Ensuring that Americans who live in rural areas have access to health care has always been a policy priority. In healthcare, where nearly every policy decision seems contentious and partisan, there has been widespread, bipartisan support for helping providers who work in rural areas. The hallmark of the policy effort has been the Critical Access Hospital (CAH) program– and new evidence from our latest paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that our approach needs rethinking. In our desire to help providers that care for Americans living in rural areas, we may have forgotten a key lesson: it’s not about access to care. It’s about access to high-quality care. And on that policy goal, we’re not doing a very good job.
A little background will be helpful. In the 1980s and 1990s, a large number of rural hospitals closed as the number of people living in rural areas declined and Medicare’s Prospective Payment System made it more difficult for some hospitals to manage their costs. A series of policy efforts culminated in Congress creating the Critical Access Hospital program as part of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. The goals of the program were simple: provide cost-based reimbursement so that hospitals that were in isolated areas could become financially stable and provide “critical access” to the millions of Americans living in these areas. Congress created specific criteria to receive a CAH designation: hospitals had to have 25 or fewer acute-care beds and had to be at least 35 miles from the nearest facility (or 15 miles if one needed to cross mountains or rivers). By many accounts, the program was a “success” – rural hospital closures fell as many institutions joined the program. There was widespread consensus that the program had worked.
Despite this success, there were two important problems in the legislation, and the way it was executed, that laid the groundwork for the difficulties of today. Continue reading…
Eric Topol wrote a post recently put up on THCB where he looks to a future enabled by emerging technology.
Just as the little mobile wireless devices radically transformed our day-to-day lives, so will such devices have a seismic impact on the future of health care. It’s already taking off at a pace that parallels the explosion of another unanticipated digital force — social networks.
Take your electrocardiogram on your smartphone and send it to your doctor. Or to pre-empt the need for a consult, opt for the computer-read version with a rapid text response. Having trouble with your vision? Get the $2 add-on to your smartphone and get your eyes refracted with a text to get your new eyeglasses or contact lenses made. Have a suspicious skin lesion that might be cancer? Just take a picture with your smartphone and you can get a quick text back in minutes with a determination of whether you need to get a biopsy or not. Does your child have an ear infection? Just get the scope attachment to your smartphone and get a 10x magnified high-resolution view of your child’s eardrums and send them for automatic detection of whether antibiotics will be needed.
Now, I am the first to confess my infatuation with technology. I am also a very big believer in patient empowerment, which could be the one force strong enough to overcome the partisan politicians and corporate lobbyists resisting any positive change. But there are several problems I see with this kind of empowerment with technology.
First off, the goal is not to find technologies that simply transform, but ones that move care to a better place. Right now our system is running aground for one reason: we spend too much money. Patient empowerment that improves efficiency of care is good, while empowerment that increases consumption or decreases efficiency is to be avoided if at all possible. The technology mentioned in the article is predominantly data-gathering technology, increasing the amount of information moving from patient to physician. The hope is that this will enable faster and better informed decisions, and perhaps some of it will. But I can see harm coming out of this as well.
Of all the people in the health care system, none is more central than the physician. Fundamental reform that lowers costs, raises quality and improves access to care is almost inconceivable without physicians leading and directing the changes. Yet of all the actors in modern health care, none are more trapped than our nation’s doctors. Let’s consider just a few of the ways your doctor is constrained, unlike any other professional you deal with.
No Telephone. Sometime in the early part of the last century, all the other professionals in our society — lawyers, accountants, architects, engineers, etc. — discovered the telephone. It’s a handy device. Ideal for communicating with clients. Yet even today I find that I can rarely talk to a doctor by phone. Why is that?
The short answer is: Medicare doesn’t pay for telephone consultations. Medicare has a list of about 7,500 tasks it pays physicians to perform. And talking by phone isn’t on the list — at least in a way that makes it practical. Private insurance tends to pay the way Medicare pays. So do most employers.
At a time when doctors feel like they are being squeezed on their fees from every direction by third-party payers, most become very focused on which activities are billable and which are not. And most are going to try to minimize their non-billable time.Continue reading…
More people with higher levels of concern about their health feel they are in good health, see their doctors regularly for check-ups, take prescription meds “exactly” as instructed, feel they eat right, and prefer lifestyle changes over using medicines.
And 40% of these highly-health-concerned people have also used a health technology in the past year.
At the other end of the spectrum are people with low levels of health concern: few see the doctor regularly for check-ups, less than one-half take their meds as prescribed by their doctors, only 31% feel they eat right, and only 36% feel they’re in good health.
While roughly one-fourth to one-third of U.S. adults have been early adopters of consumer technologies in general across low-moderate-and-high health concern segments, more of those with greater health concerns tended to use health tech products in the past twelve months: 40% of the highest concerned people vs. 25% of those with moderate health concerns and 14% of those at the lowest-concern level.
These insights are discussed in a report, The New Role of Technology in Consumer Health and Wellness from the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), published in October 2011.
As a journalist who for the last decade has covered the use of information technology in health care, I’m rather disgusted at some of my brethren in the mass media. I’m none too happy with the medical establishment, either. Both seem hopelessly stuck in the past, refusing to look beyond the status quo. And the public suffers because of it.
This fall, for example, the Los Angeles Times and other news outlets covered a Yale University study that sought to determine whether or not “telemonitoring” heart failure patients recently discharged from the hospital would reduce heart attacks or readmission. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine and presented at a November meeting of the American Heath Association, concluded that that telemonitoring, which involved patients calling in their weight measurements and health symptoms after being discharged, made virtually no difference in the outcome. The Times called the trial “a good, commonsense idea that simply didn’t work out.”
Was it, really?
Keeping in touch with one’s physician on a frequent basis after being hospitalized for heart failure is a fine idea, as is monitoring one’s weight. But, as happened in the Yale study, patients generally don’t stick with the program. One in seven study participants never called their doctors, while just 55 percent of patients were making at least three calls per week six months after discharge.Continue reading…
I continue to be amazed at the speed at which the mobility and portability of healthcare is developing. It is readily apparent that the technologies, devices and other innovations that we always knew would transform the delivery, consumption and administration of healthcare—but that always seemed years away—are in fact now here.
It’s kind of like that car commercial from a few years ago that asked why we’ve never actually seen the cool and futuristic concept cars that auto manufacturers have teased us with over the years; except in this case, all of the neat and futuristic stuff is right there just waiting for us to put it to good use. It’s called telemedicine, at the risk of oversimplifying, and combined with the change that has actually been legislated for healthcare over the past year, it’s putting the system on the threshold of an entirely new era.
For example: Remember the dark ages of, say, 1998 or 2000 when patients were given heart monitors to wear and then had to phone their doctor to report the various data? Well, it’s pretty safe to say that we can relegate those to the same time capsule as the VCR and the rotary telephone. Fast forward to today and you’ll find wireless, Bluetooth-enabled devices that can deliver the same information—and a lot more, in fact—in real time, 24/7. How about unlimited geographic boundaries for the delivery of medicine? Think of a lung specialist in Philadelphia rendering his expertise to a patient in rural Australia without leaving the comfort of his desk chair. Tired of being handed a clipboard and then interrogated about your medical history every time you see a new doctor? What if that information—in more breadth and detail than you can remember or are probably even aware of—was delivered to your doctor long before you even showed up for your appointment? And how about if, afterward, it was updated automatically and then followed you to your next specialist appointment?
As usual I am way behind on tech and Health 2.0 news but here’s one that was “thrown out with the trash” late last week because the service went live on Saturday. American Well has has added TriWest Healthcare Alliance as a client on its online service. Most significantly this is for behavioral health care (psychological counseling et al) for military families covered under Tri-Care—the program for the families of service personnel.
Given what the military has been through in the last decade you can imagine how badly this is needed. And it’s an extension of the current primary and urgent care services already being delivered online.
In fact beyond American Well there are a number of even smaller companies starting to aim at the behavioral health online market—which has a strong tradition of success in telemedicine and is ripe for expansion into the online arena.
However, where I’m really late is that a couple of weeks back Cisco—which does higher-end telemedicine—announced a program with United Healthgroup to provide its HealthPresence technology in mobile trucks for underserved populations. United’s Optum unit also recently announced that it too would be using American Well. So we’re seeing an extension of the use of both higher tech and web-based online care, and that for the first time health insurers are taking this very seriously.
Continue to watch this space as it looks like finally the technology is ready and the payers are finally coming on board. And (ahem) you’ll hear much more about this at the Health 2.0 Conference in San Francisco on October 6–7.