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Tag: Quality

My Return to American Health Care

A year and a half ago, my husband, James Morgan, and I moved back to the U.S. after living 10 years in France.

We returned more or less kicking and screaming. We had been away long enough to lose some of our American culture and to prefer the European way of life, despite our squabbles with it–and every American abroad has some squabbles. I had discovered I was a born expat, something I’d suspected my entire adult life — from my first trip to Europe when I was 19 years old–but hadn’t arranged to test until my younger daughter graduated from high school. Jim and I are both writers, and I’d thought of a book idea for him (Chasing Matisse) that would take us to France, and my intention was for us to stay there.

But there were things we’d left undone for the 10 years we’d been away that needing tending to — life was calling us back. And if the truth be known, I felt France was falling behind in the world, and her inability to change was grating. Paris was stuck in her perpetual stupendous, effervescent beauty, while nothing new happened there at all. This city I love more than any other had long since lost the artistic dynamism that had propelled it forward with Picasso, Matisse, and the other artists that the Lost Generation had adopted and promoted in the early part of the 20th century, when Malcolm Cowley wrote his classic Exile’s Return.

The World Wars had crippled France for a time, and she had gotten back on her feet. But what the French do so very well is the past — not the present or future — and this is even truer in our digital global society. The French refusal to change defines the Gallic nation in every way imaginable, and the centuries-long celebration of their grand culture is what we love about them — and is also placing them in the rear of the international pack.

Except for this — their Number One in the World (as determined by the World Health Organization) health care system.

One of the things I most dreaded about returning to America was having to deal with a health care system that was an embarrassing national wreck.

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Finally Some Good News on Readmission Rates

Why readmission penalties are controversial

Penalizing hospitals for high readmission rates has been pretty controversial.  Critics of the program have argued that readmissions have little to do with what happens while the patient is in the hospital and are driven primarily by how sick or how poor the patient is.  Advocates of the readmissions program increasingly acknowledge that while readmissions may not reflect the quality of care that occurred within the hospital, someone should be accountable for what happens to patients after discharge, and hospitals are the logical choice.  While the controversy continues, there is little doubt that the metric is here to stay.  This October, the CMS Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP) will increase its penalty on excess readmissions from 1% to 2% of total hospital reimbursement.

So far, CMS has focused on readmissions that occur after patients are discharged with one of three medical conditions—acute myocardial infarction, pneumonia, and congestive heart failure.  The data on the impact of the program are mixed:  while readmission rates appear to be dropping, the penalties seem to be targeted towards hospitals that care for some of the sickest patients (academic medical centers), poorest patients (safety-net hospitals) and for heart failure, some of the best hospitals (those with the lowest mortality rates).  No wonder the program has been controversial.

Why surgery may be different

In 2015, CMS extends the program to focus on surgical conditions, which provides an opportunity to think again about what readmissions measure, and what it might take to reduce preventable ones.  And if you think about it, surgery may be different.  Most patients who are admitted for Acute MI, CHF, and pneumonia are chronically ill and bounce in and out of the hospital, with any one hospitalization likely just an exacerbation of underlying chronic illness (especially true for pneumonia and heart failure).  Not so for surgery—at least not for the major surgeries.

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An “F” for Quality

Huge numbers of older persons transition from hospitals to the nursing home.  Often, an older hospitalized patient needs skilled nursing care before they are ready to return home.  In other cases, a nursing home patient who needed hospitalization is returning to the nursing home.  Older patients and their families certainly hope that great communication between the hospital and nursing home would assure a seamless transition in care.

But a rather stunning study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society suggests the quality of communication between the hospital and the nursing home is horrendous.  The study was led by researchers from the University of Wisconsin, including nurse researcher, Dr. Barbara King and Geriatrician Dr. Amy Kind.

The authors conducted interviews and focus groups with 27 front line nurses in skilled nursing facilities.  These nurses noted that very difficult transitions were the norm.  Sadly, when asked to give the details of a good transition, none of the nurses were able to think of an example.

Most of the nurses felt that they were left clueless about what happened to the their patient in the hospital.  They lacked essential details about their patient’s clinical status.  The problem was not the lack of paper work that accompanied the patient.  In fact, nurses often received reams of paper work, often over 80 pages.  The problem is that the paper work was generally full of meaningless gibberish such as surgical flow sheets that told little about what was actually going on.

Often the transfer information had errors, conflicted with what the facility was told before the transfer, and lacked accurate information about medications.

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#MomInHospital

A few weeks ago, a middle-aged man decided to tweet about his mother’s illness from her bedside. The tweets went viral and became the subject of a national conversation. The man, of course, was NPR anchorman Scott Simon, and his reflections about his mother’s illness and ultimate death are poignant, insightful, and well worth your time.

Those same days, and unaware of Simon’s real-time reports, I also found myself caring for my hospitalized mother, and I made the same decision – to tweet from the bedside. (As with Simon’s mom, mine didn’t quite understand what Twitter is, but trusted her son that this was a good thing to do.) Being with my mother during a four-day inpatient stay offered a window into how things actually work at my own hospital, where I’ve practiced for three decades, and into the worlds of hospital care and patient safety, my professional passions. In this blog, I’ll take advantage of the absence of a 140-character limit to explore some of the lessons I learned.

First a little background. My mother is a delightful 77-year-old woman who lives with my 83-year-old father in Boca Raton, Florida. She has been generally healthy through her life. Two years ago, a lung nodule being followed on serial CT scans was diagnosed as cancer, and she underwent a right lower lobectomy, which left her mildly short of breath but with a reasonably good prognosis. In her left lower lung is another small nodule; it too is now is being followed with serial scans. While that remaining nodule may yet prove cancerous, it does not light up on PET scan nor has it grown in a year. So we’re continuing to track it, with crossed fingers.

Unfortunately, after a challenging recovery from her lung surgery, about a year ago Mom developed a small bowel obstruction (SBO). For those of you who aren’t clinical, this is one of life’s most painful events: the bowel, blocked, begins to swell as its contents back up, eventually leading to intractable nausea and vomiting, and excruciating pain. Bowel obstruction is rare in a “virgin” abdomen – the vast majority of cases result from scar tissue (“adhesions”) that formed after prior surgery. In my mother’s case, of course, we worried that the SBO was a result of metastatic lung cancer, but the investigation showed only scar tissue, probably from a hysterectomy done decades earlier.

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Average Care at a Typical Hospital on an Ordinary Sunday in August

The Bike Path:

On a warm and sunny August Sunday, I was rollerblading with my kids on the Shining Sea Bikeway. On mile nine on the trip, I hit a tree root, went flying, and landed on my shoulder.  I could tell immediately that something was wrong — I couldn’t move my arm and was in the worst pain of my life. Feeling for my left shoulder, it was obvious that I had dislocated it. What happened next was that I received some of the best care of my life – unfortunately it was not from our healthcare system.

As I was lying on the bike path, nearly everyone stopped and asked how they could help. A pediatric nephrologist offered to pop my shoulder back into place. I declined. This wonderful couple on a two-person reclining bike stopped and insisted on pedaling me to the hospital. We were far from the road and knew that calling an ambulance was not straightforward. So I sat with my left arm dangling, in excruciating pain, while David rode the bike to Falmouth Hospital. It was a 20 minute ride finishing with a very steep hill. David apologized after each bump on the road as he heard me swear and wince.

The Emergency Room:

We finally made it to the ER, and, ironically, it was then that my care stopped being so wonderful.

It started off well enough – a triage nurse saw me walking in holding my arm, in distress.  She got me a wheelchair and brought me into triage. I explained what happened, gave my name, date of birth and described the pain as the worst of my life.  I was then shuttled to registration, where I was asked to repeat all the same information.  It felt surreal: I had moved all of 10 feet and yet somehow my information hadn’t followed me. The registration person asked me question after question.   Initially, the same ones: name, address, phone #, etc.  Then, my Social Security number (presumably so they could go after me if I didn’t pay my bill), my primary care physician’s name, his address, his phone #, my insurance status, my insurance #, my insurance card, my emergency contact, their address and phone #, etc. etc. etc.

I told her I was in excruciating pain and needed help.  A few more questions, she said.  She needed the complete registration.

I was wheeled to radiology and sat in a hallway for what felt like forever, groaning in pain. I couldn’t find a comfortable position. Six or seven people walked by – and as they heard me groan, they would look down and walk faster.  The x-ray technologist avoided eye contact.  It was hard — I was right outside her room.  Finally, I asked a passerby if she could help.  Caught by surprise (I must have sounded human), she stopped.  She looked at me.  She then went into the x-ray suite.  A few minutes later, a second technologist came out, saw my arm, and was the first to acknowledge that my arm looked painful.  He told me the ER was pretty quiet and he would get me in right away.

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Aligning Physician Incentives Doesn’t Do It

My wife Mary and I recently got a series of early morning calls alerting us to the declining health of Mary’s mom, who was in her 90s. She died later that week. We were stricken and so sad, but took comfort that she died with dignity and good care on her own terms, and at her home in San Francisco.

Ten years ago, we received a very different early morning call, about my father.  An otherwise healthy and vigorous 72-year-old, Dad had fallen at home. Presuming he’d had a stroke, paramedics took him to a hospital with a neurosurgery speciality rather than to the university trauma center. That decision proved fatal.

A physician in Seattle at the time, I arrived the next day to find Dad in the intensive care unit on a ventilator. Dad’s head CT revealed a massive intracranial hemorrhage. Dad also had a large, obvious contusion on his forehead.

The following day, the physicians asked to remove Dad from the ventilator.  He died that night. We were profoundly devastated by his death and upset with the care he’d received.

Our family wasn’t interested in blame or lawsuits. We did, however, want answers:  Why hadn’t Dad been treated for a traumatic injury from a fall? Shouldn’t he have had timely surgery to relieve pressure from bleeding? What went wrong?

I’ve spent the last decade searching for answers, for myself and countless others, to questions about how to improve health care.  I’ve had the honor of working with many people pushing health care toward high value, at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation(RWJF) and elsewhere.

We’ve worked hard to find solutions.  We all get it:  The health care problem is a big, complex one without silver bullet answers. Still, we’ve made incredible progress with efforts like RWJF’s Aligning Forces for Quality Initiative in which community alliances work to improve the value of their health care.

We’re searching for ways to help us all make smarter health care decisions.  We’re helping health care professionals improve and patients and families be more proactive.  We’re exploring the price and cost of care, and ways to automate health care information with technology.

And importantly, we’re working to align the incentives that health care professionals need to support and deliver great care.  We strongly believe that unless we reward great results, we won’t get them.  That means payment reform, with a focus on financial incentives for those who hunt for waste, resolve safety problems, sustain improvement, and, most of all, innovate to save more lives.

But do financial incentives to promote and reward behavior work?

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The Rise of the Hospitalists

Good for Healthcare?

Sarah Jones was an anomaly in contemporary healthcare.  Despite shifting alliances between physicians, hospitals, and insurance companies, she had been under the care of the same physician for over 20 years.  Over this time, patient and physician had gotten to know each other well and had developed a fine relationship.  Mrs. Jones had always assumed that, should she ever need to be admitted to the hospital, this relationship would pay big dividends, ensuring that her medical decision making would be based on long acquaintance and strong mutual understanding.

When the dreaded day came that she finally needed inpatient care, however, her hopes were dashed.  Her physician explained to her that he no longer sees hospitalized patients.  Instead she would be under the care of a team of physicians known as hospitalists.  When she arrived, the hospitalist on duty introduced herself and told her that she would be the physician responsible for her care, while colleagues would be responsible during off hours.  Unlike her regular physician, who would have been on hand only once or perhaps twice per day, the hospitalists would always be in house and ready to address her needs.

Mrs. Jones was surprised and disappointed to discover that her primary physician would not be involved in her hospital care.  She had always assumed that she would be able to rely on their longstanding relationship for counsel and support.  She imagined that if she were facing some really important decision, such as whether or not to proceed with a risky operation or how to manage her own end-of-life care, it would make a huge difference to know that she could count on a physician she knew well.  Instead her hospital-based physician was a complete stranger.

Mrs. Jones’ experience is far from unique.  In the past 15 years or so, medicine has seen the birth of hospitalists, a new breed of physicians who care only for hospitalized patients.  There are now over 30,000 hospitalists in the US.  From a patient’s point of view, such physicians offer a number of advantages.  In many hospitals, a specialist in hospital medicine is always on duty, day or night.  Moreover, because such physicians work only in the hospital, they are often more familiar with the hospital’s standard procedures, information systems, and personnel.

It is not difficult to see why hospital medicine might be so attractive to young physicians.  For one thing, it provides them with a high degree of control over their working hours.  They come on and off shift at regular times, and do not bear patient care responsibilities outside these hours.  In addition, they are usually employed by the hospital, which means that they do not need to attend to a host of practice management issues that self-employed physicians confront.  They can also focus on acute-care, in-hospital medicine, avoiding the challenges associated with long-term care of chronic-disease patients.

Some non-hospitalist physicians also find the rise of hospital medicine attractive. They do not need to travel to one or more hospitals each day to see patients, which takes considerable time and generates little revenue.  They do not need to work so hard at staying abreast of changes in hospital procedures and technologies, which often vary from institution to institution, as do requirements for acquiring and maintaining hospital medical staff privileges.  And finally, they can focus their energies on outpatient care, avoiding the more acutely life-threatening and complex situations associated with hospitalization.

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Providers Are Held Accountable. Why Aren’t Technology Vendors?

As healthcare shifts from fee-for-service to fee-for-value, hospitals and physicians are increasingly being held accountable for outcomes by the government, payers and patients. Historically, provider organizations only had to meet performance criteria to earn a pay-for-performance bonuses or hospital certification, but with the arrival of Accountable Care Organizations (ACO), Meaningful Use and other programs, payment is now based on to quality of care rather than quantity of services.

Health information technology (HIT) systems are able to track physician actions and measure outcomes down to the individual patient level and allow organizations to closely monitor the quality levels of a given physician. These same tools should be able to monitor the performance of the vendors who are there to support these clinicians. With patient engagement solutions, for example, vendors claim they can help improve HCAHPS scores, treatment adherence, patient outcomes, and reduce costs, but have no evidence to back it up.

Vendors should be willing to commit to their patient engagement promises, present proof showing improved outcomes and face some financial risk for failing to deliver.

Global accountability

Since patient engagement was included in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Solutions’ Meaningful Use of Electronic Health Records program, it has become a popular buzzword. Every HIT vendor claims to offer tools to assist providers with this important clinical quality issue, but no one is holding anyone accountable.

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Making Sense of Geographic Variations in Health Care: the New IOM Report

Since 1973, when Jack Wennberg published his first paper describing geographic variations in health care, researchers have argued about both the magnitude and the causes of variation.  The argument gained greater policy relevance as U.S. health care spending reached 18 percent of GDP and as evidence mounted, largely from researchers at Dartmouth, that higher spending regions were failing to achieve better outcomes.   The possibility of substantial savings not only helped to motivate reform but also raised the stakes in what had been largely an academic argument.   Some began to raise questions about the Dartmouth research.

Today, the prestigious Institute of Medicine released a committee report, led by Harvard’s Professor Joseph Newhouse and Provost Alan Garber, that weighs in on these issues.

The report, called for by the Affordable Care Act and entitled “Variation in Health Care Spending: Target Decision Making, Not Geography,” deserves a careful read. The committee of 19 distinguished academics and policy experts spent several years documenting the causes and consequences of regional variations and developing solid policy recommendations on what to do about them.  (Disclosure: We helped write a background study for the committee).

But for those trying to make health care better and more affordable, whether in Washington or in communities around the country, there are a few areas where the headlines are likely to gloss over important details in the report.

And we believe that the Committee risks throwing out the baby with the bathwater by appearing, through its choice of title, to turn its back on regional initiatives to improve both health and health care.

What the committee found

The report confirmed three core findings of Dartmouth’s research.

First, geographic variations in spending are substantial, pervasive and persistent over time — the variations are not just random noise. Second, adjusting for individuals’ age, sex, income, race, and health status attenuates these variations, but there’s still plenty that remain. Third, there is little or no correlation between spending and health care quality. The report also effectively identifies the puzzling empirical patterns that don’t fit conveniently into the Dartmouth framework, such as a lack of association between spending in commercial insurance and Medicare populations.

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More Work Is Needed on the Safety and Efficacy of Healthcare Information Technology

If one were writing about the improvement of gastronomy in America, one would probably not celebrate “over 300 billion hamburgers served.”  But that’s very much the type of success Dr. Ashish Jha is celebrating in last week’s piece on recent US healthcare IT sales. Unfortunately, the proliferation of Big Macs does not reflect superior cuisine, and healthcare IT (HIT) sales do not equate with better healthcare or with better health. Quantity does not equal quality of care.

To be sure, Dr. Jha acknowledges the challenges of rolling out HIT throughout US hospitals. And he should be strongly commended for his admission that HIT doesn’t capture care by many specialists and doesn’t save money. In addition, Dr. Jha points to the general inability of hospitals, outpatient physicians and laboratories to transfer data among themselves as a reason for HIT’s meager results.

But this is a circular argument and not an excuse. It is the vendors’ insistence on isolated proprietary systems (and the government’s acquiescence to the vendors) that created this lack of communication (non-interoperability) which so limits one of HIT’s most valuable benefits.

In our opinion, the major concern is that the blog post fails to answer the question we ask our PhD students:

So what? What is the outcome?

This entire effort is fueled by $29 billion in government subsidies and incentives, and by trillions of dollars spent and to be spent by hospitals, doctors and others [1].

So where is the evidence to back up the government’s and industry’s promises of lower mortality, improved health and lower health care costs?

Single studies tell us little. Sadly, as many as 90% of health IT studies fail the minimal criteria of the respected international literature syntheses conducted by the Cochrane Collaboration.

In other words, studies with weak methodology or sweetheart evaluation arrangements just don’t count as evidence.
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