Tag: Patient Safety

The Yellow Stickie Ain’t Dead Yet

I had to go into my hospital last week to get an intravenous infusion to help me with the effects of a neuropathy. The receiving desk at the IV Infusion Center had three computer monitors with two people sitting at them. My physician’s orders were already printed out and were attached to my computer printout encounter form. After receiving my computer generated ID bracelet with bar code, I was lead into a room with four chairs, each one next to a computerized infusion pump with blinking lights and various sounds to convey different messages to the nurses caring for me. Each pump had touch-screen data entry and a multiple color display combined, was capable of at least three distinct alert sounds, and was neatly packaged to fit on a standard IV pole. The combination of four such poles, two automatic blood pressure machines with their display screens and alert sounds, the usual wall of oxygen, suction, electrical outlets, and signal lights, a R2D2-size mobile air conditioning unit standing in the middle of the floor with its coiled, white PVC exhaust duct winding to the wall, and four brand new baby blue Barca Loungers made me think that this is what a passenger cabin on a space ship would look like.Continue reading…

Gawande’s “Checklist Manifesto”

Every now and then, I read and enjoy a book, but only later fully appreciate it as its lessons and insights slowly become apparent. Judging by the number of times I’ve said, “That reminds me of Gawande’s observations about ___” over the past month, The Checklist Manifesto is one such book.

In this short, deceptively simple volume, Atul (who I count as both friend and inspiration) discusses the history of “the lowly checklist,” the impact of checklists on various industries, how he came to understand the value of checklists to medical care, and what makes a useful checklist. Most of this content could have been written by a thoughtful healthcare journalist. But Atul put his interest in checklists to practical use, spearheading a WHO initiative to test a checklist-based “safe surgery” program in 8 diverse hospitals around the world, an effort that saved hundreds of lives. His description of this program forms the core of the book.

Which is as it should be, since these autobiographical elements highlight what is unique about Atul, and his book. Yes, he is a gifted journalist (of course, aided by a surgeon’s insider knowledge and access – as demonstrated by last year’s game changing article about healthcare in McAllen, Texas). But he is also a healthcare leader, whose clear aim is not only to explain attitudes and policy, but to change them. It would be as if Malcolm Gladwell had tried to create a Tipping Point himself, and written up the experience. The whole thing gets very “meta” very quickly, and in the hands of a lesser person, might even threaten to become a bit dicey. (Is he a medical George Plimpton – trying out checklists in the OR to provide fodder for his writing?) But there’s no such worry here: Atul’s passion for patients and humility are so obvious that one never questions his methods or motives.

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The Patient Safety Movement Turns Ten

On December 1, 1999, the Institute of Medicine released a report entitled To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System. Although its authors hoped to spark a national movement, they had little cause for optimism. After all, early efforts by advocates like Berwick and Leape and organizations like the National Patient Safety Foundation had barely moved the needle of public and professional attention.

The IOM Report succeeded beyond its framers’ wildest dreams, and the movement they spawned turns ten today. Please indulge me while I spend a nostalgic moment recalling the remarkable spin that launched the patient safety field. I’ll then segue to a summary of my assessment of what we’ve accomplished over the past decade (I outline this more fully in an article in this week’s web version of Health Affairs, which I hope you’ll take a look at).Continue reading…

Physician Accountability for Violation of Safety Rules: The Time For Excuses Has Passed

Bob wachter

In a recent New England Journal, Peter Pronovost and I make the case for striking a new balance between “no blame” and accountability. Come on folks, it’s time.

At most hospitals, hand hygiene rates hover between 30-70%, and it’s a near-miracle when they top 80%. When I ask people how they’re working to improve their rates, the invariable answer is “we’re trying to fix the system.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe that our focus on dysfunctional systems is responsible for much of our progress in safety and quality over the past decade. We now understand that most errors are committed by good, well-intentioned caregivers, and that shaming, suing, or shooting them can’t fix the fallibility of the human condition.Continue reading…

Another Look: Incident Reporting Systems

When the patient safety field began a decade ago with the publication of the IOM report on medical errors, one of its first thrusts was to import lessons from “safer” industries, particularly aviation. Most of these lessons – a focus on bad systems more than bad people, the importance of teamwork, the use of checklists, the value of simulation training – have served us well.But one lesson from aviation has proved to be wrong, and we are continuing to suffer from this medical error. It was an unquestioning embrace of using incident reporting (IR) systems to learn about mistakes and near misses.

The Aviation Safety Reporting System, by all accounts, has been central to commercial aviation’s remarkable safety record. Near misses and unsafe conditions are reported (unlike healthcare, aviation doesn’t need a reporting system for “hits” – they appear on CNN). The reports go to an independent agency (run by NASA, as it happens), which analyses the cases looking for trends. When it finds them, it disseminates the information through widely read newsletters and websites; when it discovers a showstopper, ASRS personnel inform the FAA, which has the power to ground a whole fleet if necessary. Each year, the ASRS receives about 40,000 reports from the entire U.S. commercial aviation system.

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Interview: Bob Wachter on reform, safety, primary care and everything


One of the best commentators around on the issues of patient safety, health care quality and basically everything to do with health care organizations is UCSF Professor Bob Wachter. Bob has been in the trenches as one of the leaders in the hospitalist movement, a major driver behind improving patient safety, and has also straddled the worlds of medical practice as a PCP, academia at UCSF, and been publicizing this all to a wider audience–particularly with his 2005 book Internal Bleeding and his more recent book Understanding Patient Safety. Then of course there are his occasional blog posts both on Wachter’s World and here on THCB.

This was a really fun conversation and somehow Bob remains an optimist. Here’s the interview.

Op-Ed: The Unintended Consequences of “No Pay for Errors”

Hospital_bedsMedicare’s policy to withhold payment for “never events” – the first effort to use the payment system to promote patient safety – remains intriguing and controversial. To date, most of the discussion has focused on the policy itself at a macro level (including two articles by yours truly, here and here).

In the past month, experts on two of the adverse events on the “no pay” list – hospital falls and catheter-associated urinary tract infections – have chimed in. Interestingly, while agreeing that the overall policy has upsides and risks, they came to strikingly different conclusions about the wisdom of including their pet peril on the list.

Let’s begin with UTIs. Last month’s Annals of Internal Medicine article by Michigan’s Sanjay Saint and colleagues begins, quite cleverly, with a quote from Ben Franklin: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Turns out that among Franklin’s many inventions was the flexible urinary catheter (so who the hell was Foley?). The piece nicely reviews the “no pay” policy and describes the epidemiology of catheter-associated UTI (CAUTI).Continue reading…

Data-Driven Health Care: An Interview with Jerry Reeves, MD

An under-the-radar debate is occurring in health care between those who say data shows that practice variations across the land are “unwarranted” and those who maintain that such variation is inevitable given socioeconomic population differences and cost of practice differences in major metropolitan and rural areas.

  • Data transparency proponents say costs of medical practice, to achieve the same outcomes, should not vary much.
  • Data transparency opponents say data can be shaped to fit a premise that variation is unwarranted, while ignoring the human and economic realities and inherent variability driven by different regional cultures.

That Medicare law forbids doctors to compare fee schedules to avoid monopolitistic behavior, that costs of episodes of care vary greatly with points of patient entry into the system, that third parties generally set physician payments, and that reformers and physicians have fundamentally different economic points of view confounds and complicates the argument.

What follows is an interview with Jerry Reeves, MD, an articulate spokesperson for using data to reduce practice variation, promoting value-based purchasing by payers, and achieving higher levels of physician performance.

In God we trust, all others bring data.”

…..W. Edwards Deming. 1900-1993, American statistician who taught top management how to improve design, product quality, and sales in global markets

“Researchers have estimated nearly 30 percent of Medicine’s costs could be saved without negatively affecting health outcomes if spending in high- and medium-cost areas could be reduced to the level of low-cost areas – and those estimates could probably be extrapolated to the health system as a whole.”

…..Statement of Peter Orszag, Director of the Congressional Budget Office, “Opportunities to Increase Efficiencies in Health Care”, June 16, 2008

It is no surprise that the I.T. candidate, Barack Obama, is intent on being the I.T. president. To succeed, he will have to remind his administration early and often, that he is committed to transparency – and that the threat of embarrassment is no justification for secrecy.

“,” New York Times editorial, May 26, 2009



Dr. Reeves is Chief Medical Officer of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (H.E.R.E.I.U.) Welfare Fund. The Fund offers multi-employer health insurance coverage for 90,000 eligible employees and their family members. He is also Principal of Health Innovations LLC which provides health benefits, wellness, and health management consulting services for health plan sponsors and coalitions. He is a Director and Chairman of the Board of Health Insight, the Quality Improvement Organization for Nevada. And he is Medical Director of the Nevada Business Coalition for Health Improvement. Dr. Reeves previously served as Chairman of WorldDoc Inc., Chief Medical Officer of Humana Inc. and Sierra Health Services Inc., and as Chief of Clinical Medicine at USAF Headquarters in Europe. He served two terms on the Board of Health of the State of Nevada and has served on the faculty of three medical schools.


Q: What does Health Innovations do?

Reeves: We work with self-insured employers, Taft-Hartley Trusts, and business coalitions on health to promote programs of transparency and accountability that engage hospitals, doctors and patients in improving their health with a focus on primary and secondary prevention and wellness.  We engage people in more rational lifestyle choices.

Q: And what about your work at HEREIU Welfare Fund, the health plan for Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union members and their families?

Reeves: We align incentives in the benefit designs of our health insurance coverage  to engage beneficiaries in taking their medications, getting their tests, and seeing the same doctor regularly. We collaborate with doctors, hospitals and utilization management firms to modify behaviors that generate excessive costs and to minimize payments for low value services to achieve better control of costs and outcomes. Much of my work involves analyzing medical and pharmacy claims data and other self reported data reflecting patient risks and provider practice patterns. The findings help us prioritize interventions. We then use ongoing measures to monitor and improve the impacts of our chosen interventions.

Q: You have been doing a study and giving a slide presentation with the title “Variations of Care, Comparisons of more than 450 Episode Treatment Groups – Evaluating Physicians in 4 States.” Tell us about that study, and the 4 states you are talking about.

Reeves: The 4 states are Nevada, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania. The study is based on health plan data. We pay medical and pharmacy claims for our members who seek medical services under our health plan. We collect information from those claims and from health risk questionnaires and other biometric measures to track patterns of care.

We can compare plans geographically because we have plans spread across several states.  I can see significant patterns between providers in the same specialty not only in multiple States but also in the same town. They are treating hotel and restaurant workers with many socio-demographic similarities and are paid using similar fee schedules.

The variations in physician preferences are substantial  For high volume episodes in primary care – otitis media, bronchitis, urinary tract infections, or chest pain – the most expensive high volume adult primary care doctor is about 7 to 8 times more expensive per episode than the least expensive doctor in the same specialty within the same town paid on the same fee schedule. The outcomes – no more ear pain, no more cough, no more dysuria, and no more chest pain – are the same.

These variations are not just in the primary care arena.  They exist in the specialty arenas as well – cardiology, ob/gyn, orthopedics. The most expensive cardiologist who takes care of an episode of angina is 5 times as expensive as the least expensive cardiologist; the most expensive orthopedic knee surgeon is on average 2 ½ times more expensive than the least expensive. We see no differences in outcomes.

So there are dramatic differences.  The question is: with health care as expensive as it is already, can we as a country afford to sustain overpayment to outliers who are so much more expensive than their peers in the same town when they are each achieving the same results?

Admittedly there may be variation in the severity of the cases. But we attempt to minimize the impacts of varied illness burden by comparing multiple cases, typically more than 30 cases per doctor. That probably washes out most of the severity related variations. To make things fair, we also take the top 3% and the bottom 3% outliers out of the comparisons to make our estimates more reliable.

Are these variations sustainable in today’s economic environment and in today’s era of global competition?

Q: Are doctors you are comparing aware of what their peers are doing?  Do you send them de-identified information on these variations?

Reeves: We do.  We also sit down with them and share comparative information when we believe we’re using fair measures. In some cases, there’s a reasonable explanation for the variations. For instance, we learned that an outlier orthopedist was known throughout the town as the doctor who did the best job with redoing surgery for patients with failed back surgeries. That likely explained why episode costs were higher for him. We want to learn from them what a rational explanation might be.  Sometimes we get logical valid explanations.  What we notice, though, is that after we’ve had these discussions, the trends move more towards the middle instead of staying at the extremes.

Q: So there’s a swing towards the mean?

Reeves: Yes, there’s a regression towards the mean. The overall system becomes more efficient, and cost trends decrease.

Q: I notice you indicate  variations in total costs of certain episodes of care differ greatly depending on the site of patient entry into the system – the hospital, the ER, an urgent care clinic, or the office.

Reeves: People have known for years that when the first visit is at the hospital, expenses soar.   The typical hospital admission costs 12.7 times as much as an ER visit; an ER visit costs 10.7 times as much as an office visit; a hospitalization costs 136 times as much as an office visit.

When you think about it, you could get a lot more office visits for the cost of one hospital admission or one emergency room visit.  We would rather pay more for patients regularly visiting their continuing care physician than going into the hospital or emergency room.

From our point of view, a patient showing up at the hospital or ER represents a failure of outpatient management. The great majority of all care should be going on between doctor and patient in less restrictive settings and safer environments than hospitals and ERs.

Q: You must offer some educational process informing your members of these cost considerations.

Reeves: We do.  We expend a lot of effort on developing systems to engage our members – posters and brochures, newsletters and explanation of payment (EOP) stuffers, reminders, making available telephonic nurses and health coaches, making it easy for people to call in, making it convenient  to reserve a next day appointment. We show them the comparative out of pocket cost of going to the ER and hospital and explain alternatives that can get their problems solved faster and at less cost.

There is value derived from this approach. For instance, Microsoft has found they can save a lot of money for both the company and the beneficiary if they pay for a doctor to spend an hour at a patient’s home rather than having that patient go to the ER. Also it’s more personal and more likely to lead to a continuous care process that identifies needs earlier.

Also, to align incentives with desired behaviors, we’ve made it much more costly for our members to go the ER rather than seeing their doctor. We also work with our doctors to make sure they have slots available so people can be seen within one business day when they are worried they are getting worse.

It takes two to tango.  We need to engage both the doctor and the patient in improving the availability and affordability of care that improves health. We combine a number of incentives for members and information campaigns about choices resulting in less out of pocket costs, with incentives and interventions with doctors to provide more efficient care.

Q: Do you have data indicating significant cost reductions

Reeves: We do. In Las Vegas, we ran three campaigns: one, to have more patients adhering to their chronic medications; second, a community wide campaign to champion the use of generic drugs; and third, free pharmacies where our people could come to fill prescriptions for generic drugs for chronic conditions with no out-of-pocket expense. Simultaneously, we profiled and gave performance feedback to primary care physicians displaying their apparent adherence to quality of care guidelines and their comparative efficiency expressed in terms of average costs per episode. We used things like ratios of HbA1C testing, microalbuminuria testing, hypertension management, compared to their peers – 22 quality indicators in all. The episode comparisons were for those episodes most common to their specialty with ratios expressed in comparison with the median values among their peers.

We rewarded 155 of those primary care physicians with bonuses and displayed them as Gold Star physician in our provider directory.  At the same time, there were 50 doctors who persistently underperformed despite our sitting down with them and showing them their patterns.  We discontinued our contracts with them for lack of a business reason to continue their contracts. At the same time, we intervened regarding the use of Oxycontin, which was being hugely overused at the time. It turned out that the physicians discontinued from the network had been prescribing more than 50% of the Oxycontin used for our whole population in that town.

The result of our suite of interventions was that out of the $268 million spent the baseline year, we saved $69 million over the next two years according to actuarial projections; our medication adherence for chronic conditions went up 8% even while our drug costs went down dramatically; and our adherence to mammography, Pap smears, and lipid management guidelines improved.

Q: Just to give us perspective, how many people live in Las Vegas and how many doctors are in your network?

Reeves: The total population is about 1.6 million and we had about 1900 doctors in our network then. Our patient base was about 120,000 lives including children then.

Q: Is inpatient cost control a different animal?

Reeves: Inpatient cost control has similar patterns.  We looked at inpatient costs obligated by physicians who sometimes admit patients to hospital in 4 different states – Nevada, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania.  In this group, we focused on the inpatient facility costs as part of the overall costs of episodes of care that might result in hospitalization.

When we compared the variance from the expected median inpatient facility costs for various episodes managed by internists, the most expensive internist was $71,000 more expensive than the least expensive internist. The most expensive cardiologist was $203,000 more expensive than the least expensive cardiologist for episodes managed by cardiologists. The discrepancy between the most expensive and least expensive general surgeons was $284,000; and for obstetricians the discrepancy was $305,000.

It appeared that a primary driver for excess cost among obstetricians related to wide variations in the prevalence of primary cesarean section deliveries (among women in their first pregnancy). Among obstetricians delivering more than 200 births per year, we had obstetricians with 54% primary c-section rates and others with 9% primary c-section rates.

It is not defensible or believable that all of these obstetricians can be right. There are some variations that go on that are frankly just plain unsafe. Malpractice insurer underwriters told me they spend much more malpractice insurance payouts for major surgery complications of c-sections than payments for babies who might have fared better from cesarean delivery.

Q: What incentives do you use to encourage doctors to perform better? What are your techniques? You’ve mentioned sitting down with them, showing them data, rewarding them with bonuses. Anything else?

Reeves: We’ve used a suite of multiple interventions.  Doctors deserve multiple opportunities to correct these variations.  It should be three strikes before you’re out.

The most common comment I get back is: “Nobody ever told me this.” “How come nobody has ever said this before?”  It’s a little bit like patients who have previously seen urgent care doctors for quick symptom relief when you tell them they have hypertension or diabetes. They often say, “Nobody ever told me that.” The doctors are right.  Few payers give comparative performance feedback to rank and file physicians.

Essentially once doctors finish their residency program, they are on their own unless they work in a large multispecialty group with internal peer review. By and large in private practice offices, there is not much performance feedback.

Q: So many private practice physicians, if you will, function in a data-vacuum?

Reeves: Exactly.  Once you share the information, they will often point out deficits in the data, even though the data ultimately comes from them.  We are open to challenges and want to continuously improve the quality, accuracy, and reliability of the data.

The first strike is defined by a doctor’s or hospital’s response to reviewing the data so they can internalize it and take action to address the root causes that lead to these variations.

The second strike we may take toward corrective action is sharing the information more widely so that doctors and hospitals understand payers are reluctant to keep paying extra for something that doesn’t result in a superior outcome.  The people paying these bills are hurting, trying to pay their employees and to stay afloat and to compete with other companies. On a larger scale, they are trying to compete with companies in other countries making the same product but not bearing the same costs.  This kind of understanding can sometimes bring accountability and behavior change. We have doctors who call us and ask when they can see their next report. Of course, most of those are performing well and want to disseminate that news.

The third strike is discontinuing contracts with physicians or hospitals that do not alter excessive charging and wasteful practices. Sometimes it may involve discontinuing payment for particular services being overused. For doctors this might mean payers would discontinue payments to a primary care physician who owns a machine for nerve conduction velocity testing or ultrasound imaging who orders dramatically more of these tests per 100 patients compared to their peers who do not own and profit from such equipment. For hospitals, CMS and some other payers have discontinued paying for “Never Events” – high costs incurred as a result of certain hospital acquired conditions like venous thromboembolic events occurring after knee or hip surgery.

Q: As you know, as a nation, we are in the hot heat of the health reform debate, and the Obama administration, particularly Peter Orszag, the budget director, has put a lot of stock in John Wennberg’s work at Dartmouth. Wennberg and his colleagues, using Medicare data, keep emphasizing that most practice variation is “unwarranted,” and the nation could save 30% on total costs by bringing down costs in high spending regions, like some large cities, to those in low spending regions, like the upper Midwest and the South.

But some critics of the Dartmouth studies, like Dr. Richard Cooper, a professor of medicine at Penn and a principal at the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics at Penn, have challenged the Dartmouth interpretation of the data in Health Affairs and his blog, www. by saying you can’t compare spending, say in Los Angeles with a 70% Hispanic population, many of whom are poor and sick, with Rochester, Minnesota, with a 90% white population, most of whom are well.

Is your approach similar to the Dartmouth studies on Medicare studies, except that it’s done on a more local level and includes data from commercial insurers on the under 65 population?

Reeves: The Dartmouth and Obama Administration approaches are similar except their focus is mostly on Medicare hospital data.  The end-of-life years are the most expensive by far.  Our data is on hotel and restaurant workers and their families, perhaps more similar to Medicaid patients, but covering a wider spectrum of diseases and conditions. Most of our costs are for prescription drugs and professional services and new technologies.

Even so, our experience is that the overall patterns of practice variation in the commercial world and the Medicare world are parallel. I believe we need to merge the doctor and hospital data from Medicare and Medicaid payments with data available from other commercial payers serving working age populations.  We need to consolidate all that data into common data warehouses.

The data should include not only the professional services of doctors and other clinicians but also the laboratory and diagnostic data,  the inpatient and outpatient facility data, and data on high technology hardware (imaging procedures, implants,) and drugs (biologics, cancer therapies) at least by regions so we can compare these regions against each another. Then adequate sample sizes could become generally available to analyze and display care patterns, technologies, and drugs offering the most value (best outcomes) for the dollars invested.

Q: I just read in the May 22 New York Times a piece entitled “I.B.M. Unveils Software to Process Vast Amounts of Data “for quick analyses of massive chunks of combined data.  Is that what it will take to carry out your vision? Would that be a breakthrough?

Reeves: It would be breakthrough, but I do not see technology as our major challenge.  The challenge is political will. We have a competitive risk issue that leads to carriers not wanting to share their data in a data warehouse for fear that proprietary rates or payments might be revealed or confidentiality agreements that they have negotiated with various providers might be breeched.  Some also worry that personal health information might be revealed.

The banking industry has been able to deal with the issues relating to money for many years and has brought dramatic improvements in efficiency and choice. I remember waiting in long lines to deposit a check on payday. Now I am irritated if it takes an ATM window more than 30 seconds to complete my transaction at a drive through window at midnight. Much of the fear of disclosure of health information is already addressed by HIPAA law and protected by reliable systems of maintaining confidentiality and security.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to merge the various data sources into master data files like the Dartmouth Atlas to include physician patterns of care and physician groups’ patterns to enable purchasers, consumers,  and patients to get fairer representation of the choices they have, much like they  do for buying cars and dishwashers.

Q: Are you talking of public disclosure?

Reeves: I would start out with feedback to the providers for their internal quality improvement initiatives and root cause analyses. We do not need to start with public disclosure. But we will need to move down the track of accountability and transparency in order to keep our country afloat because we simply can’t maintain competitive advantage globally with current health care cost trends.

Q: The Dartmouth Group did a study of five major academic centers – Mayo, UCLA, the Cleveland Clinic, NYU, and Hopkins – and it showed a significant variation in costs.

Reeves: That’s absolutely true, and I see the same thing happening in our domains. Take our data in Chicago and Pittsburgh.  We can rank order costs in hospitals in those cities by diagnostic group, and the most expensive hospital may often be 5 to 8 times as expensive as the least expensive hospital with the same outcomes for patients with apparently similar risk and case mix.

Q: Is it realistic to believe we can homogenize these cost differences across the country, given the different institutional, regional, and cultural differences?  After all, there are different expenses and profits required in New York City and rural Alabama.

Reeves: I don’t know we can do that, but I think we can compare rural Alabama to rural Georgia. And we can compare Chicago to New York. What’s right is right.

The right way to practice family practice is the right way the world around.  The right way to practice internal medicine is the right way the world around. It is both feasible and advisable to decrease the incredible discrepancies between good and bad practices of medicine in our country and elsewhere.

Yes, there are culture differences, and there are habits and preferences that vary from location to location.  For example, we have more problems with back surgeries and re-dos and excessive narcotic use in places like Las Vegas than in New York.  And we have a lot bigger problem with obesity and bariatric surgery in West Virginia than in Chicago.

There are variations driven by demographics, socioeconomics, and patterns of living. But when it comes to delivering effective, efficient care, 800% differences are not defensible.  If you have two cars that drive the same speed, look similar, and last the same thousands of miles, and one is eight times more expensive than the other, how many people would buy the more expensive car at the 700% higher cost?

If you apply that same principle to health care, how long do we really believe we can sustain this kind of variation and turn a blind eye to it? It doesn’t seem like a reasonable proposition to me.

Q: Do you think the Obama administration’s proposal to create a National Comparative Effectiveness Institute would address these issues?

Reeves: It would simply be an extension of what’s going on already.  A number of organizations have been doing comparisons of relative therapeutic effectiveness and cost efficiency of new technologies and drugs for years. They have graded the scientific evidence for level of proof of what works best, cost effectiveness, and safety. Managed care plans and carriers have been using these rank order grades to help them decide what their insurance plans are going to cover.  We already have a long history of comparative effectiveness studies.  For instance, the Medical Letter does this kind of thing for drugs, and looks in a nonbiased way at outcomes and costs. Do we really need more “me too” drugs and expensive images that don’t change care effectiveness and outcomes commensurate with their costs? I sometimes think new technologies are developed mostly because it’s possible, then the developers go looking for problems the technology might help. Can we really afford that? Who should pay for all of that? Under what special circumstances should society as a whole pay for that?

I think in the future we will see the rank ordering of ratings of various health care services much like in Consumer Reports. The day of secrecy and behind the scenes behaviors hidden to the public will eventually be coming to an end.  There are multiple initiatives going on in state legislatures, business coalitions, and other organizations that are collecting comparative effectiveness data and displaying them to the public.  For instance, you have the Leapfrog measures of safety, and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s 5 Million Lives campaign and the publicly displayed CMS core measures of hospital performance.  You have publicly available data bases of Medicare claims payments in most States and all payer data bases in 17 states comparing hospitals’ data to that of competitors in the same market. And the National Business Coalition on Health and some States are collecting data comparing health plans to each other and displaying performance metrics on public websites. It’s all about transparency and accountability. Congress has a track record of strongly favoring this approach.

Q: And yet, despites all these rankings and initiatives and talk of transparency and accountability and nearly 40 years after Wennberg’s original paper on Medicare practice variation, the variations remain high.

Reeves: They do, but progress is occurring.   Over a 3 year period in Las Vegas, we’ve been giving quarterly reports to hospitals comparing their Leapfrog results, patient satisfaction results, and  CMS core measure national percentile rankings to those of their Las Vegas hospital peers. At the beginning, the rankings ranged from the 88th percentile for one hospital to 2nd percentile rank for another.

After regular meetings with senior executives of these hospitals, discussing their quality improvement initiatives, the hospital at the 2nd percentile moved up to the 38th percentile nationally at the end of the 3rd year. So substantial improvement is possible through transparency.  Even more improvement is possible through incentives such as bonuses, as demonstrated by the Premier Project with CMS, in which hospitals received 2% more in payments for meeting quality standards. Those hospitals participating in the Pay for Performance cohort showed substantially more improvements than those subjected only to public reporting.

Value-based design of CMS and private health plan coverage works. They decrease out of pocket costs for high value services and treatments and may raise the out of pocket costs for interventions with marginal effectiveness and value. Cost trends bend downward, and value and quality go up. They have to, if this country is going to survive in a competitive world economy.

Along with 4 large company CEOs, a large company benefits manager, and a State health officer, I met recently with President Obama in the White House. This was the day after his historic meeting with national health leaders – the AHA, the AMA, America’s health Insurance Plans, PharMa, the Service Employees International Union, and others – who pledged to reduce national health care spending by $2 trillion over the next decade.  Our roles were to explain our interventions that have lowered cost trends and improved health outcomes so they could be adopted for federal employees and other Americans. President Obama and his administration are determined to reform the system to achieve lower cost trends and better health status for Americans.  It will take insurance plan designs that align incentives with desired behaviors, and data based reporting of impacts of  positive and negative incentives that engage physicians and patients more actively for this effort to succeed. Working together, we can do a lot better than we have the past several years.


The interviewer is Richard L. Reece, MD, author of Innovation-Driven Health Care: 34 Keys to Transformation (Jones and Bartlett, 2007), Obama, Doctors, and Health Reform; A Doctor Assesses Odds for Success (Universe, 2009), and blogger,

Is Hospital Peer Review a Sham? Well, Mostly Yes

Dr. Sidney Wolfe, healthcare’s answer to Ralph Nader, spends most of his days unhappy with somebody.  Pragmatic, see-both-sides types like me naturally recoil from Wolfe’s reflexive indictment of institutions ranging from the FDA to Medicare.

But Wolfe’s blistering condemnation of medical staff peer review contained in the new report, Hospitals Drop the Ball on Physician Oversight (co-written by Alan Levine, both of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group) is timely and, I believe, largely correct.

The report focuses on the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB), established in 1986 to collect data about problem physicians, mostly to help credentials committees make informed decisions about medical staff privileging. The legislation that established the NPDB requires hospitals to submit a report whenever a physician is suspended from a medical staff for over 30 days for unprofessional behavior or incompetence. Although the public cannot access NPDB reports on individual physicians, healthcare organizations (mostly hospitals) ping the database about 4 million times per year. When it was inaugurated, the best estimates (including those of the AMA) were that the NPDB would receive 5,000-10,000 physician reports each year.

Not so much. Since its launch two decades ago, NPDB reports have averaged 650/year, and nearly half of US hospitals (2845 of 5823) have never reported a single physician! The most extreme case is that of South Dakota, where three-quarters of the hospitals have never reported a single case to the NPDB. I’m sure South Dakota has some wonderful doctors, but the idea that the state’s 56 hospitals have never had a physician who needed to be suspended for incompetence, substance abuse, sexual harassment, or disruptive behavior since the Reagan presidency is a bit of a stretch, don’t you think?

Public Citizen chronicles several cases of egregious behavior by physicians who dodged NPDB reports  – the cases either received no peer sanctions or were dealt with in ways designed to skirt the reporting requirements, such as – wink-wink – leaves-of-absence and 29-day suspensions. Most famously, a cardiologist and CT surgeon at Redding Medical Center in Northern California performed hundreds of unnecessary cardiac procedures but were not reported to the NPDB – largely because Redding’s medical staff and hospital were cowed by the physicians’ power and reluctant to kill two geese who laid many golden eggs. (Interestingly, the Joint Commission whiffed on this one too, a major reason why Congress removed its near monopoly on the hospital accreditation business last year.)

Levine and Wolfe recommend powerful medicine to fix the NPDB system, including much more vigorous legislative oversight, substantial fines to hospitals for failing to report, and linking NPDB reporting practices to accreditation standards and to Medicare’s Conditions of Participation.

A few years ago in our book Internal Bleeding, Kaveh Shojania and I described the limits of peer review; the Public Citizen report provides statistical confirmation of our observations. We wrote,

It is undeniable that hospitals do have a tendency to protect their own, sometimes at the expense of patients. Hospital “credentials committees,” which certify and periodically recertify individual doctors, are toothless tigers. Most committees rarely limit a provider’s privileges, even when there is stark evidence he presents a clear and present danger to patients. Instead, they assign a committee member to “have a chat” with the physician in question, perhaps gently suggesting he or she shouldn’t do a particular procedure anymore. They might even ask another physician, not on the committee but in a similar specialty, to “keep an eye on old Doug” and let them know if he continues to screw up, even if patients or other staff members don’t report it….

It is not that hospital credentials committees never take action. They do – removing a physician’s privileges at a hospital or recommending to the state board that a doctor’s license be suspended – when there is clear, repetitive evidence of gross negligence and incompetence. But when this happens – and it is really rare – it comes only after an orgy of soul-searching, handwringing, buck-passing, second-guessing and second chances that is painful, and sometimes embarrassing, to watch. In most cases, committee members just swallow hard and – unless the physician is under felony indictment or is so stewed that he can’t walk down a corridor without banging into both walls – the credentials are rubber-stamped.

Kaveh and I offered three reasons why medical staff self-policing is so wimpy. The first is the “fraternity of medicine” thing – no gang members like to “rat out their pals,” and in this regard, we’re no different from the Crips. The second is that credentials committee members are acutely aware of the amount of time and effort that it takes to become a practicing physician, which makes them reluctant to take away a doc’s livelihood.

A third reason, we wrote,

is simply that doctors aren’t very good organizational managers. Their people skills are usually confined to bedside chats and working with colleagues and support staff in task-oriented jobs; they aren’t particularly adept at managing conflicts and confrontations, so they avoid them. This is a pretty dumb reason to let an error-prone doctor continue to prowl the hospital wards, but because litigation… lurks behind any challenge to professional competence… many physicians are reluctant to go into that particular swamp unless the trail is awfully solid.

The fear of litigation is undoubtedly one of the major reasons why peer review doesn’t work. Although the statute establishing the NPBD provides immunity to physicians who perform good faith peer review, many hospitals and reviewers lack confidence in these protections. An American Hospital Association analysis of the NPDB concluded, “The specter of baseless, time-consuming and expensive litigation serves as a powerful disincentive to effective peer review.” If peer review is to be strengthened, these protections must be unambiguously robust.

Writing in his book Complications, Harvard surgeon and bestselling author Atul Gawande sees in the medical profession’s failure to perform aggressive peer review something understandable, even a tad noble. When it comes to disciplining a basically good but troubled doctor, “no one,” he says, “really has the heart for it.” Atul writes:

When a skilled, decent, ordinarily conscientious colleague, whom you’ve known and worked with for years, starts popping Percodans, or becomes preoccupied with personal problems, and neglects the proper care of patients, you want to help, not destroy the doctor’s career. There is no easy way to help, though. In private practice, there are no sabbaticals to offer, no leaves of absence, only disciplinary proceedings and public reports of misdeeds. As a consequence, when people try to help, they do it quietly, privately. Their intentions are good; the result usually isn’t.

There are still other reasons for the failure of peer review. When questions of clinical competency arise, there are often insufficient data to refute the inevitable arguments that “my patients are older and sicker.” When the issue is disruptive behavior, unless there has been documented scalpel throwing (by a surgeon with good aim), finding the bright line that separates the behavior of an aggressive, passionate, patient-advocate-of-a surgeon from the surgeon whose disruptive behavior creates a hostile work environment or places patients at risk can be elusive. Finally, peer review conducted by professional colleagues is fundamentally tricky – one the one hand, how could one’s practice be dispassionately reviewed by a golfing buddy? On the other, peer reviewers might well be competitors of the physician-in-question, with a financial stake in the outcome.

Is it any wonder that medical staffs kick this particular can down the road so often?

Layered on top of these traditional impediments is a new one: the paradigm shift introduced by the patient safety field. Remember, our patient safety mantra has been “no blame,” which is unlikely to be in the first verse of the Peer Review Fight Song. Haven’t we just finished convincing ourselves that most errors are due to dysfunctional systems and not bad apples? If that’s the case, who really needs peer review, anyway?

But this represents a fundamental misunderstanding of “no blame.” I struggled with this tension while writing Internal Bleeding, and went to The Source for guidance: Dr. Lucian Leape, the father of the patient safety movement. Lucian, I asked, how can we reconcile systems thinking with the necessity of standards and peer review? His answer was spot on:

There is no accountability. When we identify doctors who harm patients, we need to try to be compassionate and help them. But in the end, if they are a danger to patients, they shouldn’t be caring for them. A fundamental principle has to be the development and then the enforcement of procedures and standards. We can’t make real progress without them. When a doctor doesn’t follow them, something has to happen. Today, nothing does, and you have a vicious cycle in which people have no real incentive to follow the rules because they know there are no consequences if they don’t. So there are bad doctors and bad nurses, but the fact that we tolerate them is just another systems problem.

I’m proud to say that over the past five years, my hospital (UCSF Medical Center) has taken Leape’s challenge to heart, withdrawing clinical privileges (and filing accompanying NPDB reports) in several cases for behavior that, I’m quite confident, would have been tolerated a decade ago. This is progress. As Kissinger once said, “weakness is provocative.” As more hospitals take this tougher stance, I think we’ll see the boundaries of acceptable behavior shift everywhere. And patients will be safer for it.

A profession is group of individuals with special knowledge, who are granted privileges by society in deference to their expertise and in exchange for self-regulation. When thousands of hospitals can go 20 years without disciplining a single physician on their medical staff, our status as a profession is called into question.

In the end, peer review is about answering one deceptively simple question: Is it more important to protect problem physicians or vulnerable patients? If we can’t answer that question correctly, we should not be surprised when the Sid Wolfes of the world call us to task, nor when we find ourselves under an unpleasant media, legislative, and regulatory microscope. Professions don’t need that kind of outside scrutiny to do the right thing, but we just might.

Dr. Robert Wachter is widely regarded as a leading figure in the modern patient safety movement. Together with Dr. Lee Goldman, he coined the term “hospitalist” in an influential 1996 essay in The New England Journal of Medicine. His most recent book, Understanding Patient Safety, (McGraw-Hill, 2008) examines the factors that have contributed to what is often described as “an epidemic” facing American hospitals. His posts appear semi-regularly on THCB and on his own blog “Wachter’s World.”

Dennis Quaid Overlooks Too Much

Anyone who cares about patient safety has to be grateful to Dennis Quaid
for the way he and his wife Kimberly reacted to the near-death from a
medication error of their twin baby girls. Using his celebrity and his
contacts as an award-winning actor, Quaid launched a crusade to stop
similar errors from ever happening again. He has appeared on 60 minutes , testified before Congress and, Sunday, came to HIMSS to tell his story once again.

At HIMSS, Quaid was amusing (“I am not a doctor [and] I have never
played a doctor on television or in the movies”) and moving, as he
detailed how two massive heparin overdoses turned his newborn twins’
blood to the consistency of water and left them bleeding inside and
out. He was also generous and humble, repeatedly thanking the HIMSS
membership for the work they did in developing the technology that can
prevent inevitable human error from causing harm.

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