Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Teamwork Can Help Avert the Pending Cost Crisis in Health Care
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).