Thursday, February 28, 2013

Why Even Radiologists Can Miss A Gorilla Hiding In Plain Sight

Notice anything unusual about this lung scan? Harvard researchers found that 83 percent of radiologists didn't notice the gorilla in the top right portion of this image.

Trafton Drew and Jeremy Wolfe
Notice anything unusual about this lung scan? Harvard researchers found that 83 percent of radiologists didn't notice the gorilla in the top right portion of this image.

Notice anything unusual about this lung scan? Harvard researchers found that 83 percent of radiologists didn't notice the gorilla in the top right portion of this image.

Trafton Drew and Jeremy Wolfe

This story begins with a group of people who are expert at looking: the professional searchers known as radiologists.

"If you watch radiologists do what they do, [you're] absolutely convinced that they are like superhuman," says Trafton Drew, an attention researcher at Harvard Medical School.

About three years ago, Drew started visiting the dark, cavelike "reading rooms" where radiologists do their work. For hours he would stand watching them, in awe that they could so easily see in the images before them things that to Drew were simply invisible.

"These tiny little nodules that I can't even see when people point to them — they're just in a different world when it comes to finding this very, very hard-to-find thing," Drew says.

 

YouTube

In the Invisible Gorilla study, subjects have to count how many times the people in white shirts pass the basketball. By focusing their attention on the ball, they tend to not notice when a guy in a gorilla suit shows up.

But radiologists still sometimes fail to see important things, and Drew wanted to understand more. Because of his line of work, he was naturally familiar with one of the most famous studies in the field of attention research, the Invisible Gorilla study.

In that groundbreaking study, research subjects are shown a video of two teams of kids — one team wears white; the other wears black — passing two basketballs back and forth between players as they dodge and weave around each other. Before it begins, viewers are told their responsibility is to do one thing and one thing only: count how many times the players wearing white pass the ball to each other.

This task isn't easy. Because the players are constantly moving around, viewers really have to concentrate to count the throws.

Then, about a half-minute into the video, a large man in a gorilla suit walks on screen, directly to the middle of the circle of kids. He stops momentarily in the center of the circle, looks straight ahead, beats his chest, and then casually strolls off the screen.

The kids keep playing, and then the video ends and a series of questions appear, including: "Did you see the gorilla?"

"Sounds ridiculous, right?" says Drew. "There's a gorilla on the screen — of course you're going to see it! But 50 percent of people miss the gorilla."

This is because when you ask someone to perform a challenging task, without realizing it, their attention narrows and blocks out other things. So, often, they literally can't see even a huge, hairy gorilla that appears directly in front of them.

That effect is called "inattentional blindness" — which brings us back to the expert lookers, the radiologists.

Drew wondered if somehow being so well-trained in searching would make them immune to missing large, hairy gorillas. "You might expect that because they're experts, they would notice if something unusual was there," he says.

He took a picture of a man in a gorilla suit shaking his fist, and he superimposed that image on a series of slides that radiologists typically look at when they're searching for cancer. He then asked a bunch of radiologists to review the slides of lungs for cancerous nodules. He wanted to see if they would notice a gorilla the size of a matchbook glaring angrily at them from inside the slide.

But they didn't: 83 percent of the radiologists missed it, Drew says.

This wasn't because the eyes of the radiologists didn't happen to fall on the large, angry gorilla. Instead, the problem was in the way their brains had framed what they were doing. They were looking for cancer nodules, not gorillas. "They look right at it, but because they're not looking for a gorilla, they don't see that it's a gorilla," Drew says.

In other words, what we're thinking about — what we're focused on — filters the world around us so aggressively that it literally shapes what we see. So, Drew says, we need to think carefully about the instructions we give to professional searchers like radiologists or people looking for terrorist activity, because what we tell them to look for will in part determine what they see and don't see.

Drew and his co-author Jeremy Wolfe are doing more studies, looking at how to help radiologists see both visually and cognitively the things that hide, sometimes in plain sight.

In a well documented aspect of the human mind and one we have all probably experienced in one form or another:
 

Inattentional Blindness
If you have seen the gorilla video before (there is a whole web site dedicated to this here) and their video

And the original version of this (I think more compelling) can be seen here

So important in so many areas - in the cockpit of airplanes many of the accidents can be traced to failure to identify what may seem clear indications of the fault or problems. The most recent example in the cockpit of air france Flight 447. My favorite detailed report came in Popular Mechanics: What Really Happened Aboard Air France 447 that highlighted the fact the aircraft was in a user induced stall
during its entire 3 minute 30 second descent from 38,000 feet before it hit the ocean surface

Despite multiple warnings from the onboard systems (visual and audible)

In healthcare the same challenges exist and this was aptly demonstrated in this study by Drew who:


He took a picture of a man in a gorilla suit shaking his fist, and he superimposed that image on a series of slides that radiologists typically look at when they're searching for cancer. He then asked a bunch of radiologists to review the slides of lungs for cancerous nodules. He wanted to see if they would notice a gorilla the size of a matchbook glaring angrily at them from inside the slide.

83% of radiologists missed it.

A problem when we are asking our radiologists (and doctors) to speed through even more images (and patients in less time)

I suspect technology is going to have to help in catching some of these instances and provide additional backup to the human mind. In fact "Assure" is one example of soem of the steps being taken towards this goal

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us

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THere is something fundamentally wrong and flawed with a system that bills patients at highly variable rates, the highest to those with no "insurance" or poor "insurance".
Insurance in this instance seems like a poor term to describe a system that even with full standard coverage still costs patients thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars of unexpected cost.

It has gotten worse and as the McKinsey study cited in the article highlights


we spend more on health care than the next 10 biggest spenders combined: Japan, Germany, France, China, the U.K., Italy, Canada, Brazil, Spain and Australia. We may be shocked at the $60 billion price tag for cleaning up after Hurricane Sandy. We spent almost that much last week on health care. We spend more every year on artificial knees and hips than what Hollywood collects at the box office. We spend two or three times that much on durable medical devices like canes and wheelchairs, in part because a heavily lobbied Congress forces Medicare to pay 25% to 75% more for this equipment than it would cost at Walmart

There are many drivers but central to them are the disconnect between the payers and the people accessing care. Without any personal accountability it is easy to access the care with no thought of the cost or the possible alternatives and better choices.

Some of the reasons behind this are vested in the history of healthcare and how we got here - but just because that was the way it was done before does not mean it is the way we have to do it now.

There has to be a better way - the same as there has to be a better way of compensating the healthcare providers fairly for the work they do. The system currently is designed to pay for things done not for outcomes and results. And clinicians are locked into a system that forces them to document in great detail, oftentimes repeating information that is already in the medical record - because if they don't they don't get paid
Many wi ll tell you the information is unnecessary and we see some of the effects with reports of duplicate data. So much better to capture decision making, real information and allow the documentation to be the communication tool between clinicians (which was always the original intent) and then determine the care provided and a fair compensation for the hospital, the provider and everyone involved for delivering that care (and importantly linked ot results not to just delivering the care)

I know I am hoping this is on a pathway to getting fixed. At some point I will be facing bills and challenges such as these - and since the education system (thats a whole other blog posting on the meteoric rise of education costs) has essentially stripped me of any savings and value in my one big investment (my house) I like many others are probably tapped out and have little to call upon when we will inevitably face these challenges. That puts me rooting for major change in healthcare, the system with a move to pay for performance much of which is embodied in the ACO initiative.

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Thursday, February 21, 2013

NY Times rewrites Health IT History

The approach came in 2009, in a presentation to doctors by Allscripts Healthcare Solutions of Chicago, a well-connected player in the lucrative business of digital medical records. That February, after years of behind-the-scenes lobbying by Allscripts and others, legislation to promote the use of electronic records was signed into law as part of President Obama’s economic stimulus bill. The rewards, Allscripts suggested, were at hand.

But today, as doctors and hospitals struggle to make new records systems work, the clear winners are big companies like Allscripts that lobbied for that legislation and pushed aside smaller competitors.

While proponents say new record-keeping technologies will one day reduce costs and improve care, profits and sales are soaring now across the records industry. At Allscripts, annual sales have more than doubled from $548 million in 2009 to an estimated $1.44 billion last year, partly reflecting daring acquisitions made on the bet that the legislation would be a boon for the industry. At the Cerner Corporation of Kansas City, Mo., sales rose 60 percent during that period. With money pouring in, top executives are enjoying Wall Street-style paydays.

None of that would have happened without the health records legislation that was included in the 2009 economic stimulus bill — and the lobbying that helped produce it. Along the way, the records industry made hundreds of thousands of dollars of political contributions to both Democrats and Republicans. In some cases, the ties went deeper. Glen E. Tullman, until recently the chief executive of Allscripts, was health technology adviser to the 2008 Obama campaign. As C.E.O. of Allscripts, he visited the White House no fewer than seven times after President Obama took office in 2009, according to White House records.

Mr. Tullman, who left Allscripts late last year after a boardroom power struggle, characterized his activities in Washington as an attempt to educate lawmakers and the administration.

“We really haven’t done any lobbying,” Mr. Tullman said in an interview. “I think it’s very common with every administration that when they want to talk about the automotive industry, they convene automotive executives, and when they want to talk about the Internet, they convene Internet executives.”

Between 2008 and 2012, a time of intense lobbying in the area around the passage of the legislation and how the rules for government incentives would be shaped, Mr. Tullman personally made $225,000 in political contributions. While tens of thousands of those dollars went to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, money was also being sprinkled toward Senator Max Baucus, the Democratic senator from Montana who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Jay D. Rockefeller, the Democrat from West Virginia who heads the Commerce Committee. Mr. Tullman said his recent personal contributions to various politicians had largely been driven by his interest in supporting President Obama and in seeing his re-election.

Cerner’s lobbying dollars doubled to nearly $400,000 between 2006 and last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. While its political action committee contributed a little to some Democrats in 2008, including Senator Baucus, its contributions last year went almost entirely to Republicans, with a large amount going to the Mitt Romney campaign.

Current and former industry executives say that big digital records companies like Cerner, Allscripts and Epic Systems of Verona, Wis., have reaped enormous rewards because of the legislation they pushed for. “Nothing that these companies did in my eyes was spectacular,” said John Gomez, the former head of technology at Allscripts. “They grew as a result of government incentives.”

Executives at smaller records companies say the legislation cemented the established companies’ leading positions in the field, making it difficult for others to break into the business and innovate. Until the 2009 legislation, growth at the leading records firms was steady; since then, it has been explosive. Annual sales growth at Cerner, for instance, has doubled to 20 percent from 10 percent.

“We called it the Sunny von B├╝low bill. These companies that should have been dead were being put on machines and kept alive for another few years,” said Jonathan Bush, co-founder of the cloud-based firm Athenahealth and a first cousin to former President George W. Bush. “The biggest players drew this incredible huddle around the rule-makers and the rules are ridiculously favorable to these companies and ridiculously unfavorable to society.”

This industry, which was pioneered in the late 1970s, first gained widespread attention in 2004 when President Bush in his State of the Union speech called for digitizing national health records.

“After that, every technology C.E.O. wanting a piece of health care would have visited me every day if I had let them,” said David Brailer, whom President Bush appointed as the nation’s first health information czar. Over the next few years, Cerner and many of the other health care data companies increased their presence on Capitol Hill.

The records systems sold by the biggest vendors have their fans, who argue that, among other things, the systems ease prescribing medications electronically. But these systems also have many critics, who contend that they can be difficult to use, cannot share patient information with other systems and are sometimes adding hours to the time physicians spend documenting patient care.

“On a really good day, you might be able to call the system mediocre, but most of the time, it’s lousy,” said Michael Callaham, the chairman of the department of emergency medicine at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, which eight months ago turned on its $160 million digital records system from Epic. Michael Blum, the hospital’s chief medical information officer, said a majority of doctors there like the Epic system.

Whatever the case, the legislation has been a windfall to top executives at the leading health records companies. Neal L. Patterson, who grew up on a farm near Manchester, Okla., population 100, co-founded Cerner in 1979. As Cerner’s sales have soared in recent years, so have Mr. Patterson’s fortunes. From 2007 to 2011, he received more than $21 million in total compensation, according to the executive compensation research firm Equilar, and his stake in the company is worth $1 billion.

In recent years, Mr. Patterson and his wife, Jeanne Lillig-Patterson, who ran as a Republican for Congress in 2004, have emerged as social and business leaders in the Kansas City, Mo., area. Mr. Patterson is also co-owner of a real estate development firm whose ventures include a 1,200-acre community near Kansas City called the Village of Loch Lloyd, featuring a Tom Watson-designed golf course.

A spokeswoman for Cerner said Mr. Patterson was unavailable for comment.

The medical records industry did not have much of a presence in Washington before President Bush highlighted it in 2004. Then in November that year, the industry created its first association, the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society EHR Vendor Association, to make the case for electronic records. Its founding members included Allscripts, Cerner and Epic.

Four years later, in December 2008, H. Stephen Lieber, chief executive of the group, wrote an open letter to President-elect Obama calling for a minimum government investment of $25 billion to help hospitals and physicians adopt electronic records. The industry ultimately got at least $19 billion in federal and state money.

In the months after that windfall arrived, sales climbed for leading vendors as hospitals and physicians scrambled to buy systems to meet tight timetables to collect the incentive dollars. At Allscripts, Mr. Tullman soon announced what looked like a game-changing deal: the acquisition of another records company, Eclipsys, for $1.3 billion.

“We are at the beginning of what we believe will be the fastest transformation of any industry in U.S. history,” Mr. Tullman said when the deal was announced.

Last spring, some of the Eclipsys board members left after a power struggle; Mr. Tullman left in December. He is now at a company he co-founded that focuses on solar energy — another area that, after Obama administration and Congress expanded government incentives in the 2009 stimulus bill, has been swept by a gold-rush mentality, too.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: February 20, 2013

An earlier version of this article omitted part of the name of the institution that employs Michael Callaham and Michael Blum. It is the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, not the San Francisco Medical Center.

To use Paul Harvey's line....now here's the rest of the story
Yes the stimulus has increased uptake of technology but in so many respects money well spent - would anyone challenge that our old system of single access paper records that were full of redundant, duplicate information, much of it inaccessible and certainly of limited value to the care of complex clinical conditions and management of patient health....this time borrowoign from Monty Python...if we were lucky

No comment about the significant positive job impact - big increase in healthcare jobs and employment

And as one commentator put it in another thread:

There's a good bit of history rewriting in this article

As they pointed out much of the competitive landscape had been formed prior to the Act and they were delivering profits long before the stimulus package

We are seeing the benefits and value of these technologies. Many forget it was not the government that sent us down this track
1999 - To Err is Human
2001 - Crossing the Quality Chasm
2006 - Preventing Medication Errors
Not to mention other countries who have demonstrated the value of Healthcare Technology.

Is it perfect - probably not but if this was the tipping point to push everyone towards the same goal then it has had the desired effect, and like many technologies, its good for you on its own, but so much better if everyone participates.

I'm excited to be part of this "Tipping Point" and glad to be working with one of the top 50 disruptive companies in this space.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Khan Academy Approach Poised to Solve a "Wicked Problem" in Healthcare

Nuance joins a who's who in 50 Most Disruptive Companies for 2013

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This is really cool - Nuance made the list for top 50 disruptive companies in technology. We join other great and innovative leaders like
SpaceX
Google
IBM
Square
Toyota
Apple
Amazon
Corning
Facebook
....to name a few

But also some neat Healthcare focused companies like
Diagnostics for all
Foundation Medicine
Illumina
UniQure

Congratulations to all the others but should out to Nuance - proud to be a part of this team

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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The law of Unintended Consequences - The "Cobra effect" on Patients

For many decades, newspapers were big; printed on the so-called broadsheet format. However, it was not cheaper to print on such large sheets of paper — that was not the reason for their exorbitant size — in fact, it was more expensive, in comparison to the so-called tabloid size. So why did newspaper companies insist on printing the news on such impractical, large sheets of paper? Why not print it on smaller paper? Newspaper companies, en masse, assumed that "customers would not want it;" "quality newspapers are broadsheet."

When finally, in 2004, the United Kingdom's Independent switched to the denounced tabloid size, it saw its circulation surge. Other newspapers in the UK and other countries followed suit, boosting their circulation too. Customers did want it; the newspaper companies had been wrong in their assumptions.

When I looked into where the practice had come from — to print newspapers on impractically large sheets of paper — it appeared its roots lay in England. In 1712, the English government started taxing newspapers based on the number of pages that they printed. In response, companies made their newspapers big, so that they could print them on fewer pages. Although this tax was abolished in 1855, companies everywhere continued to print on the impractical large sheets of paper. They had grown so accustomed to the size of their product that they thought it could not be done any other way. But they were wrong. In fact, the practice had been holding their business back for many years.

Everybody does it

Most companies follow "best practices." Often, these are practices that most firms in their line of business have been following for many years, leading people in the industry to assume that it is simply the best way of doing things. Or, as one senior executive declared to me when I queried one of his company's practices: "everybody in our business does it this way, and everybody has always been doing it this way. If it wasn't the best way of doing things, I am sure it would have disappeared by now".
But, no matter how intuitively appealing this may sound, the assumption is wrong. Of course, well-intended managers think they are implementing best practices but, in fact, unknowingly, sometimes the practice does more harm than good.

One reason why a practice's inefficiency may be difficult to spot is because when it came into existence, it was beneficial — like broadsheet newspapers once made sense. But when circumstances have changed and it has become inefficient, nobody remembers, and because everybody is now doing it, it is difficult to spot that doing it differently would in fact be better.

The short-term trap

Some "best practices" may in fact start out as bad practices, but practices whose harmful effects only materialize years after their implementation. Yet with short-term consequences that are quite positive, firms go ahead and implement them — and never connect the problems of today with the practice launched years ago.

For example, in a project with Mihaela Stan from University College London, we examined the success rate of fertility clinics in the UK. A number of years ago, various clinics began to test, select, and only admit patients for their IVF treatment who were "easy cases"; young patients with a relatively uncomplicated medical background. Indeed, treating only easy patients boosted the clinics' success rates — in terms of the number of pregnancies resulting from treatment — which is why more and more firms started doing it. It improved their rankings over the short term. However, our research on the long-term consequences of this practice clearly showed that selecting only easy patients made them all but unable to learn and improve their treatment and success rate further. Clinics that continued to take on a fair proportion of difficult cases learnt so much from them that after a number of years their success rates became much higher — in spite of treating a lot of difficult patients — than the clinics following the selection practice. Unknown to the clinics' management, the seemingly clever practice put them on the back foot in the long run.

Clearly, the long-term negative consequences of a seemingly "best practice" can greatly outweigh its short-term benefits. But when managers don't see that practice as the root cause of their eroding competitive position, the practice persists — and may even spread further to other organizations in the same line of business.

Self-perpetuating myths

When seeming best practices become self-fulfilling prophecies, they're even more difficult to expose. Take the film industry. Film distributors have preconceived ideas about which films will be successful. For example, it is generally expected that films with a larger number of stars in them, actors with ample prior successes, and an experienced production team will do better at the box office.

Sure enough, usually those films have higher attendance numbers. However, because of their belief that those films will succeed, film distributors assign a much bigger proportion of their marketing budget and other resources to those films, as professors Olav Sorenson from Yale and David Waguespack from the University of Maryland have shown (PDF). Once they factored this spending bias into their statistical models, it became evident that those films, by themselves, did not do any better at all. The distributors' beliefs were a complete myth, which they subsequently made come true through their own actions. The film distributors would have been better off had they assigned their limited resources differently.

Most experienced executives have strong beliefs about what works and what doesn't, and logically they assign more resources and put more effort into the things they are confident about, eager not to waste it on activities with less of a chance of success. As a result, they make their own beliefs come true. The good box office results of the films distributors expected to do well reaffirmed their prior — yet erroneous — beliefs. This reinforced the myth of the best practice, and stimulated it to spread and persist.

Hence, with all the best intentions, executives often implement what is considered a "best practice" in their industry. What they do not know is that some of these practices are bad habits masquerading as efficiency boosters, their real consequences lying hidden. Questioning and uncovering such practices may significantly boost your competitive advantage, to the benefit of your firm and, eventually, us all.

Nice piece looking at the challenges of unintended consequences through the ages. The piece is replete with great examples of why introduction of new rules and what appears like a good idea is not always.
This is often described as the Cobra Effect named after a famous incentive introduced by the British rulers in India.

In healthcare we need to be vigilant of the same unintended consequences (as we do in medicine). The new plans with high deductibles and incentives to reduce total spend by individuals is a good case in point. If the incentives are sufficient we could end up stopping patients from seeking therapy. In a recent example related to me a high deductible plan was selected by an individual who discovered to late that his relatively minor medications for a mild skin condition went from a cost of ~$200 per year to a cost of > $4,000 per year.
Casting aside the issue of drug costs that has as yet not been adequately addressed in any of the reforms to date, the unintended consequence is patient stops treatment. This may seem minor but the long term consequences may well be significant and the mental effect alone will have impact on that individual.

It may not be possible to predict all the possible outcomes but it is important to be aware and allow for rapid course corrections as we learn more going through these big changes in our healthcare systems

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Doc Tornado's Quest for Clinical Documentation

CLINICAL DOCUMENTATION

NOW I'LL TELL YOU WHAT I WANT, WHAT I REALLY REALLY WANT
Enough bitching like a Spice Girl, it's time to structure my wish list and share it with you, dear vendors. Let's start with my favorite topic if you don't mind: Clinical Documentation and Data Input.

So here's my story from A to Z...if you wanna get with me, you gotta listen carefully.

In his review of what he really really wants Doc Tornado's laid out his requirements that include....choice
No one size fits all and failure to provide clinicians choice is a recipe for problems

Sometimes a form fits, sometimes it doesn't. And of course includes the range of speech tools from mobile dictation to speech recognition that offes flexibility between, as he puts it


On my end, I’ll feel like front-end on Mondays and back-end on Fridays

It should include intelligent understanding and interaction.

The good news is much of this is here today both in terms of the choice for the technology but also the intelligent interaction. This teaser video gives a good sense of what's possible:

So I would say that's "Alohomora":

Come visi our booth at HIMSS to see this in action at Booth 4025 (view a floor plan here

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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Digital Health Needs To Be More Than Just Digital Data

This last week – the widely read Dr. Rob Lamberts lamented the usability of his Electronic Medical Record (EMR) software for his new primary care practice. It’s worth reading (here) as it highlights the larger systemic problem of EMR software generally and then specifically as EMR software is overlaid onto a new payment model.

In Dr. Lamberts case, a software solution – one that was built specifically around billing mechanics (namely ICD-9 and CPT “codes”) – was overlaid onto a new practice model that bills patients a flat monthly fee for “all-they-can-eat” primary health care. Almost all EMR/EHR software has been purpose-built to support billing as the primary function. Clinical data capture is the secondary objective – and the EMR/EHR software vendor landscape is 100% reflective of that priority (as is the entire system). At last count, there were over 600 EHR “vendors” and over 300 that had reported at least one doctor or practice that ”attested” to “meaningful use” with their software (a requirement for HITECH Act payment). To date, we’ve spent over $10B on “digitizing” health records.

I’m struggling to find the right analogy, but I imagine the effect Dr. Lamberts (and others) are feeling is similar to putting a V-8 engine onto a bicycle. Yes, you could (conceivably) engineer that solution – but why would you – and then why would you expect any kind of usable experience? You simply wouldn’t (unless, perhaps, you were Evel Knievel). Even Felix Baumgarten carefully employed a team of 300 (including 70 engineers and doctors) in his lone (and breathtaking) leap from the edge of space.

Forbes colleague David Shaywitz wrote more broadly (and brilliantly) about this in his piece earlier today: Handle With Care: Success of Digital Health Threatened by Power of Its Technology. This too is well worth worth reading as it relates to the “quick-fix” mentality that is pervasive in both our culture and our wheezing health care system. It’s everywhere – and short-sighted. For providers, let’s cram-down EHR solutions so that we can “capture” the downstream data/analytics that we so desperately need to control costs – with little interest, attention or concern to the consequence on the front-end patient dynamics (including both patient AND provider experience). For employers, let’s add “gamification” and “wellness” programs (with “behavioral economics” of course) to the HR/Benefits equation. While we’re at it – let’s automate low-acuity, primary care as much as we possibly can. There – all done. We’ve digitized, gamified and automated the whole mess.

The effect – as evidenced by Dr. Lamberts plight (and flight) – is to eject altogether. The fundamental hope (and risk) of this “direct-to-consumer” model is that personal (and fiscal) sanity will return to the private (often solo) practice of primary care. I’m not sure it’s the right hope (or exit), but I do understand the motivation and it is a worthwhile experiment because, more than ever, we need primary care physicians to stay engaged as we work through our health care transformation. I argue that Medscape’s chart on ”average” physician compensation highlights the broader dilemma – namely that primary care (the very entry point for health care) is the lowest paid.

We pay primary care in much the same way that we pay tellers at the bank. Tellers aren’t dead – nor is their survival at risk – but it’s tilting heavily toward the retail economy. So are primary care physicians. These are all the ”gatekeepers.” In fact, that may well be the exact path we’re on as we attempt to automate (and further minimize) the dynamics of primary care. Several companies (eg: Healthspot – which I wrote about in my CES coverage earlier this month) are building the physical Kiosk’s specifically targeting low-acuity, primary care. As a primary care physician – the assault is relentless – from every direction.

  • Current payment rates that are unsustainable to a practice
  • Further cuts to payment rates in the forecast
  • Increasing demand for “accountability” (both regulatory and ACO’s)
  • Complete subjugation by other specialties – where primary care is treated as the “funnel” or “filter” to higher-rate specialties
  • Kiosk’s and eVisits as the final automation of primary care altogether (do we know who the doc-in-a-box is? Should we care?)
  • Ever increasing volume as more people join the ranks of the “insured”

The technology overlay is simply the gamification and behavioral economics to support an increasingly desperate need for lower cost, but it’s unrelated to any metrics that support either better health outcomes or better care delivery. We don’t know. It’s entirely experimental.

All of which speaks to the huge need for more systemic changes around payment reform. As it stands today, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) does little more than tweak the current payment model. Yes, Accountable Care Organizations (a by-product of the ACA) are scaling broadly, but adding a risk component to the payment of care doesn’t fundamentally change the “fee-for-service” model – or mentality. As Paul Levy highlighted, ACO’s are “Neither Accountable nor Caring nor Organized”. Ouch. Yes, provider compensation will absolutely be tied to outcome (including things like “re-admissions”), but is that really the biggest, the best and only lever?

Don Berwick has suggested three ”triple aims.” We all know the first – better care, better health and lower cost, which is the ultimate goal, but there are two others. The second is:

  1. We can get to better care, better health and lower cost – but we’re going to have to improve our way there.
  2. The 1st Law of Improvement is that every system is perfectly designed to achieve the results it gets (ie: the current system is performing as built).
  3. Improvement science is a system science – not an economic science.

The third is that there are 3 types of product improvements (and we need all 3):

  1. Defect removal (ie: reducing hospital infections, fraud and waste)
  2. Reducing costs (while leaving the customer the same or better)
  3. Creating a new product or service (ie: a new model)

Don’s preferred example of a new model is the (Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award winning) Nuka system in Alaska– but it’s not the only example. I wrote about the success of “worksite healthcare” last year. Using back-of-the envelope math – SAS (#2 for 2013 – and on the list of Top 100 Companies to Work for – 10 times) estimates that they save about $6M per year on healthcare costs. It’s not just lower cost either. They continuously demonstrate much happier, more productive employees – who also enjoy better health.

When describing either model, Nuka or worksite, there is almost no reference to digitized workflow. There is no reference to “gamification” or ”behavioral economics.” There’s also no reference to ”payment risk” or EMR “woes.” There is just improved healthcare – and the result is threefold. Better care, better health and lower cost. Triple aim. It does exist – and there’s even more than one model. We can get there but it’s through improvement. As Don Berwick suggests – that’s a system science – not an economic one. Unless and until we see that – I question how much healthcare transformation we’re actually getting. I’m just asking.

Dan's right - it is not just about the data and coding. There are no quick fixes but listening to the clinicians and individuals enduring some of these changes is a good starting point and his point about primary care physicians is important - the key to helping patients manage their care. I would suggest that perhaps that what will happen is individuals will take on more of this role, supported by technology and clinical professionals (and not just doctors)

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