A few weeks ago, a middle-aged man decided to tweet about his mother’s illness from her bedside. The tweets went viral and became the subject of a national conversation. The man, of course, was NPR anchorman Scott Simon, and his reflections about his mother’s illness and ultimate death are poignant, insightful, and well worth your time.
Those same days, and unaware of Simon’s real-time reports, I also found myself caring for my hospitalized mother, and I made the same decision – to tweet from the bedside. (As with Simon’s mom, mine didn’t quite understand what Twitter is, but trusted her son that this was a good thing to do.) Being with my mother during a four-day inpatient stay offered a window into how things actually work at my own hospital, where I’ve practiced for three decades, and into the worlds of hospital care and patient safety, my professional passions. In this blog, I’ll take advantage of the absence of a 140-character limit to explore some of the lessons I learned.
First a little background. My mother is a delightful 77-year-old woman who lives with my 83-year-old father in Boca Raton, Florida. She has been generally healthy through her life. Two years ago, a lung nodule being followed on serial CT scans was diagnosed as cancer, and she underwent a right lower lobectomy, which left her mildly short of breath but with a reasonably good prognosis. In her left lower lung is another small nodule; it too is now is being followed with serial scans. While that remaining nodule may yet prove cancerous, it does not light up on PET scan nor has it grown in a year. So we’re continuing to track it, with crossed fingers.
Unfortunately, after a challenging recovery from her lung surgery, about a year ago Mom developed a small bowel obstruction (SBO). For those of you who aren’t clinical, this is one of life’s most painful events: the bowel, blocked, begins to swell as its contents back up, eventually leading to intractable nausea and vomiting, and excruciating pain. Bowel obstruction is rare in a “virgin” abdomen – the vast majority of cases result from scar tissue (“adhesions”) that formed after prior surgery. In my mother’s case, of course, we worried that the SBO was a result of metastatic lung cancer, but the investigation showed only scar tissue, probably from a hysterectomy done decades earlier.
Continue reading “#MomInHospital”
Filed Under: THCB
Tagged: Bob Wachter, End of Life Care, ER Visits, hospitalization, Hospitals, LEAN, Nurses, Patient Safety, Patients, Quality, Scott Simon, Social Media, Twitter, UCSF
Aug 17, 2013
The Bike Path:
On a warm and sunny August Sunday, I was rollerblading with my kids on the Shining Sea Bikeway. On mile nine on the trip, I hit a tree root, went flying, and landed on my shoulder. I could tell immediately that something was wrong — I couldn’t move my arm and was in the worst pain of my life. Feeling for my left shoulder, it was obvious that I had dislocated it. What happened next was that I received some of the best care of my life – unfortunately it was not from our healthcare system.
As I was lying on the bike path, nearly everyone stopped and asked how they could help. A pediatric nephrologist offered to pop my shoulder back into place. I declined. This wonderful couple on a two-person reclining bike stopped and insisted on pedaling me to the hospital. We were far from the road and knew that calling an ambulance was not straightforward. So I sat with my left arm dangling, in excruciating pain, while David rode the bike to Falmouth Hospital. It was a 20 minute ride finishing with a very steep hill. David apologized after each bump on the road as he heard me swear and wince.
The Emergency Room:
We finally made it to the ER, and, ironically, it was then that my care stopped being so wonderful.
It started off well enough – a triage nurse saw me walking in holding my arm, in distress. She got me a wheelchair and brought me into triage. I explained what happened, gave my name, date of birth and described the pain as the worst of my life. I was then shuttled to registration, where I was asked to repeat all the same information. It felt surreal: I had moved all of 10 feet and yet somehow my information hadn’t followed me. The registration person asked me question after question. Initially, the same ones: name, address, phone #, etc. Then, my Social Security number (presumably so they could go after me if I didn’t pay my bill), my primary care physician’s name, his address, his phone #, my insurance status, my insurance #, my insurance card, my emergency contact, their address and phone #, etc. etc. etc.
I told her I was in excruciating pain and needed help. A few more questions, she said. She needed the complete registration.
I was wheeled to radiology and sat in a hallway for what felt like forever, groaning in pain. I couldn’t find a comfortable position. Six or seven people walked by – and as they heard me groan, they would look down and walk faster. The x-ray technologist avoided eye contact. It was hard — I was right outside her room. Finally, I asked a passerby if she could help. Caught by surprise (I must have sounded human), she stopped. She looked at me. She then went into the x-ray suite. A few minutes later, a second technologist came out, saw my arm, and was the first to acknowledge that my arm looked painful. He told me the ER was pretty quiet and he would get me in right away.
Continue reading “Average Care at a Typical Hospital on an Ordinary Sunday in August”
Filed Under: OP-ED, THCB
Tagged: Ashish Jha, emergency care, Hospitals, Patients, Quality, Quality measurement, Wait times
Aug 14, 2013
My wife Mary and I recently got a series of early morning calls alerting us to the declining health of Mary’s mom, who was in her 90s. She died later that week. We were stricken and so sad, but took comfort that she died with dignity and good care on her own terms, and at her home in San Francisco.
Ten years ago, we received a very different early morning call, about my father. An otherwise healthy and vigorous 72-year-old, Dad had fallen at home. Presuming he’d had a stroke, paramedics took him to a hospital with a neurosurgery speciality rather than to the university trauma center. That decision proved fatal.
A physician in Seattle at the time, I arrived the next day to find Dad in the intensive care unit on a ventilator. Dad’s head CT revealed a massive intracranial hemorrhage. Dad also had a large, obvious contusion on his forehead.
The following day, the physicians asked to remove Dad from the ventilator. He died that night. We were profoundly devastated by his death and upset with the care he’d received.
Our family wasn’t interested in blame or lawsuits. We did, however, want answers: Why hadn’t Dad been treated for a traumatic injury from a fall? Shouldn’t he have had timely surgery to relieve pressure from bleeding? What went wrong?
I’ve spent the last decade searching for answers, for myself and countless others, to questions about how to improve health care. I’ve had the honor of working with many people pushing health care toward high value, at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation(RWJF) and elsewhere.
We’ve worked hard to find solutions. We all get it: The health care problem is a big, complex one without silver bullet answers. Still, we’ve made incredible progress with efforts like RWJF’s Aligning Forces for Quality Initiative in which community alliances work to improve the value of their health care.
We’re searching for ways to help us all make smarter health care decisions. We’re helping health care professionals improve and patients and families be more proactive. We’re exploring the price and cost of care, and ways to automate health care information with technology.
And importantly, we’re working to align the incentives that health care professionals need to support and deliver great care. We strongly believe that unless we reward great results, we won’t get them. That means payment reform, with a focus on financial incentives for those who hunt for waste, resolve safety problems, sustain improvement, and, most of all, innovate to save more lives.
But do financial incentives to promote and reward behavior work?
Continue reading “Aligning Physician Incentives Doesn’t Do It”
Filed Under: OP-ED, Physicians, THCB
Tagged: AF4Q, behavioral economics, financial incentives, HCI3, Michael Painter, Patient Safety, payment reform, Physicians, Quality, RWJF
Aug 6, 2013
Good for Healthcare?
Sarah Jones was an anomaly in contemporary healthcare. Despite shifting alliances between physicians, hospitals, and insurance companies, she had been under the care of the same physician for over 20 years. Over this time, patient and physician had gotten to know each other well and had developed a fine relationship. Mrs. Jones had always assumed that, should she ever need to be admitted to the hospital, this relationship would pay big dividends, ensuring that her medical decision making would be based on long acquaintance and strong mutual understanding.
When the dreaded day came that she finally needed inpatient care, however, her hopes were dashed. Her physician explained to her that he no longer sees hospitalized patients. Instead she would be under the care of a team of physicians known as hospitalists. When she arrived, the hospitalist on duty introduced herself and told her that she would be the physician responsible for her care, while colleagues would be responsible during off hours. Unlike her regular physician, who would have been on hand only once or perhaps twice per day, the hospitalists would always be in house and ready to address her needs.
Mrs. Jones was surprised and disappointed to discover that her primary physician would not be involved in her hospital care. She had always assumed that she would be able to rely on their longstanding relationship for counsel and support. She imagined that if she were facing some really important decision, such as whether or not to proceed with a risky operation or how to manage her own end-of-life care, it would make a huge difference to know that she could count on a physician she knew well. Instead her hospital-based physician was a complete stranger.
Mrs. Jones’ experience is far from unique. In the past 15 years or so, medicine has seen the birth of hospitalists, a new breed of physicians who care only for hospitalized patients. There are now over 30,000 hospitalists in the US. From a patient’s point of view, such physicians offer a number of advantages. In many hospitals, a specialist in hospital medicine is always on duty, day or night. Moreover, because such physicians work only in the hospital, they are often more familiar with the hospital’s standard procedures, information systems, and personnel.
It is not difficult to see why hospital medicine might be so attractive to young physicians. For one thing, it provides them with a high degree of control over their working hours. They come on and off shift at regular times, and do not bear patient care responsibilities outside these hours. In addition, they are usually employed by the hospital, which means that they do not need to attend to a host of practice management issues that self-employed physicians confront. They can also focus on acute-care, in-hospital medicine, avoiding the challenges associated with long-term care of chronic-disease patients.
Some non-hospitalist physicians also find the rise of hospital medicine attractive. They do not need to travel to one or more hospitals each day to see patients, which takes considerable time and generates little revenue. They do not need to work so hard at staying abreast of changes in hospital procedures and technologies, which often vary from institution to institution, as do requirements for acquiring and maintaining hospital medical staff privileges. And finally, they can focus their energies on outpatient care, avoiding the more acutely life-threatening and complex situations associated with hospitalization.
Continue reading “The Rise of the Hospitalists”
Filed Under: OP-ED, Physicians, THCB
Tagged: doctor/ patient relationship, hospital medicine, Hospitalists, hospitalization, inpatient care, outpatient care, practice of medicine, Quality, Richard Gunderman
Aug 4, 2013
As healthcare shifts from fee-for-service to fee-for-value, hospitals and physicians are increasingly being held accountable for outcomes by the government, payers and patients. Historically, provider organizations only had to meet performance criteria to earn a pay-for-performance bonuses or hospital certification, but with the arrival of Accountable Care Organizations (ACO), Meaningful Use and other programs, payment is now based on to quality of care rather than quantity of services.
Health information technology (HIT) systems are able to track physician actions and measure outcomes down to the individual patient level and allow organizations to closely monitor the quality levels of a given physician. These same tools should be able to monitor the performance of the vendors who are there to support these clinicians. With patient engagement solutions, for example, vendors claim they can help improve HCAHPS scores, treatment adherence, patient outcomes, and reduce costs, but have no evidence to back it up.
Vendors should be willing to commit to their patient engagement promises, present proof showing improved outcomes and face some financial risk for failing to deliver.
Since patient engagement was included in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Solutions’ Meaningful Use of Electronic Health Records program, it has become a popular buzzword. Every HIT vendor claims to offer tools to assist providers with this important clinical quality issue, but no one is holding anyone accountable.
Continue reading “Providers Are Held Accountable. Why Aren’t Technology Vendors?”
Filed Under: Tech, THCB
Tagged: Emmi Solutions, HIT, Jordan Dolin, patient engagement, Quality, Vendors
Jul 26, 2013
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”
Filed Under: Economics, OP-ED, THCB
Tagged: ACOs, Costs, Dartmouth Atlas Project, Economics, Elliot Fisher, Geographic variation, IOM, Jonathan Skinner, Medicare, Population Health, Quality, The ACA, Triple Aim
Jul 24, 2013
If one were writing about the improvement of gastronomy in America, one would probably not celebrate “over 300 billion hamburgers served.” But that’s very much the type of success Dr. Ashish Jha is celebrating in last week’s piece on recent US healthcare IT sales. Unfortunately, the proliferation of Big Macs does not reflect superior cuisine, and healthcare IT (HIT) sales do not equate with better healthcare or with better health. Quantity does not equal quality of care.
To be sure, Dr. Jha acknowledges the challenges of rolling out HIT throughout US hospitals. And he should be strongly commended for his admission that HIT doesn’t capture care by many specialists and doesn’t save money. In addition, Dr. Jha points to the general inability of hospitals, outpatient physicians and laboratories to transfer data among themselves as a reason for HIT’s meager results.
But this is a circular argument and not an excuse. It is the vendors’ insistence on isolated proprietary systems (and the government’s acquiescence to the vendors) that created this lack of communication (non-interoperability) which so limits one of HIT’s most valuable benefits.
In our opinion, the major concern is that the blog post fails to answer the question we ask our PhD students:
So what? What is the outcome?
This entire effort is fueled by $29 billion in government subsidies and incentives, and by trillions of dollars spent and to be spent by hospitals, doctors and others .
So where is the evidence to back up the government’s and industry’s promises of lower mortality, improved health and lower health care costs?
Single studies tell us little. Sadly, as many as 90% of health IT studies fail the minimal criteria of the respected international literature syntheses conducted by the Cochrane Collaboration.
In other words, studies with weak methodology or sweetheart evaluation arrangements just don’t count as evidence.
Continue reading “More Work Is Needed on the Safety and Efficacy of Healthcare Information Technology”
Filed Under: OP-ED, THCB
Tagged: Ashish Jha, Cochrane Collaboration, Costs, EHR, HIT, Hospitals, Interoperability, Kaiser, Patient Safety, Physicians, Quality, Rand, Ross Koppel, RWJF, Stephen Soumerai, Vendors
Jul 17, 2013
The House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health recently held hearings on how to replace the broken sustainable growth rate (SGR) tool for controlling Medicare spending on physician services. I was asked to speak for major employers about their efforts to improve health care quality while containing cost.
Why did the subcommittee invite a business group representative to testify? And why should businesses care about how Medicare pays physicians?
The answer is that employers and the federal government are both major purchasers of health care, and we want government to look to the private sector for ideas to accelerate innovation in how we pay for care. Both public and private purchasers have a stake in building a system based on innovation, value, and measuring what matters.
The Pacific Business Group on Health’s (PBGH) 60 member companies provide health care to 10 million employees and their dependents in all 50 states. For decades, large and small employers alike have been frustrated by the rising costs and inconsistent quality of health care. A major reason for these problems is that the current payment system rewards physicians for more office visits, tests, and procedures, regardless of whether they are needed or result in better health. We need a better, more effective method of physician payment. PBGH members have real-world experience designing and implementing innovations in how providers deliver care and how they are paid for it. Medicare can learn from these efforts to improve quality and control costs.
Continue reading “Paying Physicians for Quality: Lessons from Employers”
Filed Under: Physicians, THCB, The Business of Health Care
Tagged: Bill Kramer, Pacific Business Group on Health, Physicians, Quality
Jul 7, 2013
Yesterday was my last day as chair of the ABIM, and the end of my eight-year tenure on the Board. In this blog – a bookend to the one I wrote at the start of the year, which went near-viral – I’ll describe some of our accomplishments this year and a few of the challenges that I leave my talented successors to grapple with.
I had two very tangible tasks to accomplish during my chairmanship. First, after a decade-long tenure as CEO and President of ABIM, Chris Cassel announced her intention to step down. (Chris is now CEO of the National Quality Forum, which is increasingly crucial in a world looking for robust measures of quality, safety, and value.) After an extensive search, we selected Richard Baron to become ABIM’s new CEO, and Rich began earlier this month. Rich is one of the most impressive people I’ve met in healthcare, and a perfect choice to lead ABIM into the future. As someone who practiced general internal medicine for nearly three decades in a mid-sized Philadelphia office, he is a “doctor’s doctor.”
He is intimately familiar with the work of the Board, having served on the boards of both ABIM and the ABIM Foundation for over a decade (including a year as ABIM chair). He also has extensive policy experience, most recently as director for Seamless Care Models for the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation (CMMI), where he was responsible for putting meat on the bones of concepts like the “Medical Home” and “Accountable Care Organization.” Rich is wickedly smart, a superb communicator, and a great listener with impeccable values and an unerring ethical compass. He’ll be splendid.
The second area may be a bit more Inside Baseball, but will ultimately be just as important. A couple of years ago, we began a process to redesign the ABIM’s governance. Our 28-person board was both too large and had too much on its plate for effective decision making. In work that was superbly led by then-chair Catherine Lucey, assisted by a crack committee, staff and governance expert Jamie Orlikoff, we decided to transform our governance structure. As of tomorrow, the ABIM board shrinks to 15 members – chosen for their experiences and competencies rather than because they represent a given medical subspecialty – and a new group, the ABIM Council, is formed. Continue reading “A Time of Change at the American Board of Internal Medicine”
Filed Under: Physicians
Tagged: ABIM, Bob Wachter, Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, Outcomes, Patient Safety, Quality, Transparency, Value
Jul 1, 2013
There is an old saying that every unsustainable trend, by definition, comes to an end. The U.S. healthcare system has been on an unsustainable trajectory, consuming more and more of our national income while failing to deliver the kind of care that Americans need and deserve. But although every unsustainable trend eventually ends, how it ends is up to us.
The healthcare system has the potential to collapse under its own weight, requiring Americans to pay even more for healthcare, forcing draconian and blunt cuts in the kinds of services available, and putting high quality healthcare out of reach for the poor and the sick.
An alternative future is one in which payers pay for value, providers become more efficient and patient centered, and consumers become increasingly engaged in caring for themselves. In this future, healthcare becomes an important force for improving the health of the American public.
What will determine which path our healthcare system will take? While the fate of our healthcare system will be influenced by policymakers in Washington DC and the state capitals, it will ultimately be decided by each of us – providers and patients who are involved in the daily work of delivering and engaging in healthcare.
The journal Healthcare: The Journal of Delivery Science and Innovation is an effort to nudge us toward a better, sustainable path for our healthcare system. The mission of the journal is simple: to play a meaningful role in fostering real change in the healthcare delivery system. The journal wants to be a venue for sharing the best ideas for delivery science, payment innovation and smart use of health information technologies. The journal was conceived by Amol Navathe and Sachin Jain, who have been thinking long and hard about compelling new approaches to bring about change in the healthcare system. It took years of persistence to line up a terrific publisher, put together a top notch editorial board and recruit some of the nation’s best minds to lead individual theme areas. And it paid off handsomely. Today, June 26th, Healthcare officially launches with its premier issue, and what an issue it is.
The two introductions are short, pithy and worth reading over and over again. The first is by Don Berwick, the former Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services but even more importantly (at least to me), the man who has done more to promote quality and safety than anyone in recent memory. Don frames the issues in ways that only he can, reminding us that we can have the best healthcare system in the world – we have all the pieces – but we have to learn how to put it together.
Continue reading “Healthcare Lands: Announcing the Journal of Delivery Science and Innovation”
Filed Under: THCB
Tagged: Ashish Jha, health care delivery, Innovation, Quality, The Journal of Delivery Science and Innovation
Jun 26, 2013