One of the main goals of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), perhaps second only to improving access, was to improve the quality of care in our health system. Now several years out, we are at a point where we can ask some difficult questions as they relate to value and equity. Did the ACA improve quality of care in the ways it intended to? Did it do so for some people, or hospitals, more than others?
How did the ACA Attempt to Improve Quality?
Three particular programs created by the ACA are worthy to note in this regard. The Hospital Acquired Condition Reduction Program (HACRP) took effect on October 1, 2014 and was created to penalize hospitals scoring in the worst quartile for rates of hospital-acquired conditions outlined by the CMS. The Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP), which began for patients discharged on October 1, 2012, required CMS to reduce payments to short-term, acute-care hospitals for readmissions within 30 days for specific conditions, including acute myocardial infarction, pneumonia, and heart failure. The Medicare Hospital Value-Based Purchasing Program (HVBP) started in FY2013, was built to improve quality of care for Medicare patients by rewarding acute-care hospitals with incentive payments for improvements on a number of established quality measures related to clinical processes and outcomes, efficiency, safety, and patient experience.
In the 2012 National Residency Match Program Survey, which is sent out to residency program directors around the country by the NRMP, the factor that was ranked highest with regards to criteria considered for receiving an interview—higher than honors in clinical clerkships, higher than extracurricular experiences or AOA election, and even higher than evidence of professionalism, interpersonal skills, and humanistic qualities—was the USMLE Step 1 score.
When considering where to rank an interviewed applicant, the Step 1 score took a backseat to some of the aforementioned criteria that are perhaps more telling of what kind of person the interviewee is, although it was still one of the highest considered criteria for ranking applicants as well.
When a single exam is given this level of importance in determining a future physician’s most critical period in career development—their residency—we have to look carefully at our system.
Two points of consideration come to mind. First, is it wise to weigh a test score so heavily? Many students and faculty could easily point out that student performance on exams by no means always reflects their clinical acumen and social skills when seeing patients.
Medicine is, after all, an art far more than a science.
Nonetheless, it would be foolish to assume that scores have no worth—a high score on an exam, particularly a behemoth such as the USMLE Step 1, points out many qualities in an individual: hard work, persistence, discipline, and frankly, an understanding of textbook medicine.
And thus, we are left somewhere in the middle—perhaps we should weigh scores less than we do, but when you have to sort through thousands of applications, the only standardized metric to quickly compare is, in the end, a number somewhere between 192 and 300.
Several studies have explored the experience of grief that physicians feel when they lose a patient.
But what about when the patient loses a physician—when the doctor dies?
Dr. K was a well-known child psychiatrist, a loving husband, a father of two, and an irreplaceable support and friend for a number of children suffering from trauma, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism and other challenging psychiatric conditions. Earlier this year, Dr. K passed away in a tragic accident while vacationing with his family. His loss was nearly unbearable for most of us.
Days after the funeral, a colleague of Dr. K inquired into whose care his patients would be transferred. She was shocked to hear that one of his patients, a young teenager suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, anxiety, and depression, had overdosed on his medication and committed suicide the day he heard of Dr. K’s death. It was no coincidence.
Behind the family members, close friends, colleagues, and acquaintances are the physician’s patients. They are part of a separate, almost secret life that the physician leads. And yet, the patient is whom the physician spends more time with than anyone else—they are in some ways the truest reflection of the doctor. While family and others grieve together in collective remembrance, patients often do so isolated, alone, confidential.