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A Hospital That Is a World Leader On Transparency

Leah BinderJeremy Hunt, secretary of state for health in Britain, recently toured the Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle. He said  the visit was “inspirational” and announced plans to have the British National Health Service (NHS) sign up “heart and soul” to a similar culture of safety and transparency. Hunt wants doctors and nurses in NHS to “say sorry” for mistakes and improve openness among hospitals in disclosing safety events.

I had a similar reaction to my tour of Virginia Mason. The hospital appears impressive—and truly gets impressive results. My nonprofit, the Leapfrog Group, annually takes a cold, hard look at the hospital’s data and named Virginia Mason one of two “top hospitals of the decade” in 2010. Every year, it ranks near the top of our national ratings.

Virginia Mason’s success is rooted in its famous application of the principles of Japanese manufacturing to disrupt how it delivered care, partly at the behest of one of Seattle’s flagship employers, Boeing. There are numerous media stories and a book recounting the culture of innovation Virginia Mason deployed to achieve its great results, so I won’t belabor the point here. But at its essence is Virginia Mason’s unusual approach to transparency. Employees are encouraged to “stop the line” – that is, report when there’s a near miss or error. Just as Toyota assembly workers are encouraged to stop production if they spot an engineering or safety problem, Virginia Mason looks for every opportunity to publicly disclose and closely track performance.

It is not normal for a hospital to clamor for such transparency. Exhibit A: the Leapfrog Hospital Survey, my organization’s free, voluntary national survey that publicly reports performance by hospital on a variety of quality and safety indicators. More than half of U.S. hospitals refuse the invitation of their regional business community to participate in Leapfrog, suggesting that transparency isn’t at the top of their agenda. But for Virginia Mason and an elite group of other hospital systems, not only is the transparency of Leapfrog a welcome feature, but they challenge us to report even more data, faster.

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Can Hospitals Survive? Part II

In 1980, while working at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, I wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review entitled “The Health Care Market: Can Hospitals Survive?”. This article, and the book which followed, argued that hospitals faced a tripartite existential threat:

1)  ambulatory technologies that would enable physicians to compete successfully with hospitals at lower cost in their offices or freestanding settings, 2)  post-acute technologies that would enable presently hospitalized patients to be managed at home and 3) rapidly growing managed care plans that would “ration” inpatient care and bargain aggressively to pay less for the care actually provided.

I predicted a significant decline in inpatient care in the future, and urged hospitals to diversify aggressively into ambulatory and post acute services.   Many did so.  A smaller number, led by organizations like Henry Ford Health System of Detroit and Utah’s Intermountain Health Care, also sponsored health insurance plans and became what are called today “Integrated Delivery Networks” (IDN’s).

In the ensuing thirty years, US hospital inpatient census fell more than 30%, despite ninety million more Americans.   However, hospitals’ ambulatory services volume more than tripled, more than offsetting the inpatient losses; the hospital industry’s total revenues grew almost ten fold.

Ironically, this ambulatory care explosion is now the main reason why healthcare in the US costs so much more than in other countries.  We use far fewer days of inpatient care than any other country in the world.  But as the McKinsey Global Institute showed in 2008 ambulatory spending accounts for two thirds of the difference between what the US spends on healthcare and what other countries spend, far outstripping the contribution of higher drug prices or our multi-payer health financing system.

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