Tag Archives: institute for healthcare improvement

The Best Disruptive Writings Of 2013 – Health Care Edition

Clayton Christensen famously coined the term “disruptive innovation” to describe “simple business applications that relentlessly move up market, eventually displacing established competitors.” Disruption is not just change; it is change that gores somebody’s ox. There has never been a year like 2013 for disruptive writing about health care. Here are five “oxen” gored by the best of that writing.

Gored Ox One: The Idea That Someone Else Pays The Bills

The first salvo of the year was David Goldhill’s highly controversial book, Catastrophic Care: How American Health Care Killed My Father – and How We Can Fix It. Goldhill had the audacity to question an assumption accepted as a truism by both proponents and opponents of Obamacare: the notion that Americans can’t pay for their own health care without some kind of health coverage. Goldhill suggests that our nation’s reliance on third-party payors like health plans, Medicare and Medicaid has created – not alleviated – the burdensome problems of cost and bad quality that plague health care, and that we could run a better health care system without them. (Disclosure: Goldhill sits on the voluntary board of my nonprofit, The Leapfrog Group, though Leapfrog isn’t associated with his book).

Goldhill wasn’t the only one asking the impertinent question, “What if you paid your own medical bills directly?” Time published a powerful story by Steven Brill, Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills are Killing Us, which points out the bizarre oddities of what goes on behind the scenes when the checks are written to pay for patient care. Bills for the same procedure vary tenfold, but few health plans actually pay the full bill. Elisabeth Rosenthal’s reporting in the New York Times pointed out the same bizarre pricing phenomena in her remarkable series on the varying charges hospitals record for their services.

The business community took note of these questions about who pays the bills, since they traditionally pay most of them. A study by S. Eappen and colleagues in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that commercially insured patients were charged an extra $39,000 every time they suffered a surgical site infection at one hospital system. Employers wondered how they missed this enormous surcharge they paid for an undesired outcome.

Where were their health plans and consultants to alert them to this waste? They were AWOL, say Tom Emerick and Al Lewis in their brilliant book, Cracking Health Costs, which all employers seem to have on their desks these days.

The book is getting attention for its strategies on how to bypass health plans and consultants and disrupt health benefits purchasing.

Gored Ox Two: Keepers Of Secrets

The health care industry has long been shielded from the candor other industries live by. Writers this year went beyond complaining about the lack of transparency in health care — now, they are successfully calling out those who want to maintain it. Respected nurse-leader Kathleen Bartholomew writes in a piece in the Seattle Times that the lack of transparency in health care is simply unethical, and she points some fingers. In a blog for the influential policy journal Health Affairs, business leader Francois de Brantes argues that our nation’s remarkable lack of progress on quality and costs is a consequence of having no feedback loops — candid information on performance that provides continuous pressure for improvement. He calls for upending the incentives that keep health care opaque and dysfunctional. A breakthrough piece reported by Charles R. Babcock in Bloomberg News exposed the political underpinnings of why we still don’t have national data on many of the most common errors, accidents and injuries happening every day in hospitals — and he discusses the ongoing movement to preserve what little data we have. Author Rosemary Gibson, one of the decade’s most influential health care writers, writes in a memorable Huffington Post blog, “The military counts its dead and wounded even though politicians would prefer to hide the truth.” When we count the dead from medical errors, she says, we could fill Arlington National Cemetery in nine months.

One writer did try to quantify the problem – John T. James, a father and NASA toxicologist who tragically lost his son to medical errors. In a widely discussed piece published by the peer-reviewed Journal of Patient Safety, he used a scientific method developed by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement to estimate how many people die each year from hospital errors. The dismaying answer: anywhere from 200,000 to 420,000 – in other words, as many people as the population of Miami.

Gored Ox Three: The Passive Patient

The Hollywood-inspired idea of the patient as quiet recipient of physician infallibility is officially over. Patients don’t just do what they are told; they expect to make choices. Beth Howard’s cover story in AARP The Magazine – the most widely read publication in the United States – launched a firestorm with its advice for patients on protecting yourself during a hospital stay, including which hospitals are safest and what to look for in a hospital room.

Crystallizing this era of the disruptive new patient is its leading sage, Dave deBronkart, coauthor of Let Patients Help! Survivor of Stage 4 kidney cancer, deBronkart has a popular TED talk and delivers speeches throughout the world arguing that patients should serve as active members of the team delivering care, a job that includes supplying the wisdom and knowledge physicians and nurses don’t have. The emergence of this new patient cannot come soon enough, as evidenced in a widely discussed report published by the nonprofit Childbirth Connection, Listening to Mothers III: Pregnancy and Birth. The report shows the results of a Gallup survey of women who had recently given birth and reveals a stunning number of maternity patients whose wishes were ignored or manipulated, to the detriment of the women and their babies.

Among the most disruptive writers of 2013 are physicians who found themselves – or their families – on the wrong side of the hospital bed. Dr. Bob Wachter told a fascinating story of his mother’s stay in his own hospital (The University of California San Francisco Medical Center), candidly weighing some of the positive aspects of the care she received with the negatives that caused his family distress. Dr. Ashish Jha talked movingly about his father’s hospital stay, recounting with alarm three errors averted only because Jha happened to be in the room.

Gored Oxen Four: Conventional Wisdom About Delivering Care

The role of the patient has changed and so has the practice of medicine and nursing. Hollywood took note of one passionate nurse writer, Sandy Summers, and her colleagues, whose blog on the fascinating website http://www.truthaboutnursing.org analyzes media portrayals of nursing practice. Summers points out how TV depicts physicians performing tasks nurses actually do in real practice and generally portrays nurses as incompetent, unprofessional and/or none-too-bright. This hurts patients, she says, since the vast majority of care patients receive comes from nurses, and we need the best people on the job. Her passion had a direct impact this year, influencing advertiser choices and prompting talks with producers of problematic programs.

Physicians, too, are raising eyebrows by asking impolite questions about their practice. Atul Gawande’s article in the New Yorker asked why providers don’t always do the right thing in their day-to-day practice. It’s not malice, he says; it’s human nature. The piece explores lessons from international public health on a specific peer-education strategy that works to change practice patterns.

Another piece of conventional wisdom stood on its head in 2013 came from the University of Michigan’s John Birkmeyer and his colleagues, concerning surgical skill and its implications for patients. The study in The New England Journal of Medicine prompted tumultuous debate in the surgical suite when it demonstrated widespread variation in the skill of surgeons performing the same surgery. The study also suggested that skill level correlated with complication rates, raising significant new questions about what surgeons and hospitals can do to improve outcomes in health care.

But it’s not enough to identify and test new innovations for delivering care better; if they work, they must be hard-wired into practice, says Paul Plsek in his book, Accelerating Health Care Transformation with Lean and Innovation: The Virginia Mason Experience. He describes how the Virginia Mason Medical Center applied principles of lean manufacturing to balance the seemingly contradictory objectives of expanding innovation and improving adherence to the routine.

Gored Ox Five: Sacred Cows Of Public Health

Almost everyone agrees that the best strategy for improving Americans’ health would be to prevent people from needing health care in the first place. But as these writers demonstrated in their powerful arguments, beware the easy answers.

Does more health coverage mean better health? Not necessarily. A study of the impact of Medicaid in Oregon found that coverage had no impact on emergency room visits or health status (though it did relieve financial stress, an important advantage).

Does employee wellness save money? Not really. That was the reluctant conclusion of Rand researchers in a shocking study: Employee wellness programs did not appear to save money nor measurably improve health status. For more thoughts on the topic, The Health Care Blog’s series by Al Lewis and Vik Khanna is also worth following. The blog posts have prompted employee backlash and even a call for revocation of the C. Everett Koop award for a wellness program with questionable outcomes.

Should we cut the fat to fight obesity? Maybe not. A summary in the British Medical Journal of the research on obesity is prodding the nutrition science community in new directions. The exhaustive research overview by science journalist Gary Taubes found that most of the assumptions and guidelines we rely on are not supported by research, and policymakers ought to rethink our approach to the problem from the bottom up. Among the surprising observations: There’s no evidence that saturated fat is the culprit, and attempts to eliminate it from the diet may have accelerated the obesity epidemic.

Optimism For The New Year

I am confident that health care is headed in the right direction as we welcome 2014, thanks in no small part to the courage and eloquence of these disruptive writers.

This post first appeared on Forbes.com.

Healthcare's Age of Agility Will Shuffle Market Leadership

Surgeon and author, Dr. Atul Gawande outlined how, at the turn of the 20th century, more than forty per cent of household income went to paying for food, and food production consumed roughly half the workforce. The drive to change that began in a small town in Texas where an array of new methods of food production were tested. The results were stunning. Today, food accounts for 8% of household budgets and 2% of the workforce.

As a swarm of small innovations led to the transformation of farming, so too is a rapidly building wave of innovative new care and payment models leading to similar breakthroughs in healthcare. The winners in the next epoch of healthcare will be those that have agility in contrast to the lumbering nature of traditional healthcare systems.

In old line models, attempting a new care or payment model meant long planning and development cycles. The cost and complexity of testing new models prevent many from being tried. Demonstrating how healthcare hasn’t experienced the benefits of modern, cloud-based software, the leading HealthIT vendor is known to charge $100 million and up for its software and it takes a year or two to start realizing any benefit. [See also Health Systems Spending Billions to Prepare for the Last Battle]

Iterative Testing And Refinement Will Prevail
There’s a striking parallel between the transformation of healthcare and what happened with advertising campaigns as a result of traditional media getting disrupted by digital media.

Once upon a time, because the stakes were high with large ad campaigns, 90% of the effort around an ad campaign was in the planning/building of a campaign — i.e., creating ads, focus grouping creative/promotions, planning where to place ads, etc. When ads were created and it was decided where to run the ads, marketers sat back and watched to see how it would play out with little ability to change the course of a campaign.

Today, as little as 20% of the marketing effort is done upfront before putting elements to the test. The Internet is much more effective at testing offers and ad creative than a contrived focus group. Likewise, smart marketers can tap very sophisticated tools to optimize their ad spending so that the actual place ads run can be radically different than what an ad director may have thought initally.

I’d expect a similar transition to happen in healthcare. As Dr. Farzad Mostashari (National Coordinator for Health IT) said, “what’s transformative isn’t just harvesting & analyzing Big Data — it’s instrumenting what we do, testing predictions, A/B trials…”

It’s well understood that the mega healthIT systems (e.g., a $900M implementation was announced not long ago in the Northeast) take a couple years to implement. The reason for the long implementation, in part, is due to all of the decisions that have to be made regarding customization. The stakes are high as it’s only logical to do system-wide changes when 100’s of millions are at stake, leading some healthcare providers to have weak operating results as a result of healthIT costs as Zina Moukheiber reported. The market leader is noted for its customizability. However, once customized, it’s also noted for its rigidity. That is, if a workflow changes, it’s a major project to change the supporting healthIT to support the new workflow.

Where processes are well understood and predictable (e.g., surgeries), applying a manufacturing mindset is very appropriate. It’s akin to setting up an assembly line at an auto plant at great expense. Once that is done, it can be used for a long period of time and is worth the upfront investment. The danger comes in when it comes to chronic disease management (where more than 75% of healthcare dollars are spent). With accountable models and recognition that the patient or family members have the greatest impact on outcomes (i.e., not healthcare professionals), setting up a rigid system is a recipe for disaster.

If there’s one thing we know for certain, it’s going to take iteration for many years to hone how to tackle chronic conditions as it involves complexity of the variety humans present to the healthcare system. In an agile system that has modern software economics (i.e., dramatically lower cost), it’s feasible to do smaller scale tests. If they prove successful, they can be expanded. Listening to a recent podcast from the Institute for Healthcare Improvement on reducing readmissions echo’ed this point — i.e., addressing an issue like this will take a series of changes vs. one silver bullet.

The rigid mega healthIT systems are a vestige of the “do more, bill more” model of reimbursement, particularly given that healthcare is a supply-driven market (e.g., MDs who own a stake in imaging equipment order scans at three times the rate of MDs who don’t). Spending nine figures doesn’t sound as bad when you have capital projects planned in excess of $1 Billion. Perhaps we should refer to the legacy model as the “build more, do more, bill more” model. Any health analyst will tell you that the cure for healthcare’s hyperinflation is NOT building more healthcare facilities. It would be as if a fire department argued that the way to solve a wave of structural fires was to buy more fire fighting equipment. Indeed, that might help, however there’s a much more cost-effective approach such as having buildings inspected for fire prevention capabilities.

In their book, The Innovator’s Prescription, Clayton Christensen and Dr. Jason Hwang point out how applying technology into old business models has only raised costs. Thus, buying new technology isn’t a silver bullet if it’s put into an old business model. Rather, the new technologies need to go hand-in-hand with agile, new processes. The organizations who optimize their approaches for a more agile model will prevail.

Plugging new technology into old business models has caused health care costs to rise rather than fall

Images are courtesy of Jason Hwang, M.D., M.B.A. Co-author of The Innovator’s Prescription.

Dramatic Gains From New Care And Payment Models
Innovators such as Iora Health, WhiteGlove Health and Qliance rethought the care delivery and payment models from the ground up. Their results have been impressive. For example, Qliance has Net Promoter Scores higher than Google or Apple, while reducing the direct costs of healthcare (i.e., their service coupled with a high deductible wrap-around policy) 20-40%. More impressively, they have reduced utilization of the most expensive downstream costs (surgical, specialist and emergency visits) 40-80%. Iora has reported similar outcomes with some of the toughest patient populations out there. [See “David Clause” in Obamacare Ready to Slay the Healthcare Cost Beast for more on the outcomes Iora and Qliance have reported.]

The next wave of innovators are taking advantage of second-mover advantage as the wave of healthtech startups provide them off-the-shelf software that is an order of magnitude less investment than the first wave of innovators. It’s a couple orders of magnitude less expensive than legacy healthIT. More importantly for the innovators is the speed that they can not only stand up the new technology but also easily iterate based on real world experience. Rather than months or years, it’s hours or days. This is a key component of IT agility. They also make the most of investment others make rather than be threatened by them. A simple example: WebMD is used by over 100M consumers per month. Clinicians can curate information that they think will be useful for patients from WebMD and others (e.g., medical societies) who’ve made large investments in consumer-friendly content. Healthcare can no longer afford to reinvent the wheel. [See Khan Academy Approach to Solve Wicked Problem in Healthcare for examples of new approaches taken.]

Change is already happening faster than many expected. Oliver Wyman’s recent paper highlighted the rapidity of the market shift in The ACO Surprise (PDF). When I was presenting to the Pioneer ACOs over the summer (see summary here), it was already apparent to the pioneering organizations that their new models required new systems. They went on to state they didn’t expect to get anything for the new requirements from their traditional healthIT suppliers for at least the next two years. Meanwhile, the market shift is taking place much quicker than that.

New York Digital Health Accelerator Is A Model To Emulate
Zina Moukheiber highlighted a program that is a key plank of perhaps the largest effort in the country to reinvent healthcare delivery and payment.

The New York Health Home program was designed to make obsolete the traditional uncoordinated and unaccountable “system” that has cared for Medicaid patients in New York. Managing a $50B budget gives Dr. Nirav Shah (NY’s state Commissioner of Health) the clout to attract hundreds of companies that want to enable the reinvention of healthcare. Dr. Shah and other leaders in New York’s public and private sector recognized that with an entirely new set of objectives a new set of technology requirements naturally emanates from that. Through the New York Digital Health Accelerator (NYDHA), they are supporting the growth of agile startups to meet these new requirements. [Disclosure: My company was one of the 8 companies selected for the accelerator program.] Just two months into the program, there are pilots and deployments with the accelerator companies underway in the leading healthcare providers in New York.

The graphic below depicts the transition from the slide rule to the mainframe and then back out to mobile devices. Dr. Shah’s comments in the video above echo’ed the shift from an old “mainframe” method of healthcare delivery to a more distributed “smartphone” model.

Centralization followed by decentralization in computing

New business models require new technology. As David Whitlinger (head of the New York eHealth Collaborative) highlighted in the video above, his organization has built a state health information network but what it needs are the applications riding on top of that network to realize its full value. The startups in the NYDHA will be the first to get access to the statewide network due to their agility in taking advantage of the state’s health information exchange.

A new ecosystem of disruptive business models must arise