Sunday, April 25, 2010

Disruptive Changes Are Coming to the Delivery of Medical Care

The following was an invited posst at Harvard Business Review last Friday.

We have grown accustomed to scientific research producing major medical advances such as those I wrote about in The Future of Medicine — Megatrends in Healthcare. But there are now some very disruptive changes coming in how medical care will be delivered by your doctor or hospital.

Some examples:

Team-based care for chronic illness. The combination of an aging population and adverse behaviors such as obesity and smoking will create epidemics of diabetes, heart failure, and other diseases that last a lifetime and are difficult to treat. They require team-based, multi-disciplinary care. Team-based care is not the norm today, and the lack of it substantially increases the costs and diminishes the quality of care. The primary care physician must become the team coordinator, be more an orchestrator and less an intervener.

Echelons of care for acute illness. Advances in the care of as heart attacks and strokes also demand a different model of care. The role model is trauma — people with minor injuries are sent to a local ER, more severely injured to a regional trauma center, and the most severe to a Level 1 dedicated trauma center. This approach is accepted for trauma but not yet for heart attacks and stroke. Today the standard of care for a heart attack is immediate angioplasty with stent placement to stop the heart attack in progress and reduce heart muscle damage. The patient brought to a small community hospital should be referred on to a larger center equipped with trained interventional cardiologists, an expert staff, and the needed equipment — all available 24/7. This will result in higher-quality care but will disrupt the economics of many doctors and hospitals.

More high-tech hospitals. More serious illnesses means there will be a need for more hospitals, more beds (especially ICU beds), and more operating rooms with highly sophisticated technologies. This marks a departure from recent decades, when the mantra has been "too many hospitals and too many beds." Since smaller hospitals will have difficulty accessing the credit markets to finance expensive technology and facilities, we can expect to see a wave of hospital mergers and fewer stand-alone hospitals.

Patient-centric medicine. There is an emergence of consumerism in health care. ("The patient will no longer be patient.") So, our current provider-oriented culture will have to change to a patient-oriented culture. Patients will insist on prompt service, improved safety and quality, greater respect, much more convenience, and a closure of the current information gap between doctor and patient. Absent satisfaction, patients will go elsewhere. These are very disruptive changes indeed from the present provider-centric approach to care delivery.

Delegation of care. Shortages of physicians will mean more reliance on others to deliver care — e.g., nurse practioneers and physician's assistants for primary care, social workers and psychologists for mental health care, and optometrists for vision care. Physicians will need to change their attitudes toward these providers by involving them and embracing their value.

A new value proposition for technology. We think of new technologies as being of value if they improve diagnosis, treatment, or prevention while providing a decent return on investment. (See my earlier post on this topic.) But in the future, we will also expect a new technology to help health care professionals compensate for shortages of certain kinds of care providers, enhance their responsiveness to more demanding patients, control rather than exacerbate costs, and enhance safety and quality — very different from today's value proposition.

Employee physicians. Professionals' expectations are changing as much as those of patients. While most physicians in the U.S. today are in private practice, a growing number — especially younger ones — want to be employed. They want to spend less time on administrative tasks and want more time for family activities. Women are now 50% of graduates from medical school; many will want time off for child-rearing, further exacerbating the shortage of doctors..

E-health. The internet and digital medical information will have a major disruptive effect on the practice of medicine. Many physicians eschew these technologies today — often because insurers don't reimburse them for the time involved. But they will be expected by their patients to use e-mails, telemedicine and telediagnosis, ePrescriptions, and an electronic medical record. If doctors want to keep their patients, they'll have to change.

These are some of the major changes I see coming down the pike. Do you agree that they will transform the delivery of care? Are there others you would add to the list?

What are the challenges that health care organizations and professionals must overcome to make the transition to this new age? Will there be strong resistance or will change come about smoothly?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Is Technology a Cost Driver or a Cost Saver in Health Care?

The following was an invited post on the Harvard Business Review at

Pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and medical-device and equipment companies have been extremely effective at producing innovations that have created major benefits for medical care. But the cost of new patented drugs and devices (pacemakers, defibrillators, stents, ventricular assist devices, insulin pumps, laparoscopic surgical instruments, etc.) are high. As a result, many argue that these advances are driving up the costs of health care. This is a distorted view.
In many cases, the cause of rising health-care costs are not the technologies per se; it is a flawed payment system.
Here is an example.
Stomach ulcers are common, mostly caused by a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori, or H. pylori. Discovered about 30 years ago, it lives in the stomach with all of its acid and invades the wall of the stomach. Now we can cure ulcers with antibiotics. A common therapy is clarithromycin and amoxicillin combined with a proton pump inhibitor (i.e., acid suppressor) like Prilosec, Nexium, Protonix, or Prevacid. It is essential to take the three drugs twice a day without fail for 14 days; anything less and the cure rate goes down substantially.
So the makers of Prevacid have come out with a nicely designed package called Prevpac, which contains the two antibiotics and the proton pump inhibitor and clearly labels the morning and evening doses. Frankly, it is a good idea. It cost about $350 at the pharmacy. Not an unreasonable price to pay to eliminate a disease that in the past had been chronic and impossible to cure, a disease that often reduced quality of life and frequently necessitated surgery, right?
Here's the catch: Until recently, Prevacid, one of the drugs in the Prevpac package, was on patent and its price was very high. If one bought the three drugs individually, the price was about $250. (Go figure.) And if one substituted Prilosec (about $30 over the counter) for the Prevacid along with the clarithromycin and amoxicillin, it would bring the price down to under $100. Multiply this by the number of individuals who are found to have stomach ulcerations caused by H. Pylori and you would save some big money nationally.
But that is not the way it works. Your insurance probably has a $15 deductible. So you only pay $15 of the $350, a good bargain for you. If you go the route of buying the three drugs separately for $250, you have to pay $45 ($15 X 3). And if you opt for the Prilosec substitution, the price to you is $60 ($15 X 2 plus $30.)
The point is that our insurance system is full of perverse incentives. So you will choose the Prevpac or your doctor will do so for you to help you save some money. It would be much better if we paid, say, the first $1,000 of our medical bills out of pocket each year and then had insurance kick in. Insurance would be much cheaper and we would become aware of the cost implications, ask our doctor for assistance, and go with the cheaper yet equally effective approach.
The U.S. payment system also impedes the adoption of innovative technologies that could reduce the cost of health care.
For example, distance medicine like telemedicine, teleconsults, telediagnosis, and simple e-mails can reduce the need for visiting the doctor's office and emergency rooms and can prevent unnecessary hospitalizations. These all will obviously reduce overall costs, but currently there is no reimbursement for telemedicine, teleconsults, and the time it takes for physicians to do e-mails. Similarly, there is no reimbursement for tele-diagnostic devices such as the electronic home scale that reports daily weight to the physician's office.
Reimbursement will be necessary if these valuable, cost-saving techniques are to become widely utilized. Or, if you had a high deductible policy, you would save real money by e-mailing your doctor and paying a minimal fee rather than coming into the office.

We can also harness technologies that reduce expenditures by improving safety and quality. Prescribing drugs via e-mail in the office or via the hospital computer (known as computer physician order entry or CPOE) can eliminate illegible handwriting, prevent prescribing to someone who is allergic to a drug, avoid adverse drug interactions, and assist the physician in prescribing the correct dose, number of doses per day, and route of administration (e.g., oral, intravenous, intramuscular injection, rectal, etc).
Other important technologies that can help reduce costs are simulators, robots, and identification devices. Indeed, simulation will profoundly impact the safety and quality of operative procedures, cardiac catheterization, colonoscopy, and many other procedures and, in turn, drastically affect cost management. It can shorten the time it takes to become proficient thereby reducing training time and costs.
These are but a few of the ways technology can actually lead to lower costs.
Questions we need to consider are:
How can we maximize the value of technologies to reduce costs while improving quality and safety?
How can we advance the needed evidence to assure that we only select truly useful technologies?
How can we stimulate physicians to only recommend cost-effective drugs or devices for their patients?
How can we encourage individuals to select high-deductible health plans and then take an active role in making medical decisions?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Teamwork Can Help Avert the Pending Cost Crisis in Health Care

The following piece by me was posted on the Harvard Business Review blog yesterday.

Most health care money in the United States goes largely for the care of people with complex chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart failure, cancer, lung disease, and the like. We will soon see many more individuals with these illnesses because of two factors: the population is aging ("old parts wear out") and adverse behaviors such as poor nutrition, overeating, lack of exercise, and smoking. This will cause costs to soar, which will force the U.S. to revamp how we care for this population.
Such a revamp is long overdue.
The traditional American approach to medicine is for one physician to take care of the patient's illness. (Think here of the internist treating pneumonia with an antibiotic or the surgeon treating an inflamed appendix with a scalpel.)
But chronic illnesses require a multi-disciplinary team approach to care. The diabetic patient, for example, needs an internist, an endocrinologist, a podiatrist, an ophthalmologist, a nutritionist, an exercise physiologist, and many others to assure comprehensive care of high quality.
The key is to have one person who coordinates all of the various providers to be sure they have the right information, are all working together, and are all following an agreed-to care plan. They need not all be physicians. Indeed other providers are equally important to the team-based approach and they add less costs.
Mostly, this just does not happen today. In part, it is because of the medical culture which needs to change; "it's the way we do it" (and have done it for over a century).
But perhaps the biggest culprit is the lack of a fee structure that encourages the primary care physician to coordinate the care properly. Coordinating the care of a patient with a complicated illness that lasts a lifetime takes a lot of time, but this time is not now compensated by most insurance. Since most primary care physicians are very busy already, and since they are not accustomed to coordinating care, this is a new requirement that, absent a payment structure as incentive, they will just not accept readily.
So today what happens is a lack of coordination and an excessive number of tests, X-rays, procedures, and occasionally hospitalizations. The result is much lower quality care than could or should be provided and much higher costs than necessary.
Consider the retired individual who called me saying he was on 23 medications, some multiple times per day. He stated he was not feeling well despite all the meds. And despite his Medicare, Medigap, and Part D plans, he was spending huge sums of money. The 23 included drugs for diabetes and heart failure. So he clearly had serious underlying diseases.
The prescriptions also included three medications for a problem that probably did not require any medication. But those meds, given by four different physicians and adjusted independently by each of the four, led to a side effect for which another physician prescribed yet another medication. This new drug in turn caused yet another problem that led to a serious infection, hospitalization, and a stay in the intensive care unit. The result was less-than-stellar care (to put it politely) at an incredible expense.
But once he found a primary care physician who took the time to understand what was needed, it was only two months until he was down to seven medications, feeling better, and spending a lot less money (as were his insurers).
The diagnosis is clear. Good care coordination means better quality and less expense. Lack of care coordination for those with complex chronic illnesses means poorer quality and a lot more expense
The treatment is equally clear. Physicians, especially primary care physicians, need to be incented — with money — to provide the care coordination are that patients with chronic illnesses need. This treatment could and should begin now.
It is also important to remember that prevention is always better than having to deal with an illness later. Most of these chronic illnesses are the result of our own adverse lifestyle and behaviors; they do not have to occur. Physicians should therefore be encouraged (again with monetary incentives) to spend the time necessary to offer realistic preventive services to their patients.
The moral of the story is that improving quality will not only mean better health care, it will also substantially reduce the costs. An excellent return on investment.

Praise for Dr Schimpff

The craft of science writing requires skills that are arguably the most underestimated and misunderstood in the media world. Dumbing down all too often gets mistaken for clarity. Showmanship frequently masks a poor presentation of scientific issues. Factoids are paraded in lieu of ideas. Answers are marketed at the expense of searching questions. By contrast, Steve Schimpff provides a fine combination of enlightenment and reading satisfaction. As a medical scientist he brings his readers encyclopedic knowledge of his subject. As a teacher and as a medical ambassador to other disciplines he's learned how to explain medical breakthroughs without unnecessary jargon. As an advisor to policymakers he's acquired the knack of cutting directly to the practical effects, showing how advances in medical science affect the big lifestyle and economic questions that concern us all. But Schimpff's greatest strength as a writer is that he's a physician through and through, caring above all for the person. His engaging conversational style, insights and fascinating treasury of cutting-edge information leave both lay readers and medical professionals turning his pages. In his hands the impact of new medical technologies and discoveries becomes an engrossing story about what lies ahead for us in the 21st century: as healthy people, as patients of all ages, as children, as parents, as taxpayers, as both consumers and providers of health services. There can be few greater stories than the adventure of what awaits our minds, bodies, budgets, lifespans and societies as new technologies change our world. Schimpff tells it with passion, vision, sweep, intelligence and an urgency that none of us can ignore.

-- N.J. Slabbert, science writer, co-author of Innovation, The Key to Prosperity: Technology & America's Role in the 21st Century Global Economy (with Aris Melissaratos, director of technology enterprise at the John Hopkins University).