Tag Archives: chief medical officer

Are Your Health Cost Savings an Illusion?

The New England Journal of Medicine carried an excellent article by David Casarette, MD, on the topic of healthcare illusions and medical appropriateness. Click here to read the full article.

Casarette observes that humans have a tendency to see success in what they do, even if there is none. Casarette writes, “Psychologists call this phenomenon, which is based on our tendency to infer causality where none exists, the ‘illusion of control.’” This illusion applies in all walks of life, especially in politics and parenting, and it includes medical care.

In medical care, the phenomenon has been referred to as “therapeutic illusion,“ and it affects both doctors and patients. Undoubtedly, therapeutic illusion is why placebos can be so effective.

In one clinical study, faux surgery worked as well or better than an actual surgery for the treatment of specific conditions. If patients perceive they need surgery, e.g. for knee pain, even though it may not be medically appropriate some will search for a surgeon who can validate the need and perform the surgery.

Casarette writes, “Physicians also overestimate the benefits of everything from interventions for back pain to cancer chemotherapy.”

Casarette’s article is most interesting to us. Why? We’ve often felt that doctors who perform unnecessary surgeries have ethical problems. The reality may be a little more complicated. The surgery decisions may have a subconscious influence.

Toomey had an interesting conversation with the chief medical officer (CMO) of a major health system. The CMO relayed that his wife was having pain in her hand, so they scheduled an appointment with one of their system’s highly recommended specialists. The specialist looked at the wife’s hand and, after a few minutes, stated that she needed surgery. The specialist did not know he was taking to a physician, and the CMO questioned how the specialist could arrive at a diagnosis from just looking at a hand. The response was, “years of experience.” The CMO and his wife got a second opinion and opted for the recommended therapy rather than surgery, and the therapy solved her issue.

The attention today is on value-based contracting and data analysis. A group of 20 national employers have come together to share data, so they can assess the healthcare supply chain. But, as noted in our last blog post, analyzing the data is complex, especially because claims data are just a collection of medical bills. How are employers assessing medical appropriateness? What reports can be generated to assess a need for care?

In 2014, one state’s Medicare costs were $6,631 per capita while another’s were $10,610. A big driver was the variation in the volume of procedures, and cognitive biases among doctors can help drive those volumes.

Healthcare involves people – patients, physicians, and other providers — and the human element makes it even more complex. So how do those involved in healthcare address the variation in medical care that is driving up costs?

We are biased – we believe the employers are the catalyst to drive change for increased consistency by working collaboratively with suppliers (think Six Sigma).

In any case, it’s time for change.

Why Healthcare Costs Soar (Part 3)

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, David Toomey and I described a wildly successful collaboration with Virginia Mason Medical Center (VM) and a few Seattle employers.

During the the time of the VM collaboration, we invited major physician groups to meet with the employers. One of the most memorable meetings was with the CEO and chief medical officer (CMO) from a very well-regarded physician group in Seattle that has high fees but low performance.

As you would suspect, the employers were better prepared for this meeting than they had been for the meetings with VM. When the CEO and CMO talked about their strong emphasis on quality, the employers asked about quality monitoring and the process of care. Rather than acknowledging opportunities for further analysis and professing an openness to collaboration, the providers responded with confidence about their model of care.

Afterward, the employers expressed concerns about whether this premier provider could improve care and reduce costs. We posed a couple of questions: Are you saying you don’t want this provider in the network? Are you really ready to tell your leadership that this physician group, which many executives use, is not in the top tier?

The employers were aware of the dynamics with network configuration and the trouble that businesses have when a provider is dropped from the network and even a few employees complain. The employers responded that they wanted to have additional meetings with this group, because of its reputation.

After a couple of follow-up meetings, the employers recognized that this group was not committed to the process of care that they expected. They decided that the group should not be in the performance-based network. Importantly, the employers were now equipped to discuss their rationale with their leadership teams.

The CEO of the provider group felt respected, because of the time the employers spent with him, even though he did not like the outcome. He eventually acknowledged the group had work to do.

Employers make purchasing decisions with suppliers every day. For some reason, the healthcare procurement process involves the carriers and other vendors but often skips the actual suppliers of healthcare (except in a fairly small, but rapidly growing, number of major corporations).

The big question is: Why are more self-insured employers not engaging directly with providers?

In a broad network, there will be a bell curve around performance. Most employers say they want quality providers in their networks, but half the providers in their broad-based networks are below average. While everyone espouses “quality,” the variation in care is significant, and the medical ethics around treatment often drive that differential. Healthcare is big business. It is time to reward employees and channel them to primary care physicians and specialists who are truly committed to medically appropriate care.

A major reason why healthcare costs grow faster than general inflation is because most self-insured employers are simply not dealing with healthcare providers in the way we have described in this series of posts.