In the current issue of The New Yorker, surgeon Atul Gawande provocatively suggests that medicine needs to become more like The Cheesecake Factory – more standardized, better quality control, with a touch of room for slight customization and innovation.
The basic premise, of course, isn’t new, and seems closely aligned with what I’ve heard articulated from a range of policy experts (such as Arnold Milstein) and management experts (such as Clayton Christensen, specifically in his book The Innovator’s Prescription).
The core of the argument is this: the traditional idea that your doctor is an expert who knows what’s best for you is likely wrong, and is both dangerous and costly. Instead, for most conditions, there are a clear set of guidelines, perhaps even algorithms, that should guide care, and by not following these pathways, patients are subjected to what amounts to arbitrary, whimsical care that in many cases is unnecessary and sometimes even harmful – and often with the best of intentions.
According to this view, the goal of medicine should be to standardize where possible, to the point where something like 90% of all care can be managed by algorithms – ideally, according to many, not requiring a physician’s involvement at all (most care would be administered by lower-cost providers). A small number of physicians still would be required for the difficult cases – and to develop new algorithms.
Last week’s New York Times article on cardiac care at some HCA-owned hospitals yielded a chorus of comments from readers who argued that for-profit hospital care is inherently low-quality care. As it happened, in working on a history of the investor-owned hospital sector, I had just been crunching data that might either support or refute that assertion. The results are surprising, if far from decisive.
Last September, the Joint Commission released the first of what it said would be annual lists recognizing “Top Performers on Key Quality Measures™” among the nation’s accredited hospitals. The all-star roster is based on “core measure performance data” that hospitals report to the Commission. The data cover adherence to “accountability measures ” established as best practice in the eyes of the Commission – making sure to prescribe beta-blockers for heart attack patients at discharge, for example, or to discontinue prophylactic antibiotics within 24 hours after surgery.
Unlike hospital quality measures that look at results – death rates and other outcomes – this one looks at processes. In theory, then, it ought to be more fair to hospitals that tend to serve sicker or more compromised patients, such as government-run hospitals in inner cities.
Under the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act of 2009, healthcare providers are now offered incentives to use electronic health records (EHRs).
A recent analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that by 2011, 55 percent of physicians reported they had adopted EHRs, indicating that EHR adoption is finally on the rise. Moreover, three in four adopters said their system met the Act’s criteria for meaningful use.
Healthcare providers deserve recognition for adopting EHR systems. Their journey to date has not been easy, with challenges ranging from unexpected expenses to the logistics of incorporating technology smoothly into their interactions with patients.
Adoption of an EHR in and of itself does not improve care. Having electronic access to data is just the first step. Quality is only improved when providers interpret data to connect the dots between diagnoses and treatment options.
As well intentioned and thoughtful as he is, Sanjay Gupta nonetheless misses the point in his recent New York Times op-ed “More treatment, more mistakes.” The theme of the chief medical correspondent for the Health, Medical & Wellness unit at CNN is:
Certainly many procedures, tests and prescriptions are based on legitimate need. But many are not…. This kind of treatment is a form of defensive medicine, meant less to protect the patient than to protect the doctor or hospital against potential lawsuits.
Herein lies a stunning irony. Defensive medicine is rooted in the goal of avoiding mistakes. But each additional procedure or test, no matter how cautiously performed, injects a fresh possibility of error.
With a quick aside in admiration of Peter Pronovost’s approach to harm reduction and some other process improvements, he then says:
What may be even more important is remembering the limits of our power. More — more procedures, more testing, more treatment — is not always better.
And then, remarkably, he presents M&M conferences as a remedy:
One place where I have seen these issues addressed is in Morbidity and Mortality, or M and M — a weekly gathering of doctors, off limits to the public, which serves in most hospitals as a forum for the discussion of mistakes, complications, deaths and unusual cases. It is a sort of quality-assurance conference where doctors hold one another accountable and learn from one another’s mistakes. They are some of the most candid and indelible meetings I have ever attended.
Recently, I had an enlightening encounter with Horst Schulze, who led Ritz-Carlton Hotels to national awards and has since opened his own hotel chain, Capella. Hortz gave an informal presentation to members of a program that I’m taking part in, the Baldrige Executive Fellowship, and we continued to talk afterwards. Capella has five ultraluxury hotels from New York to Singapore, and all have been recognized as tops in their region. Horst spoke to us of a culture of excellence. He knows—he has built such a culture time and time again. Excellence does not occur by chance. It requires clear goals and a system.
Horst explained that to be great, everyone in the organization needs to know the goals, in order of importance. For Capella, the goals are 1) keep existing customers, 2) add new customers, and 3) optimize the spend of each customer. Every employee not only needs to know the goals, but they need to know the behaviors to achieve them. The Capella employees ensure a warm welcome, compliance with and anticipation of guests’ needs, and a fond farewell.
All employees are required to know service standards. Twenty-five of them. One of them states that you are responsible to identify and immediately correct defects before they affect a guest—for example, getting customers food when the restaurant is closed. Defect prevention is key to service excellence, just as it is to delivering safe health care. Another service standard states that when a guest encounters any difficulty, you are responsible to own it and resolve the problem to the guest’s complete satisfaction.
Capella has standard processes for everything—how to submit defects, how to resolve them. And they trained staff in the goals, the behaviors and the processes. Each hotel, every morning is required to have a huddle at which all staff attend. They review the goals for the company and read one of the behaviors, called service standards. Every day they read a different one. They cycle repeats every 25 days.
If a manager did not do this, Horst said, they would be fired.
A little box pops up before him asking if he asked the patient about the exercise. He mumbles something under his breath, clicks a little box beneath the question, then moves on.
This is what medicine has become: a series of computer queries and measures of clicks. It must be measurable, quantifiable, and justifiable or it didn’t happen.
Do they ask if I asked them about if they used cocaine? Of course not: too politically incorrect.
Do they ask if I really listened to their heart? Of course not – this activity is not a paid activity.
Do they ask about the myriad of phone calls and e-mails to arrange for a procedure? Nope.
Do they measure my time with the patient when I go back to see them on the same day? Nope – not paid for.
So what’s the motivation for doctors to be doctors? Are we retraining our doctors from care-givers to data providers? What are we losing in turn?
In a recent column, Clarence Page ridiculed Republicans who claim that they want healthcare reform but oppose programs that dramatically reduce the number of uninsured. Republicans counter that the PPACA is not true reform because it fails to contain costs. It seems that our political commentators have finally joined a long standing debate among health policy experts. More precisely, they have joined two-thirds of that debate.
The healthcare system is often described as a three-legged stool, supported by access, cost, and quality. Policy makers have usually paid attention to the most “rickety” leg, sometimes to the detriment of the others. During the 1960s and 1970s, access was the biggest problem, and government gave us Medicare, Medicaid, and the community health center movement. These programs triggered a surge in healthcare spending, and by the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s, the emphasis shifted to cost containment. When government price controls and planning laws failed, the private sector stepped in with a “competitive” solution based on HMOs and selective contracting.
I’ve been saying it for years now, it’s the theme of Healthcare Beyond Reform: Doing It Right For Half The Cost — and now it’s even hit the editorial pages of the NY Times: A June 2 editorial, “Treating You Better For Less,” trumpets the “good news” about a “grass-roots movement” using “already proven techniques” that “could transform the entire system in ways that will benefit all Americans.”
“It is a measure of how dysfunctional the system has become,” says the editorial, “that these successful experiments — based on medical sense, sound research and efficiencies — seem so revolutionary.” It goes on to describe several of the kinds of new ventures in efficiency and effectiveness that make up the core of Healthcare Beyond Reform, in different healthcare systems and health insurers across the country.
The news here is not that these things are happening, or that they are so widespread that they can be called a “grass-roots movement.” The real news here is that the movement has gained such momentum that big, mainstream media organizations outside of healthcare, well beyond the policy wonk orbit, have begun to surface what may turn out to be the biggest story of our times: The largest sector of our economy turning inside out, like some movie transformer, on the way toward providing all of us with far better care for far less than we could possibly imagine. Better healthcare for half the cost.
Two recent research papers remind us that it may be difficult to cut U.S. healthcare spending without harming quality. The first, written by a research team led by University of Chicago economist Tomas Philipson, appears in the latest issue of Health Affairs and has deservedly garnered a fair bit of media attention. The authors examine cancer spending and survival times for patients in the United States and ten European countries during the period 1983-1999 (later data were not available.) Their data confirm what we already know about health spending; the average cost of treating a cancer patient was about $15,000 higher in the United States. But the data also show that the typical U.S. cancer patient lives nearly two years longer; most of the difference is attributable to prostate and breast cancer patients. The gain appears to be due to greater longevity rather than early diagnosis. Using generally accepted measures of the value of a life, they conclude that the benefits of additional health spending outweigh the costs by a factor of 4:1 or higher. The latter calculation does not consider QALYs (quality adjusted life years) and so may be overstated. The authors acknowledge that other nations may do a better job of cancer prevention, so that their overall approach to cancer may be superior to that in the U.S., but they can find no evidence of this one way or another.
Philipson’s study suggests that U.S. healthcare consumers may get a substantial bang for their higher bucks. Maybe the U.S. system is not so inefficient after all. What about efficiency within the U.S. system? Some providers are far more expensive than others. Is the higher cost worth it? A new study by a team led by MIT economist Joseph Doyle, and released as an NBER Working Paper, suggests that you may get what you pay for within the United States. Doyle and his colleagues ask whether higher cost hospitals in the United States achieve better outcomes than lower cost hospitals. It is not easy to answer this question, because higher cost hospitals may admit more severely ill patients. This results in a statistical problem known as selection bias that is difficult to eliminate with available severity measures.
Like waiting outside the Vatican for the puff of white smoke, the nation sits on edge awaiting the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act. The ruling, which is likely to be announced next week, could toss out the entire healthcare reform bill, chop off one of its limbs (probably the so-called individual mandate), or leave the ACA intact. Whatever the ruling, it will be chum for the blogosophere, particularly in the heat of presidential silly season.
The two fundamental challenges to American healthcare today are how to improve value (quality divided by cost) and how to improve access (primarily by insuring the tens of millions of uninsured people). The bill sought to address these twin challenges in ways that were complex and intertwined. I’ll argue that a decision by the Court to throw out all or part of the ACA will have a profoundly negative effect on the access agenda, but surprisingly little impact on the value agenda. To understand why requires that we focus less on the bewildering details (mandates, insurance exchanges, PCORI, CMMI, IPAB, etc.) and more on some big picture truths and tradeoffs.
The job of any healthcare system is to deliver high quality, safe, satisfying care to patients at the lowest possible cost. Although America certainly does specialty and high tech care like nobody’s business, on all of the key dimensions of value we aren’t very good. The numbers tell the sorry tale: we provide evidence-based care about half the time, there are huge variations in how care is delivered, we kill 44,000-98,000 patients per year from medical errors, and we spend 18% of our gross domestic product on medical care, far more than any other country.