In the children’s book The Little Engine That Could, a little blue engine hauls an improbably large trainload of toys and candy over a mountain while chanting, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” The Labor Department named this classic among the 100 books that shaped work in America.
There’s a federal health agency in Washington that might be called the “Little Agency That Could”: the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (acronym “AHRQ”, pronounced “Arc”) – and it’s shaping the work of healthcare in America.
AHRQ’s priority is making the work done in healthcare benefit the patient. They assemble all the treatments, medicines, expertise, technology and medical advances, and figure out the best strategies for delivering them safely and effectively. This is very complex, and lapses and errors in delivery can and do cause unnecessary patient death and suffering on a grand scale. Avoidable errors in hospitals kill upwards of 500 people a day, making it equivalent to the third leading cause of death in the United States.
What works for the patient often defies conventional wisdom, which AHRQ has observed time and again. For instance:
The Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital scandal has policymakers calling for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s head, and this week they got it, when President Obama accepted the Secretary’s resignation.
Some policymakers are also calling for privatizing VA hospitals, allowing them to be owned and operated by the same entities that own and operate the hospitals the rest of us use. This idea assumes the hospital community as a whole performs better than the VA, and the sad truth is we don’t have any evidence of that.
We know that on average, other hospitals are not doing a great job. Upwards of 500 people each day die from preventable errors in American hospitals, one in 20 admitted patients will get an infection, and one in four inpatients suffer some form of harm unrelated to the reason they went to the hospital in the first place.
Evidence suggests waiting lists like the VA’s may be common, as well.
So how does the VA compare? We don’t know. We don’t have much data publicly available to begin with, and we have virtually nothing that compares VA hospitals with other American hospitals.
To be clear, data is being collected—it’s just not typically available to humble souls like you and me and the rest of the American citizenry. Hospitals get accredited to receive Medicare and Medicaid payments, but accreditation reports are not made public by hospital. Health plans collect claims data, but most of that is never released to the public. The Centers for Disease Control, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and other federal agencies collect reams of data, but much of it is not made public, either.
This dearth of information is why employers and other purchasers of health care formed my organization (The Leapfrog Group), to ask hospitals to report on data they can’t get anywhere else. Their support means it’s free for hospitals to publicly report and free for consumers to access information about hospitals in their community. But only about a third of hospitals participate.
President Obama rarely shies away from an opportunity to tout successes in U.S. health care, but in last night’s State of the Union oddly omitted any mention of the new and optimistic report about U.S. health spending from actuaries at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
The finding: from 2009 through 2012, health care spending in the U.S. grew at the slowest rate since the government started collecting this data in the 1960s.
The actuaries found that in 2012 spending “stabilized,” growing by 3.7 percent in 2012, and health care accounted for a slightly smaller percent of GDP than the prior year, 17.2 percent versus 17.3 percent in 2011.
Perhaps an actuarial report proclaiming stable growth doesn’t make for much of an applause line for a State of the Union speech. But for confessed policy wonks like me, it’s as good as a Hollywood blockbuster.
So get out your popcorn, here are five Hollywood moments in the report.
1. Ninja Combat
When the report came out in early January, the Obama administration quickly ascribed the good news to Obamacare. But, lo and behold, the actuaries wielded their slide rules like weapons.
They respectfully disagreed with their president, pointing out that few of the provisions in the health reform law were actually in place during the slow-growth years in question. The actuaries conclude that most of the cost stability results from the economic recovery process.
Given the silence in the State of the Union, they may have been given the last word on the subject.
Let’s say a physician writes a prescription for Colchicine and accidentally orders “10.0 mg,” when he should have ordered “1.0 mg.” That’s a tiny decimal error, a mistake even the best doctor could make. But it can be catastrophic for the patient. The higher dose could cause Colchicine poisoning, similar to arsenic poisoning: burning in the mouth and throat, excruciating abdominal pain. Internal organs would melt away and death would likely occur within 24 to 72 hours.
The ease with which even the best doctors can make gruesome errors is why hospitals set up elaborate systems to check and double check orders before drugs are given to patients. Some hospitals are better at this checking than others. Medication errors happen all the time, an estimated one million each year, contributing to 7,000 deaths. On average there is one medication error every day for every inpatient. Let’s take a closer look at what’s contributing to these preventable errors.
Hospitals Are In The Technological Dark Ages
According to recent research, the best known way for hospitals to protect patients from errors is by adopting technology called computerized physician order entry (CPOE). The physician (or other authorized prescriber) enters orders for a patient on a computer that contains patient information such as key lab values, clinical condition, allergies, etc. The computer checks the safety and appropriateness of the order and sends it electronically to the pharmacy. In the Colchicine example, a good CPOE system would alert the physician to the misplaced decimal in the order, and the best systems would prevent the order from being written in the first place. In my mind, one of the greatest advances of CPOE is that it eliminates the need for pharmacists to decipher physician handwriting. I’ve often wondered how they do that.
The research suggests errors decline by as much as 85 percent when hospitals implement CPOE, yet the pace of adoption in the hospital industry is agonizingly slow. To jump start progress, the federal government used economic stimulus funds starting back in 2009 to incentivize hospital investment in CPOE and electronic medical records (EMRs). That improved the pace of change, but still, most hospitals are in the Dark Ages when compared to other industries like airlines or retail.
My nonprofit, Leapfrog, finds that only about a third of the hospitals that voluntarily report to our survey meet our standard for full implementation of CPOE. Even for that minority of hospitals that adopt CPOE, the system doesn’t always work as advertised. Like all technology, CPOE must be continually tested and modified. That’s not always happening.
I welcome Leah Binder’s earlier post on this blog, written in response to my blog post in The New York Times. To be thus acknowledged is an honor.
As an economist, I am not trained to respond to Ms. Binder’s deep insights into my psyche, dubious though it may be. Nor, alas, can I delve into hers, fascinating though that might be. Let me therefore concentrate instead just on substance.
First of all, I do not recall calling employers “stupid,” nor did I question their IQ. I do confess to having once called employee benefits managers, when addressing them at some of their usually mournful meetings, “kind-hearted social workers dressed to look like tough Republicans.” At that meeting I contrasted how carefully their company’s tough-minded VP for Procurement, Murgatroid de B. Coverly III, Princeton ’74, purchased paper clips for the company with the much more mellow approach taken by their V.P. of Human Resources to purchase health care for their company’s employees.
Benefit managers – I hate to call them BMs — really are the nicest folks. They care deeply about their employees’ well being (until, of course, the latter lose their job with the company). They worry incessantly about their company’s ever rising outlays for health insurance. And, after a cocktail or two, they regularly lament how rarely they get the attention of top management and of the board of directors – the very folks I once told to go look into a mirror in their search for the culprit behind rising health care costs.
No, when I say “employers” I really mean top management and boards of directors who make the rules. And I did not even call those mighty ones stupid, but merely “passive payers” as did, by the way, David Dranove on this blog in his critical response to my New York Times piece. Why these usually tough and smart people have behaved so passively in buying health care for themselves and their employees remains a puzzle at the level of economic theory.
Uwe Reinhardt is one of the nation’s most respected health care economists, professor at the prestigious Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, fellow of the Institute of Medicine, and one of the shining lights in health policymaking circles.
But alas, even the best and the brightest are wrong sometimes. Case in point: Reinhardt’s recent comments in the New York Times on the role of the American business community in fueling our nation’s health care problems. To paraphrase, Reinhardt believes that employer purchasers of health care are 1) dim bulbs and 2) responsible for the escalating costs of care.
This seemed puzzling coming from Reinhardt, whose views are widely respected by purchasers. But I was able to diagnose the problem by drawing on insights from social psychology.
Social psychology investigates “attribution,” our mind’s process for inferring the causes of events or behaviors. It’s how we describe why things happen — to us or to someone else. It turns out, we humans aren’t very accurate in our attribution processes because all of us suffer from at least one of the following problems. In his New York Times piece, poor Professor Reinhardt appears afflicted by all three at the same time. Let’s take a closer look at each:
1. Actor-Observer Bias: This is the notion that when it comes to explaining our own behavior, we tend to blame external forces more often than our own personal characteristics.
Reinhardt is rightfully troubled by a decade of escalating health care cost growth under employment-based health insurance. But seized by Actor-Observer Bias, Reinhardt blames this problem not on the world of health care that he played such an influential role in over the past few decades, but on external forces, the employers who purchase health care.
Q: Have hospitals improved since the first Hospital Safety Score last year?
A: We saw an incremental improvement in the scores, though it is not as rapid or as dramatic as we would like. For the Spring 2013 Hospital Safety Score, there were more than 2,500 general hospitals scored, including 780 “As,” 638 “Bs,” 932 “Cs,” 148 “Ds” and 16 “Fs.” Those hospitals that lowered their grades demonstrate how patient safety can be seriously impacted when hospitals don’t stay vigilant. Safety is a 24/7, 365-day effort with all hands on deck; there is no time for excuses when it comes to preventing errors, injuries and harm. On the other hand, hospitals that showed improvement should be celebrating. They have clearly accepted the challenge to improve and have proven that any institution can make significant advances in patient safety over a short period of time. Now, they need to work on sustaining that achievement into the future.
Q: How is the Hospital Safety Score different from other hospital ratings?
A: The Hospital Safety Score is the standard assessment of how well hospitals perform at protecting patients from accidents, errors and injuries. The Score is 100-percent transparent, and the only hospital safety assessment to be (favorably) peer-reviewed in the Journal of Patient Safety. Unlike any other rating, you can see all the data that was applied to every scored hospital, as well as the entire methodology. Also unlike many other ratings, the Hospital Safety Score highlights both the best and poorest performers on safety in an effort to educate consumers on the hospitals they rely on for care.
The Hospital Safety Score assesses hospitals strictly on patient safety. Each “A,” “B,” “C,” “D,” or “F” score assigned to a hospital comes from expert analysis of infections, injuries, and medical and medication errors that frequently cause harm or death during a hospital stay.
A trio of groundbreaking publications on healthcare came out this April. They are my required reading list for CEOs. First is a study published in last week’s Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) by Eappen and colleagues (including among them Atul Gawande). The study found infections occurred in 5 percent of all surgeries in an unnamed southern hospital system. For U.S. hospitals, this is not an unusual rate of error — even though it is about 100 times higher than what most manufacturing plants would tolerate. No automaker would stay in business if 5 percent of their cars had a potentially fatal mechanical flaw.
If that’s not bad enough, the second finding is where we enter the realm of the absurd: according to the study, purchasers paid the hospital to make these errors. Medicare paid a bonus of more than $3000 for each one of the infections; Medicaid got a relative “bargain,” paying only $900 per infection. But the real chumps were the commercial purchasers (CEOs, that’s you). Employers and other purchasers paid $39,000 for each infection, twelve times as much as your government paid through Medicare. Most companies could create a good job with $39,000, but instead they paid a hospital for the privilege of infecting an employee. How many good jobs haven’t been created so businesses can pay for this waste?
Most employers are far more hard-nosed about managing their purchase of, say, office supplies than they are in purchasing health care — even though, unlike healthcare, paperclips never killed anyone and no stapler can singlehandedly sap a company’s quarterly profit margin. Yet, according to the Catalyst for Payment Reform, only about 11 percent of dollars purchasers paid to healthcare providers are tied in any way to quality. The results reflect this neglect of fundamental business principles for purchasing: Quality and safety problems remain rampant and unabated in health care, while employer health costs have doubled in a decade. Continue reading…