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Matthew’s health care tidbits: Is Covid over for the health care system?

Each week I’ve been adding a brief tidbits section to the THCB Reader, our weekly newsletter that summarizes the best of THCB that week (Sign up here!). Then I had the brainwave to add them to the blog. They’re short and usually not too sweet! –Matthew Holt

I am beginning to wonder, is COVID over? Of course no one has told the virus that it’s over. In fact infection rates are two to three times where they were in the post-omicron lull and new variants are churning themselves out faster and faster. We still have 300 people dying every day. But since we went past a million US deaths, no one seems to care any more.

For the health care system, COVID being over means a chance to get back to normal, and normal ain’t good. Normal means trying to get rid of that pesky telemedicine and anything else that came around since March 2020.The incumbents want to remove the public health emergency that allowed telemedicine to be paid for by Medicare, re-enforce the Ryan Haight act which mandates in-person visits for prescribing controlled Rx like Adderall for ADHD, and make sure that tortuous state license requirements for online physicians are not going away. This also means restrictions on hospital at home, and basically delays any other innovative way to change care delivery. Well, it was all so perfect in February 2020!

But there is one COVID related problem that doesn’t seem to be going away. People. They’re just not going back to work and nurses in particular are resisting the pull of the big hospitals. I don’t know the end game here, but there is a clue in the “return to office” data. Basically every large city is below 50% of its office space being occupied and companies are having to figure out a hybrid model going forward, no matter how much Elon Musk objects.

Hospitals aren’t going willingly into the night. The big systems still control American health care, and are prepared to fight on all fronts to keep it that way. But like office workers, nurses and doctors want a different life. The concept of virtual-first, community-based, primary care-led health care has been around for a long while and been studiously ignored by the majority of the system.

If hospitals can’t get the staff and keep losing money employing the ones they have, there will be new solutions being offered to clinicians wanting a different life-style. We just might see a different approach to health care delivery rising phoenix-like from the Covid ashes.

The Most Commonsensical And Hopeless Reform Idea Ever

The way that Michael Long and Sandeep Green Vaswami want to change hospital care may well rank as both the most commonsensical and most hopeless health reform proposal ever. The real question is whether they can show the same tenacity in pursuing their goal as an elderly Jewish woman from Munster, Ind., who has invested nearly two decades in a similar effort.

What the two men are advocating is simple: hospitals should offer the same level of professional staffing and patient care on weekends as during the rest of the week. They should do this, the two men write in the Health Affairs blog, because trying to cram seven days of care into five leads to a cascade of problems that harm and even kill patients. It also costs a lot of money.

That’s the commonsense part. The hopeless part is that Long and Vaswami, both affiliated with the Institute for Healthcare Optimization, seem to believe that doctors, nurses and hospital execs will read their article and then spontaneously volunteer to work the weekend shift.

American hospitals are complex entities, but at heart they remain the doctor’s workshop, dependent upon the goodwill of physicians who admit and care for patients. Maintaining that goodwill requires treading carefully. For instance, telling a neurosurgeon, “You’re working Wednesday through Sunday this week” would rank high on the list of what a friend of mine calls a “career-limiting event.”

Long and Vaswami are aware they’re tampering with long-standing tradition, but as justification they offer a disturbing catalog of the effect of care controlled by the calendar.

To begin with, bunching scheduled admissions in midweek often overwhelms the staff, leading to “significant” increased risk of patient death or admission to the Intensive Care Unit. Filled beds force emergency rooms to discharge patients to “inappropriate care locations,” with the hospital relying on specialized teams to ride to the rescue “when patients deteriorate because of inadequate care.” At the same time, “medically appropriate transfers … may also be delayed or rejected.”

And that’s when hospitals are operating normally. Patients admitted over the weekend face an increased risk “because critical diagnostic or therapeutic modalities are not available,” while patients staying over the weekend experience “delays at best and deterioration in clinical condition at worst.”

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