Tag Archives: agency for healthcare research and quality

Why Healthcare Must Be Transparent

The economics of American healthcare is undergoing a profound shift. Employers, policymakers and other purchasers are increasingly paying healthcare providers based on the benefit to the patient. For instance, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, (CMS) the agency that runs Medicare, adjusts payments to hospitals based on how well they perform on measures of patient experience, readmissions and patient safety. Private payers, too, are increasingly negotiating contracts tied to quality and safety performance.

Understandably, the changes to payment heighten sensitivity among hospitals and doctors about how their performance is measured. Even measures that have been exhaustively tested and validated face new levels of scrutiny when money is on the table. Many providers even call for delaying the changes in payment until measures can be perfected even more.

But employers and other purchasers of healthcare are determined to move forward with new payment standards without delay and will not await measurement perfection. After decades of enormous investment in healthcare with little or no accountability for quality, purchasers place a high value on understanding quality and don’t intend to reverse course and continue simply paying for everything. Employers and purchasers do not intend to return to the days when consumers had no information to make an all-important decision about which hospital to use, and purchasers paid the bill regardless of the quality of the patient experience. Purchasers want numbers, figures and rates on safety, quality and cost, calculated with vigilance, responsibility and respect for science. After decades of hard work and research, this is finally available to them.

See also: Not Your Mama’s Recipe for Healthcare  

Transparency has been the key to change. According to a multi-stakeholder roundtable convened by the Lucian Leape Institute of the National Patient Safety Foundation in 2015, “During the course of healthcare’s patient safety and quality movements, the impact of transparency – the free, uninhibited flow of information that is open to the scrutiny of others – has been far more positive than many had anticipated, and the harms of transparency have been far fewer than many had feared.” The effect is so dramatic, the report concluded, that “if transparency were a medication, it would be a blockbuster.”

The report cited my organization Leapfrog’s first-ever reporting of a measure of maternity care, early elective deliveries. These are deliveries scheduled early without a medical reason, and they pose risks to the mother and the baby, and frequently result in babies unnecessarily starting life in the neonatal intensive care unit. There had been many efforts in the past to curtail these unsafe deliveries, but it wasn’t until Leapfrog publicly reported rates by hospital that significant progress was made. In just five years, the national mean dropped from 17% to 2.8%.

Transparency has also accelerated reductions in errors and accidents that kill or harm patients in hospitals. The 2014 estimates from the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s Medicare Patient Safety Monitoring System, which reports patient safety indicators, show progress in reducing hospital-acquired conditions, including a drop from 28,000 inpatient venous thromboembolisms in 2010 to 16,000 in 2014. This means 12,000 fewer patients in 2014 developing potentially fatal blood clots. It is very unlikely that we would have achieved a reduction of this magnitude without transparency.

Measurement and transparency do not have to be perfect to achieve remarkable progress in quality improvement. We see this in more transparent industries outside of healthcare every day. For instance, researchers studied the recent initiative in Los Angeles to issue safety grades rating the hygiene of restaurants and found it associated with a nearly 20% decline in hospitalizations from foodborne illness in the program’s first year. The composite grade used in LA was fairly rudimentary by the standards of measurement scientists in the healthcare industry, but the grade was nonetheless effective in educating consumers and galvanizing improvement.

Providers and health care executives sometimes point to flaws in their medical record and billing systems as problems that should delay the use of certain measures. However, public reporting is often necessary to break logjams in data collection. For instance, New York state’s public release of surgical mortality data for coronary artery bypass grafting procedures jump-started the movement to define and more carefully collect the procedure outcome data. Providers will get better at data collection when the data is used.

See also: Is Transparency the Answer in Healthcare?  

Current healthcare performance measures may not be perfect, but good people are working hard to steadily improve their validity – and that work should be done in the sunlight of transparency. Employers will gladly work collaboratively toward that end, as long as the work continues without delay. We have all waited too long for transparency and sensible payment, and the cost in human lives and suffering is already too high.

Keep the Humanity in Healthcare

A part of my life allowed me the privilege of treating nearly 10,000 individual patients. Their openness and trust let me partner with them, deciding on and helping enact a course of care, which often helped change lives.

We lived life together.

Owning a practice means more than just providing necessary healthcare — through ethical and legal means. It allowed me to bring out a greater level of transparency and humanity, while remaining professional. It taught me to always put on a happy face, especially in times of personal stress or upset. I learned to make that one patient in that one moment of time feel like the most important person in the world.

Some may think the majority of patients can’t tell the difference in care and just want their symptom or disease treated. News flash — you’re wrong.  

It may seem as though patients are just putting out their time and money, but really they are giving us a high level of trust and control. Depending on the person and problem, we can have significant influence over the course and quality of their lives, as well as the lives of those closely attached to them.

See also: Key Misconceptions on Health Insurance

Too often, we forget nine out of every 10 patients makes less than $33,000 in income (see below). Nearly 40% of patients carry medical-related debt, and one-third of those must choose between payment for that debt versus rent, housing or heat. Many of these cash-strapped individuals will only come in and choose to make health a priority within later, irreversible stages of chronic disease.

Most everyone knows our healthcare is in crisis. The solution appears clear: improve care quality, reduce cost, increase safety, grow healthier communities and deliver all this with greater consumer affordability. The advent of healthcare technology will certainly help make much of this possible.

But we must not make the mistake of thinking patients will have the same level of dedication to population health, wearables and medication adherence as we do. Patients care about themselves and those they love. They care about money and their financial future. They care about feeling good and avoiding pain — but the pain can be more than just their symptoms and condition.

Health payers acquired a longstanding, terrible reputation for not caring.  Many plan members, who suffer physically, emotionally and financially, felt as though they were treated like just another accounting line item, as if they were just commodities that made the business of healthcare payments go ’round.

We’re at a tipping point. As more risk shifts onto the shoulders of hospitals, providers and affordable care organizations (ACOs), we must not make the same mistakes. Tomorrow’s healthcare will involve and require patient compliance and participation to get the best results.

It is one thing to put technology in place that captures patient-generated health data, but it is quite another to show patients you care about the data. Patients deserve to feel the compassion, caring and humanity in our hearts and actions.

See also: Innovation: a Need for ‘Patient Urgency’

I’ve retired from practice, my career now shifting into the business side of healthcare. I am carefully seeking my next path for the right healthcare company, where I can blend my experience, talents, skills and years of front-line patient experience. The healthcare sector is a target-rich environment, whose underlying industries, more than ever, have a tremendous ability to shape the course and outcomes of human lives.

Technology, big data and Triple Aim aside, we must remember the human condition is more than just condition. It is a place where people reside because they often have lost hope and human support.

In the future of patient data, we must recognize that behind the numbers lives a human life and heart and the potential for physical and emotional improvement.

A Private Sector Healthcare Solution That We Can Smile About

In 2012, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn decided to cut $1.6 billion from the state’s Medicaid program to help get the state’s finances under control. Among the benefits slashed was dental coverage for adults.

The Land of Lincoln was only the latest cash-strapped state to scrap dental coverage under Medicaid, joining the likes of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, California, and Washington.

States must do something to prevent Medicaid from taking over their budgets entirely. But these cuts in dental benefits may only deliver temporary fiscal relief — and end up costing states more in the long run.

Fortunately, there’s a way out of this conundrum. It’s called a “dental service organization” (DSO). The Pacific Research Institute recently released a study by Wayne Winegarden and Donna Arduin entitled “The Benefits Created by Dental Service Organizations” that illustrates how dental service organizations are leveraging the power of market competition to deliver dental benefits cost-effectively now — with an eye on avoiding even more expensive dental and medical procedures later.

In most states, low-income Americans have little to no access to dental care. Only about half of state Medicaid programs cover anything beyond treatment of dental pain and emergency room visits for their poor.

In states where Medicaid does cover trips to the dentist, many beneficiaries can’t find a doctor who will see them, thanks to the program’s absurdly low reimbursement rates.

According to a Pew Research Center study, Medicaid pays dentists around 60 cents on the dollar in 26 states. Just one state paid dentists 100 percent of their normal fees, while 14 paid less than half.

As a result, only a third of dentists will treat Medicaid patients. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that in many states, most dentists “treat few or no Medicaid patients.”

So the poor don’t get many check-ups. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, only one-third of poor children saw a dentist in 2008. In contrast, nearly two-thirds of those from high-income families did so. A Pew Center study found that one in five poor children — 17 million in total — go without dental care each year.

This has serious long-term consequences. The GAO found that one in three children had untreated tooth decay — twice the rate of those covered by private insurance — and one in nine had untreated decay in three or more teeth.

“Dental disease remains a significant problem for children aged 2 through 18 in Medicaid,” it concluded.

The Pew study notes that “a ‘simple cavity’ can escalate through their childhoods and well into their adult lives, from missing significant numbers of school days to risk of serious health problems and difficulty finding a job.”

And it’s these significant health problems that can quickly erase any savings a state thinks it generates by eliminating dental coverage under Medicaid.

As the Children’s Dental Health Project explains, when the poor go without routine dental care, they often end up in emergency rooms. A three-year comparison found that treating dental problems in emergency rooms cost 10 times more than preventive treatment provided in a dentist’s office.

States could simply pay dentists more. One study found that dentists’ participation increased by at least a third, and sometimes more than doubled, in states that boosted Medicaid payments.

But the reality is that they can’t afford to do so — as their strained budgets have caused them to cut dental coverage in the first place.

Enter the dental service organization. Starting in the late 1990s, dentists began banding together under dental service organizations, taking advantage of economies of scale in order to cut overhead costs and provide quality service at much lower prices. The dental service organization handles marketing, human resource support, accounting and billing, spreading costs efficiently across several practices.

Today there are more than 3,500 dental service organizations in operation, according to the Dental Group Practice Association. And according to a 2012 study by Laffer Associates, the cost per patient among dental service organizations operating in Texas was almost half that of traditional dental offices — $484, versus $712. At one dental service organization, Kool Smiles, the per-patient cost was just $345.

Because dental service organizations can operate more efficiently than a single dentist office, they can cope with Medicaid’s low reimbursement rates and heavy paperwork requirements, providing care for the poor without losing money on each patient they see.

And they’re starting to make an impact. The Children’s Dental Health Project has found that over the past decade, the share of poor children who’ve seen a dentist has climbed, and it attributed 20 percent of that increase to the expansion of dental service organizations.

Dental service organizations stand out as an excellent example of private-sector innovation that can help solve a serious public health problem — while saving taxpayers money.

That’s something to smile about.