When it comes to health care prices, the burden piled on payers can seem almost cartoonishly heavy. News stories on the state of the industry read as though some satirist decided to exaggerate real systemic flaws into cost-prohibitive fiction. A particularly painful example hit the presses earlier this year, when a writer for Reuters revealed that the cost of a full course of oncology treatment skyrocketed from $30,447 in 2006 to $161,141 in the last few years. The change was so unbelievable as to verge on dark comedy — but there isn’t much to find funny in the situation when lives and health outcomes are on the line.
For the average employee in my home of Silicon Valley, the price crunch is challenging regardless the size of your paycheck. For local employers, however, the dilemma can be even more pointed. Today, employees of companies, large and small, expect their employer to provide comprehensive health care benefits and are largely unaware of or insensitive to the factors exacerbating market problems today. Providing these benefits, however, is easier said than done.
Employers and insurers alike face a multitude of barriers to connecting employees with affordable care. Recent research suggests that prices will increase at an average clip of 5.8% annually between now and 2024, well above the expected rate of inflation. Even worse, the increased consolidation of healthcare providers has drastically undermined the negotiating power that payers would otherwise have in more competitive markets. In Northern California, for example, major health systems, including Sutter Health, sparked outrage and protest as they have managed to amass enough of the region’s hospitals, outpatient facilities, and primary care offices to diminish regional competitors and set what many view as unacceptably high rates — all the while knowing that the lack of local competition makes it challenging for the major health insurers to push back.
Our healthcare system is self-destructing, a fact made more obvious every single day.A few years ago, a number of brave physicians who were fed up with administrative burden, burnout, and obstacles to providing care for patients started a movement –known as Direct Primary Care (DPC.)This is an innovative practice model where the payment arrangement is directly between a patient and their physician, leaving third parties, such as insurance or government agencies, completely out of the equation.
The rapidly growing number of DPC physicians have organized into a group called the DPC Coalition (DPCC); suddenly, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) is paying attention.As of February 2018, there are 770 DPC practices across the United States with new clinics opening each week as brave physicians leave the “system” behind, never looking back. Breaking free from the chains of insurance and government, this group is restoring the practice of medicine to its core, a relationship between a physician and their patient.
CMS understands there is a problem with the way Medicare services are being delivered to tax payers; it turns out their idyllic version of “high quality” care is not as affordable as they predicted.All evidence indicates the DPC model is not only capable of generating significant cost reduction, but also saving the federal government billions if administered on a large-enough scale.As fewer physicians accept Medicare and convert to DPC practices, CMS wants a piece of the pie.
In the past, the AMA published an article questioning the merits of patient portals — the primary tool for engaging patients. Rob Tennant, senior policy adviser with the MGMA-ACMPE, the entity formed by the merger of the Medical Group Management Association and the American College of Medical Practice Executives raised the fundamental issue: “The business case just hasn’t been made.” I’ll attempt to make it.
Perhaps the best evidence of the business case is when industry visionaries/organizations/leaders such as HIMSS (the professional association for healthIT), Aetna and Kaiser Permanente have made significant investments in patient engagement.
I’ve excerpted a couple sections of Pam Dolan’s article on the topic to set context and then I will address the business case. The patient portal benefits assume that it’s more than a simplistic silo’ed patient portal tethered to an EHR since they are broadly available. [Disclosure: My company, Avado, is one many patient engagement companies.]
This is why I would call it the patient portal & relationship management system or simply patient relationship management system to distinguish it from traditional limited patient portals.
I have felt from the start that this practice model is far better than the one I had in my former life, including:
Better experience for the doctor
Better experience for the patient
Better care quality
Savings for the patient and for the system.
The last one on the list is the hardest to prove, and I am potentially getting someone to gather concrete numbers for patients who followed me from my old practice to see if their overall health expenditures are down from before I started this practice. This will take time, however, and I am not sure the sample size is large enough to account for the normal variations (either in my favor or against).
Yet some anecdotes from the recent past suggest the answer, giving evidence of significant savings, both financial and life quality, that my patients and their payors get. This is an important case to be made to both the patients (who want to know if their $30-60/month is worth it) and payors (who could financially benefit from promoting this practice model). I realize that this does not constitute a proof of concept, but it is not without meaning.
PATIENT 1. MEDICARE. AGE: 90+
Pt had a head injury and came to my office wondering if they should go to the ER. I assessed the mental status did an exam, determining that this was not necessary. Set up imaging study that day (CT without contrast) which came back negative.
In my old office, the nurse who answered the message would have immediately suggested going to the ER, not checking with me on this.
Cost: CT without contrast as outpatient – cash price $300, not sure about negotiated price.
Savings: Avoided ER with head injury work-up. Cost: ? (More than $300 by far).
He seemed a bit grumpy when he came into the office. I am used to the picture: male in his early to mid-forties, with wife by his side leading him into the office to “finally get taken care of” by the doctor. Usually the woman has a disgusted expression on her face as he looks like a boy forced to spend his afternoon in a fabric store with his mother. My office is the last place he wants to be.
He let himself down on the couch across from my desk with a wince, belying the back pain that brought him here. He looks around at my office, which is not only a place he didn’t expect to be, but not what he expects a doctor’s office to look like. First there’s the sofa he is sitting on, which is where my patients spend most of their time during their visits. Then there is my guitar just behind me. He and his wife comment on how their daughter would love the fact that I have a guitar, as she is into acoustic guitar music. Then there’s me, wearing jeans and an untucked button-up shirt, sitting back in my chair and chatting like an ordinary person. He seems intrigued.
He owns a business, which is a service type business like mine. Like me, he and his wife choose to do things differently, charging less for folks who can’t afford it. I chat with him about the stress and strain of owning and running a small business, pointing out how his choice is similar to mine.
He had actually suggested coming to me after he had seen me on television, but obviously had initial doubts as to the accuracy of the report. Spin happens. But as we talk, there is much to find in common, and he warms up. His shoulders relax, he sits back on the couch, and forgets he’s in the doctor’s office.
So, the question has been raised: why am I doing this? Why re-invent the EMR wheel? What is so different about what I am doing that makes it necessary to go through such a painful venture? I ask myself this same question, actually.
Here’s my answer to that question:
What medical records offer:
High focus on capturing billing codes so physicians can be paid maximum for the minimum amount of work.
What I need: No focus on billing codes, instead a focus on work-flow.
What medical records offer: Complex documentation to satisfy the E/M coding rules put forth by CMS.This assures physicians are not at risk of fraud allegation should there be an audit. It results in massive over-documentation and obfuscation of pertinent information.
What I need: Documentation should only be for the sake of patient care. I need to know what went on and what the patient’s story is at any given time.
What medical records offer: Focus on acute care and reminders centered around the patient in the office (which is the place where the majority of the care happens, since that is the only place it is reimbursed)
What I need: Focus on chronic care, communication tools, and patient reminders for all patients, regardless of whether they are in the office or not. My goal is to keep them out of the office because they are healthy.
What medical records offer: Patient access to information is fully at the physician’s discretion through the use of a “portal,” where patients are given access to limited to what the doctor actively sends them.