Quality or value? A Measure for the 21st Century

One of the founders of the evidence-based medicine movement, Muir Gray

Fascinating, how in the same week two giants of evidence-based medicine have given such divergent views on the future of quality improvement. Here (free subscription required), Donald Berwick, the CMS administrator and founder and former head of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, emphasizes the need for quality as the strategy for success in our healthcare system. But here, one of the fathers of EBM, Muir Gray, states that quality is so 20th century, and we need instead to shine the light on value. So, who is right?

Well, let’s define the terms. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines quality as “the degree of excellence.” The same source tells us that value is “a fair return or equivalent in goods, services or money for something exchanged.” To me “value” is a holistic measure of cost for quality, painting a fuller picture of the investment vis-a-vis the returns on this investment. What do I mean by that?

Simply put, the idea behind value is to establish what is a reasonable amount to pay for a unit of quality. Let’s take my used 1999 VW Passat as an example. If my mechanic tells me that it needs to have some hoses replaced, and it will cost me under $100, and the car will run perfectly, I will consider that to be a good value. However, if my transmission has fallen out in the middle of Brookline Ave. in Boston (really happened to me once, many years ago and with a different car), and it will cost me $5,000 to fix, I may say that the value proposition is just not there, particularly given that the car itself is worth much less than $5,000. Given that my budget is not unlimited, I have to make trade-off decisions about where to put my money, so I may instead spend the money on another used Passat that has good prospects.

But in medicine, we routinely avoid thinking about value. There seems to be an overall impression that if it out there on the market, and especially if it is new, it is good and I am worth all of it. This impression is further enabled by the fact that CMS has no statutory power to make decisions based on value of interventions — they are legislatively mandated to turn a blind eye to the costs. Does this make sense? How toothless is our comparative effectiveness effort likely to be if it has to ignore half of the story?

Let us now look at my favorite sticky wicket, ventilator-associated pneumonia, or VAP. Now, the IHI bundle aimed at eliminating VAP consists of 5 points of intervention: 1). semi-recumbent positioning, 2). daily screen for readiness to get off mechanical ventilation, 3). daily sedation vacation, 4). prophylaxis against GI bleeding, and 5). prevention of clots. As I have mentioned before elsewhere, adherence of 95% to all these measures is deemed compliance and may be ultimately used as a quality measure by payers to determine levels of reimbursement. And while each of these interventions is basically “motherhood and apple pie”, applying them blindly and in toto to 95% of intubated patients may be a strategy for disaster. But what is even clearer is that, in order to implement this and all of the other quality improvement strategies, systems need to be put in place that will safeguard against failing to implement these quality measures. The time and resource expenditures needed to institute and maintain these systems, which have not been described in great enough detail as far as I am concerned, have never been quantified. So, what we are left with is a bunch of interventions that, while looking OK individually in clinical trials (until you really start looking at them critically), are likely providing small, if any, gains in quality at the margins, whose investment-return equation has not even been disclosed, let alone balanced. And because budgets are necessarily limited, as are clinicians’ time and cognitive capacities, we need to select a sensible menu of interventions from this practically unlimited feast.

This is the quality conundrum, a clear case of chasing our tails to achieve perfection at the expense of good enough. And while no one in their right mind will argue with the language of improved quality in healthcare, I do think that Muir Gray and his camp are on to something that has been a long time coming. At this time of shrinking budgets, competing priorities and tightening resources, does it not make sense to look at value as a package deal, rather than merely at quality in isolation from its context? Instead of being bombarded by ever-increasing volume of quality measures coming from many directions, would it not be more sensible to prioritize these interventions based on the value that they bring rather than merely on their projected outcomes benefits, so frequently estimated based on data that have very little applicability to the real world? Let’s start asking the question: how much quality and at what price? Without paying attention to this critical balance, we will not only bankrupt the system, but also worsen outcomes paradoxically, as we continue to overwhelm clinicians with infinite minutia that may or may not be generating helpful outcomes.

So, in my book, Muir Gray: score; Berwick: keep trying.

Marya Zilberberg, MD, MPH, is a physician health services researcher with a specific interest in healthcare-associated complications and a broad interest in the state of our healthcare system. She is the Founder and President of EviMed Research Group, LLC, a consultancy specializing in epidemiology, health services and outcomes research. Dr. Zilbergerg is also a professor of Epidemiology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She blogs at Healthcare, etc.