With healthcare mergers now announced seemingly every week, I’ve been giving some thought to scale: How big can/ should health systems be?
Anecdotally, I’m struck that the most impressive healthcare companies in America are super- regional players: Geissinger, Cleveland Clinic, UPMC, etc. They seem to get a lot more attention than the national players with hundreds of facilities.
Leaving aside questions like strategy (e.g. is integration of payers/doctors/hospitals the key to these successes), I’ve wondered whether regional systems are simply the right size to thrive. My suspicion is that even clever organizational structure (a topic which I wrote about last year) can’t overcome barriers that prevent large healthcare companies from innovating and thriving, particularly as companies move to risk and the business of healthcare becomes more complex. Like cellular organisms, large companies can outgrow their life support. (Interestingly, it’s actually the ratio of body volume to surface area [gas exchange, digestion, etc] that served as a constraint to organism size…)
I recently ran across a superb paper- a doctoral thesis written by Staffan Canback. Canback (who now leads the Economist Intelligence/ Canback predictive analytics consulting firm in Boston) wrote his thesis, called Limits of Firm Size: An Inquiry into Diseconomies of Scale in 2000, while a student in London. Canback argues, convincingly, that companies do become more efficient with scale, but reach a point where “diseconomies” begin to mitigate performance. This may seem intuitive: (as Canback notes, if efficiency only improved with scale then we would buy everything from one company that produces everything with great levels of efficiency). We don’t.
In a recent article entitled “A Hayekian Defense of Evidence-Based Medicine” Andrew Foy makes a thoughtful attempt to rebut my article on “The Devolution of Evidence-Based Medicine.” I am grateful for his interest in my work and for the the kind compliment that he extended in his article. Having also become familiar with his fine writing, I return it with all sincerity. I am also grateful to the THCB staff for allowing me to respond to Andrew’s article.
Andrew views EBM as a positive development away from the era of anecdotal, and often misleading medical practices: “Arguing for a return to small data and physician judgment based on personal experience is, in my opinion, the worst thing we could be promoting.” Andrew’s main concern is that my views may amount to “throwing the baby with the bath water.”
Accountable care organizations (ACO’s) promise to save us. Dreamed up by Dartmouth’s Eliot Fisher in 2006, and signed into law as a part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) in 2010, we have been sold on the idea that this particular incarnation of the HMO/Managed Care will save the government, save physicians and save patients all at the same time. I dare say that Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva together would struggle to accomplish those lofty goals. Regardless of the daunting task in front of them, the brave policy gods who see patients about as often as they see pink unicorns, chose to release the Kraken – I mean the ACO – onto an unsuspecting public based on the assumption that anything was better than letting those big, bad, test ordering, hospital admitting, brand name prescribing physicians from running amuck.
I realize I am being somewhat harsh towards the creators of the ACO morass. But, while they all may be well-meaning, hard-working folks that own a Harvard crimson sweater, their intent is to fundamentally change how health care is provided – this mandates a withering evaluation. As Milton Friedman aptly said, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their result.” Thus, with little regard to intent, and with an eye on the end result, I say unequivocally : ACO’s do not work.Continue reading…
The conventional wisdom in the circles I hang out in – pro-Hillary, morally conscious,happy bunnies who pretend to enjoy French wine and opera – is that the greatest scourgeon humanity after the bubonic plague is inequality of wealth. They worship Pope St. John Paul Piketty and canonize Archbishop Paul Krugman. Not only is inequality bad for its own sake, they say, it makes people ill, like medically ill.
Their premise always struck me as specious. I once took them through a thought experiment. Imagine, I said, you time travel to the Bengal famine. There was a lot of equality then – people were equally malnourished. Everyone’s ribs protruded equally because of muscle wasting from marasmus. The loss of protein from kwashiorkor made sure everyone’s belly popped out without prejudice. Starvation because of poverty is a great leveler. It cares little about gender, caste or religion. It is non-judgmental.
Alzheimer dementia mortality is increasing in the United States, while heart disease and cancer death rates have decreased at least 25% recently.1 New cardiac and cancer treatments frequently make headlines. However, the assessment of Alzheimer’s therapy is stark: “…there are currently no treatments that change the course of this progressive brain disorder,” [original italics] so stated in the 2014-2015 Alzheimer Disease Progress Report by the National Institute of Aging (NIA).2
President Obama signed the National Alzheimer’s Project Act in 2011, with a goal of having effective therapy by 2025. Now five years later, clinicaltrials.gov lists fewer than 120 Alzheimer drug trials in the US recruiting subjects, with nearly 500,000 new patients each year. Heart disease has almost 800 drug trials, while adult cancer has almost 4000 drug trials listed.
Clinical research efforts in a disease are reflected by the number of pertinent clinical trial publications. We examined Pub Med data along with US mortality statistics to show the juxtaposition of those measures for Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, cancer and six other leading causes of death, (Figure 1).3,4
Reductions in US disease mortality have been proportional to the number of trials conducted in each disease except Alzheimer’s, during the years 2000-2013. Alzheimer’s disease is a significant outlier, since mortality is increasing while the number of peer-reviewed publications lags behind other conditions.
The 3 point shot has revolutionized basketball and turned the NBA upside down. The smartphone has revolutionized health care and turned the doctor-patient relationship upside down.
Let’s examine those two statements.
In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Martin Johnson describes the dramatic changes that the creation of the 3 point shot has created. The prior era in was dominated by a dominating big man- Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlin, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. As Johnson writes, “This made intuitive sense: The better a team is at protecting its basket, the better its defense should be.”
Suddenly, the rules changed and the 3 point shot was created.
With new rules, new values.
With new rules, new math, new economics for the NBA.
What had been valuable- the dominant big center to defend the basket- is no longer as valuable.
What had not been as valuable- a small, quick, long distance shooting guard, and those best suited to defend against them- now are a valued resource.
The evidence of this ‘transformative innovation’ is everywhere; from Stephen Curry, a small nimble, excellent shooting guard, winning the NBA MVP award to the NBA finals between the Cavaliers and the Warriors- where the defense is as fierce at the 3 point line as it is right under the basket.
So the new rule establishing the 3 point line has turned the game inside out, shifting the focus from the ‘big man’ to a new type of player – as John Hollinger, the Memphis Grizzlies vice president of basketball operations, states in the Journal, “It has completely changed the way players are valued on the market. Now we put a premium on length and basketball IQ.”
The New England Journal of Medicine carried an excellent article by David Casarette, MD, on the topic of health care illusions and medical appropriateness. Click here to read the full article. Hats off to Bob Stauble for a heads up on this article.
Casarette observes that humans have a tendency to see success in what they do, even if in truth there is none. Casarette writes, “Psychologists call this phenomenon, which is based on our tendency to infer causality where none exists, the ‘illusion of control’.” This illusion applies in all walks of life, especially in politics and parenting, and it includes medical care as well.
In medical care, the phenomenon has been referred to as “therapeutic illusion“, and it impacts both doctors and patients. Undoubtedly, therapeutic illusion is why placebos can so effective.
For most Americans, $280,000 might represent the price of a home or perhaps their entire retirement savings. But for the 1.3 million people in this country stricken by rheumatoid arthritis (RA)that quarter million dollars could be their drug bill.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a debilitating disease that causes painful inflammation and swelling of the joints. Left untreated, it can lead to permanent disability. Thankfully medications such as Enbrel, Humira and Zeljanzcan keep patients healthy enough to stay active and keep working. Yet the price tag is quickly becoming out of reach.
One recent report from Express Scripts found that spending on drugs that treat inflammatory conditions such as arthritis rose 25 percent in the last year alone. The annual cost of treating the nation’s RA sufferers is expected to reach $9.3 billion by 2020 – a 45 percent jump from 2013.
For a 45-year-old patient recently diagnosed with RA, the lifetime cost of medication is likely to exceed $1.4 million. Even if that person has 80 percent of their costs covered through insurance, the math works out to $280,000 in copays alone.
There’s something out of kilter when families may be forced to choose between investing in a home or easing a loved one’s pain. Yet that is exactly the sort of Catch-22 some will face if we do not find a sensible way to price drugs.
When I started medical school, my South Asian immigrant parents quietly hoped I would find my way to cardiology or another glamorous specialty. Instead, I spent a decade — first as a medical student, then as an intern and resident in internal medicine — focused on advancing the right to health among poor people and others with little access to quality health care.
Through high-impact nonprofit organizations, political campaigns, and grassroots organizing in urban communities and among health professionals, I was part of an incredible community focused on making American medicine better, safer, and affordable to all.
So when it came time for me to find a “real job” after my residency, I assumed it would be in a nonprofit organization with a laser-like focus on transforming underserved health. Imagine my astonishment, then, to discover my life’s work in Iora Health — a private sector, venture-backed, for-profit primary care startup.
Of life’s two certainties, death and cataracts, it seems statins defer one and prompt the other, although not necessarily in the same person. If you blindly love life you may be blinded by your love for life.
In the HOPE-3 trial, ethnically diverse people without cardiovascular disease were randomized to 10 mg of rosuvastatin daily and placebo. The treatment group had fewer primary events – death from myocardial infarction (MI), non-fatal myocardial infarctions, and non-fatal stroke. For roughly ten MIs averted there were seven excess cataracts. Peter may be blinded without being saved. Paul may be saved without being blinded. And then there is Rajeev who may be blinded and saved. But the very nature of primary prevention is that you don’t know you’re Peter, Paul or Rajeev. So everyone is grateful to statins. Not even God of the Old Testament had such unconditional deference.
Once you’re taking statins there is no way to disprove that any and every breath you draw is because of statins. Statins enjoy the metaphysical carapace, the immunity from falsification, which not even God enjoys. At least you can experiment with God. Don’t pray for a week and see if you’re still alive- you know if God really cares about prayer-adherence. Even if you die at age 55 on statins, you can never disprove that you wouldn’t have died sooner if you weren’t taking statins.