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cindywilliams

Employers as Doctors

Unless you spend a lot of time around health policy wonks, you’ve probably never heard of the term “value-based health insurance benefits.”  In fact, you may not even know that it’s the hottest new fad in the field.

Here is my layman’s summary: If you are like most people, you are not a very good consumer of health care. Odds are, you will fall for the latest fad advertised on TV or follow the advice you get at the bridge club instead of buying the care that has been scientifically shown to be better for you.

So as a corrective, a lot of employers are finding ways to “nudge” you into better decisions through financial incentives. Say you have a chronic condition and need to take certain medications. Your employer might drop your deductible down to zero (or may even pay your to take them) to encourage your compliance. But for services where there appears to be wasteful overuse (such as MRI scans), the employer might impose a hefty $500 deductible.

This idea intrigued me, so I turned to a rather lengthy article in the Washington Post, which informed that value-based insurance benefits are incorporated into the new health reform law, “including the requirement that new insurance provide free recommended preventive services such as mammograms and colon cancer screenings.”

In the world of big business, this idea is all the rage. One in every five employers employing at least 500 people is already doing it. Four in five employers who employ at least 10,000 workers say they are interested.

So if big business is for it; the government is mandating it; and health policy wonks like it; how could anyone possibly obj-……..Continue reading…

The Individual Mandate: Another Look at the Penalty Trade-Off

Most of the recent attention on the 2010 health care reform legislation has focused on the individual mandate. After two federal court rulings upholding the mandate, a third federal judge—in Virginia—ruled that the Constitution does not allow the government to require the purchase of insurance as part of regulating an interstate commerce market. Simultaneously, Congressional Republicans have reiterated their intention of preventing the individual mandate from being implemented, regardless of the constitutionality of the provision.

One interesting response to the resulting media coverage came in the form of a Kaiser Health News article [http://www.kaiserhealthnews.org/Columns/2010/December/121410laszewski.aspx] suggesting that the issue might be overblown since, even if the mandate were implemented, it would be relatively unsuccessful in leading the uninsured to purchase coverage. Unfortunately, the article misinterprets some of the legislative language, not entirely surprisingly given the complexity of the mandate provision. Following are clarifications of the mandate and associated requirements, and a somewhat more careful look at the mandate’s possible impact.

A Brief Summary of the Mandate

The individual mandate requires almost all legal residents of the United States to have at least a defined level of health care coverage. Those lacking such coverage will be subject to a penalty to be paid as part of tax filing. Exclusions are made for members of certain religious groups, Indian tribes, incarcerated individuals, and those whose income is below the tax filing threshold or inadequate to pay for coverage. To assist those with lower incomes but not eligible for Medicaid or SCHIP, the legislation provides for both premium credits and cost-sharing subsidies.Continue reading…

Getting an Estimate

A couple of years ago my primary care physician suggested that I have a colonoscopy at the age of 47. My father died from Hodgkin’s disease at 34 and my mom survived breast cancer in her 40’s. I suffer from irritable bowel syndrome so she suggested that I have my colon checked out just in case. She recommended a very experienced gastroenterologist at a major Boston hospital.

My insurance would not cover the procedure because I am younger than 50, so I called the hospital to investigate how much it would cost me to have the procedure. Their first answer was that they did not know because no one had ever called in with that question before. This is a hospital which probably does more than one thousand of these every year.

I was transferred to someone else who was more helpful. She said it would depend quite a bit on what they discovered while I was undergoing the colonoscopy, but gave me a range of $2,000 to $4,500. I asked if there would be other charges and she said that the physician screening could cost $770 or more.Continue reading…

Watson: A Computer So Smart, It Can Say, “Yes, Doctor”

Game Show Watson wants to be a doctor. Well, almost.

Fresh off a commanding victory on Jeopardy, IBM will try to demonstrate that the combination of advanced natural language processing and sophisticated algorithmic decision-making capabilities involved in its extraordinary Watson computer can help humankind, not merely humiliate human competitors.

As I wrote on a previous blog, IBM began eying the medical marketplace more than 45 years ago. IBM CEO Thomas J. Watson, Jr. – son of the IBM CEO for whom this computer was named – put it this way in 1965: “The widespread use [of computers]…in hospitals and physicians’ offices will instantaneously give a doctor or a nurse a patient’s entire medical history, eliminating both guesswork and bad recollection, and sometimes making a difference between life and death.”

Now, IBM is ready to turn that vision into reality. At heart, Watson is the world’s most sophisticated question-answering machine. The company is collaborating with Columbia University and the University of Maryland to create a physician’s assistant service that will allow doctors to query a cybernetic assistant. IBM will also work with Nuance Communications, Inc. to add voice recognition to the physician’s assistant, “possibly making the service available in as little as 18 months.” For Nuance, it could be a major business line, and promises to carry over in the not too distant future to the mobile phone market, such as Apple’s iPhone, where Nuance is a major presence.Continue reading…

Replace The RUC

A few weeks ago, my writing partner David C. Kibbe and I ran an article on Kaiser Health News called “Quit the RUC!“ that has caused some turmoil within the physician community, particularly in DC.

First, it noted that the RUC, the informal specialist-dominated AMA panel, has made recommendations for 20 years about the value of medical procedures within the highly arcane and jiggered Resource-Based Relative Value Scale (RBRVS). As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, CMS (and its predecessor, HCFA) has accepted some 90 percent of its recommendations, apparently almost without question. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the vast majority of recommendations involve payment increases to specialists that have come at the expense of primary care.

This combination – a highly conflicted advisory panel making methodologically questionable recommendations about payment to a blithely accepting regulatory agency – is at the heart of the American health care cost crisis and the greatest reason why the American economy is literally being bankrupted by its health care costs. This year alone, we’ll spend about $1.3 trillion on health care products and services that provide no value. This is two-thirds again more than we’ll spend over the next decade on the economic stimulus package.Continue reading…

How to Meaningfully Shop for an EHR, Part 2

Research and Observation

Here we are going to talk about the second stage of shopping for an EHR. We are going to assume that you did your homework, defined your goals and constraints and prepared a comprehensive list of requirements for an EHR (if you have not done so already, go back and read Part I). To continue our car shopping analogy, we are now ready to go kick some tires, and we start by calling on each of the three to six EHR vendors on your list. To your folder of lists, add a blank page for each vendor, to log your interactions with the various representatives you will begin encountering shortly. If the sales person is unresponsive and if it takes weeks to have someone call you back, most likely the situation will only deteriorate after they get a hold of your money, so keep good notes.

Calling an EHR Vendor
Whether you start by filling out a form on a website or by sending an email, eventually you will be on the phone with a sales rep. You should be the one directing the conversation. Inform the sales person of your specialty and practice size and explain that you are conducting an EHR search and his company is one of your candidates. Do not disclose the remainder of your list unless you are interested in a “confidential” long lecture on how horrible the competition really is. Your goal here is to obtain contact information (phone and email) of the regional sales executive, inform him/her that you will be sending out a Request for Information (see below) and set a date for your first clinical demonstration of the product. You can listen patiently, if you wish, to the details of this month’s “special offer”, but stick to your agenda and commit to nothing other than a demo. Remember to log your impression from this call, including the vendor’s willingness to accommodate your schedule and the expediency of setting up a demo date.Continue reading…

Health IT Future: A Tale of Three Watsons

If you want to see the future of health information technology, take a look at the dueling visions of two Thomas Watsons that are on display this month in a game show and a trade show. The juxtaposition unintentionally demonstrates what doctors and patients will be doing together and also what they can do separately.

What I’ll call Game Show Watson is a computer named for IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, Sr. This Watson is appearing on the TV show Jeopardy to play a highly publicized set of matches against two human champions from Feb. 14-16. Although viewers will actually see a black computer screen with a revolving blue globe, Game Show Watson itself, in the tradition of “Big Iron” mainframes, consists of ten refrigerator-sized servers located offstage.

In contrast, the Watson at the trade show is not one computer, but thousands of them, all contained inside the mobile devices that are descendants of the telephone first demonstrated by Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant, Thomas A. Watson. (That Watson was also an inventor is a topic for another time.) The Telephone Watsons, on display for the tens of thousands of attendees at HIMSS11 from Feb. 20-24, are giving rise to a new field known as “mobile health.”Continue reading…

NIH and Drug Innovation

For most of the past decade, Democrats and Republicans in Congress have competed over who could pour more money into the National Institutes of Health, the largest funder of biomedical research in the world.

But the party is over. The budget cuts proposed by a leading House Republican this week included cancellation of the $1 billion that the Obama administration wanted to add to the $31 billion NIH budget.

It was part of a broad assault on science funding that was announced by appropriations chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., who also called for large cuts at the National Science Foundation, the White House Office of Science, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The purpose, according to Rogers, is “to rein in spending to help our economy grow and our businesses create jobs.”

If creating jobs is his goal, Rogers might want to take a look at a new study that appeared yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine, which found that publicly-funded research is a far more important contributor to the creation of new drugs and vaccines than previously thought. The classical view of innovation is that government funds basic science, while industry comes up with the new and innovative products based on that science.Continue reading…

AQC to ACO: As Goes Massachusetts, So Goes the Nation?

About four years ago here in Beantown, survivors of the last big ill-conceived or poorly-executed (depends who you ask) wave of health care management and finance innovation were kicking around for a new approach to aligning payor and provider incentives, focusing on quality and cost containment. To hear Andrew Dreyfus, CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, tell the story, the Blues wanted to address both quality and cost, and therefore (after looking in vain for a model elsewhere that could be transplanted to Massachusetts) developed the Alternative Quality Contract, or AQC, which features a global payment model hybridized with substantial performance incentives, plus design features intended to lower the cost of care over time.

Many of the features put in place under the AQC will allow participating provider networks in Massachsuetts to make the leap to ACO (once the beast is defined by the federales), despite the difference in payment methodology (global cap for AQC vs. FFS for ACO).

I was invited to hear Andrew present the AQC story this week together with Gene Lindsey, CEO of Atrius Health, a Massachusetts multispecialty physician network of some 700 physicians that participates in the AQC.  (Atrius’  largest group is Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, whose docs used to be employed by Harvard Community Health Plan, the pioneering staff model HMO ’round these parts.)Continue reading…

A Game-Changing Statistic: 1 in 250

Bob Wachter

Although the medical profession has been harming unlucky patients for centuries, the patient safety movement didn’t take flight until 1999, when the Institute of Medicine published its seminal report, To Err is Human. And that report would have ended up as just another doorstop if not for its estimate that 44,000-98,000 Americans each year die from medical mistakes, the equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing each day.

Come to think of it, the quality movement also gelled after the publication of Beth McGlynn’s 2003 NEJM study, which produced its own statistical blockbuster: American medical care comports with evidence-based practice 54% of the time, a number close enough to a coin flip to be unforgettably disturbing.

These two examples demonstrate the unique power of a memorable statistic to catalyze a movement.

Last month, my colleague Rebecca Smith-Bindman, professor of radiology, epidemiology, and ob/gyn at UCSF and one of the nation’s experts in the risks of radiographs, gave Medical Grand Rounds at UCSF. Her talk was brimming with amazing statistics, but this is the one that took my breath away:

A 20-year old woman who gets an abdominal-pelvic CT scan (i.e., just about any young woman coming to the ED with belly pain) has a 1 in 250 chance of getting cancer from that single scan.

Did that fully register? One CAT scan, which until recently most of us ordered with no more restraint than we exhibit when asking the Starbucks barista for a tall latte, will cause cancer in one out of every 250 patients. Two-hundred fifty: that’s the number of students in my college Bio 101 class. Wow.Continue reading…

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