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Tag: Transparency

Risks and the Benefits: What Health Policy Can Learn from Clinical Medicine

A few months back, we admitted a patient we’ll call Mr. Jones to the hospital for a severe gastrointestinal bleed.  We had discharged him two weeks earlier after he had come in with a heart attack and made sure he was on aspirin to prevent future cardiac events.  He dutifully took his aspirin and on the day of the readmission, had a massive bleed.  He made it to the hospital barely alive and an endoscopy in the ICU showed an active bleeding gastric ulcer.  For Mr. Jones, the gastrointestinal bleed, likely brought on by the aspirin, was an “unintended consequence” that almost killed him. Yet no one questioned whether we should have given him aspirin in the first place.  I felt terrible about what had happened but found solace in knowing that while for some patients the risks of aspirin are worse than the benefits, for the general population of people like Mr. Jones, the benefits are clearly worth the side-effects.

We do risk-benefit analyses every day in clinical care, knowing that for some patients, the benefits will be outweighed by the harm.  We try to be thoughtful about who might be hurt or not, but most of the time, we just can’t predict.  So, when the benefits appear to outweigh the risks, we move forward and try to learn from cases like Mr. Jones.

While this kind of risk-benefit analysis is common in clinical practice, it’s unfortunately not how we discuss health policy interventions.  No policy intervention is ever without risks, and it is rare that a new policy will have no side-effects at all.  Yet, every time policymakers put in a new initiative, they sell it as a panacea. Critics, upon finding an unintended consequence, then declare the whole thing a failure.

An excellent example of this is health information technology, a topic that I have blogged about in the past.  Proponents only talk about its benefits, allowing critics to highlight every shortcoming and failure.  Thank goodness I don’t have to deal with proponents and critics like that every time I consider prescribing aspirin to my patients.

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Transforming Care Through Transparency


By year’s end, the Department of Health and Human Services will announce plans for making its Physician Compare website into a consumer-friendly source of information for Medicare patients about the quality of care provided by doctors and other health care providers. In doing so, Physician Compare will take its place alongside Hospital Compare and more than 250 other websites that offer information about the quality and cost of health care. More importantly, perhaps, it will send an important signal that transparency in health care is the new normal.

To look at these 250-plus online reports is to see the good, the bad, and the ugly of the public reporting aspect of the transparency movement. Some make it easy for people to make choices among physicians and hospitals, and just as notably, let providers see where they fall short and need to improve care. But others ask too much, forcing users to sort through rows and rows of eye-glazing data and jargon that requires a medical degree to fathom.

The Affordable Care Act calls for Physician Compare to offer information about the quality of care, including what physicians and their practices did and the outcome for patients, as well as care coordination; efficiency and resource use; patient experience and engagement; and safety, effectiveness, and timeliness. That’s a lot of information, and it demonstrates the tall order facing the federal government to make the reports meaningful and accessible, so that physicians and patients will both be more apt to use them.Continue reading…

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way …

I was struck by the recent story in the New York Times about a young boy who was misdiagnosed, and lost his life.

The boy, Rory Staunton, was a healthy, active 12-year old, until one day he ended up in the middle of our time-strapped, broken healthcare system.  He was treated by good, well-intentioned doctors, at a leading medical center, but something went terribly wrong.  What started out as a minor cut suffered in a basketball game turned into a major infection that took his life.

Yet nowhere along Rory’s journey, from boy with a bellyache on Thursday to gravely ill boy on Friday night, did anyone act on strong indications that he might be fighting for his life. Critical information gathered by his family doctor and during his first visit to NYU Langone was not used, was not at hand or was not viewed as important when decisions were made about his care, records show.

Story’s like Rory’s happen far too often, and in far too familiar ways.  Scientific studies show that patients are misdiagnosed between 15% and 44% of the time.  Researchers have found that the combination of fragmented medical information and not enough time between doctor and patient are the leading causes of this problem.  And yet, much of America is still unaware how often misdiagnosis happens.  Lost in all the politics of healthcare is a recognition that, at its core, healthcare must be about making sure each and every patient gets the right care.

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Why High Deductible Plans Matter

Someone once showed me an analysis that demonstrated that the sum of workers’ salaries and benefits has stayed remarkably constant in real terms over the last two decades.  This means that companies have compensated for the increasing cost of health insurance over time by holding back on wage increases.

You can understand this.  After all, if companies are not able to increase the price of goods and services they sell to the public, they need to hold factor costs relatively constant.  So if it was costing them more and more to provide health insurance to their workers, an offsetting amount would have to be removed from possible wage increases.

This dynamic is still in place, but it is showing up in a different way, by shifting costs to workers in the form of higher deductible health insurance policies.  Deductibles are different from co-pays, where you plunk down $15 or $20 for each appointment or prescription.  With deductibles, you pay the first costs incurred as you and your family make use of the health care system, the entire cost of the office visit or of the prescription, until a preset amount is reached.  After that level is reached, you still pay the co-pays.  A recent story in the Washington Post documented this trend.

Currently, this kind of high-deductible policy is often combined with health saving accounts that are funded by the employer.  These accounts let patients buy medical services and drugs with pretax dollars.   So, although your insurance plan might require you to pay more of a deductible out of your own money, you could still use the HSA to cover those out-of-pocket expenses.

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A (Real) Tragedy at the CDC

At the recent Health Care Quality Summit in Saskatoon, Sarah Patterson, the Virgina Mason Medical Center expert on Lean process improvement, noted,  “I’d rather have no board rather than an out-of-date board. They have to be real.”  She was referring to the PeopleLink Board that is placed is key locations in her hospital to provide real-time visual cues to front-line staff as to how they are doing in meeting quality, safety, work flow, and other metrics in the hospital.

Now comes the CDC, announcing in April 2012, that 21 states had significant decreases in central line-associated bloodstream infections between 2009 and 2010.

CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden, said “CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network is a critical tool for states to do prevention work. Once a state knows where problems lie, it can better assist facilities in correcting the issue and protecting patients.”

I am trying to be positive when progress is made, and I am also trying to be respectful of our public officials — whom I know to be dedicated and well-intentioned — but does Dr. Frieden really believe that posting data from 2009 and 2010 has a whit of value in helping hospitals reduce their rate of infections?

Try to imagine how you as a clinical leader, a hospital administrator, a nurse, a doctor, a resident, or a member of the board of trustees would use such data.  Answer:  You cannot because there is not use whatsoever.

I am also perturbed by the CDC’s insistence on using a “standardized infection ratio” as opposed to a simple count of infections or rate of infections per thousand patient days.

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The Importance of Data and Care Coordination

This house believes that society benefits when we share information online! This was the topic of debate before the Economist magazine’s Ideas Economy: Information 2012 conference here in San Francisco on Tuesday afternoon. Tom Standage, digital editor for the Economist, moderated this lively battle of wits.

Defending the motion was John Perry Barlow, former Grateful Dead lyricist and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “This is a little like defending sex!” he started off by saying.

I am paraphrasing here but he went on to say, ‘The Internet is an environment where what is great about human beings can manifest itself…collectively we are much smarter than any individual. Just as my mitochondria are unaware of my thoughts, we are largely unaware of our collective genius.’

I could not agree more.

Opposing the motion was Andrew Keen, Internet entrepreneur and author of “Cult of the Amateur.”

Again, paraphrasing, ‘Repressive governments and private companies who make the 1% look poor, are also benefitting. Most of the information is being stolen,’ Keen said. ‘Today everything has to be social.’

Keen rails against our intimate selves being taken from us and traded on by bazzilionaires, with not much coming back to we, the sharers. ‘Barlow would not be who he is, if he not had his years of very aloneness,’ said Keen, paraphrased.

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Patient Power

What happens when consumers are able to compare the performance of primary care physicians in their state using Consumer Reports, the magazine that’s so highly regarded for its ratings of thousands of products and services we all use every day? Well, for the first time ever, we’re about to find out.

A special Massachusetts version of July’s Consumer Reports magazine will feature a report entitled “How Does Your Doctor Compare?” along with a 24-page insert that includes ratings of nearly 500 primary care physician practices from across the state. The ratings are based on data from a comprehensive patient experience survey conducted by Massachusetts Health Quality Partners (MHQP), a coalition of consumers, physicians, hospitals, insurers, employers, government agencies, and researchers. The physician ratings report is also available online at www.mhqp.org.

In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk in the health care community about the importance of consumer empowerment and patient-centered care. This experimental collaboration between MHQP and Consumer Reports, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Aligning Forces for Quality program, helps move theory into practice, and will test some key assumptions about the value of transparency in the effort to improve the health care system. In many respects, ratings of primary care physicians are not new to Massachusetts. We at MHQP have been reporting the results of patient surveys and clinical quality data since 2006 and these reports have had a positive effect on health care in our state. But let’s face it, Consumer Reports adds a whole new dimension to the notion of transparency. Not surprisingly, their involvement has been met with both excitement and some trepidation in the physician community.Continue reading…

Consumer-Driven Medicine’s Fatal Flaw

The possibility that the Supreme Court will strike down all or part of the Affordable Care Act has given new life to Republican calls to put market mechanisms to work in holding down health care costs. The public is certain to hear lots more about it on the campaign trail later this year.

There’s one big problem, though. Markets cannot work when consumers and patients have almost no information about the prices they pay for health care.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Budget Committee, has resuscitated his proposal to turn Medicare over to insurance carriers. Future retirees would be offered financial help to pay for policies sold through public exchanges similar to the ones set up under the health care reform law, a.k.a. Obamacare. The subsidy would be limited to the value of the second-lowest cost plan offered on the market. The idea is that over-65 consumers, who would still have the option of remaining in traditional fee-for-service Medicare, would drive down costs by forcing the plans to compete for their business by offering lower-cost alternatives.

Other Republicans and conservative think tanks are touting laws that would allow insurance carriers to sell individuals policies across state lines, which would be coupled with incentives to shift people away from employer-based coverage. Under such plans, individuals could buy catastrophic coverage for expensive hospital stays while using the savings to pay the entire cost of routine health services, just like they pay out-of-pocket now for lawyers, flat-screen TVs or the week’s groceries.

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Getting Better

In my last column, I discussed the need for a better way of connecting the discrete healthcare-related problems identified by patients and physicians with solvers who might be able to develop a solution – perhaps an immediate fix, perhaps a longer-term effort.

I’m grateful for the volume of feedback received about this idea, which has included specific suggestions from patients; an introduction by several CEOs to a range of relatively-new efforts designed to tackle different key elements of this idea; and a few frustrated entrepreneurs who poignantly describe their struggles trying to change a fairly intransigent system.

A few observations about some of the online patient communities that I’ve encountered: First, there appear to be a number of patient-support (peer-to-peer) communities, both disease specific and more general. Several in the general category (e.g. MDJunction, Inspire, HealingWell) seem at least superficially similar; presumably the user experience depends upon the level of participation within a particular patient community.

Other models seem obviously distinctive: for example, AskaPatient provides fairly detailed patient-submitted reviews of various medications; the prose tends to be a bit less dry than the typical drug label – for example, a recent user of one neuropsychiatric medication reported that “Having an orgasm is like smashing a pimple. I am not sure if I want to continue taking this drug.” Yes, think that one over.Continue reading…

Rads are Good For You. Take Twice as Many.

Dear Mrs. Smith, I am writing to inform you that we exposed your body to an unnecessary level of radiation during your visit to our hospital. Oh, by the way, that was two years ago. We don’t intend to do anything about this for you. Also, we have known about this problem for a long time, and we don’t expect to change our procedures for future patients. Just wanted you to know. Yours in delivering the best health care in the world, Chief of Radiology and CEO. (Jointly signed.)

That’s the essence of this article by Walt Bogdanich and Jo Craven McGinty in the New York Times. Here are excerpts:

Long after questions were first raised about the overuse of powerful CT scans, hundreds of hospitals across the country needlessly exposed patients to radiation by scanning their chests twice on the same day, according to federal records and interviews with researchers.

Double scans expose patients to extra radiation while heaping millions of dollars in extra costs on an already overburdened Medicare program. A single CT scan of the chest is equal to about 350 standard chest X-rays, so two scans are twice that amount.

 

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