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Tag: The Industry

Health care wins in initial stimulus package

Responding to calls for Washington to take swift action in the face of the bleakest economy in decades, the House of Representatives released a $825 billion package last week designed to stimulate the economy. The early version of the plan targets nearly $150 billion for health care.

The Wall Street Journal has a reasonably thorough overview of the "winners" and "losers," as well as an explanation of the at times arcane budgetary process involved. "The plan’s final shape will depend not only on horse-trading among
lawmakers in the House and Senate, but also on the outcome of the
lobbying frenzy now under way," the Journal says.

Here’s an early breakdown of the health care package:

  • $39 billion in subsidies to health insurance for the unemployed; providing coverage through Medicaid
  • $90 billion to shore up state Medicaid programs
  • $20 billion for health-information technology systems
  • $4 billion for preventative care

It’s worth noting that those numbers don’t include the expansion of SCHIP the House approved earlier in the week.

Around the Web: If you want to track exactly where all the money is going – probably not a bad idea when you’re talking about $825 billion plus change- you’ll theoretically be able to follow spending on Recovery. gov. But for the time being you’ll have to wait. The site is not yet online – perhaps not the best sign.

John Irvine contributed to this report from Washington D.C.

As Medical Tourism Grows, Hold On We’re In For a Wild Ride

Until now, medical tourism has been a curiosity, iconic “Wow, Look How Flat the World Is Becoming,” fodder for stories on 60 Minutes. But as health insurers and employers get into the act, get ready for some Battles Royale.

Of course, it was only a matter of time. With surgeries costing tens of thousands of dollars less in India and Thailand than in Indiana and Tucson, and with companies ranging from GM to Citigroup desperately trying to shave health care costs to fend off bankruptcy, you knew it wouldn’t be long before insurers or employers began offering incentives – or forcing – patients to have their surgery overseas.

Starting this month, some employers working with WellPoint, the nation’s largest health insurer, will begin offering their employees substantial discounts if they choose to have their surgery in India. The Indian hospitals are accredited by Joint Commission International (JCI), the arm of the Joint Commission that’s in the business of blessing foreign hospitals. If they are like most of the foreign hospitals catering to international tourists, chances are that the quality of care is more-than-acceptable and the quality of service would make the concierge at the Ritz jealous.

The press release trumpeting WellPoint’s arrangement oozes with PC spin:

Members will now have more choices regarding where to receive care and a greater involvement in the care they receive.

Well, what could possibly be controversial about that?!

I’ve written two articles for the New England Journal of Medicine about international teleradiology and other digitally-facilitated outsourcing (here and here), another burgeoning piece of our newly flattened world. That phenomenon is far from fantasy: thousands of patients in American ERs will have their x-rays read tonight by physicians sitting in India, Zurich, Tel Aviv, and Sydney. But because this happens behind our professional curtain, the debate over tele-whatever has largely been Inside Baseball (Is the quality adequate?

Do the non-U.S. docs need American malpractice coverage? Can the foreign docs bill Medicare? [Answers to date: 1) Seems reasonable, a few anecdotal glitches, but no good studies; 2) At this point, yes; 3) Presently, no – the local docs bill Medicare for their “final read” in the morning and they or their hospitals compensate the foreign docs]). It’s all been back office and arcane enough that it hasn’t been terribly controversial.

While medical tourism seems poised to be more controversial, its limited niche thus far has attenuated the arguments. To date, most participants have been un- or under-insured people trying to control their out-of-pocket costs for elective surgeries that require large cash payments, such as plastic surgeries and elective hip replacements. So most surgeries have involved private arrangements between patients and international providers, sometimes facilitated by intermediaries that have sprouted up like weeds. (Since nobody needs a travel agent anymore to book a vacation to Paris, up pops a new tourism niche. Capitalism’s resiliency never ceases to amaze.)

As I said, as long as these were private choices, the potential reach of medical tourism was muted, as was the controversy. But every healthcare insurer and large employer is now actively scrutinizing the concept, and many find it quite appealing. Of course, sensitive to the politics, it is unlikely that any of them will flat-out force their customers/employees to travel to Thailand or Singapore. The pressure will be more subtle: with savings of tens-of-thousands of dollars per case at stake, there is enough money around to waive patient co-pays, give insurance discounts to employers, and cover travel expenses – including in-flight drinks and headphones – and still come out way ahead. As Brian Lindsay wrote in a terrific piece in Fast Company last March,

“They [patients] don’t – and we don’t – want to be in a situation where an insurer says, ‘You have to go,’ ” says Victor Lazzaro, CEO of the [medical tourism] packager BridgeHealth International and a former executive at Prudential… One solution is to be up front with patients about the true cost of their treatment and offer to share the savings with them. In light of what it costs for a fresh set of knees in the States – $45,000 and up for the uninsured – and the huge discounts overseas, it’s conceivable that patients might come out ahead if they let a Thai doctor install them. Of course, just because insurers won’t use a stick doesn’t necessarily mean the dangling carrot couldn’t be considered coercion in its own right.

The wars will be fascinating and the battles lines will be fluid and a bit unpredictable. Consider unions, for example. On the one hand, the cost savings for companies that insure their workers may help preserve union jobs or allow for cost savings to be passed on in the form of higher salaries or richer benefits. On the other hand, as local hospitals are hurt, unionized service and nursing jobs may take a hit. So should unions be for medical tourism or against it? Who knows?

But one set of losers seems clearer: domestic providers, particularly cardiac, plastic, and orthopedic surgeons. Again, from the Fast Company article,

In one fell swoop, [the surgeons] devolve from the rock stars of the OR to glorified mechanics, and they’d really only have themselves to blame. Overseas patients routinely return home raving about the personal attention shown by their Thai or Indian surgeons. Even before arriving, patients can trade phone calls and emails with doctors. (Nothing punctures the myth of American medical invincibility quite like the experience of having a doctor who actually speaks to you.)

I participated in a panel on medical tourism at last October’s American College of Surgeons meeting, and many of the docs in the audience were pissed. Using those computerized audience response gizmos, the surgeons in attendance were asked: If a patient returned from surgery abroad with a complication and came to see you, would you agree to care for the patient? A clear majority answered “No.” (Had there been a choice called “Hell, No!” I’d wager that it would have been the winner). Surely Hippocrates would be turning over in his grave, but I’m guessing that Hippocrates didn’t have to pay $100K/year in malpractice premiums or watch his 8 years of residency training become devalued by foreign competition.

How will all of this play out? It seems likely that medical tourism will continue to grow, as will the number of concerned responses from domestic providers (mostly guild behavior and protectionism clothed in the garb of patient safety and quality). I’m sympathetic to my colleagues’ reactions, but look, the status quo isn’t acceptable: We’re spending $2 trillion dollars per year on healthcare and still have nearly 50 million uninsured people, 100,000 yearly deaths from medical mistakes, huge and clinically indefensible variations in care, and outcome and performance measures that are as likely to be sources of shame as pride. If flattening our world improves value (quality divided by cost), either through the new internationalized care or by goosing our own system into action (the now-familiar disruptive innovation), that’s got to be a good thing.

But for domestic providers, it might not feel so good. Yes, foreign competition led the Big Three automakers to build better and more efficient cars – but they answered their wake-up call too late to save their hides. The risks to domestic healthcare are not as monumental as those playing out in Detroit (it is one heck of a lot easier to buy a Camry at San Francisco Toyota than to get a CABG in Bangkok, and every now and then a Bangkok airport shutdown or a Mumbai terrorist attack will make some Americans hesitate before getting on that plane). And there are hundreds of issues still to be worked out: can patients sue for medical malpractice, how do you ensure continuity of care for patients receiving care both domestically and internationally, will medical tourism compromise local care for Thais and Indians, will middlemen start siphoning off too much of the savings or acting unethically, and much more.

But in the end, the Flattening of Healthcare is inevitable. And, while it will be controversial, it may also represent the kind of shakeup our system requires if it is ever to deliver the value Americans need and deserve.

So hold on tight. We’re in for a wild ride.

My top 10 rules for Email Triage

I
receive over 600 email messages each day (with virtually no Spam, so
they are all legitimate) and respond to most via Blackberry. How do I
triage 600 messages? I use these 10 rules to mentally score each email:

1.
E-mail marked with a “high importance” exclamation point must pass the
“cry wolf” test. Is the sender a habitual “high importance” e-mailer?
Are these e-mails actually important? If not, the sender’s emails lose
points.

2. I give points to high-priority people: my senior management, my direct reports, my family members and my key customers.

3.  I do the same for high-priority subjects: critical staff issues, health issues and major financial issues.

4.
I rate email based on the contents of the “To,” “cc” and “bcc” fields.
If I am the only person in the To field, the e-mail gets points. If I
am in the To field with a dozen other people, it’s neutral. If I’m only
cc’d, it loses points. A bcc loses a lot of points, since I believe
email should always be transparent. E-mail should not be used as a
weapon.

5.  I penalize email with emotional words, capital letters or anything less than civil language.

Continue reading…

Confessions of a Cultural Anthropologist: The Cause and Cure of High Health Costs

Today’s medical students are being inducted into a culture in which their profession is seen increasingly in financial terms. Add in such pressures as the need to pay off enormous debts, and it is not surprising that students’ choices are dictated by the desire to maximize income and minimize work time.

Pamela Hartzband, MD, and Jerome Goodman, MD
“Money and the Changing Culture of Medicine”
New England Journal of Medicine, 1/08/09

I have a confession to make.  I think the cause of high American health costs is straightforward, but it is not simple. It is American culture in general and the physician culture in particular.  There is nothing wrong with this, and I point no fingers.

The Way We Are
It is our culture.  It is the way we are, the way we’ve been for 232 years. It is our distrust of government and high taxes. It is our want to be free to choose. It is our belief in for equality of opportunity for access to the latest and best of care.

It is the notion, stemming from frontier days and conquering of the West,  that action speaks louder than words, that if you do something specifically, it is better than doing nothing generically. “Don’t do nothing, do something,” as the saying goes.Continue reading…

New NRC Report Finds “Health Care IT Chasm,” Seeks New Course Toward Quality Improvement and Cost Savings

Like the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) 2001 counterpart report, “Crossing the Quality Chasm,” a new report from the National Research Council of the National Academies is complex, full of new ideas assembled from multiple disciplines, and is likely to have seminal importance in framing public policy from now on. “Computational Technology for Effective Health Care:  Immediate Steps and Strategic Directions” was released last Friday, January 9, 2009 in draft, but there is so much to comment on that I think it’s wise to begin with a quote from the committee that sums up the central conclusion:

In short, the nation faces a health care IT chasm that is analogous to the quality chasm highlighted by the IOM over the past decade. In the quality domain, various improvement efforts have failed to improve health care outcomes, and sometimes even done more harm than good. Similarly, based on an examination of the multiple sources of evidence described above and viewing them through the lens of the committee’s judgment, the committee believes that the nation faces the same risk with health care IT—that current efforts aimed at the nationwide deployment of health care IT will not be sufficient to achieve the vision of 21st century health care, and may even set back the cause if these efforts continue wholly without change from their present course. Success in this regard will require greater emphasis on the goal of improving health care by providing cognitive support for health care providers and even for patients and family caregivers on the part of computer science and health/biomedical informatics researchers. Vendors, health care organizations, and government, too, will also have to pay greater attention to cognitive support. This point is the central conclusion articulated in this report. (emphasis added)

It would be difficult to find a more sober indictment of US health care IT policy and implementation over the past decade than what is contained here.

Continue reading…

“The Innovator’s Prescription”: Christensen’s Book Offers Insightful Dx, Unrealistic Rx

Ip Being big fans of Clay Christensen and his theory of disruptive innovation (DI), we have been awaiting his just-released book The Innovator’s Prescription: A Disruptive Solution for Healthcare .  The book is co-authored by Dr. Jerome Grossman and Dr. Jason Hwang.

We have mixed reactions.

The book is mistitled. It should have been titled “The Innovator’s Diagnosis”. The book does a fantastic job at diagnosis (Dx) of problems in the U.S. health care system. It presents many new, innovative analytical frameworks and lenses through which to view the U.S. health system.

However, it’s weak on prescription (Rx): many of the proposed solutions are speculative, ungrounded, and/or defy political reality.

We understand that the very nature of disruptive innovation implies inevitable resistance from organizations that benefit economically from the status quo. But at some point a proposed solution becomes so disruptive that you have to suspend reality to believe that it could be adopted or implemented — and many proposed solutions in this book enter that realm.

The book applies Christensen’s general theory of DI specifically to the health care system. It addresses questions such as:

  • What is DI?
  • Why is it important to create an environment in health care where DI can flourish?
  • How can we create the right environment in health care for DI to flourish?

The introductory chapter of the book is available here at no charge (right column under Downloads). It’s a great overview.

Continue reading…

Let’s Reboot America’s HIT Conversation Part 1: Putting EHRs in Context

Kibbe & Klepper are back with an update to their pre-Christmas piece on EHRs and the forthcoming Obama Administration’s investment policy towards them. Lest you think that this is just a small group here on THCB and fellow traveler blogs shouting to each other, I’d point you towards the Boston Globe article about their previous "Open Letter," which shows that this discussion (and a similar piece on THCB from Rick Peters) appears to be being taken very seriously. As it should–Matthew Holt

On Dec. 19, we published an Open Letter to the Obama Health Team,
cautioning the incoming Administration against limiting its Health
Information Technology (IT) investments to Electronic Health Records
(EHRs). Instead, we recommended that their health IT plan be rethought
to favor a large array of innovative applications that can be easily
adopted to result in more effective, less expensive care.

The
response to that post was vigorous. We received many comments and
inquiries from the health care vendor, professional and policy
communities – urging us to provide more clarity. One prominent
commentator called to ask whether we, in fact, supported the use of
EHRs. We both have been active EMR and health IT supporters for many
years. Dr. Kibbe was a developer of the Continuity of Care Record
(CCR), a de facto standard format for Electronic Medical Records
(EMRs), and has assisted hundreds of medical practices to adopt EHRs.
Dr. Klepper has been involved in EMR projects for the last 15 years,
and the onsite clinic firm he works with provides every clinician with
a range of health IT tools, including EMRs.

Continue reading…

The Broken Window Effect

HalamkaAs an adult I’ve returned to various locations from my childhood and
found the white picket fences, station wagons, and neighborhood shops
transformed into rough, run down, and unsafe neighborhoods. This did
not happen overnight. What happened in these places is the same thing
that can happen in a business or your personal life. I call it the
“Broken Window Effect”

Imagine the perfect “Lake Wobegone”
neighborhood where everything is above average. A baseball goes through
a window, but the owner decides not to fix it. Then, because the house
looks a bit shabby, another neighbor leaves a junked car on the street.
Then a bit of graffiti is not cleaned up. Then folks stop picking up
garbage from their yards.

The same thing can happen inside a house. One
pile on the floor doesn’t take too much room, so a few more piles are
put around it. Before long, all floor spaces have piles on them.
Maintenance items are deferred and junk is not tossed. Years pass and
eventually the house is unhealthy to live in, but no one really notices
because it happened so gradually.

Continue reading…

Health and health care in 2009 – a year of managing risks and wild cards

As we inevitably do this time of year, we prognosticate about the new year. This time around, it’s a toughie: there are too many uncertainties that preclude us from doing a straight-line forecast for 2009, especially in health and health care.

Here are some trends and wild cards to keep in mind for 2009: the year of managing risks.

How will the macroeconomy play out against health care in the new year? Keep in mind the Kaiser Family Foundation’s metric on unemployment: an increase of 1% unemployment leads to 1.1 million uninsured, and 1 million more people added to Medicaid. This was the math that worked in 2007-8. The metric will probably change in 2009 as Governors struggle to balance budgets while providing medical services, education, and safe streets to citizens. The National Governors Association, and the individual state heads, have all warned that Governors will inevitably cut services in 2009 and into 2010 if tax receipts continue to decline.

Continue reading…

An Open Letter to the Obama Health Team

It seems likely that the Obama administration and Congress will spend a significant amount on health IT by attaching it as a first-order priority to the fiscal stimulus package. We take the President-elect at his word when he recently said:

“…we must also ensure that our hospitals are connected to each other through the Internet. That is why the economic recovery plan I’m proposing will help modernize our health care system – and that won’t just save jobs, it will save lives. We will make sure that every doctor’s office and hospital in this country is using cutting edge technology and electronic medical records so that we can cut red tape, prevent medical mistakes, and help save billions of dollars each year.” (December, 6, 2008)

Whether the health IT money is well spent will depend on how it is distributed and what it buys. Most observers suppose that federal health IT investment dollars will be used to help doctors’ offices and hospitals acquire and implement electronic health record systems (EHRs or EMRs). These are commercial software suites for entering, storing and managing patient health data within a practice or health organization.

Continue reading…

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