They are coming in fast under the radar, out of peripheral vision, in the magician’s other hand—and they will change everything. New ideas, surprising networks, stealth business models that may change health care profoundly, are bubbling up in pilot programs, experiments and full-on corporate transformations. There is something here that does not yet have a name, that no one is yet calling a movement, that no one is yet seeing as revolutionary.
While we have been mesmerized by federal health care reform, government intervention on behalf of the uninsured and government attempts to “bend the cost curve” to shave a few percentage points off medical inflation, things have been happening in the private sector for people who are already insured that result in outright medical deflation, drops in costs of 20 percent or more, all while giving people more care, not less.
Help me out here. This picture is just forming, the Ouija board is still in motion, but I think what we may have here is some truly big news about the future.
The Difference Is Integration
First, consider the huge regional differences in health care costs. Think about what it means that it costs twice as much for patients in the last six months of life to be involved with Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, UCLA Medical Center or New York University Medical Center than it does for them to be involved with Mayo Clinic in Minnesota or the Cleveland Clinic; or that Medicare spends half as much per patient per year in Temple, Texas, as in McAllen or Harlingen or Brownsville, Texas; or why Medicare spending per patient per year in the top and bottom quintiles of hospital catchment areas differ by 60 percent.
These are vast differences—and the more expensive areas show no better outcomes than the less expensive ones; in fact, for some conditions they show worse outcomes.Continue reading…
The emphasis on primary care as the “key” to lifting the quality of U.S. healthcare may be exaggerated according to a report, released today, by Dartmouth’s Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice.
“Primary care forms the bedrock of a well-functioning, effective health care system,” the researchers observe. But– and this is an important caveat- “simply increasing access to primary care, either by boosting the number of primary care physicians in an area or by ensuring that most patients have better insurance coverage, may not be enough to improve the quality of care or lead to better outcomes.”
Wait a minute. In past reports, didn’t Dartmouth’s researchers tell us that patients fare better if they see fewer specialists and more internists?
No. Dartmouth’s earlier studies have shown that when patients see more specialists, care is more aggressive and more expensive, but, on average, outcomes are no better—and sometimes they are worse. This, however, doesn’t mean that primary care, by itself, ensures better care, even if a patient sees her PCP on a regular basis.
As the report points out: “Primary care is most effective when it is embedded in a high-functioning system, where care is coordinated, where physicians communicate with one another about their patients, and where feedback is available about performance that allows physicians and local hospitals to continually improve.”
Policy should “focus on improving the actual services primary care clinicians provide and making sure their efforts are coordinated with those of other providers, including specialists, nurses and hospitals,” says Dr. David C. Goodman, lead author and co-principal investigator for the Dartmouth Atlas Project.
Last week, I commented on a New York Times story that appeared Wednesday, June 2, attacking the Dartmouth Research. The work that Dartmouth has done over the past two decades suggests that hospitals in some parts of the country are over-treating patients. Over-treatment means that patients who didn’t need to be in the hospital in the first place are exposed to the side effects of treatment as well as gruesome hospital- acquired infections, medication mix-ups and a host of other medical errors. Thus unnecessary care puts patients at risk while helping to drive health care bills heavenward— and suggests that we could rein in Medicare spending by squeezing some of that hazardous waste out of the system. But according to the Times: “Data [from Dartmouth] Used to Justify Health Savings Effort is Sometimes Shaky.”
In Part 1 of this post I discussed what two of the Times’ sources told me about how the Times’ reporters misrepresented what they said. Both Harvard economist David Cutler and Yale’s Dr. Harlan M. Krumholz complained that the story made it seem that they are critics of the research, when in fact they agree with Dartmouth on the basic message of the data, and see the work as, in Krumholz’ words “pivotal to moving us forward . . . we all agree that there is lots of waste and it is unevenly distributed across the country.” A third source in Washington D.C. who talked to the Times reporters confided that they seemed to have a clear agenda: “to take down Dartmouth.”
Today, I received evidence from yet another unhappy source—the Wisconsin Collaborative for HealthCare Quality, a voluntary consortium of organizations working to improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of healthcare in Wisconsin. Chris Queram, the Collaborative’s president, and Jack Bowhan, who guides the development of value metrics for the group, report that they tried to caution New York Times reporter Gardiner Harris that he was misusing their data, “comparing apples to grapefruits,” and “jumping to a conclusions that you just can’t make.” Harris ignored their warnings.
As proof, they produced a series of e-mails that they sent to Harris, and with their permission, I’m quoting from those messages. But first, an excerpt from the Times’ story talking about the Collaborative’s data.
At a dinner party in Manhattan, someone mentions the problems he has been having with his sinuses, and his doctor’s diagnosis. Since everyone at the table is over 40, his comment quickly leads to a lively discussion of back pain, rotator cuffs, high blood pressure, skin cancer, and diverticulitis. It seems that everyone in the room has been diagnosed with something. Finally, someone asks “Are we really that old? Can’t we talk about something else?” Everyone laughs and the conversation turns to politics.
I couldn’t help but recall that evening while reading an article in the May 12 New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) titled “Regional Variations in Diagnostic Practices” written by a team of investigators at Dartmouth.
Earlier work done by researchers at Dartmouth has shown that patients in some regions receive moretreatment than others. This newest study, written by Yunje Song, senior author Elliott Fisher, and colleagues, goes further, to suggest that patients in places such as Miami, New York or McAllen, Texas are more likely to be diagnosed in the first place. “Their doctors order more tests and refer more patients to sub-specialists than doctors in Atlanta, Phoenix or Jackson, Mississippi,” explains Jonathan Skinner, one of the co-authors, “and so they discover more disease.”Continue reading…