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The Opportunity in Disruption, Part 3: The Shape of Things to Come

By JOE FLOWER

Picture, if you will, a healthcare sector that costs less, whose share of the national economy is more like it is in other advanced economies—let’s imagine 9% or 10% rather than 18% or 19%.

A big part of this drop is a vast reduction in overtreatment because non-fee-for-service payment systems are far less likely to pay for things that don’t help the patient. Another part of this drop is the greater efficiency of every procedure and process as providers get better at knowing their true costs and cutting out waste. The third major factor is that new payment systems and business models actually drive toward true value for the buyers and healthcare consumers. This includes giving a return on the investment for prevention, population health management, and building healthier communities. This incentive would reduce the large percentage of healthcare costs due to preventable and manageable diseases, trauma, and addictions.

Picture, if you will, a healthcare sector in which prices are real, known, and reliable. Price outliers that today may be two, three, five times the industry median have rapidly disappeared. Prices for comparable procedures have normalized in a narrower range well below today’s median prices. Most prices are bundled, a single price for an entire procedure or process, in ways that can be compared across the entire industry. Prices are guaranteed. There are no circumstances under which a healthcare provider can decide after the fact how much to charge, or a health insurer can decide after the fact that the procedure was not covered, or that the unconscious heart attack victim should have been taken to a different emergency department farther away.

Picture a well-informed, savvy healthcare consumer, with active support and incentives from their employers and payors, who is far more willing and eager to find out what their choices are and exercise that choice. They want the same level of service, quality, and financial choices they get from almost every other industry. And as their financial burden increases, so do their demands.

Picture a reversing of consolidation, ending a providers’ ability to demand full-network contracting with opaque price agreements—and encouraging new market entrants capable of facilitating a yeasty market for competition. Picture growing disintermediation and decentralization of healthcare, with buyers increasingly able to act like real customers, picking and choosing particular services based on price and quality.

Picture an industry whose processes are as revolutionized by new technologies as the news industry has been, or gaming, or energy. Picture a healthcare industry in which you simply cannot compete using yesterday’s technologies—not just clinical technologies but data, communications, and transaction technologies.

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Single-Payer is the American Way

As is customary for every administration in recent history, the Trump administration chose to impale itself on the national spear known as health care in America. The consequences so far are precisely as I expected, but one intriguing phenomenon is surprisingly beginning to emerge. People are starting to talk about single-payer. People who are not avowed socialists, people who benefit handsomely from the health care status quo seem to feel a need to address this four hundred pound gorilla, sitting patiently in a corner of our health care situation room. Why?

The all too public spectacle of a Republican party at war with itself over repealing and replacing Obamacare is teaching us one certain thing. There are no good solutions to health care within the acceptable realm of incremental, compromise driven, modern American solutions to everything, solutions that have been crippling the country and its people since the mid-seventies, which is when America lost its mojo. To fix health care, we have to go back to times when America was truly great, times when the wealthy Roosevelts of New York lived in the White House, times when graduating from Harvard or Yale were not cookie cutter prerequisites to becoming President, times when the President of the United States conducted meetings while sitting on the toilet with the door open and nobody cared. Rings a bell?

Single-payer health care is one such bold solution. Listening to the back and forth banter on social media, one may be tempted to disagree. We don’t have enough money for single-payer. Both Vermont and California tried and quit because of astronomic costs. Hundreds of thousands of people working for insurance companies will become unemployed. Hospitals will close. Entire towns will be wiped out. Doctors will become lazy inefficient government employees and you’ll have to wait months before seeing a doctor. And of course, there will be formal and informal death panels. Did I miss anything? I’m pretty sure I did, so let’s enumerate.

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How to Blow the Big One: A Methodology

[Note to the reader: Anything that is in italics and square brackets (such as this note) is addressed to you, personally. Yes, you. Try it on, see if it fits.]

Healthcare has, right now, the greatest opportunity we have seen in our lifetimes to make a big change, to rebuild itself in a hundred ways to become better for everyone, and cheaper—to get cheaper by getting better. We’re not talking “bending the cost curve,” cutting a few points off the inflation chart. We’re not talking a little cheaper, a little less per capita, a few percentage points off the cut of GDP that healthcare sucks up. We’re talking way cheaper. Half the cost. You know, like in normal countries.

We’re not talking a little better, skipping a few unnecessary tests, cutting the percentage of surgical infections a few points. No. Don’t even think about it. We’re talking way better. Save the children, help the people who should know better, nobody dies before their time, no unnecessary suffering. Seriously.

I don’t know how high you want to aim, but personally, I think we should aim at least as high as the cutting-edge programs and facilities that are already out there, in the system as it exists today, cutting real healthcare expenses of real people, even “frequent fliers,” by 10, 20, even 30 percent, while making them healthier, much healthier. At least. To me, that’s a wimpy goal, just doing as well as some other people are already doing. Because these programs are just getting off the ground. They’re in the first few iterations. The stretch goal, the goal we can take seriously, is to cut real costs by 50 percent, by making people healthier. There is at least that much potential out there.Continue reading…

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