A recent report from the Commonwealth Fund places the US last amongst developing nations in healthcare. For self-loathing Americans, Christmas couldn’t have come earlier. Raptures of ecstasy were oozing from pores of self-satisfying righteous indignation.
Anyway that, and the shakiness of the metrics for another time.
For now I will focus on one of the conclusions. In analyzing the Britain’s high score on the management of chronic conditions the authors attributed this care coordination to the widespread adoption of health information technology.
That’s like someone saying Chinese food is tasty because chopsticks are widely used.
Sigh! Like quants so fastidious about decimal points they’ve missed the overall point.
Where do I begin?
I’ll start with Mesozoic era, i.e. before health IT was thrust upon Britain’s general practitioners (GPs). Then you had GPs and specialists. In Britain GPs are not optional ornaments for the mantelpiece that you pick up from Ikea when you feel like.
No, they are rather compulsory. Everyone needs to be registered with a GP. Ok, you don’t get fined if you don’t have one, but if you want a referral to a cardiologist you need to see your GP which means you must have one to see in the first place.
Read my lips: no GP, no cardiologist.
If your cardiologist thinks there is nothing wrong with your heart and your problems are supratentorial for which you need to see a shrink, then he must write a letter to your GP asking that he might consider referring you to the psychiatrist. The specialist can’t send you directly to another specialist, bypassing your GP.
Some health plans sold through the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) health insurance marketplaces use “narrow networks” of providers: that is, they limit the doctors and hospitals their customers can use.
Go to Doctor A or Hospital A and the plan will pay all or most of the bill. Go to Doctor B or Hospital B, and you may have to pay all or most of the bill yourself.
The narrow network strategy emerged long before the ACA, during the managed care era in the 1990s, and insurance companies and large, self-insured employers have used narrow networks ever since to control health care costs.
In fact, for the first time, the ACA creates new consumer protections requiring that insurers provide a minimum level of access to local providers. A number of states have exceeded these federal standards using their discretion under the new law.
Nevertheless, some consumer advocates and ACA critics still find narrow networks objectionable. Narrow networks mean that some newly insured people are no longer covered for visits to previous providers, or, if they didn’t have a doctor before, are limited in their new choices. Not infrequently, narrow networks exclude the most expensive doctors and hospitals in a community, including some specialists and academic health centers.
More expensive doctors and hospitals are not necessarily better, but for patients with a rare or complex health problem, such restrictions can be problematic.
Welcome to the world of competition in health care, because that is what narrow networks are about. Narrow networks are used by competing plans to control health care costs, and perhaps improve quality as well. In fact, if you don’t like narrow networks, you’re saying, in effect, that you don’t like competitive solutions—as least under current market conditions—to our health system’s problems.
We’re all aware of the past criticisms of “disease management.” According to the critics, these for-profit vendors were in collusion with commercial insurers, relying robo-calls to blanket unsuspecting patients with dubious advice. Their claims of “outcomes” were based on flawed research that was never intended to be science; it was really intended to market their wares.
But suppose this correspondent alerted you to:
1. A company that had developed a patient registry to identify at-risk patients who had not received an evidence-based care recommendation? Software created mailings to those patients that not only informed them of the recommendation but offered them a toll-free number to call if there were questions. Patients who remained non-compliant were then called by coordinators, who made three attempts to contact the patient and assist in any scheduling needs. If necessary, a nurse was available to telephonically engage patients and develop alternative care options.
If you think that sounds like typical vendor-driven telephonic disease management, you’d be right. You’d also be describing an approach to care that was studied by Group Health Cooperative using their electronic record, medical assistants and nurses. When it was applied to colon cancer screening, a randomized study revealed each additional level of support progressively resulted in statistically significant screening rates.
We should have seen it coming, really. It was entirely predictable, and the most recent RAND report proves it.
We incentivized comprehensive IT adoption, making it easier to bill for every procedure, examination, aspirin, tongue depressor, kind word and gentle (or not) touch without first flipping the American healthcare paradigm on its head, if such a thing is even possible.
According to analysis by the New York Times, hospitals received $1 billion more in Medicare reimbursements in 2010 than they did five years earlier. Overall, the Times says, “hospitals that received government incentives to adopt electronic records showed a 47 percent rise in Medicare payments at higher levels from 2006 to 2010 … compared with a 32 percent rise in hospitals that have not received any government incentives …”
To paraphrase the mantra of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign: It’s the system, stupid. More specifically, it’s the business model, stupid, the fee-for-service system in which electronic health records are enabling tools.
It’s also the law of unintended consequences. You know … you take action, planning on this but instead you get that.
Like the introduction of cane toads in Australia to kill beetles (they couldn’t jump high enough). Like letting mongooses loose in Hawaii to manage the rat population (they preferred native bird eggs). Like Kudzu, the insatiable vine that’s devouring the South.
According to the authors of the RAND report, the problem is with the incentive structure that encourages more tests and procedures. Well, of course it is. Doctors and administrators have a clinic or hospital to run. They have expensive invoices from Epic and Cerner to pay. They can now track and bill for all this stuff they used to not get paid for. Are we surprised?
And meanwhile, fee-for-service leads us down a contradictory rat hole of massive healthcare costs and lousy public health.Continue reading…