A Crystal Ball for Medicine

HamlinB_SON_DMG_2010_9143_150x200 (1)Twenty years is a long time to rely on one measurement approach. Imagine if in this technology-centric world we still relied on dial-up to connect to the internet. That’s basically where we are on quality assessment today. But we don’t need to be.

Predictive risk calculations allow doctors to look into the future. A risk score tells doctors how likely their patient is to develop heart disease or have a stroke. Working with their patients, doctors can discuss options for lowering this risk with the goal of preventing such events from happening.

With data from electronic health records, we should be able to create risk profiles for individual patients that actually take into account the different factors affecting their personal health—not just their age and gender, but their family history, whether or not they smoke, what medications and treatments they are receiving, and their own perspective on how they feel.

But right now, a 50 year old woman’s risk of developing heart disease is determined by a threshold set for the entire population of women aged 50-65 across the country. That’s a crude science. Everyone is not built the same. We should create risk profiles that change as patients change: as they reduce their risk by losing weight, quit smoking, or lowering their high blood pressure, thus reducing their chances of a heart attack or other adverse event.

That’s the vision of NCQA’s Global Cardiovascular Risk Score (GCVR). Leveraging the pioneering risk prediction work of Archimedes, it extracts data from electronic health records and uses a sophisticated algorithm to generate a highly sensitive, patient-centric risk profile for each clinician. It works like this: the higher the score the less likely a clinician’s patient will develop heart problems in the next five years.

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The Global Cardiovascular Risk Score: A New Performance Measure for Prevention

Everyone loves prevention. It may seem strange then, to learn that one of the biggest barriers keeping prevention from reaching its full potential is the current set of performance measures that, ironically, were created to promote them. The reason is that current measures are promoting activities that are inaccurate and inefficient. It is as though explorers who are trying to reach the North Pole have been given a compass that is sending them to Greenland.

This problem is being addressed by a new project conducted by NCQA and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The objective is to evaluate a new type of measure of healthcare quality called GCVR (Global Cardiovascular Risk). The new measure will have an important effect on the prevention of cardiovascular conditions.

To understand how, we need first to understand the limitations of current measures. For reasons that were appropriate when they were initially introduced – about 20 years ago — current performance measures were designed to be simple: simple to implement (e.g. collect the necessary data, do the calculations), and simple to remember and explain. This was accomplished in three main ways. One was to create separate performance measures for different risk factors. Thus there are separate measures for blood pressure control, cholesterol control, glucose control, tobacco use, and so forth.

While a performance measure for any one risk factor might take into account a few other risk factors to some extent, none of them incorporate all the relevant risk factors in a physiologically accurate way. A second simplification is that current measures are based on care processes and treatment goals for biomarkers, rather than on health outcomes. Thus a blood pressure measure asks if a patient with hypertension is controlled to a systolic pressure below 140 mmHG. A third simplification is the use of sharp cut points to determine the need for and success of treatment. For example, patients with hypertension are counted as properly treated if their systolic pressures are below 140 mmHG, otherwise not.

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