad research portfolio, Joe has focused on the effects from differing intensity of medical treatments.

This research is shattering some long held beliefs about the relationship between health spending and outcomes.

We think that Joe’s work is not known widely enough outside of the academic community, so we are using our blog to let you know what you have been missing and, in the process, perhaps change the way you think about healthcare spending.

It is well known that the U.S. far outspends other nations on healthcare, yet the outcomes for Americans (in terms of coarse aggregate measures such as life expectancy, infant mortality, and other dimensions) are quite average.

Of course, these outcomes are not the only things that we value in health care.

A lot of our spending is on drugs and medical services that improve our quality of life and won’t show up in these aggregate outcomes. For example, more effective pain management can decrease pain and improve quality of life – often with important economic benefits.

Despite this fact, most health policy analysts have concluded that we can cut back on health spending, without harming quality on any dimension.

This is not a new idea, of course. In a famous 1978 New England Journal article, Alain Enthoven coined the term “flat of the curve medicine” to describe how the U.S. had reached the point of diminishing returns in health spending. And for nearly 30 years the Dartmouth Atlas has documented how health spending dramatically varies across communities without any apparent correlation with outcomes.

The question has always been, what health spending to cut? Garthwaite’s previous work has shown that broad regulations requiring longer hospital stays for new mothers and their babies have provided only limited benefits and that more targeted rules could save money without sacrificing quality.

Beyond some wasteful regulations, we can always point to gross examples of overspending such as the rapid proliferation of proton beam treatments. But beyond those clear examples how can one identify what is waste and what is medically necessary?

In two important papers, Joe Doyle and co-authors ask a more fundamental question – is the often cited broad variation in health spending actually wasteful at all? They find that even in healthcare, there really is no such thing as a free lunch.

His work should be mandatory reading for everyone who believes that broad spending cuts will have no adverse consequences.

For those who lack the time to read these papers, we provide the “Cliff’s Notes” versions.

Continue reading “Is Higher Spending Truly Wasteful?”

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Since 1973, when Jack Wennberg published his first paper describing geographic variations in health care, researchers have argued about both the magnitude and the causes of variation.  The argument gained greater policy relevance as U.S. health care spending reached 18 percent of GDP and as evidence mounted, largely from researchers at Dartmouth, that higher spending regions were failing to achieve better outcomes.   The possibility of substantial savings not only helped to motivate reform but also raised the stakes in what had been largely an academic argument.   Some began to raise questions about the Dartmouth research.

Today, the prestigious Institute of Medicine released a committee report, led by Harvard’s Professor Joseph Newhouse and Provost Alan Garber, that weighs in on these issues.

The report, called for by the Affordable Care Act and entitled “Variation in Health Care Spending: Target Decision Making, Not Geography,” deserves a careful read. The committee of 19 distinguished academics and policy experts spent several years documenting the causes and consequences of regional variations and developing solid policy recommendations on what to do about them.  (Disclosure: We helped write a background study for the committee).

But for those trying to make health care better and more affordable, whether in Washington or in communities around the country, there are a few areas where the headlines are likely to gloss over important details in the report.

And we believe that the Committee risks throwing out the baby with the bathwater by appearing, through its choice of title, to turn its back on regional initiatives to improve both health and health care.

What the committee found

The report confirmed three core findings of Dartmouth’s research.

First, geographic variations in spending are substantial, pervasive and persistent over time — the variations are not just random noise. Second, adjusting for individuals’ age, sex, income, race, and health status attenuates these variations, but there’s still plenty that remain. Third, there is little or no correlation between spending and health care quality. The report also effectively identifies the puzzling empirical patterns that don’t fit conveniently into the Dartmouth framework, such as a lack of association between spending in commercial insurance and Medicare populations.

Continue reading “Making Sense of Geographic Variations in Health Care: the New IOM Report”

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Critically ill Medicare patients, who are battling for stable health at the end of life, are victims of repeated hospitalizations, especially after being discharged to a skilled nursing facility (SNF).  The cycle of hospitalizations is an indicator of poor care coordination and discharge planning – causing the patient to get sicker after every “bounce back” to the hospital.  Total spending for SNF care was approximately $31 billion in 2011; with an estimated one in four patients being re-hospitalized within thirty days of discharge to a SNF.[1]

Each readmission leads to further test and treatments, higher health care costs, and most importantly, patient suffering.  It is hard to imagine that patients would prefer to spend their last few months of life shuttling from one healthcare setting to another and receiving aggressive interventions that have little benefit to their quality and longevity of life.  The heroic potential of medical care should not compromise the patient’s opportunity to die with dignity.   A hospital is not a place to die.

Medicare beneficiaries are eligible to receive post-acute care at SNFs, after a three day hospital admission stay.  SNFs provide skilled services such as post-medical or post-surgical rehabilitation, wound care, intravenous medication and necessities that support basic activities of daily living.  Medicare Part A covers the cost of SNF services for a maximum of 100 days, with a co-payment of $148/day assessed to the patient after the 20th day.  If a patient stops receiving skilled care for more than 30 days, then a new three day hospital stay is required to qualify for the allotted SNF care days that remain on the original 100 day benefit.  However, if the patient stops receiving care for at least 60 days in a row, then the patient is eligible for a new 100 day benefit period after the required three day hospital admission.[1]  It is evident that the eligibility for the Medicare SNF benefit is dependent on hospitalizations – many of which may be a formality and a source of unnecessary costs.

Continue reading “The Bounce Back Effect”

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Conservatives love to apply “cost-benefit analysis” to government programs—except in health care. In fact, working with drug companies and warning of “death panels,” they slipped language into Obamacare banning cost-effectiveness research. Here’s how that happened, and why it can’t stand.

Why are you reading this when you could be doing jumping jacks?

And how come you’ve gone on to read this sentence when you could be having a colonoscopy?

You and I could be doing all sorts of things right now that we have reason to believe would improve our health and life expectancy. We could be working out at the gym, or waiting in a doctor’s office to have our bodies scanned and probed for tumors and polyps. We could be using this time to eat a steaming plate of broccoli, or attending a support group to help us overcome some unhealthy habit.

Yet you are not doing those things right now, and the chances are very strong that I am not either. Why not?

Continue reading “The Republican Case For Waste In Health Care”

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Healthcare reform was a frontline topic during the recent presidential elections. The political warfare and misleading information around the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), also known as Obamacare, has prevented the public from understanding its intended purpose, and has left many skeptical about its benefits. It is safe to say the general public has little to no idea about the quality of healthcare delivery in their respective regions.

In fact, it is not a far cry to claim that even healthcare professionals might not truly understand the issues facing American healthcare. Thus, most of the public is generally uninformed or misinformed about the population level problems facing the healthcare system. Therefore, it is quite simple for political parties to misguide the public and capitalize on their uninformed perceptions. If the public knew more about the flaws present in the healthcare system, perhaps they would better realize the PPACA is a reasonable start at addressing the failings of our system.

The Dartmouth Atlas Project is an online database which collects Medicare spending and utilization data from around the country. Information gathered from the database has shown immense variation in the way medical resources are utilized by even similar regions, communities, and health care organization. Evidence has repeatedly shown that, from a population perspective, areas that spend more on medical care do not consistently benefit from increased quality of care or patient wellbeing. Variation in the type of care delivered can be attributed to diverse incidence and prevalence of disease severity or the type of care a well- informed patient chooses. Variation in health care delivery is thus omnipresent and expected, because every patient is unique and medical innovation presents a growing number of care options to choose from.

Continue reading “What Does the Dartmouth Atlas Have to Say About the Politics of the ACA?”

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