I love the GPS analogy for health care. Patients need a GPS for their health, showing them the reality of their past, present, and future health. The analogy has not only shown me how I want to give care for my patients, it has also given me insight into the pitfalls of automated medical care.
Way back in the days when GPS was new, the rental care company Hertz advertised “NeverLost,” a GPS on your dashboard (if you forked out the extra money for it). I was asked to give a talk in Oregon, and decided I would try out this cool new technology (since others were picking up my bill). While I found it overall very useful, there were a couple of times it didn’t work as advertised.
I needed a sweatshirt, so I used the NeverLost for directions to a Wal-Mart. It worked! It gave me flawless directions to a Wal-Mart store…in Las Vegas (over 1000 miles away). I stopped at a gas station and they told me that there was actually a Wal-Mart 1/2 mile down the road.
Then, when I was trying to get to Crater Lake, “Never Lost” repeatedly directed me down dirt roads, some of which had trees fallen across their path. NeverLost was quite perturbed when I didn’t follow its direction, nagging me to make an immediate u-turn back toward the tree in the road.
After entering the clinic a thought occurred to me: why do we need doctors? Then a second thought: why do we need nurses?
Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
About a decade before the Obama administration started touting electronic medical records and evidence-based protocols there was MinuteClinic. The entity came into existence primarily to cater to patients paying out of pocket.
There was no need for a law requiring price transparency. In every market where the dominant buyers are patients spending their own money, prices are always transparent. MinuteClinic posts its prices on a computer screen and on readily available pamphlets. Clearly, the organization is competing on price. Entities that compete for patients based on price usually compete on quality as well. One study found that MinuteClinic nurses following computerized protocols follow best practice medicine more consistently than conventional primary care physicians. They also do a pretty good job of knowing what kind of medical problems they are competent to handle and which problems need referral to a physician.
Wherever you find price competition you usually also find that providers are respectful of your time. As the name “MinuteClinic” implies, this is an organization that knows you value your time as well as your pocketbook. I couldn’t help but wonder if the entire health care system might be this user friendly, if only the third-party payers weren’t around.
For the first 15 minutes of my 20 minute visit, the nurse barely looked at me. She was sitting in front of a computer screen typing in my answers to her questions, as she went through the required decision tree. I didn’t mind. Mine was a minor problem and I did not want to pay for more sophisticated service.