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The State of Self-Tracking

In January we started asking ourselves, “How many people self-track?”  It was an interesting question that stemmed from our discussion with Susannah Fox about the recent Pew report on Tracking for Health. Here’s a quick recap of the discussion so far.

The astute Brian Dolan of MobiHealthNews suggested that the Pew data on self-tracking for health seems to show constant – not growing – participation. According to Pew, in 2012 only 11% of adults track their health using mobile apps, up from 9% in 2011.

All this in the context of a massive increase in smartphone use. Pew data shows smartphone ownership rising 20% just in the last year, and this shows no signs of slowing down. Those smartphones are not just super-connected tweeting machines. They pack a variety of powerful sensors and technologies that can be used for self-tracking apps. We notice a lot of people using these, but our sample is skewed toward techies and scientists.

What is really going on in the bigger world? How many people are actually tracking?

A few weeks ago ABI, a market research firm, released a report on Wearable Computing Devices. According to the report there will be an estimated 485 million wearable computing devices shipped by 2018. Josh Flood, the analyst behind this report indicated that they estimated that 61% of all devices in wearable market are fitness or activity trackers. “Sports and fitness will continue to be the largest in shipments,” he mentioned “but we’ll start to see growth in other areas such as watches, cameras, and glasses.”

One just needs to venture into their local electronics retailer to see that self-tracking devices are becoming more widespread.

So why are our observations out of synch with the Pew numbers?

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The IPAB Bomb

How’s this for a bitter pill?

For Republicans looking for cures for Medicare spending growth, one of the best places to look is one of their least favorites: in the legislative pharmacopeia that is Obamacare.

There are many things opponents of President Obama’s health reform law detest, and topping the list is the Independent Payment Advisory Board, or IPAB.

Before we get to the reasons why, it is good to remember that, as sketched into the law, the singular goal of the IPAB is — guess what? — to control Medicare spending growth.

Nothing actually happens under the provision unless (i.e., until) the $525 billion per year program exceeds growth targets, and the earliest any IPAB-directed actions could take effect is 2015. But if everything really is on the table as both sides work to avoid the next in a series of fiscal embarrassments, why not a major dose of economic medicine — properly defined and administered — that is already written into law and embraced by the president?

The biggest obstacle for Republicans is political or, more precisely, optical. Although IPAB’s stated goal is to contain Medicare spending growth, the provision is the embodiment of everything Republicans do not like, not just about Obamacare, but about “Big Government” generally. IPAB is a Board! — sufficient criticism for many — of 15 “bureaucrats” who will operate beyond the reach of Congress or the public. They will make arbitrary decisions about what Medicare will or will not pay for. They will use payment to come between you and your doctor. They will take away your health care!

Maybe so. The IPAB as drafted today is a black box, not a blueprint, a plan to make plans to save money, later. And for critics, black boxes are whatever they want them to be: death panels in drag, roulette wheels for rationing care, medical-industrial phantasmagoria straight out of Kafka and Huxley. Even among health industry supporters of Obamacare — patient advocacy groups, insurers, the major provider and drug lobbies — the IPAB is worrisome because it is all cost-containment mission and few particulars. If done right, it could save not only billions of dollars but thousands of lives from needless and dangerous medical interventions; if done wrong, it could mean arbitrary intrusions into medical care and a death knell for whole spheres of medical innovation.

The need for clarity today about how the IPAB will work years from now is one more reason the White House and Congress can and should mobilize — in the service of deficit reduction — the biggest potential mechanism for Medicare cost containment already written into law. Federal budget negotiators need the vehicle; those rushing to implement Obamacare need to flesh out how the IPAB will work; and those investing — or afraid to invest — in medical innovations need to know what impact IPAB will have on the future of Medicare.

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Divided Health Care Nation

Rapid change is engulfing health care across the United States, but the strategic responses of organizations to these changes are sharply divided. In the shift that has been broadly shorthanded “from volume to value,” many organizations across the country are deeply engaged in moving toward “value” by building new partnerships, affiliations, capacities and economic structures, striving to bring better health and health care to more people for less money.

At the same time, some organizations are using the chaos and fluidity of the moment to double down on the old way, aggressively seeking greater volume reimbursed at higher rates. For now, within their regions, some of these organizations appear to be “winning” at the game, building greater market share and margin and increasing their budgets. But is this in fact the wisest strategy to follow in the long run, not only for their institutions but for the good of their missions and the people they serve?

Moving toward Value

Virtually all serious attempts to answer the question, “Why do we pay so much more for health care in the United States?” have pointed to the competition for reimbursements under a commodified, insurance-supported fee-for-service system. If what you pay for is items off of a list, what you will get is lots of items, especially the more profitable ones. That’s how we end up with a system in which waste (stuff we could simply do without) is pegged by repeated studies at one-third or higher.

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A Kinder, Gentler Approach to Managing Health Care Risk

Health care’s purchasers crave certainty. But complexity – and therefore uncertainty – rules. Assurances are hard to come by.

The most common question asked by prospective clients of my onsite clinic/medical management firm is how much less their employee health benefits will cost if they deploy our services. They often expect that we’ll review their claims history and nail down what their health care will cost once we’re involved. Looking in the rear view mirror can inform the future, but it isn’t foolproof.

The Complexity of Health Care Risk

The challenge here is that so many different mechanisms contribute to the need for care, the ways care is accessed, the ways care is delivered, and the ways it is priced. Even mechanisms that, in isolation, are strong, often are inadequate in the context of larger cost drivers.

This means that while predicting results in general terms is straightforward, doing so with any precision or specificity is a challenge. My firm can point to consistent previous performance with other clients, and show that in most cases we generate a 15+ percent overall savings on group health expenditures, net of the clinic investment. And we can detail how our management of the process is both broader and more targeted than the management of risks before we arrived. But while we’ll sometimes guarantee certain performance targets, we also know that the cards can and will sometimes fall against us.

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How to Win Friends and Influence Millennials: Health Exchanges Edition

America is only a few months away from Exchange Day—October 1, 2013—when the state and federal health exchanges open up for business. And when they do… well, I’d surprised if a whole lot happens at first; most people assume they open on January 1, 2014. But eventually there will be a flood of people streaming into the exchanges (virtually) to search for health insurance plans, including the Millennials.

Why? A variety of reasons. One is that people like being insured and prefer it to the uncertainty of being uninsured; those previously unable to purchase a policy they could afford now have subsidies to help them do so. Another is that people largely don’t have a choice—forego purchasing health insurance and get fined.

But the bottom line is this: whether compelled to do so by the safe feeling of being insured or the specter of a fine, Millennials are expected to be an enormous group of entrants into the exchanges: while we make up only 22% of the population, we account for 38% of the uninsured in America.

To compound our already-stratospheric opinion of ourselves, we know that the Millennials are a coveted market for health exchange insurers. Face it: you want us. Bad. That’s because we’re relatively healthy, loyal to brands we like that we see as having a positive impact (70% identify as being brand loyal), and we could actually be the first generation to recommend our health insurance plan to others.

So, culling from Millennial research, surveys, and conversations with fellow Millennials, here are a few morsels of unsolicited advice on how to win us over.

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Fundamentals of Electronic Medical Record Design Part I

Our ancestors began using tools millions of years ago and humanity assumed control of the planet it lives on through a succession of tools ranging from sticks and stones all the way to iPhones and drones. The basic process for discovering or inventing tools hasn’t changed much over the millennia, and it follows two basic patterns. Either an existing artifact is examined for fitness to various purposes until one such purpose is discovered accidentally or through organized efforts, or a problem is identified and a tool is then invented, or located, to solve the problem.

The problem itself could be something that was thought impossible before, such as flying, or a more mundane desire to reduce the effort and expand the capabilities associated with an existing activity, such as moving goods from one place to another. Tools can have limited effects, revolutionize an entire economic sector or can change history, and some tools can have harmful effects that must be balanced with the benefits they offer for the intended task. Tools usually undergo long processes of change, improvement and expansion, and sometimes the evolving tool looks nothing like the original invention. Why are we talking about tools here? Because programmable computers are tools. The computer hardware is like the hammer head and the programming software is like the hammer’s handle (more or less). And EMRs are one such handle.

Let’s imagine that we are software builders and we have a desire to help doctors deliver patient care. And let’s further assume that we, and our prospective customers, examined all the existing tools out there and found them not quite fit for purpose. Let’s also assume that we are not suffering from delusions of grandeur, have the humility to admit that we don’t know how to cure disease and have no interest in global social engineering initiatives. Let’s imagine that we are the misguided founders of a small social business interested in doing well by helping others do good things.

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Engaged Patients Translate to Better Outcomes and Costs

The expansion of health insurance coverage may be the most visible aspect of health reform, but other elements will ultimately have a significant impact on how we all experience health care. One pivotal change is how health care organizations are paid. New payment approaches will reward providers based on whether services actually improve patients’ health and keep costs down versus simply incentivizing them to provide more care.

One of the more consequential changes will be a greater focus on helping patients to be more involved in their care. There is ample evidence that the behaviors people engage in and the health care choices they make have a very clear effect on both health and costs, positively and negatively. The most innovative health care delivery systems recognize this and see their patients as assets who can help them achieve the goals of better health at lower costs. From this point of view, “investing” in patients and helping them to be more effective partners in care makes good sense.

Our study, reported in the February issue of Health Affairs, highlights this role that patients play in determining health-related outcomes. We found that patients who were more knowledgeable, skilled and confident about managing their day-to-day health and health care (also known as “patient activation,” measured by the Patient Activation Measure) had health care costs that were 8 percent lower in the base year and 21 percent lower in the next year compared to patients who lacked this type of confidence and skill. These savings held true even after adjusting for patient differences, such as demographic factors and the severity of illnesses.

Even among patients with the same chronic illness, those who were more “activated” had lower overall health care costs than patients who were less so. Among asthma patients, the least activated patients had costs that were 21 percent higher than the most activated patients. With high blood pressure, the cost differential was 14 percent.

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Behavioral Economics and Influenza Immunization

On occasion, your correspondent fights the northeast’s dreary weekend winter evenings with a dram of spirituous liquor like Macallan 12. Unlocked with a small splash of water and a single ice cube, a generous ounce of that pungent cinnamon leathery elixir turns the cold into cozy.

So naturally, your correspondent relies on spouse to help keep a therapeutic stock available.  Both yours truly and spouse run errands and it shouldn’t be too hard for either to be proactive by periodically checking supplies, buying some Macallan when necessary and avoiding the unhappiness of a dispirited and cold author.

Unfortunately,  spouse doesn’t always see it that way.

Welcome to the complicated world of behavioral economics. It tells us that it’s difficult for persons to expend effort today to reduce the tomorrow’s risk of an unlikely event. It’s why many persons chose to not take or pay for medications today to reduce the distant likelihood of disability or early death.  There’s more on the topic here.

This also explains why persons don’t do a good job getting a flu shot for themselves or their loved ones. Check out this interesting information from athenahealth. According to their pooled electronic health record (EHR) data, 2.5% of children without a flu shot came down with the flu, versus only 0.9% of those who got the shot.  While getting a shot reduced the relative risk of coming down with the disease by approximately two thirds, the vast majority of kids who went without immunization (97.5%) did OK.  Data from the CDC in adults reflects the same kind of numbers: 80% of persons in the U.S. do not come down with the flu in the course of the year.

How can the population health and care management community leverage behavioral economics to increase immunization rates?

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Can Facebook Save Us?


At some point, this gets to be ridiculous. Online, I can buy any item from anywhere at any price, pay any bill, watch any movie, listen to any song, order dinner, schedule car repair or read about any subject on Wikipedia.  I can determine the weather in Rio, sport scores of Barcelona, Parisian traffic or by GPS the location of my kids, just down the block.  However, I absolutely cannot learn anything at all of the health history of the flesh and blood cancer patient sitting right in front of me.

Today, I am seeing long-term patient, Thomas R.  Father of three and a really nice guy, Tom is a medical challenge.

He is immunocompromised and status post 20 years of complex chemotherapy, radiotherapy, a bone marrow transplant and several bizarre complications, we barely understand.  In the last two months, since his last visit with me, he has seen an internist, a dermatologist, a podiatrist, a neurologist, a dentist and an infectious disease specialist.  These doctors ordered X-rays, lab tests, blood cultures, an EMG, a skin biopsy and several new medicines.

These are confusing tests resulting in confusing diagnoses with confusing therapy in a confusing patient.

What records do I have of all this new complexity? Nada. None.  Moreover, based on our files, all these other physicians have none of ours.

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How Doctors Think About New Technologies

“Hey doctor, what do you think about this product/solution/service?”

These days, I look at a lot of websites describing some kind of product or solution related to the healthcare of older adults. Sometimes it’s because I have a clinical problem I’m trying to solve. (Can any of these sleep gadgets provide data — sleep latency, nighttime awakenings, total sleep time — on my elderly patient’s sleep complaints?)

In other cases, it’s because a family caregiver asks me if they should purchase some gizmo or sensor system they heard about. (“Do you think this will help keep my mom safe at home?”)

And increasingly, it’s because an entrepreneur asks me to check out his or her product.

So far, it’s been a bit of a bear to try to check out products. Part of it is that there are often too many choices, and there’s not yet a lot of help sifting through them. (And research has shown that choices create anxiety, decision-fatigue, and dissatisfaction with one’s ultimate pick.)

But even when I’m just considering a single product and trying to decide what to think of it, I find myself a bit stumped by most websites. And let’s face it, if I visit a website and it doesn’t speak to my needs and concerns fairly quickly, I’m going to bail. (Only in exceptional cases will I call or email for more information.)

So I thought it might be interesting to try to articulate what would help me more thoughtfully consider a product or service that is related to the healthcare of older adults.

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