Monday, January 25, 2016

The Cost of Care When Nothing is Wrong

For many years, healthcare management has focused on the small percentage of people who drive very high costs.   I admit that I have never been comfortable with that formulation.  I could never get past the reality that people who are spending the most money in health care are really sick.  They are having surgeries and being hospitalized – taking very expensive biological agents and chemotherapy, and have diseases such as cancer and sepsis, strokes and myocardial infarctions.  They are the exact people who should have the most money spent on them.  While focusing only on that small percentage of people who are the sickest is perhaps administratively less costly and helpful to those individuals, as it gives those people the coordination they require which does save some money, it targets those with the lowest percentage of unnecessary care.  It ignores the much larger number of patients, with the larger percentage of unnecessary care, representing the bulk of those who seek care.
In my years of professional practice in the field of gastroenterology, more than half of my patients had pain and symptoms with no disease that could be found by testing.  They were people with belly pain, constipation, and diarrhea who were suffering, but had normal blood tests, normal x-rays and normal endoscopes.  They often spent large amounts of health care dollars as they bounced around the medical system, getting repeat tests, going on more visits to different specialists,and trying to find ways to cure their ills.  I was fairly successful treating those people because I understood, in the words of Francis Peabody spoken in 1925, that “The secret of the care of the patient is caring for the patient.”  I would see these types of people, talk to them about the issues in their lives that were causing them distress, and often instruct them to drink more water (I became famous for my water cure.)  Most importantly, I would tell them to come back and tell me how that worked because I was interested in how they felt. I asked them about their life and how their pain was affecting their work, family and finance.  Being attuned to the life context of patients has now been shown in controlled studies to have tremendous impact on the quality and cost of care by Saul Weiner and Alan Schwartz. Only rarely did I end up referring them to psychiatrists or psychologists, as I knew that the minute they perceived that I was telling them that there was nothing physically wrong, that it was “all psychological,” was the minute I would lose their trust.  I took these lessons with me as I entered the world of health policy and care management.  
In my health policy career, I studied populations and reviewed data and learned that while these types of patients may have been over 50% of my practice, they were an even larger percentage of primary care practices. Much of primary care is actually the art of following Voltaire’s dictum that “the role of the physician is to entertain the patient while nature cures the disease.” That is to say: finding ways to help people for whom there are no answers by lab and imaging and whose problems will abate over time. From a population health point of view, these people do not fit neatly into the high cost cohorts that we try to target.  Yet, these are people in pain and distress coming to the doctor to relieve that pain.  Sometimes they are people with chronic diseases however often their immediate pain is not related to their battles to manage their diabetes or heart disease.  They are in the health care system, spending money as a measure of hope, and a significant percentage of those dollars spent are unnecessary.  That gets to the heart of the best way to save money in health care….focusing on the unnecessary care that is often directed towards those who are the most difficult to treat and manage, because their problems do not fit neatly into the boxes that we in medicine want to create.  
A recent review in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry provocatively entitled, “Medically Unexplained Symptoms: Barriers to Effective Treatment When Nothing Is the Matter” By Lipsitt, Joseph, Meyer and Notman discusses the problem and suggests principles around how best to treat such patients. It starts out by describing a composite model patient who has belly pain and is afraid of having ovarian cancer, as her aunt had recently died of ovarian cancer.  The authors describe a cycle of having evaluation after evaluation with nothing found, and the physician referring her to psychiatric care.  As they state, “She feels misunderstood, rejected, disappointed, and angry.  She decides to find another doctor.  The cycle repeats for several months.”  They point out in the article, “These patients pose a significant burden to practicing physicians and the health care system, with estimates of nine times the cost of general medical care per patient.”  
The article suggests that the way to treat these people is to make the relationship paramount, and to focus on care versus cure.  This approach creates a clear path for health policy and care management in which the ability to build trust with these types of people is critical to accomplishing lower costs and higher quality for the population, as these are the patients who  make up the majority of all physician visits, and have the highest percentage of unnecessary care .  It is not as low cost administratively as focusing on small numbers of expensive patients; however it is a more effective way towards effective cost reduction and quality improvement.  

The model of care management we have built at Accolade allows these people to build a trusting relationship with Health Assistants who care for them as people while we allow the physicians and nurses who are evaluating and treating them to find the cures. The small number of people who become high cost patients are parenthetically better managed because they have formed trust with an assistant before the coordination they require is necessary.  It is an approach that assumes physicians practicing good medicine and assumes rational but emotional patients who need a trusted, caring person to be on the healthcare journey with them.  It follows Peabody’s dictum while achieving lower costs, as it is about caring rather than curing, regardless of the disease label, or lack of a disease label.  While such an approach may modestly increase administrative costs, it dramatically lowers total costs by addressing unnecessary care. Simply put, relationships are cheaper than tests and hospitalizations, and eliminating unnecessary costs by cultivating purposeful relationships will bring us closer to our health care goals.    

Monday, January 11, 2016

Physicians on the Assembly Line

The role of the physician in our evolving medical system is the subject of many studies, articles and angst on the part of the physician community.   In an article this week in the New York Times, about the efforts by a group of physicians in Oregon to unionize, the physicians involved discuss how their creative assessment and problem solving skills are brought to bear in even the most mundane cases.  Dr. Rajeev Alexander, one of the physicians involved is quoted as saying, “Real life is all about the narrative.  It’s sitting down and talking about bowel movements with a 79 year old woman for 45 minutes.  It’s not that interesting but that’s where it happens.”  Dr. Alexander may start out believing the source of this elderly woman’s constipation is related to dehydration, often the most common cause when elderly people have to be brought to the hospital due to bowel problems, however he is following the best medical approach by spending time to first determine that the problem is not something less common, and then trying to also determine factors that may contribute to the dehydration.  He brings a cognitive approach rather than a strictly reflexive approach.  However his approach from a pure resource management point of view may not be seen as efficient, hence the disagreements that led to the physician group forming a union. 

The system clearly needs to be more efficient.  We must be both customized and thoughtful for each patient, and also recognize that much of medicine is the same from patient to patient.  We must build more efficiency into the system.  Is the best way to do this by taking the traditional leadership role of physicians in patient care and making them into unionized workers?  In that same article, Dr. Brittany Ellison, another member of the physician group says, “We’re trained to be leaders but they treat us like assembly line workers.  You need that time with the patient where his wife is ratting on him.”  Is the best way to accomplish this by making the role of the physician be more of a follower – of algorithms, of management incentives, and of organizational goals, than a leader for their individual patient?  Should they be judged on population effect, efficiency and data capture rather than their work of caring for the individual?

While I have an MBA from Northwestern University and twenty-five years of experience working on the business side of the health care industry, I do not believe the answer lies in money, bonus programs or physician incentives.  I have found, that while physicians are people and want to make money and earn incentives, they are driven more by their own sense of commitment to their patients and their own sense of professionalism.  Dr. Robert Wachter, chief of the division of family medicine at the University of California, San Francisco in that same article states, “If at the end of the year, 10 percent of your salary is at risk based on whether you have consistently clean hands, what patients say about you, readmission rates, that can be OK. The counterargument is that you could screw things up by tying everything to financial incentives.  You stomp on their intrinsic motivation.”

Appealing to that intrinsic motivation is critical for the individual patient interactions that make up that data.  The goal when I or the professionals who work with me at Accolade, help people through the health care system is to find ways to bring out the best in people by finding ways to use the internal motivation of both doctor and patient.  We help people find the right clinicians for the problems they have and help them communicate with their doctors, nurses, and other health professionals in such a way so as to bring out the best in their clinician. 

Maybe we have to rethink the role of the doctor.  Perhaps we need to reserve the use of the doctor as a true leader and always team them with another professional who can spend more time filling in the blanks for them.  We have experiments going on around the country which are as varied as having nurse practitioners be the front lines for most patient interactions, to having scribes be with doctors to free them from the data capture duties that they have.  At Accolade we have pioneered a new profession of Health Assistant to assist patient and doctor with the life context issues, emotions and clinical decisions that patients must make (which specialty to see for my problem, what questions should I ask the doctor, how can I balance my life responsibilities with my compliance needs).  A Health Assistant who is part of a team led by a creative problem-solving physician could make the physician more efficient and allow for more access to the system.   Whatever the solutions that are developed, it should not be to make the physician into an assembly line worker.  

Sunday, January 3, 2016

“Strangers at the Bedside” and the Internet Economy

In my last post, I wrote about information systems and health care and the challenge of finding and treating the “black swans” which often separates superior medical care from  barely adequate or even bad medical care.  I define barely adequate care as care that inadvertently takes advantage of the body’s tendency to heal itself and represents a doctor and /or nurse being more lucky than smart.  The movement from medicine being an art, a science and a profession to also being a business is today tied to an economy which is rapidly changing as the Internet economy becomes a major factor in our lives and therefore in health care. 

But first, I must pursue some personal history.  In my education and development both as a physician and as a healthcare systems expert, certain books were formative, having a dramatic impact on my thinking.  One such book was “Strangers at the Bedside” by David J. Rothman.  Professor Rothman is a historian by training however he holds the post of the Bernard Schoenberg Professor of Social Medicine and Director of the Center for the Study of Society and Medicine at Columbia University.  To make this personal story more complex, Bernard Schoenberg for whom Professor Rothman’s academic post is named, was a professor of mine at Columbia when I was in medical school and was someone who taught me to look at the social and emotional context that each patient brought with them to the doctor-patient encounter. 

In his book, David Rothman describes the changing dynamic in social and ethical issues in medicine, especially in those issues involving clinical research, end-of-life, and other bioethical dilemmas such as choosing patients for transplants with limited access to donor organs.  He discusses the arrival of sociologists, ethicists, theologians and others trained in the humanities into these decisions that previously were the purview of only the treating physician.  In a future post I plan to write more about David Rothman’s words now twenty-five years after he wrote them.  He does not write about the business people, the management experts and the information technology engineers and their entry into the bedside dynamic yet those may be the more important “strangers at the bedside” in today’s world.

As medicine, health care delivery systems, and health information technology progress, the industry must be informed by more than medical facts and prospective.  Thomas Friedman’s 1999 book entitled “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” in which he describes the drivers behind globalization has nothing to do with health care.  In that book, which came only eight years after David Rothman’s book, Friedman talks of a changing world and speaks about the democratization effect that globalization could have on technology, finance and information.  I remember reading his book when it was first published and believing, somewhat naively perhaps, that he had left out the democratization of health care in his formulation.  I believed that through the internet and through the free movement of health and medical information, health care which is far too important to be left only to doctors, as David Rothman points out so elegantly, was going to undergo a revolution for the better by making the mystery of medicine – the guild aspect of the medical profession – fall to the wayside of an informed, democratized public. 

I was too optimistic.  I minimized the profound complexity of medical care and the fact that people, for the most part, access medical care only episodically and focus on their life issues before focusing on their health issues.  I left out the spiritual dimension of care that is a necessary part of medicine and has been written about so eloquently by people such as Daniel Sulmasy, who wrote another of my formative books, “The Healer’s Calling.”

I also missed the nature of an Internet economy and the tendency towards monopoly that often defines the best Internet companies.  A recent article in The New Yorker by Om Malik entitled, “In Silicon Valley Now, It’s Almost Always Winner Takes All” cogently presented the reasons for this monopolistic tendency to prevail in this “democratized” world.  As Malik writes, “In the course of nearly two decades closely following (and writing about) Silicon Valley, I have seen products and markets go through three distinct phases.  The first is when there is a new idea, product, service, or technology dreamed up by a clever person or group of people.  For a brief while, that idea becomes popular, which leads to the emergence of dozens of imitators, funded in part by the venture community.  Most of those companies die.  When the dust settles, there are one or two or three players left standing.  Rarely do you end up with true competition.” 

Malik writes about the Network effect, often called Metcalfe’s Law after Bob Metcalfe inventor of The Ethernet, which occurs when the value of a product or service goes up with the number of people using it.  It creates a loop of algorithms, infrastructure, money and data and that leads to a winner-take-all approach.  This is especially recognized by the investors who provide the capital for these new companies.  The investor community and the public markets take large risks to predict the next monopolies and in this Internet economy, punish anything less than a monopoly or a duopoly since according to Malik’s cogent analysis, most of those companies die. 

What happens when this winner-take-all type of economy meets health care?  In some ways we have a direct example with Epic Systems which now supplies the hospital software that holds 54% of the US population’s health records.  It is a marvelous system designed by engineers and hospital administrators and is masterful at capturing data for billing purposes and for inventory purposes.  Physicians will tell you it can divert their focus from the patients and while it does make accessing records when not at the bedside easier, it does not tell the patient’s story – their life context and emotional struggles with illness that are critical to good care, in the way it must.  Competition is being shut out because, as Metcalfe’s Law suggests, the more EPIC is the standard and the more data they have, the more monopolistic they can become.  There is an old joke told in the early days of computing (and I am old enough to remember).  It goes, “How many Microsoft engineers does it take to change a light bulb?”  The answer – “None because Bill Gates declared that darkness is the standard.”  Will we define a health care standard that removes the human aspects from care even though those elements are arguably the most important?

Perhaps a good example that is not in health care and not even in the Internet is the story of agribusiness in the United States.  In the food business, four companies control over 60% of grain production.  This came about from a starting point of an America whose food came almost entirely from family farms.  It occurred because the Internet realities of algorithms, infrastructure, money and data have their counterpoints in food production, in land, infrastructure, money and logistics.  The more you control land, infrastructure and logistics, the more money you can raise and the more you can increase control of the market. On the positive side, this has led to more efficient use of farmland, more availability of food to the market on a year round basis, and more consistency in preventing food borne illness.  On the negative side, we have been subject to monopolistic tendencies by these companies, leading to episodic need for lawsuits and regulatory action, a loss of family farms and the communities they supported, and a loss of the unique aspects of local food that can lead to healthier more varied diets.  We have traded efficiency and the positive of availability for a loss of flavor (for those of us who value that), loss of varied nutritional sources, and perhaps potential environmental damage as well (I will let those discussions occur elsewhere).  Management and finance prioritized over dedication and even love of the land and the amazing variety of food the land produces have driven this tendency. 

I now watch the froth of Internet health companies being pursued and funded by venture capitalists and the hope being put into information technology in health care by both government and investors.  I welcome the creativity and the new approaches but wish those to be driven by a desire to improve the care for each unique patient as well as the desire to foster efficiency.  I for one remain enamored of a democratization of health care and repeat a line I wrote earlier in this post and have been saying for years, that health care is too important to be left to doctors and nurses.  However, health care is also too important to leave out doctors and nurses.  It is too important to leave health care only to the management experts and the information system engineers.  Health professionals train and take oaths and have experience that gives them a special voice in protecting the personal aspects of medical care. 

David Rothman states that while “the physicians are alert to numbers and findings from random clinical trials carry critical authority” they also recognize that no two patients are alike and that medicine is inherently uncertain.  Clinicians value experience highly as they realize that only through experience do professionals understand the management of that inherent uncertainty and how individuals can vary from the clinical trials.   Experienced clinicians understand, as I discussed in my last blog, the importance of always looking for the unexpected.  We as patients – and we are all patients at one point or another – should also value that knowledge and experience and always hope to have doctors and nurses, who use technology and who respect our ability to find information for ourselves on the Internet and from other sources.  We should also demand that the technology support health professionals treating us all as the potential “black swan” – the unexpected disease or circumstance and not as a data point in an Internet algorithm or on a balance sheet.  I believe that can only occur if experienced caring clinicians are involved in the development of this new world of the health care Internet economy and ironically do not end up as the new strangers at the bedside.