The Business of Health Care

Why Disease Management Won’t Be Going Away Any Time Soon

We’re all aware of the past criticisms of “disease management.” According to the critics, these for-profit vendors were in collusion with commercial insurers, relying robo-calls to blanket unsuspecting patients with dubious advice. Their claims of “outcomes” were based on flawed research that was never intended to be science; it was really intended to market their wares.

But suppose this correspondent alerted you to:

1. A company that had developed a patient registry to identify at-risk patients who had not received an evidence-based care recommendation? Software created mailings to those patients that not only informed them of the recommendation but offered them a toll-free number to call if there were questions. Patients who remained non-compliant were then called by coordinators, who made three attempts to contact the patient and assist in any scheduling needs. If necessary, a nurse was available to telephonically engage patients and develop alternative care options.

If you think that sounds like typical vendor-driven telephonic disease management, you’d be right.  You’d also be describing an approach to care that was studied by Group Health Cooperative using their electronic record, medical assistants and nurses.  When it was applied to colon cancer screening, a randomized study revealed each additional level of support progressively resulted in statistically significant screening rates.

Or how about…….

2. A major insurer that decided to use its claims data to identify its own “best practices” without waiting for any published evidence-based studies?  Since “strict experimental conditions cannot always be met,” shortcuts like time-series analyses” and “propensity score approaches” will be used to “blur” the lines between feedback and evaluation, as well as the lines between provider and insurer?

If you think that sounds like an commercial insurer muscling into health care delivery while using quasi-experimental research shortcuts, you’d be right.  You’d also be describing how Medicare’s Innovation Center is borrowing from the disease management industry’s approach.  It’s all here.

Lastly, there’s……

3. A major insurer that decided to NOT to pay primary care sites enough fee-for-service or capitation, preventing them from hiring nurses who could provide coordinated care.  The insurer instead hired its own nurses and “embedded” them in the primary care sites while linking additional monthly payments of approximately $5 to pay-for-performance metrics.

If you think that sounds like a step away from the usual Patient Centered Medical Home, you’d be wrong.  In this instance, having the embedded nurses did not get in the way of the sites achieving PPC-PCMH recognition. What’s more, compared to usual care in a prospective randomized study that was underwritten by the medical-home fans at the Commonwealth Fund, the embedded nurse approach resulted in better hypertension care, breast cancer screening and fewer emergency room visits.

Alas, disease management: to paraphrase The Bard, a rose still smells as sweet by any other name, especially if it’s used by Group Health, CMS and the Commonwealth Fund.

Jaan Sidorov, MD, is a primary care internist and former Medical Director at Geisinger Health Plan with over 20 years experience in primary care, disease management and population-based care coordination. He shares his knowledge and insights at Disease Management Care Blog, where this post first appeared.

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  3. From the report on the Commonwealth Fund:

    “most indicators did not improve and there were no cost-savings compared with control practices.”

    So 3.5% more women got mammograms that they very well may not have needed. I wouldn’t describe the smell as sweet.