Health Outcomes

Currently, India spends about $20 per person per year on healthcare and spending more once seemed like a peripheral concern, taking a back seat to basics like food and sanitation.  However, in the past decade, as the Indian economy has grown and wealth followed, Indians are increasingly demanding access to “high quality” healthcare.  But what does “high quality” mean for a country where a large proportion of the population still goes hungry?  Where access to sanitation is so spotty that the Supreme Court recently had to decree that every school should have a toilet?  What is “high quality” in a setting where so many basics have not been met?

It turns out that “high quality” may mean quite a lot, especially for the poor.  A few weeks ago I spent time in Delhi, meeting with the leadership of the Indian health ministry.  I talked to directors of new public medical schools and hospitals opening up around the country and I met with clinicians and healthcare administrators at both private and public hospitals.  An agenda focused on quality rang true with them in a way that surprised me.

The broad consensus among global health policy experts is that countries like India should focus on improving “access” to healthcare while high income countries can afford to focus on the “quality” of that care.  The argument goes that when the population doesn’t have access to basic healthcare, you don’t have the luxury to focus on quality.  This distinction between access and quality never made sense to me.  When I was a kid in Madhubani, a small town in in the poor state of Bihar, I remember the widespread impressions of our community hospital.  It was a state-run institution that my uncle, a physician, once described as a place where “you dare not go, because no one comes out alive”.

Continue reading “Can Quality Be on India’s Health Care Agenda? Should it Be?”

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Since 2010, when the Affordability Care Act was signed into law, the American mainstream media has insisted that President Obama’s bill provides the most at-risk Americans, low income families and seniors, with better health care. And that must mean, by any logic, better access to doctors, more access to the modern tools of diagnosis and treatment, and ultimately better health outcomes. That poor Americans benefit greatly from the ACA, and that seniors will be more secure under the president’s law, has seemed so obvious to the left-leaning news outlets that this fact has yet to be critically examined by them.

President Obama’s ACA law purports to provide new health coverage to upwards of 16 million low income Americans by way of Medicaid. We already see in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that many, if not most, states simply cannot be burdened with massive increases in their Medicaid outlays, regardless of the promise of financial support from the federal government (itself a financially unsustainable funding source).

But President Obama’s assertion about new insurance for the poor and all it brings is, in fact, a grand deception. We know that 55 percent of primary care physicians and obstetricians already refuse all or most new Medicaid patients (about four times the percentage that refuse new private insurance patients), and only half of specialist doctors accept most new Medicaid patients. Clearly, granting poor people Medicaid is not equivalent to providing access to doctors.

Continue reading “The Moral Case for Romneycare 2.0″

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Patient-centered care and patient engagement have become central to the vision of a high value health delivery system. The delivery system is evolving from a fee-for-service transactional payment model to a value-based purchasing model using outcome data and quality improvement and attainment. The Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and private payers have spurred delivery redesign of networks that focuses on a set of clinical quality measures and patient care experiences along with efficiency measures.

However, the questions we ultimately really care are: “Did I get better? Am I healthier?”

With the advent of Facebook, PatientsLikeMe® and Avado, consumers and patients are sharing their healthcare experiences openly with their support system and strangers with similar illnesses. Our delivery system has yet to leverage the power of patient/consumer reported data in feeding back to care deliverers in the quality improvement cycle.

Clinical quality measures have traditionally consisted of process or surrogate measures and centered on providers and hospitals. As we move toward a system based on value, the measurement system must shift as well. Part of this movement will be utilizing outcomes directly reported from patients and their caretakers and incorporating these outcomes into quality improvement initiatives and payment models. The widespread adoption of standardized and validated patient-reported outcomes measures (PROMs) would accelerate the development of a patient-centered health system. However, new standards; patient-friendly, digitally-enabled instruments; secure portals; and more research will be required to facilitate adoption.

Continue reading “Finally, Quality We Really Care About”

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What happens when consumers are able to compare the performance of primary care physicians in their state using Consumer Reports, the magazine that’s so highly regarded for its ratings of thousands of products and services we all use every day? Well, for the first time ever, we’re about to find out.

A special Massachusetts version of July’s Consumer Reports magazine will feature a report entitled “How Does Your Doctor Compare?” along with a 24-page insert that includes ratings of nearly 500 primary care physician practices from across the state. The ratings are based on data from a comprehensive patient experience survey conducted by Massachusetts Health Quality Partners (MHQP), a coalition of consumers, physicians, hospitals, insurers, employers, government agencies, and researchers. The physician ratings report is also available online at www.mhqp.org.

In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk in the health care community about the importance of consumer empowerment and patient-centered care. This experimental collaboration between MHQP and Consumer Reports, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Aligning Forces for Quality program, helps move theory into practice, and will test some key assumptions about the value of transparency in the effort to improve the health care system. In many respects, ratings of primary care physicians are not new to Massachusetts. We at MHQP have been reporting the results of patient surveys and clinical quality data since 2006 and these reports have had a positive effect on health care in our state. But let’s face it, Consumer Reports adds a whole new dimension to the notion of transparency. Not surprisingly, their involvement has been met with both excitement and some trepidation in the physician community. Continue reading “Patient Power”

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As physicians, our primary concern is ensuring the health and safety of our patients. The Food and Drug Administration has offered a new concept to make more prescription drugs available over the counter (OTC). Proponents claim it could improve patient health and outcomes, reduce patient costs and promote proper medication use. We are skeptical that it would achieve any of these goals.

The American Medical Association is concerned about patients taking certain drugs without physician involvement — especially patients with chronic diseases. No evidence has been offered that the innovative technologies underpinning this concept would actually allow patients with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, asthma or migraine headaches to self-diagnose and manage these serious chronic medical conditions safely on their own.

As a chronic condition evolves, treatment changes are often needed from a physician. Without physician involvement, patients might take the wrong medication or dose for their needs, potentially causing harm. Self-diagnosis and treatment conflict with the care coordination and disease management that new health care payment and delivery models are trying to achieve.

Continue reading “Don’t Bypass Physicians”

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Malpractice lawsuits are a necessary evil in our society.  At times, they are frivolous, often resulting from a patient’s or family’s anger at a result that was not what they had hoped.  Some are actually designed just to try to get a financial settlement.  When doctors are sued for malpractice, it is a searing process, isolating and painful.  I have known several excellent doctors who have given up established practices so they will never have to go through the possibility of another lawsuit.  That is a real loss to society.

But our legal system is also designed to protect patients.  Malpractice lawsuits can be justified when a doctor acts negligently or makes a decision that is clearly outside of the bounds of the accepted standard of care.

One of things we know about quality and safety lapses in hospitals, though, is that they are often the result of systemic problems in those organizations.  It is not that a doctor or nurse has intentionally committed a clinical error.  It is that the way work is organized in the hospital causes errors to occur.  For example, many hospital-related infections arise this way, and people die or are harmed as a result.  This raises a question as to whether it should be possible to sue for malpractice when a hospital fails to act to correct systemic problems.

Anne Carroll, now retired, has graduate degrees in information science and public health.  She raised the question this way recently in a recent health care quality and safety chat room (reprinted here with her permission.)

Continue reading “A Different Kind of Malpractice”

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Durably improving health is really, really hard.

I’ve discussed this in the context of drug discovery, which must contend with the ever-more-apparent reality that biology is incredibly complex, and science remarkably fragile.  I’ve discussed this in the context of patient behavior, focusing on the need to address what Sarah Cairns-Smith and I have termed the “behavior gap.”

Here, I’d like to focus on a third challenge: measuring and improving the quality of patient care.

I’ve previously highlighted the challenges faced by Peter Pronovost of Johns Hopkins in getting physicians to adhere to basic checklists, or to regularly do something as simple and as useful as washing hands, topics that have been discussed extensively and in a compelling fashion by Atul Gawande and others.

Several recent reports further highlight just how difficult it can be not only to improve quality but also to measure it.

Consider the recent JAMA article (abstract only) by Lindenauer et al. analyzing why the mortality rate of pneumonia seems to have dropped so dramatically from 2003-2009.  Originally, this had been attributed to a combination of quality initiatives (including a focus on processes of care) and clinical advances.  The new research, however, suggests a much more prosaic explanation: a change in the way hospitals assign diagnostic codes to patients; thus, while rates for hospitalization due to a primary diagnosis of pneumonia decreased by 27%, the rates for hospitalization for sepsis with a secondary diagnosis of pneumonia increased by 178%, as Sarrazin and Rosenthal highlight in an accompanying editorial (public access not available).

Continue reading “Why the Fragility of Health Outcomes Research May Be a Good Outcome for Health”

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The conventional wisdom in health policy is that the United States spends far more than any other country and enjoys mediocre health outcomes. This judgment is repeated so often and so forcefully that you will almost never see it questioned. And yet it may not be true.

Indeed, the reverse may be true. We may be spending less and getting more.

The case for the critics was bolstered last week by a new OECD report that concluded:

The United States spends two-and-a-half times more than the OECD average health expenditure per person … It even spends twice as much as France, for example, a country which is generally accepted as having very good health services. At 17.4% of GDP in 2009, U.S. health spending is half as much again as any other country, and nearly twice the average.

Similar claims were made recently in The New York Times by former White House health advisor, Zeke Emanuel, who added that we are not getting better health care as a result. The same charge was aired at the Health Affairs blog the other day by Obama Social Security Advisory Board appointee Henry Aaron and health economist Paul Ginsburg. It is standard fare at Ezra Klein’s blog, at The Incidental Economist and at the Commonwealth Fund. It is also unquestioned dogma for New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman.

What are all these people missing? On the spending side, they are overlooking one of the most basic concepts in all of economics.

Continue reading “Do We Really Spend More and Get Less?”

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The idea that physicians are going to be far less important in the medicine of the future seems to be a central assumption of many next-generation health companies, an assertion that, like undergraduate Shakespeare productions set in the present day, may once have felt daring and original, but now seems merely tedious.

The logic goes something like is: Patients are accustomed to seeking insight from their doctors but doctors are far less good at providing this advice than most patients realize. As more consumer-based tools for managing health become available, patients will recognize that they now have the means and the motivation to take care of their health better than their physicians, and medical care will move directly into their hands.

Arguably, a form of this already happens today, as patients make extensive use of non-prescription products (e.g. the Vitamin Shoppe reported net sales of $750 million in fiscal year 2010), non-traditional practitioners (e.g. total revenue received by chiropractors is estimated by Hoovers to be about $10 billion), and seek medical advice from friends on Facebook (which may have directly saved at least one life).

What these data don’t convey, however, is something I’ve had the privilege to experience first-hand: Doctors enjoy an exceptionally durable bond with patients — especially those patients with chronic illnesses. The level of trust reported by patients for their physicians is remarkable, and the role of physician as trusted adviser is difficult to overstate. It’s a huge burden to manage disease on one’s own, and it’s generally reassuring to know your physician is with you at every step — something I believe still happens, by the way, although obviously not in every case.

Continue reading “Are Doctors Becoming Obsolete?”

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By JIM MARKS, MD MPH

A new study in the influential policy journal Health Affairs gives added credence to the idea that much of what drives health falls outside of the realm of medical care. In fact, this must-read study points out what so many of us know: that simply providing someone a health insurance card is not enough to make them healthy.

What better place to test this theory than in Canada – our northern neighbor with a publicly financed universal health care system. Researchers looked at nearly 15,000 Canadians in the nation’s health system who were free of heart disease and tracked them for at least a decade.  Not surprisingly, people disadvantaged by little education and low income, used the health care system more than those with higher incomes. But more importantly, this increased use of services had no discernable effect on improving their health or cutting their death rates – the ultimate bottom line – when compared with others with higher education, higher income and LESS usage of health care.

Almost all of the debate about health care here has been about how many Americans will be covered, for what care, and at what cost. The results of this Canadian study are clear. It may be helpful to have insurance to get care, but the United States cannot expect that giving people medical care will diminish differences in health outcomes or the likelihood of an early death among disadvantaged people. The authors explicitly warn against relying on universal coverage to eliminate inequalities in health. Continue reading “Health Insurance Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Better Health”

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FROM THE VAULT

The Power of Small Why Doctors Shouldn't Be Healers Big Data in Healthcare. Good or Evil? Depends on the Dollars. California's Proposition 46 Narrow Networking

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