VA Medical System

It wasn’t until I had read this.

A national shortage of critical care physicians and beds means difficult decisions for healthcare professionals: how to determine which of the sickest patients are most in need of access to the intensive care unit. What if patients’ electronic health records could help a physician determine ICU admission by reliably calculating which patient had the highest risk of death?

Emerging health technologies – including reliable methods to rate the severity of a patient’s condition – may provide powerful tools to efficiently use scarce and costly health resources, says a team of University of Michigan Health System researchers in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“The lack of critical care beds can be frustrating and scary when you have a patient who you think would benefit from critical care, but who can’t be accommodated quickly. Electronic health records – which provide us with rich, reliable clinical data – are untapped tools that may help us efficiently use valuable critical care resources,” says hospitalist and lead author Lena M. Chen, M.D., M.S., assistant professor in internal medicine at the University of Michigan and an investigator at the Center for Clinical Management Research(CCMR), VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System.

The UMHS and VA study referenced in the article finds that patients’ severity of illness is not always strongly associated with their likelihood of being admitted to the ICU, challenging the notion that limited and expensive critical care is reserved for the sickest patients. ICU admissions for non-cardiac patients closely reflected severity of illness (i.e., sicker patients were more likely to go to the ICU), but ICU admissions for cardiac patients did not, the study found. While the reasons for this are unclear, authors note that the ICU’s explicit role is to provide care for the sickest patients, not to respond to temporary staffing issues or unavailable recovery rooms. Continue reading “Building a Better Health Care System: Electronic Health Records Could Help Identify Which Patients Most Need ICU Resources”

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At a seminar last night at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School, one of the students asked a question along the lines of, “How do you know when you have done too much with regard to transparency?” My answer was that the question presupposed the wrong approach to transparency, that it was being driven by the CEO without proper attention to the efficacy and appropriateness of what was being measured and disclosed. Instead, I suggested that it should be driven by the leadership of the organization, but based on metrics that were viewed as useful and appropriate by the clinical staff. In such an instance, transparency serves the function laid out by IHI’s Jim Conway, as summarized here in an article discussing the BIDMC experience:

[P]ublic reporting created what management guru Peter Senge calls creative tension, a key in getting an organization to change. Announcing a daring vision — the elimination of patient harm — combined with honestly publicizing the problems, fuels improvement, he said.

I expressed the concern last night that the general recalcitrance of the medical profession about engaging transparency will inevitably lead to fiats about disclosure from government regulatory agencies. The problem with those fiats is that they will be grossly constructed and force hospitals and doctors to focus on the wrong things, in a manner not consistent with widely established principles of process improvement. (See, for example, this approach in Maryland.)

Now comes the Veterans Administration, proving the case with panache! You may recall my complimentary post on the VA back in January. Thomas Burton’s article this week in the Wall Street Journal — “Data Spur Changes in VA Care” — documents this in more detail. Some excerpts:

Hospitals serving U.S. military veterans are moving fast to improve care after the government opened a trove of performance data—including surgical death rates—to the public.

The information was released at the urging of VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki. Among other things, it presents hospitals’ rates of infection from the use of ventilators and intravenous lines, and of readmissions due to medical complications. The details have been adjusted to account for patients’ ages and relative frailty.

“Why would we not want our performance to be public? It’s good for VA’s leaders and managers, good for our work force, and most importantly, it is good for the veterans we serve,” Mr. Shinseki said in an emailed statement.

At VA hospitals in Oklahoma City and Salem, Va., the rate of pneumonia acquired by patients on ventilators was shown last fall to be significantly higher than the national VA average. The Salem hospital says a relatively low number of patients on ventilators skewed its infection rate higher, but staff members at both facilities say the numbers prompted action.

Seeing the data helped, says the Salem hospital’s chief of surgery, Gary Collin, because “you can become kind of complacent.” Continue reading “How the Veterans are Winning the War”

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In 2007, a book by Phillip Longman sent lasting ripples through the U.S. health care establishment. The title was audacious: Best Care Anywhere. But it was the subtitle that shocked: Why VA Healthcare is Better than Yours.

Was Longman suggesting that the Veterans’ Health Administration provides better care than the treatment that millions of well-insured Americans typically receive in the private sector?  Yes.

Longman had uncovered what one reviewer called “the biggest untold story of the past decade,” the quality revolution that Dr. Ken Kizer launched when he took over the VA health system in 1994. And Longman had eye-popping evidence to back up his claims: overwhelming hard-core data from the most prestigious peer-reviewed medical journals. The research revealed that when it comes to everything from outcomes to patient satisfaction, and patient safety, the VA outperforms.

Continue reading “A Salute to the VA on Memorial Day—Part 1″

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