Writing in the March 20 issue of JAMA, Drs. Douglas Noble and Lawrence Casalino say that supporters of Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) are all muddled over “population health.”
This correspondent says the article is what is muddled and that the readers of JAMA deserve better.
According to the authors, after the Affordable Care Act launched the Medicare Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs), their stated purpose has morphed from Health-System Ver. 2.0 controlling the chronic care costs of their assigned patients to Health System Ver. 3.0 collaboratively addressing “population health” for an entire geography.
Between the here of “improving chronic care” and the there of “population health,” Drs Noble and Casalino believe ACOs are going to have to confront the additional burdens of preventive care, social services, public health, housing, education, poverty and nutrition. That makes the authors wonder if the term “population health” in the context of ACOs is unclear. If so, that lack of clarity could ultimately lead naive politicians, policymakers, academics and patients to be disappointed when ACOs start reporting outcomes that are limited to chronic conditions.
There’s been a lot of discussion of transparency in health care recently, e.g., a USA Today op-ed and a counterpoint by Paul Ginsburg. The appeal of transparency is obvious. As movingly documented by Steven Brill in Time, prices are high and often differ quite substantially, even across close by providers. However, we don’t know the prices for the health care that we consume, and it’s extremely difficult to find out what these things cost (e.g., this recent study in JAMA).
While the appeal of transparency is obvious, it’s important to realize that buying health care is not like buying milk at the grocery store. A key factor is health insurance. Health insurance is very important — people need to be insured against the catastrophic expenses that can occur with serious illness. Thus people with high health care expenses won’t be exposed to most of those expenses (and shouldn’t) and therefore will have no reason to respond to information about health care prices.
Should we hold hospitals accountable for what happens after a patient leaves the hospitals’ doors? A year ago, I thought the answer was no. A hospital’s job was to take care of sick patients, make them better and send them on their way. With more thought and consideration, I have come to conclude that I was probably wrong. It may be perfectly reasonable to hold hospitals accountable for care beyond their walls, but we should be clear why we’re doing it. Readmissions are not a good quality measure – but they may be a very good way to change the notion of accountability within the healthcare delivery system.
The debate around the readmissions measure has come to the forefront because of the CMS Hospital Readmission Reduction Program, which penalizes hospitals for “greater than expected” readmission rates. It has raised the question — does a hospital’s 30-day readmission rate measure the “quality of care” it provides? Over the last three years, the evidence has come in, and to my read, it is unequivocal. By most standards, the readmissions metric fails as a quality measure.
Why do I say that readmissions are a poor measure of hospital quality? First, we have to begin by thinking about what makes a good quality measure. Quality is about the essence of the thing being produced – a good or a service. The job of a car is to get you from place A to place B and a high-quality car may be one that does the job reliably, safely, or maybe even comfortably. The job of a restaurant is to provide a meal that you don’t have to cook — and a high quality restaurant may provide food that is fresh, tasty, or with an attention to service that you enjoy. What is the job of a hospital? When you get sick and require hospital services, a high-quality hospital should give you the right treatments, attend to your needs while you’re there, and make sure nothing bad (i.e. a new nosocomial infection) happens along the way. That’s how we measure hospital quality.
Quality measures for healthcare come in three flavors – structural measures (do you have enough intensivists manning your ICU?), processes measures (did you give the heart attack patient his or her aspirin?) and outcomes measures (did the pneumonia patient die?). The elemental part of both structural measures and process measures is that they have to be tied to an outcome we care about. If having more intensivists in the ICU does not lead to lower ICU mortality (or lower complication rates), we wouldn’t think it’s a particularly good quality measure. We know that giving aspirin to heart attack patients lowers their chances of dying by 25%. We have multiple randomized trials. We don’t need much more evidence. Hospitals that have the right structures in place and reliably deliver the right treatments can reasonably be called high-quality hospitals.
Over the past decade, there has been yet another debate about whether pay-for-performance, the notion that the amount you get paid is tied to some measure of how you perform, “works” or not. It’s a silly debate, with proponents pointing to the logic that “you get what you pay for” and critics arguing that the evidence is not very encouraging. Both sides are right.
In really simple terms, pay-for-performance, or P4P, can be thought about in two buckets: the “pay” part (how much money is at stake) and the “performance” part (what are we paying for?). So, in this light, the proponents of P4P are right: you get what you pay for. The U.S. healthcare system has had a grand experiment with P4P: we currently pay based on volume of care and guess what? We get a lot of volume. Or, thinking about those two buckets, the current fee-for-service structure puts essentially 100% of the payments at risk (pay) and the performance part is simple: how much stuff can you do? When you put 100% of payments at risk and the performance measure is “stuff”, we end up with a healthcare system that does a tremendous amount of stuff to patients, whether they need it or not.
Against these incentives, new P4P programs have come in to alter the landscape. They suggest putting as much as 1% (though functionally much less than that) on a series of process measures. So, in this new world, 99%+ of the incentives are to do “stuff” to patients and a little less than 1% of the incentives are focused on adherence to “evidence-based care” (though the measures are often not very evidence-based, but let’s not get caught up in trivial details). There are other efforts that are even weaker. None of them seem to be working and the critics of P4P have seized on their failure, calling the entire approach of tying incentives to performance misguided.
The debate has been heightened by the new national “value-based purchasing” program that Congress authorized as part of the Affordable Care Act. Based on the best of intentions, Congress asked Medicare to run a program where 1% of a hospital’s payments (rising to 2% over several years) is tied to a series of process measures, patient experience measures, and eventually, mortality rates and efficiency measures. We tried a version of this for six years (the Premier Hospital Quality Incentives Demonstration) and it didn’t work. We will try again, with modest tweaks and changes. I really hope it improves patient outcomes, though one can understand why the skeptics aren’t convinced.Continue reading…
In his new book, Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won’t Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care, Johns Hopkins surgeon Marty Makary promises a “powerful, no-nonsense, nonpartisan prescription for reforming our broken health care system.” And he partly delivers, with an insider’s and relatively unvarnished view of many of the flaws in modern hospitals. Underlying these problems, he believes, is an utter lack of transparency, the sunshine that could disinfect the stink.
The thesis is important, the honesty is admirable, and the timing seems right. Yet I found the book disappointing, sometimes maddeningly so. My hopes were high, and my letdown was large. If your political leanings are like mine, think Obama and the first debate.
Makary hits the ground running, with the memorable tales of two surgeons he encountered during his training: the charming but utterly incompetent Dr. Westchester (known as HODAD, for “Hands of Death and Destruction”) and the misanthropic “Raptor,” a technical virtuoso who was a horse’s ass. Of course, all the clinicians at their hospital knew which of these doctors they would see if they needed surgery, but none of the patients did. (Of HODAD, Makary writes, “His patients absolutely worshipped him… They had no way of connecting their extended hospitalizations, excessive surgery time, or preventable complications with the bungling, amateurish, borderline malpractice moves we on the staff all witnessed.”)
This is compelling stuff, and through stories like these Makary introduces several themes that echo throughout the book:
1) There are lots of bad apples out there.
2) Patients have no way of knowing who these bad apples are.
3) Clinicians do know, but are too intimidated to speak up.
4) If patients simply had more data, particularly the results of patient safety culture surveys, things would get much better.
In a world where health care costs are rising and consumers are taking on a growing share, it is critical they have easy access to understandable information about the quality and cost of their care. While we have made decent strides in making quality data available, consumers still have little to no information about health care prices, making it difficult if not impossible for them to seek higher-value care. Numerous studies and articles have explored this problem, such as a recent UCSF study, highlighted in JAMA, which found routine appendectomies can cost as little as $1,529 or as much as $183,000. As PBGH Medical Director Dr. Arnie Milstein so eloquently stated in the Wall Street Journal, “Fantasy baseball managers have more information evaluating players for their teams than patients and referring physicians have in matters of life and death.”
Now Catalyst for Payment Reform (CPR), an independent, non-profit corporation working on behalf of large employers and other health care purchasers to catalyze improvements in how we pay for health services, has just released a suite of tools to catalyze price transparency. The suite includes a first-of-its-kind Statement by CPR Purchasers on Quality and Price Transparency in Health Care, endorsed by several partner organizations, that takes plans and providers to task: give us price data by January 2014.
A few months back, we admitted a patient we’ll call Mr. Jones to the hospital for a severe gastrointestinal bleed. We had discharged him two weeks earlier after he had come in with a heart attack and made sure he was on aspirin to prevent future cardiac events. He dutifully took his aspirin and on the day of the readmission, had a massive bleed. He made it to the hospital barely alive and an endoscopy in the ICU showed an active bleeding gastric ulcer. For Mr. Jones, the gastrointestinal bleed, likely brought on by the aspirin, was an “unintended consequence” that almost killed him. Yet no one questioned whether we should have given him aspirin in the first place. I felt terrible about what had happened but found solace in knowing that while for some patients the risks of aspirin are worse than the benefits, for the general population of people like Mr. Jones, the benefits are clearly worth the side-effects.
We do risk-benefit analyses every day in clinical care, knowing that for some patients, the benefits will be outweighed by the harm. We try to be thoughtful about who might be hurt or not, but most of the time, we just can’t predict. So, when the benefits appear to outweigh the risks, we move forward and try to learn from cases like Mr. Jones.
While this kind of risk-benefit analysis is common in clinical practice, it’s unfortunately not how we discuss health policy interventions. No policy intervention is ever without risks, and it is rare that a new policy will have no side-effects at all. Yet, every time policymakers put in a new initiative, they sell it as a panacea. Critics, upon finding an unintended consequence, then declare the whole thing a failure.
An excellent example of this is health information technology, a topic that I have blogged about in the past. Proponents only talk about its benefits, allowing critics to highlight every shortcoming and failure. Thank goodness I don’t have to deal with proponents and critics like that every time I consider prescribing aspirin to my patients.
In a new study published in JAMA, my colleagues and I found that even after accounting for productivity, women working as physician researchers at American Medical Schools are paid $13,000 less per year than their male colleagues, a difference that amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of their careers.
But does this difference stand as evidence of discrimination?
Many claims of gender inequity in pay have suffered from an apples vs. oranges problem. For example, consider gender disparities across different careers. Many traditional male careers, like construction work, pay better than traditionally female careers, like nursing and teaching. It’s plausible that these disparities result, at least in part, from societal bias about how relatively important it is for men and women to make enough money to provide for their families. However, these disparities could also result from more justifiable factors. Maybe the physical demands of the work differ in important ways, or perhaps the marketplace is simply responding to supply and demand.
Medical experts have long noticed gender disparities in physician pay. Traditionally male fields like neurosurgery pay substantially more than fields preferred by more women, such as general pediatrics. If women are voluntarily choosing lower paying fields—perhaps for lifestyle reasons or maybe because they don’t value money as much as men do—then it’s arguable that we should not fret over pay disparities. It’s America, after all, where people have the right to choose.
The tempest that greeted the United States Preventive Services Task Force guidelines on mammography screening for women in their 40s prompted the Senate to insert a mandate in its health care reform bill that every insurer cover every mammography screening test at no cost to beneficiaries. If it passes, it will spark an upsurge in mammography screening, especially among women under 50, and raise the nation’s health care tab.
The Journal of the American Medical Association this morning provides a timely article (subscription required) reminding physicians and women about the serious health costs of adopting that policy.Continue reading…
When I was a kid growing up in Los Angeles, there was this local TV show my dad used to enjoy watching called Fight Back with David Horowitz. Basically, Horowitz, a TV reporter and consumer advocate, used to put the claims a manufacturer made about their products to the test—whether it was if Samsonite luggage could withstand abuse from a Gorilla or Bounty really was the “quicker picker upper,” it was on its show and ended up either endorsed or debunked by it. It was Consumer Reports come to life, if you will—pitting products against one another to see which one was worth putting down some hard earned dollars for.
Now, over 30 years later, we in medicine are just getting around to doing the exact same thing that Horowitz was with retail way back in the 1970s—comparing the claims made by drug and device makers about their products.