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Happy 5th Birthday, ACA

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 8.02.41 AMThere are dozens of ways to take stock of the Affordable Care Act as it turns 5 years old today.   According to HHS statistics:

  • 16.4 million more people with health insurance, lowering the uninsured rate by 35 percent.
  • $9 billion saved because of the law’s requirement that insurance companies spend at least 80 cents of every dollar on actual care instead of overhead, marketing, and profits
  • $15 billion less spent on prescription drugs by some 10 million Medicare beneficiaries because of expanded drug coverage under Medicare Part D
  • Significantly more labor market flexibility as consumers gained access to good coverage outside the workplace

Impressive.  But the real surprise after five years is that the ACA may actually be helping to substantially lower the trajectory of healthcare spending.   That was far from a certain outcome.  Dubbed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act for public relations purposes, there were, in fact, no iron clad, accountable provisions that would in the long run assure that health insurance or care overall would become “affordable.”

ACA supporters appear to have lucked out—so far.   Or maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t luck at all but a well-placed faith that the balance of regulation and marketplace competition that the law wove together was the right way to go.

To be sure, other forces such as the recession were in play—accounting for as much as half of the reduction in spending growth since 2010.  But as the ACA is once again under threat in the Supreme Court and as relentless Republican opposition continues, it’s worth paying close attention to new forecasts from the likes of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the actuaries at the Centers for Medicare and Medicare Services (CMS).

The ACA is driving changes in 17 percent of the U.S. economy that, if reversed or interrupted, would have profound impact on federal, state, business, and family budgets.   A quick look at some important numbers follows:

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Spring Deliveries from Washington

Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 9.22.36 PMIt may have been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, but not in Washington DC.  Last week, we saw the introduction of two congressional bills here (SGR fix) and here (EHR interoperability) and two proposed rules from HHS (one from CMS and one from ONC) – all of which would have substantive impact on health care in the US, and the role of information technology in how health is optimized and care is delivered.  While the iron’s still hot, let’s take a 30,000-foot view at all of this.   I’ll follow up later in the week with a more detailed overview of the ONC and CMS proposed rules with a bit more of an editorial voice on the SGR fix and Burgess’ interoperability bill.

  1. The first document to land – way back on March 10th – was the bill from Representative Burgess.

Some context: he’s a physician.  He understands the physician perspective – and is – like many physicians – confused by the paradox that several years and $20B after the passage of HITECH – we don’t have plug-and-play interoperability between health IT systems yet.  He might be asking: “isn’t this what was supposed to happen by now?”  Compelled by his training as a physician and (as my wife would argue) a human with a Y chromosome, Rep Burgess sees a problem and wants to fix it – hence this legislation.  HHS didn’t fix this?  Industry didn’t fix it?  Well, then, let’s see if Congress can fix it!  What’s the approach?

  1. The bill attempts to redefine interoperability as:

“open access”

“complete access”

and

“does not block access.”

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Patients are NOT Customers

Screen Shot 2015-03-21 at 4.26.26 PMRecently I wrote about the problems with Maintenance of Certification requirements.  One of the phrases I read repeatedly when I was researching the piece was “the patient as customer.”  Here’s a quote from the online journal produced by Accenture, the management consulting company:

Patients are less forgiving of poor service than they once were, and the bar keeps being raised higher because of the continually improving service quality offered by other kinds of companies with whom patients interact—overnight delivery services, online retailers, luxury auto dealerships and more. With these kinds of cross-sector comparisons now the norm, hospitals will have to venture beyond the traditional realm of merely providing world-class medical care. They must put in place the operations and processes to satisfy patients through differentiated experiences that engender greater loyalty. The key is to approach patients as customers, and to design the end-to-end patient experience accordingly.

Except for one thing.  Patients are NOT customers.

The definition of a “customer” is a person or entity that obtains a service or product from another person or entity in exchange for money.  Customers can buy either goods or services.  Health care is classified by the government as a service industry because it provides an intangible thing rather than an actual thing.  If you buy a good, like a car, you voluntarily decide to shop around and get the best car you can for the price.  Even a vacation, especially a vacation package or a cruise, is a good.  A nice dinner, while a good in the sense of the food, is also a service.  You buy the services of the cook and servers.

Here is why the patient shouldn’t be considered a customer, at least not in the business sense.

1. Patients are not on vacation.  They are not in the mindset that they are sitting in the doctors office or the hospital to have a good time.  They are not relaxed, they have not left their troubles temporarily behind them.  They have not bought room service and a massage. They are not in the mood to be happy.  They would rather not be requiring the service they are requesting.  Which leads to number 2:

2. Patients have not chosen to buy the service.  Patients have been forced to seek the service, in most cases.

3. Patients are not paying for the service.  At least not directly.  And they have no idea what the price is anyway.

4. Patients are not buying a product from which they can demand a positive outcome.  Sometimes the result of the service is still illness and/or death.  This does not mean the service provided was not a good one.

5. The patient is not always right.  A patient cannot, or should not, go to a doctor demanding certain things.  They should demand good care, but that care might mean denying the patient what the patient thinks he or she needs.  The doctor is not a servant; she does not have to do everything the patient wants.  She is obligated to do everything the patient needs.

6. Patient satisfaction does not always correlate with the quality of the product.A patient who is given antibiotics for a cold is very satisfied but has gotten poor quality care.  A patient who gets a knee scope for knee pain might also be very satisfied, despite the fact that such surgery has been shown to have little actual benefit in many types of knee pain.

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Congress Can’t Solve the EHR Interoperability Problem

Niam YaraghiRep. Mike Burgess (R-Texas) has released a draft bill entitled “ensuring interoperability of qualified electronic health records” in which interoperable (Electronic Health Records) EHRs are defined as those that do not block sending and receiving data to and from other EHRs and provide users with complete access to the captured medical data. The draft bill proposes that detailed methods to assess interoperability be defined by a “Charter Organization.” According to the draft bill, this Charter Organization shall consist of one member from each of the standard development organizations accredited by the American National Standards Institute and representatives that include healthcare providers, EHR vendors, and health insurers. To keep its certification after January 2018, an EHR vendor should comply with the definitions of the Charter Organization, publish API’s to enable data exchange with other EHRs and attest and demonstrate that it has not willfully interrupted data exchange with other EHRs. The draft bill suggests that the Inspector General of HHS shall have the authority to investigate both EHR vendors and medical providers with regards to claims that they have interrupted interoperability.

The proposed Charter Organization will not be successful.

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Google Algorithm to Favor Websites That Work on Mobile Devices

Screen Shot 2015-03-22 at 10.28.41 AM
In a major update, the search giant has announced that on April 21, the algorithm will be updated to favor websites that are designed to work on both mobile and desktop devices, now often referred to as Responsive Website Designs.

Does your practice have a responsive website?

Google has had multiple mobile initiatives, including the GoMo campaign where the company provided free tools to help small businesses build websites that worked on mobile devices without the dreaded pinching, resizing, and squinting. That campaign had limited success because the technology didn’t quite work as elegantly as possible, but just last week Google took its most aggressive approach yet by declaring that they were going to start penalizing websites that did not have mobile capabilities.

Once referred to as mobile-friendly website design, geeks refer to it simply as responsive website design now. So how does one get a mobile-friendly, er, responsive website?

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FHIR: Technology and Governance

Screen Shot 2015-03-21 at 3.47.47 PMThere has been much enthusiasm in the health IT industry regarding the health data standard that HL7 International is working on, HL7 FHIR, which is now a DSTU (draft standard for trial use). Everyone involved with health data – EHR vendors, interoperability vendors, medical app developers, “big data” proponents and hospital CIOs, to name a few – have high hopes that FHIR can be the golden ticket that leads to true health care interoperability.

Most of the enthusiasm is around the technologies being utilized in the standard including RESTful web services, JSON encoding, and granular data content called resources.

Technology-Empowered FHIR Data

RESTful web services, in particular, is a technology that has been strongly embraced by other industries and has the potential to be leveraged for engaging patients by connecting mobile technologies with their provider’s EHR system. This advancement represents a huge step toward building a patient-centered health care system.

FHIR Interest

Over the last decade, the healthcare industry has utilized SOAP-based web services to transfer documents. Most programmers today, if given their choice, would likely lean towards RESTful web services, preferably with data encoded in the JSON format. It is a better choice for mobile applications independent of whether the client device technology is iOS, Android, Windows, or even Mobile Web. Most social media sites today, such as Twitter and Facebook, publish RESTful APIs for connectivity.

This preference towards RESTful web services is based on some of the advantages that REST has over SOAP:

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Back In the Day *

flying cadeuciiMany people believe that neurologists are particularly attracted to detail.  I prefer to think of the issue as one of precision rather than pointless obsessiveness.  Some years ago, I was asked to discuss a case for the New England Journal of Medicine’s series of CPCs called the Cabot Cases.

In preparing the case for publication, I found myself in an argument with the editor about the placement of an apostrophe. There were two diagnoses in this case: aphasia from a cardiac source embolism to the left cerebral hemisphere and hypercoagulability as a paraneoplastic syndrome. In my view, aphasia is a Trousseau syndrome (i.e., the word “aphasia” was suggested by Trousseau), whereas hypercoagulability as a paraneoplastic syndrome was Trousseau’s syndrome, because Trousseau both described and suffered from the disease. I am very much opposed to the trend to remove eponyms from the names of diseases and syndromes as to do so strips medicine of some of its most illustrious history.  But, only a handful of eponymic disorders deserve the apostrophe. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s disease (diaphragmatic myoclonus) is another example.

History in medicine is not a mere avocation. In addition to the old saw of helping to prevent the same errors from being repeatedly made, it provides us with the perspective needed to approach diagnostic and scientific challenges in our own era. It also combats hubris. In carefully researching my eleven New England Journal CPCs I have never encountered an idea that had not evolved from those before it.

In grand rounds, in medical journals, and particularly in the lay press, we are regaled with “revolutionary” ideas, but that they are completely new is an illusion. Throughout history, people have always been on the “cutting edge” and have repeatedly believed that they had some sort of huge advantage over prior generations.

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The “Business Case” For Patient Safety

Betsy Lehman

Twenty years ago this month, the Boston Globe disclosed that health columnist Betsy Lehman, a 39-year-old mother of two, had been killed by a drug overdose during treatment for breast cancer at Dana-Farber Cancer Center. In laying out a grim trail of preventable mistakes at a renowned institution, the Globe prompted local soul searching and a new focus on patient safety nationally.

Although I didn’t know Betsy personally, we were about the same age, had two kids about the same ages and were in the same profession. (I, too, was a health care journalist.) That’s why I was particularly disappointed by a recent conference celebrating the reopening of the Betsy Lehman Center for Patient Safety and Medical Error Reduction. It was heavy on statistics and poll results; e.g., one in four Massachusetts adults say they’ve seen an error in their own care or the care of someone close to them.

While it’s true that Boston is the epicenter of thinking, writing and speaking about patient safety, words do not always translate into deeds.

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