Something didn’t seem right to epidemiologist Eric Weinhandl when he glanced at an article published in the venerated Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) on a crisp fall evening in Minnesota. Eric is a smart guy – a native Minnesotan and a math major who fell in love with clinical quantitative database-driven research because he happened to work with a nephrologist early in his training. After finishing his doctorate in epidemiology, he cut his teeth working with the Chronic Disease Research Group, a division of the Hennepin Healthcare Research Institute that has held The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) contract for the United States Renal Data System Coordinating Center. The research group Eric worked for from 2004-2015 essentially organized the data generated from almost every dialysis patient in the United States. He didn’t just work with the data as an end-user, he helped maintain the largest, and most important database on chronic kidney disease in the United States.
For all these reasons this particular study published in JAMA that sought to examine the association between dialysis facility ownership and access to kidney transplantation piqued Eric’s interest. The provocative hypothesis is that for-profit dialysis centers are financially motivated to keep patients hooked to dialysis machines rather than refer them for kidney transplantation. A number of observational trials have tracked better outcomes in not-for-profit settings, so the theory wasn’t implausible, but mulling over the results more carefully, Eric noticed how large the effect sizes reported in the paper were. Specifically, the hazard ratios for for-profit vs. non-profit were 0.36 for being put on a waiting list, 0.5 for receiving a living donor kidney transplant, 0.44 for receiving a deceased donor kidney transplant. This roughly translates to patients being one-half to one-third as likely to get referred for and ultimately receiving a transplant. These are incredible numbers when you consider it can be major news when a study reports a hazard ratio of 0.9. Part of the reason one doesn’t usually see hazard ratios that are this large is because that signals an effect size that’s so obvious to the naked eye that it doesn’t require a trial. There’s a reason there are no trials on the utility of cauterizing an artery to stop bleeding during surgery.
But it really wasn’t the hazard ratios that first struck his eye. What stuck out were the reported event rates in the study. 1.9 million incident end-stage kidney disease patients in 17 years made sense. The exclusion of 90,000 patients who were wait-listed or received a kidney transplant before ever getting on dialysis, and 250,000 patients for not having any dialysis facility information left ~1.5 million patients for the primary analysis. The original paper listed 121,000 first wait-list events, 23,000 living donor transplants and ~50,000 deceased donor transplants. But the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), an organization that manages the US organ transplantation system, reported 280,000 transplants during the same period.
The paper somehow was missing almost 210,000 transplants.
From the vantage point of our self-quarantined shrunken universes, we cannot see even the immediate future, let alone what our personal and professional lives will look like some years from now.
Factories are closed, luxury department stores are in bankruptcy, hospitals have stopped performing elective procedures and patients are having their heart attacks at home, unattended by medical professionals. New York office workers may continue to work from home while skyscrapers stand empty and city tax revenues evaporate.
Quarantined and furloughed families are planting gardens and cooking at home. Affluent families are doing their own house cleaning and older retirees are turning their future planning away from aggregated senior housing and assisted living facilities.
In healthcare, procedure performing providers who were at the pinnacle of the pecking order sit idle while previously less-valued cognitive clinicians are continuing to serve their patients remotely, bringing in revenues that prop up hospitals and group practices.
As the coronavirus pandemic overtook the tail end of the Democratic primary season, attention rapidly shifted from examining the nuances of the differences between the candidates’ healthcare platforms to simply demanding a response to the pandemic. Beyond addressing the immediate crisis, however, lie many questions about the weaknesses of our current healthcare system, and how we will address them in the long run. These questions should be at the forefront of voters’ minds as we head into the election this fall.
One of the major weaknesses in our system is that we do not have universal healthcare. Importantly, virtually all of the Democratic candidates called for making healthcare a right in the U.S. This is a key first step toward universal healthcare. Their approaches to achieving this varied, however. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren called for “Medicare for All,” but most of the other candidates, including Joe Biden, have pushed for some kind of public option. The public option has faced criticism that it will simply maintain the status quo. This criticism inspired me to write this blog, because a large-scale public option program could actually help to reshape the US healthcare system and result in improvements in access to care in this country, ultimately getting us to universal healthcare.
Episode 10 of “The THCB Gang” was live-streamed on Thursday, May 21th
Joining me were regulars: writer Kim Bellard (@kimbbellard), policy expert Vince Kuraitis (@VinceKuraitis), patient advocate Grace Cordovano (@GraceCordovano), radiologist Saurabh Jha (@RogueRad), employer consultant Brian Klepper (@bklepper1), Deven McGraw (@healthprivacy) and a guest, former ONC Consumer head Lygeia Riccardi, now at Carium Health (@Lygeia)! The conversation moved onto the new normal of telehealth, how much things would change in the future, and what the story with testing and opening up would look like. You can see the video below
If you’d rather listen, the “audio only” version is preserved as a weekly podcast available on our iTunes & Spotify channels — Matthew Holt
Today on Health in 2 Point 00, Jess asks me about Omada Health raising $57 million and then spending $30 million acquiring Physera, Holmusk raising $21.5 million, digital mental health company Meru raising $8.1 million, Noom partnering with LifeScan for digital diabetes care and Alike raising $5 million.—Matthew Holt
If you’re lucky, you’ve been working from home these past couple months. That is, you’re lucky you’re not one of the 30+ million people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. That is, you’re lucky you’re not an essential worker whose job has required you to risk exposure to COVID-19 by continuing to go into your workplace.
What’s interesting is that many of the stay-at-home workers, and the companies they work for, are finding it a surprisingly suitable arrangement. And that has potentially major implications for our society, and, not coincidentally, for our healthcare system.
Twitter was one of the first to announce that it wouldn’t care if workers continued to work from home. “Opening offices will be our decision, when and if our employees come back, will be theirs,” a company spokesperson wrote in a blog post. “So if our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home and they want to continue to do so forever, we will make that happen.”
Other tech companies are also letting the work-from-home experiment continue. According to The Washington Post, Amazon and Microsoft have told such workers they can keep working from home until at least October, while Facebook and Google say at least until 2021. Microsoft president Brad Smith observed: “We found that we can sustain productivity to a very high degree with people working from home.”
Back in the early 2000s I was on the board of the California Health Care Foundation and one day the German Minister of Health paid CHCF a visit as part of a learning tour of American healthcare. Mark Smith MD CHCF’s CEO invited me to join the meeting with the minister. She was a delightful person who didn’t speak much English, but because she was accompanied by her handler/translator we managed to communicate just fine. Mark and I tried to explain to the Minister how the American healthcare system worked, and we got to the point in the conversation about the money. The essence of the “game” we described was that commercial insurers (particularly self-insured employers) paid a significant multiple of cost (sometimes in excess of 300% of costs) in order to make the math work for providers. We explained that the game works only if these purchasers paid much higher prices. I don’t speak German, but I think she said: “What The F**k?!”. Exactly.
As we enter the Post COVID world, a key question is: Will healthcare simply restart this game? Or make it even more extreme, in fact, by providers turning to those commercial insurers and self-insured employers to make up the difference for the COVID “Elective Collapse Recession” that has so traumatized provider’s finances including hospitals, specialists, primary care, and dentists leading to job cuts, furloughs, salary reductions and bankruptcies of providers.
A number of recent articles have pointed to how the game works. In particular, the always superb New York Time’s columnist Sarah Kliff’s review of the Mayo Clinic and the other highflying institutions whose excellence is rewarded not by value based reimbursement but by high prices for commercial activity under a relatively benign payor mix (industry code for “don’t see a lot of poor people, uninsured or on Medicaid”).
The great pandemic is wreaking havoc, we are told, because the nation is not testing enough. The consensus from a diverse group that includes public health experts, economists, and silicon valley investors is that more testing will allow the country to restart the economy and do it safely.
The White House has been a mini laboratory for this testing strategy. Everyone who comes into contact with the President and Vice President is tested daily. This is supposedly what allows everyone to sit in meetings together and generally carry out the essential business of the country. But over this Mother’s Day weekend members of the White House spent their time scrambling to track down contacts of Katie Miller, the press secretary of the Vice president who tested positive. And contacts were left unclear about what exactly to do. One official started self-quarantining, while another did not.
If the White House has trouble with a mass testing, and contact tracing strategy, one wonders how this may work nationwide with thousands of new cases per day. While it would be tempting to blame administrative incompetence for the difficulties in the most important household in the land, the real difficulties lies with inherent limitations to tests that need to be understood before getting on the testing bandwagon.
Catalyst @ Health 2.0, in collaboration with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is seeking health technology solutions that can support the needs of the health care system (e.g. providers, government, public health and community organizations, and more) by addressing several obstacles during an emergency such as:
Resource Management: Shortages of equipment, staff, and cash flow
Health Data Exchange: Limited information and access available on patients’ health histories
Training and Communication: Limited training and cumbersome communication between responders and clinicians
Capacity: Limited beds, equipment, and resources and a need to maximize patient flow/throughput
Innovators must submit their tech-enabled solution by June 12th, 2020 at 11:59 PM ET.
Can you create a digital tool that supports the health care system during a large-scale health crisis? Apply today!
Catalyst @ Health 2.0 (“Catalyst”) is the industry leader in digital health strategic partnering, hosting competitive innovation “challenge” events, as well as developing and implementing programs for piloting and commercializing novel healthcare technologies.
We also asked people to rank their concerns about the costs of their care, in five questions that covered cost of care, cost of prescription drugs, cost and availability of insurance, and surprise billing. In the time since we ran the survey, everything has changed in American healthcare. The COVID19 pandemic is filling emergency rooms wherever the epidemic arrives. Bills are likely to be high, for both patients and insurers, and it is still far from clear how they will be paid. Americans are likely to continue to worry deeply about healthcare costs, with good reason, since it’s only in America that someone can go bankrupt due to seeking medical care.