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Healthcare: Asking the Wrong Question

Imagine this: Healthcare — the whole system — for half as much. Better, more effective. No rationing. Everybody in.

Because we all want that. And because we can. This can be done. Let me tell you how.

I’m an industry insider, covering the industry for 37 years now, publishing millions of words in industry publications, speaking at hundreds of industry conferences, writing books, advising everyone from the U.N.’s World Health Organization, the Defense Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to governments around the world to, probably, your local hospital, your doctor, your health plan.

The economic fundamentals of healthcare in the U.S. are unique, amazingly complex, multi-layered and opaque. It takes a lot of work and time to understand them, work and time that few of the experts opining about healthcare on television have done. Once you do understand them, it takes serious independence, a big ornery streak, and maybe a bit of a career death wish to speak publicly about how the industry that pays your speaking and consulting fees should, can, and must strive to make half as much money. Well, I turn 67 this year, and I’m cranky as hell, so let’s go.

The Wrong Question

We are back again in the cage fight over healthcare in Congress. But in all these fights we are only arguing over one question: Who pays? The government, your employer, you? A different answer to that question will distribute the pain differently, but it won’t cut the pain in half.

There are other questions to ask whose answers could get us there, such as:

  • Who do we pay?
  • How do we pay them?
  • For what, exactly, are we paying?

Because the way we are paying now ineluctably drives us toward paying too much, for not enough and for things we don’t even need.

See also: Healthcare Reform IS the Problem  

A few facts, the old-fashioned non-alternative kind:

  • Cost: Healthcare in the U.S., the whole system, costs us something like $3.4 trillion per year. Yes, that’s “trillion” with a “T.” If U.S. healthcare were a country on its own, it would be the fifth-largest economy in the world.
  • Waste: About a third of that is wasted on tests and procedures and devices that we really don’t need, that don’t help, that even hurt us. That’s the conservative estimate in a number of expert analyses, and based on the opinions of doctors about their own specialties. Some analyses say more: Some say half. Even that conservative estimate (one third) is a big wow: more than $1.2 trillion per year, something like twice the entire U.S. military budget, thrown away on waste.
  • Prices: The prices are nuts. It’s not just pharmaceuticals. Across the board, from devices to procedures, hospital room charges to implants to diagnostic tests, the prices actually paid in the U.S. are three, five, 10 times what they are in other medically advanced countries like France, Germany and the U.K.
  • Value: Unlike any other business, prices in healthcare bear no relation to value. If you pay $50,000 for a car, chances are very good that you’ll get a nicer car than if you pay $15,000. If you pay $2,200 or $4,500 for an MRI, there is pretty much no chance that you will get a better MRI than if you paid $730 or $420. (Yes, these are real prices, all from the same local market.)
  • Variation: Unlike any other business, prices in healthcare bear no relation to the producer’s cost. None. How can you tell? I mean, besides the $600 price tag on a 69-cent bottle of sterile water with a teaspoon of salt that’s labeled “saline therapeutics” on the medical bill? (Yes, those are real prices, too.) You can tell because of the insane variation. The price for your pill, procedure or test may well be three, five, even 12 times the price paid in some other city across the country, in some other institution across town, even for the person across the hall. Try that in any other business. Better yet, call me: I have a 10-year-old Ford F-150 to sell you for $75,000.
  • Inefficiency: We do healthcare in the most inefficient way possible, waiting until people show up in the Emergency Department with their diabetes, heart problem, or emphysema completely out of control, where treatment will cost 10 times as much as it would if we had gotten to them first to help them avoid a serious health crisis. (And no, that’s not part of the 1/3 that is waste. That’s on top of it.)

So who’s the chump here? We’re paying ridiculous prices for things we don’t necessarily need delivered in the most inefficient way possible.

Why?

Why do they do that to us? Because we pay them to.

Wait, this is important. This is the crux of the problem. From doctors to hospitals to labs to device manufacturers to anybody else we want to blame, they don’t overprice things and sell us things we don’t need because they are greedy, evil people. They do it because we tell them to, in the clearest language possible: money. Every inefficiency, every unneeded test, every extra bottle of saline, means more money in the door. And they can decide what’s on the list of what’s needed, as long as it can be argued that it matches the diagnostic code.

That’s called “fee-for-service” medicine: We pay a fee for every service, every drug, every test. There’s a code for everything. There are no standard prices or even price ranges. It’s all negotiated constantly and repeatedly across the system with health plans, employers, even with Medicare and Medicaid.

We pay them to do it, and the payment system demands it. Imagine a hospital system that bent every effort to providing health and healthcare in the least expensive, most effective way possible, that charged you $1 for that 69-cent bottle of saline water, that eliminated all unnecessary tests and unhelpful procedures, that put personnel and cash into helping you prevent or manage your diabetes instead of waiting until you show up feet-first in diabetic shock. If it did all this without regard to how it is paid it would soon close its doors, belly up, bankrupt. For-profit or not-for-profit makes little difference to this fact.

If we want them to act differently, we have to pay them differently.

Paying for Healthcare Differently

But wait, isn’t that the only way we can pay? Because, you know, medicine is complicated, every body is different, every disease is unique.

Actually, no. There is no one other ideal way to pay for all of healthcare, but there are lots of other ways to pay. We can pay for outcomes, we can pay for bundles of services, we can pay for subscriptions for all primary care or all diabetes care or special attention for multiple chronic conditions, on and on; the list of alternative ways to pay for healthcare is long and rich.

See also: Fixing Misconceptions on U.S. Healthcare  

There are now surgery centers that put their prices up on the wall, just like McDonald’s — and they can prove their quality. There are hospital systems that will give you a warranty on your surgery: We will get it right, or fixing the problem is free.

Look: You get in an accident and take your crumpled fender to the body shop. Every fender crumples differently, maybe the frame is involved, maybe the chrome strip has to be replaced, all that. So there is no standard “crumpled fender” price. But it is not the first crumpled fender the body shop has ever seen. It’s probably the 10,000th. They are very good at knowing just how to fix it and how much it will cost them to do the work. Do you pay for each can of Bondo, each disk of sandpaper, each minute in the paint booth? No. They write you up an estimate for the whole thing, from diagnosis to rehab. Come back next Thursday, and it will be good as new. That’s a bundled outcome. It’s the body shop’s way of doing business, its business model.

There are new business models arising now in healthcare (such as reference prices, medical tourism, centers of excellence, “Blue Choice” and other health plan options) that force hospitals and surgical centers to compete on price and quality for specific bundles, like a new hip or a re-plumbed heart.

Healthcare is a vast market with lots of different kinds of customers in different financial situations, different life stages, different genders, different needs, different resources, yet we have somehow decided that in pretty nearly all of that vast market there should be only one business model: diagnostic-code-driven fee for service. Change that, and the whole equation changes. It’s called business model innovation. If we find ways to pay for what we want and need, not for whatever they pile onto the bill, they will find ways to bring us what we want and need at prices that make sense. That’s called changing the incentives.

Already Happening

Is this pie in the sky? No, it’s already happening, but in ways that are slow and mostly invisible to anyone but policy wonks, analysts and futurists like me. The industry recognizes it. Everyone in the healthcare industry will recognize the phrase “volume to value,” because it is the motto of the movement that has been building slowly for a decade. It’s shorthand for, “We need to stop making our money based on volume — how many items on the list we can charge for across how many cases — and instead make our money on how much real value, how much real health, we can deliver.”

Self-funded employers, unions, pension plans and tribes are edging into programs that pay for healthcare differently with reference prices, bundled prices, onsite clinics, medical tourism, direct pay primary care, instant digital docs, team care, special care for those who need it most, all kinds of things. The Affordable Care Act set up an Innovation Center in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the government has been incrementally pushing the whole system more and more into “value” programs.

Are We There Yet?

So why hasn’t it happened yet? Why aren’t we there yet?

Because it’s hard, it’s different and it hurts. And there is a tipping point, a tipping point that we have not gotten to yet.

It is very hard to loosen your grip on a business model as long as that business model pays the bills. We built this city on fee for service, these gleaming towers, these sprawling complexes, these mind-bending levels of skill and incomprehensible technologies. To shift to a different business model requires that everybody in the healthcare sector change the way they do everything, from clinical pathways to revenue streams to organizational models to physical plants to capital formation, everything all the way down. And it’s all uncharted territory, something the people who run these systems have not yet done and have little experience in. It’s guaranteed to be the end of the line for some institutions, many careers, many companies.

So far, the government “volume-to-value” or “value-based-payment” programs are incremental, baby steps. They typically add bonus payments to the basic system if you do the right thing or cut payments a few percentage points if you don’t. My colleague health futurist Ian Morrison calls these programs “fee for service with tricks.” They do not fundamentally change the business model.

Private payers such as employers have only gradually been getting more demanding, unsure of their power and status as drivers of change in this huge and traditionally staid industry. Systems such as Kaiser that have a value-based business model (so that they actually do better financially if they can keep you well) still have to compete in a system where the baseline cost of everything they need, from doctor’s salaries to catheters, is set in the bloated fee-for-service market. So movement is slow, and we are not yet at the tipping point.

Back to Who Pays

This is not a libertarian argument that everyone should just pay for their own healthcare out of their own pocket and let the “free market” decide. The risks are far too high, and we are terrible at estimating that risk, financial or medical. All of us are; even your doctor is; even I am. A cancer can cost millions. Heck, a bad stomach infection that puts you in the hospital for 10 days could easily cost you $600,000. Bill Gates or Warren Buffet can afford that; you and I can’t.

We need insurance to spread that risk not only across individuals but across age groups, across economic levels and between those who are currently healthy and those who are sick. For it to work at all, the insurance has to be spread across everyone, even those who think they don’t need it or can’t afford it. You drive a car, you have to have car insurance, even if you are a really safe driver. You buy a house, you must have fire insurance, even though the average house never burns down. You own and operate a human body, same thing, even though at any average time you hardly need medicine at all.

If we are to have insurance for everyone, we need to subsidize it for those who have low incomes — and this has nothing to do with whether they “deserve” help, or even with whether healthcare is a right. It’s about spreading the cost of a universal human risk as universally across the humans as possible. At the same time, such subsidies need to be given in a way that helps people feel that they are spending their own money, that they have a stake in spending it wisely. This is not simple to do, but it can be done.

This is also not necessarily an argument for a single-payer system. Single payer, by itself, will not solve the problem. It doesn’t change the incentives at all. It just changes who’s writing the check. What the system needs most is fierce customers, people and entities who are making choices based on using their own money (or what feels like it) to pay for what they really need. This forces competition among healthcare providers that drives the prices down. That means the system needs variety, a lot of different ways of paying for a lot of different customers. If we can figure out how to do that in a single-payer system, well then we’re talking.

Obviously the ultimate customer in healthcare is the individual, because medicine is about treating bodies, and we have exactly one to a customer. But the risk is too high at the individual level, and the leverage is too low.

See also: 5 Breakthrough Healthcare Startups

So employers, pension plans and specialized not-for-profit mutual health plans whose interests really line up with the interests of their employees or members can act as proxies. They can force providers of healthcare (hospital systems, medical groups, labs, clinics) to compete for their business on price and quality. They can refuse to pay for things that the peer-reviewed medical literature shows are unnecessary. They can pay for improvements in your health rather than just fixing your health disasters. They can help their members and employees become fierce customers of healthcare with information and with carefully titrated incentives.

Here’s one example of an incentive: A payer says to its members, “You need a new knee? Great, fine. Here are all the high-quality places you can get that done in your area. You can choose any that you like. But here’s a list of high-quality places in your area that do it for what we call a “reference price” or even less. Choose one of those places, and we will pay for everything from diagnosis to rehab. You can choose a place with a higher price if you like, but you’ll have to pay the difference yourself.” With reference prices, the employee or member partners with the payer in becoming a fierce, demanding customer, and prices for anything treated this way come crashing down.

Both payers and individuals, by being fierce customers, can force the healthcare providers in turn to become fierce customers of their suppliers, forcing pharmaceutical wholesalers and device manufacturers to bid on getting their business. “This knee implant you are asking us to pay $21,000 for? We see you are selling it in Belgium for $7,000. So we’ll pay $7,000, or we’ll go elsewhere.” The “price signals” generated by fierce customers reverberate through the entire system.

What’s the look and feel?

“Healthcare for half” sounds to most people like a Greyhound bus station with stethoscopes, like flea market surgeries and drive-through birthing centers. Paradoxically, though, a lean, transparent system catering to fierce customers of all types would feel quite the opposite, offering more care, even what might feel like lavish care, but earlier in the illness or more conveniently. It might mean a clinic right next door to your workplace offering private care on a walk-in basis, no co-pay, even your pharmaceuticals taken care of — or you could choose to go elsewhere to another doctor that you like more, but you have to schedule it and pay a copay for the visit. Why will providers make healthcare so convenient and personal? Because if they are paid to be responsible for your health it’s worth the extra effort and investment to catch a disease process early, before it gets expensive.

It might mean, when your doctor says you need an MRI on that injury, getting on your smart phone to conduct an instant spot auction that allows high-quality local imaging centers to bid for the business if they can do it in the next three hours. It might mean, if you are in frail health or have multiple chronic diseases, being constantly monitored by your nurse case manager through wearables and visited when necessary or once a week to help keep you on an even keel. It might mean your health system not being so quick to recommend a new knee, and offering instead to try intensive physical therapy, mild exercise and painkillers to see if that can solve the problem first (Pro tip: It often does).

Changing the fundamental business model of most of healthcare will be difficult and painful for the industry. But if we look to other countries and say, “Why do their systems cost so much less than ours? Why can’t we have what we want and need at a price we all can afford?” — this is the answer.

Change the way we pay for healthcare, not just who pays, and we can rebuild the system to be at the same time better and far cheaper.

3 Things to Know on PPO Networks

Employers across the country are looking to provide employees with the largest and widest PPO networks as a means of giving employees choice.  Somehow the health insurance industry has determined that networks should be “all-inclusive.” The more medical professionals and facilities in your network, the better your network is. It is time to raise a red flag on this kind of thinking. Before your organization looks to increase employee access to doctors and hospitals, there are three things you must understand about PPO networks.

Larger Networks Can Lead to Larger Plan Costs

You hear it all the time. Insurance carriers battle over who has the largest network both locally and nationally. Now, having a network with a national presence can be appealing if you are an employer with facilities and a workforce scattered across the country. However, a larger network opens the door for greater access to poor-performing physicians and medical facilities. The bigger the network, the greater the odds your employees are accessing doctors and hospitals who are not on the right side of cost, quality and outcomes. As a result, your medical plan’s costs continue to rise year after year.

See Also: Untapped Opportunity in Healthcare

A Network “Discount” Can Be Misleading

In a typical medical plan, the majority of the member population will use the plan via day-to-day services such as preventive exams, sick children and the occasional medication. For these folks, a network discount does an adequate job reducing costs for both the member and the health plan. However, imaging, surgeries and hospital stays are driving plan costs today, and it is here where a network “discount” can be misleading. Yes, network discounts are still applied to these services and, yes, the discounts can be 50% or more. However, when facilities are allowed to charge 400%+ of the limit allowed by Medicare, you are not getting much of a deal at all. To put it into simple terms, if I told you my iPhone is worth $2,000 but agreed to sell it to you for a 50% discount, I would still be ripping you off.

Networks Often Block Creativity

Recently, I had an interesting conversation with a national insurance carrier about a mutual client. After a thorough review of the client’s claim activity, we uncovered several facilities that were providing imaging services (MRIs, CT scans, etc.) at a low cost, much lower than the same services provided at other facilities. Knowing this, the client wanted to give members incentives to choose the low-cost facilities when needing imaging services by agreeing to have the health plan pay 100% of the service, saving both the member and the health plan money. However, we were told “no” by the insurance carrier because it had a duty to “keep the rest of the network happy.” If we are going to create change in the health insurance market, employers need to implement creativity into health-plan design. Unfortunately, most PPO networks discourage this kind of thinking.

Remember, there is a place for PPO networks within the healthcare industry. However, if you are an employer looking for creative ways to give your employees access to high-quality, low-cost doctors and hospitals, do not count on PPO networks to pave the way.

 

Why Healthcare Costs Bleed Firms Dry

“It is impossible to prove something to someone whose salary depends on believing the opposite.” – Upton Sinclair

Today’s overpriced healthcare system is hurting American businesses and job creation, eating into profitability and, quite frankly, bleeding companies dry. What’s worse, the lack of cost control and price transparency have created a culture of helplessness and even resignation.

But employers have had enough. Many are rising up and demanding change. They want lower costs and better care for their people and will no longer tolerate the status quo.

In 2007, I made it my mission to put an end to overpriced healthcare when my own companies’ healthcare costs were cutting dangerously into the bottom lines. At the time, I operated numerous healthcare clinics throughout the Phoenix metro area. We found our best hourly employees were leaving us for jobs at larger corporations with better health insurance, and we couldn’t attract replacements with the same level of training. Productivity and efficiency plummeted. It was an absolute mess, and I felt like a failed CEO.

But we discovered a secret that no one else seemed to know – or at least nobody seemed to be saying aloud. It’s a secret we uncovered when we started doing something I had never heard of anyone doing: writing our own checks for our employees’ healthcare.

See Also: When a Penalty Is Not a Penalty

It seemed strange that the cost of giving birth at one hospital was $6,000, while the cost at a neighboring hospital was $17,000 – even though the same doctor had attended both births! Strange that an ankle X-ray could cost $1,200 in a hospital emergency room but only $35 at my own clinics. Stranger still that a simple antibiotic could cost $900 at one pharmacy when Walmart sold the exact same drug for only $12.

Those observations helped lead to the secret to not overpaying for healthcare.

Controlling PLACE OF SERVICE is all that really matters

In the vast majority of cases, my employees could receive the right level of care in a setting that provided the same service (with the same or even better quality) at a much lower cost than in another setting.

Of course, sometimes a hospital emergency room visit is absolutely necessary. On occasion, an urgent care is the right option. But qwe saw that many medical expenses were needlessly incurred in hospitals and other expensive settings. MRIs, X-rays, blood tests, specialists consultations and other common procedures were costing my companies five to 20 times more than the exact same services performed across the street in an imaging center, lab or doctor’s office not owned by the hospital.

Why would someone choose to get a $3,600 MRI or $1,200 X-ray at a hospital instead of going to an imaging center across the street for an equally good, $400 MRI or $35 X-ray? Why would anyone get a procedure at one hospital instead of paying 40% less for an identical procedure at another hospital around the corner? It’s not that people don’t care. THEY DO! The answer is that they simply don’t know – and the system is designed so that it is very hard for people to uncover this truth.

It seems crazy, but this sort of thing happens systematically all the time. When employer health plans work well – when prices are transparent and employees are protected and guided away from overpriced services – then common sense prevails and costs stay in check. But if people are part of a health plan that benefits from keeping costs hidden – and most do – business owners and their people simply don’t know they’re being duped.

Why is this is happening? 

  1. Hospitals with the greatest market share negotiate much higher reimbursement rates from insurance companies. A December 2015 study by researchers from Yale, University of Pennsylvania and Carnegie Mellon University analyzed billions of hospital clams paid by commercial insurance companies to hospitals. The study concluded that costs at hospital systems with significant market share were as much as 12 times higher than other, smaller hospitals – with no difference in quality. It was an important and revealing study, yet it failed to evaluate the even bigger differences in price for routine procedures performed at a hospital vs. outside a hospital – procedures that never needed to be done in a hospital in the first place. These price differentials and subsequent overpayments are even more shocking and have the biggest impact on overall healthcare cost.
  2. Hospitals are “buying” doctors so they can fill beds and price excessively. Even though hospitals lose approximately $165,000 each year for every primary care doctor and about $300,000 for each specialist they hire, this strategy has proven effective; it increases market share and allows hospital systems to negotiate higher prices with insurers. What’s more, these doctors are obligated to refer their patients for services or specialty care in an exorbitantly overpriced hospital setting. Of course, emergency procedures are occasionally necessary, and of course hospital infrastructure costs are always higher and will need to be taken into account when assessing fair pricing. But when millions of dollars are used to market elective services that are arbitrarily priced much higher than what is fair – well, this just shouldn’t feel right to the unknowing business owner and employee. After all, they trust the healthcare system to guide and care for them.
  3. Urgent care centers are now owned by hospitals. It’s no surprise, then, that urgent cares are owned by hospitals, providing a perfect entry point for funneling services and profitable patients to hospitals and the doctors who are employed by those hospitals. Following this same line of thinking, urgent cares also help hospital systems gain market share, negotiate higher rates and “mine” the sickest people from among those patients.
  4. There are huge price differentials in prescription drugs. This problem is rampant in the healthcare industry, even extending to runaway prices in common prescriptions. The costs of medications vary dramatically depending on the pharmacy, the insurer and the way the doctor writes the prescription. The cost of a simple generic antibiotic can range from $12 at a grocery store to more than $50 at a widely known national pharmacy – and to more than $900 for the brand name that legally gets substituted when the pharmacy chooses. You might think the answer is obvious – just stop overpaying – but many people simply aren’t aware of the pricing tricks.
  5. High-deductible health plans partner with hospital systems. Often, such plans require that services be performed exclusively at a particular hospital’s health centers or affiliated urgent cares, imaging centers, doctor’s offices, etc. In other words, the hospital system that has negotiated higher rates with insurers now requires health plan participants to use their overpriced services. They say they have negotiated lower prices, but we see that costs are much lower when a patient pays cash outside the hospital.

In the case of high-deductible plans, it’s employees who get stuck with much of the bill. The premiums are cheaper upfront, but employees and their families are charged for services until their deductibles are met, often paying inflated prices for procedures performed in a hospital or affiliated setting. When they can’t afford to pay the deductible, employees often direct their frustration at their employers for providing this sort of coverage. And, sadly, many low-wage people will decide to forgo needed care.

See Also: Why Healthcare Costs Soar (Part 6)

What if brokers could help their small business clients by providing the negotiated fee schedule with the hospital system employees will be required to use? Or at least educate them about the dangers of using hospital facilities for services that could be performed outside a hospital? This is especially important for people with high deductibles.

Though it’s not common to request the price list – and insurance companies won’t grant the request – it’s certainly common sense. Shouldn’t employees understand the costs before choosing a doctor or facility? Simply providing the fee schedule would at least give them and their doctors a fighting chance to make care decisions based on both quality and value.

Increased transparency in an industry of hidden costs and unexpected medical bills would be a powerful step toward saying “NO” to the overcharging that the biggest healthcare facilities get away with every day.

The Importance of Data

Educating and guiding employees to the best places for service will have a huge impact on moving the cost needle. And, using data to identify the sickest employees and understand where they are getting their healthcare services is a great multiplier that brokers can use to help their business clients achieve more cost savings.

If an insurance company will not agree, in writing, that all of the company’s data belongs to the business owner – regardless of whether they’re certain to renew – the business owner should walk away.

Most traditional insurance companies will tell business owners they can’t give them this data because of privacy laws or HIPAA. The real reason is that they don’t want their clients to share the data with competing insurers and potentially lower their healthcare costs. In reality, business owners can own their data. Nothing in the law says otherwise. (Employers should never directly look at employees’ personal health information. This is just common sense.)

We encourage business owners to push harder and challenge the status quo way of thinking. We want them to demand cost transparency so they can control their own costs and still take great care of their people. Owning their employees’ data will enable the employer and their broker to negotiate fair pricing and educate their people about place of service more effectively. Brokers who rise to this challenge will find great opportunities to grow their business and create undying loyalty among their clients.

Status quo healthcare costs are bloated with unnecessary administration, waste and overpricing, but businesses and brokers who understand how to choose the right place of service can save money and easily fund healthcare. The worst thing we can do is pay more.

5 Unique Risks for Radiologists

As part of our role as specialists, we wanted to learn more about the risks specific to radiologists, so we reached out to Karen Kruer, RN, CPHRM, and Michelle Foster Earle, ARM, president of OmniSure Consulting Group. Here’s what we learned.

Radiologists are second only to neurosurgeons in claims paid. Their average claim lands at $426,000. Radiology is a unique field of medicine, as it operates in an arena where other physicians cannot: seeing inside the body as a part of the diagnostic process. This specialty also brings a unique set of risks. These are the top five, together with suggestions for reducing risk.

# 1. Error in diagnosis – Of all the lawsuits filed against radiologists, error in the following five diagnoses most commonly leads to lawsuits:

– Breast cancer

– Nonvertebral fractures

– Spinal fractures

– Lung cancer

– Vascular disease

To decrease error in diagnosis, radiologists should have policies and procedures in place to ensure that with every procedure they obtain a complete patient history, know exactly what they are looking for, request further testing if there is any question and review the diagnosis with the ordering physician.

# 2. Procedural complication – There will always be an increased risk when an invasive procedure is performed, and radiology includes many, such as the injection of dye and the insertion of wire stents. However, noninvasive procedures may also increase the risk of complications. Consider an MRI on a patient with metal piercings or devices such as a pacemaker. The best tip for avoiding an adverse outcome is to ensure that a thorough screening is always done before any procedure. For example, the radiologist should know the reason an imaging procedure was ordered, as well as patients’ medical histories and what medications they are taking. Radiologists are trained to look inside a person’s body, but they can also benefit from looking at the outside by putting into place a thorough intake process. Ensuring that support staff is competent and well-trained also goes a long way toward reducing the risk of procedural complications.

# 3. Inadequate communication – Thorough communication with both the referring physician and the patient is essential. Radiologists are referred to for help in diagnosing the disease process, so adequate communication begins first with close contact with the physician who ordered the test. It is important to understand the context of the test-specifically, why it was ordered-and to have a clear picture of the patient’s health. When it comes to patients, the radiologist needs to make certain each patient is given the opportunity for informed consent. That means informing patients of the risks, benefits and any alternatives that can be chosen in lieu of the test.

Policies and procedures must be in place to handle critical test results. All staff must be informed as to which test results need to be called in to the referring physician immediately. One example would be that of a patient with headaches referred for a CT scan of the head, whose scan shows an aneurysm. Because this is obviously critical and time-sensitive, the results should be called in immediately.

# 4. Failure to recommend additional testing – Better safe than sorry-always err on the side of caution. For example, if a patient visits a radiologist for a mammogram because her physician felt a lump in the breast, and for some reason the radiologist cannot find the lump after a mammogram, should a more invasive test, such as a CT scan, be ordered? The answer is yes. Further testing should always be done. It can mean the difference between life and death (and a lawsuit or not). In the case of a dissecting aneurysm, for instance, if it is missed on the original X-ray and no further testing is performed, it is often too late to save the patient. This can be avoided by liberal recommendation of additional testing.

# 5. Failure to document – Documentation can make or break a case when attorneys become involved. Make certain everything is documented, including all test results, dates, times and subjects of all conversations with both the referring physician and patient. In the event of an adverse outcome where the court becomes involved, the ability to say and show all conversations is essential. Showing that the treating physician was spoken to, at this time and on this date and that the patient was given these recommendations is invaluable for risk reduction. For more information on the importance of documentation, visit this Ultra blog post.

5 Tips to Reduce Outpatient Lawsuits

If a patient or her attorney believes a physician is responsible for a bad outcome at an outpatient medical facility, the facility itself will be sued, not just the physician. Therefore, it is up to the facility to have established procedures and protocols in place to deter the risk of lawsuits. Here are five tips for outpatient medical facilities that may help reduce the risk of lawsuits.

#1. Good patient communication

Communication is the No. 1 issue in any medical setting – outpatient care is no exception. Within outpatient services, patients don’t typically have the same depth of relationship with the doctors as they do with their own primary physician. This often makes them more inclined to pursue legal action in the case of a bad outcome or adverse event. If facility physicians and staff take even a few minutes of extra time to answer all questions and address all concerns, patients and their families will walk away feeling as though they had all the information – even if a bad outcome occurred.

#2. Confirmation of informed consent

The patient is at the outpatient facility because of a medical problem – usually determined by his primary physician – who then referred him to the outpatient facility. It is the facility’s job to confirm that informed consent has occurred between the patient and physician, so policies must be in place to ensure this happens with each and every patient encounter. Patients must be informed of the details of the procedure, the risks and benefits and any alternative treatment options. A procedure should not be performed until informed consent has been confirmed. When patients or their families feel they were provided all available information, they are much less likely to pursue a lawsuit in the case of an adverse outcome.

#3. Proper documentation

Documentation can make or break a case when attorneys become involved. Be sure everything is documented, including all test results as well as the date, time and subject of all conversations with both the referring physician and patient. In the event of an adverse outcome where the court becomes involved, the ability to show all conversations is essential. For example, it can be invaluable to show that the referring physician was spoken to on a specific date and that the patient was given specific recommendations.

#4. Thorough and safe medical records

The outpatient setting leaves many opportunities for accidental breaches simply because so many patients are cycled through the facility on any given day. Printed medical records must be kept safe and strictly out of the public view – and that includes being locked away each night. It’s essential that facilities have protocols in place that diligently track the security of medical records at every step.

#5. Prompt diagnosis

Patients often don’t realize how long it may take for medical tests to return. Some lab tests can take days or weeks. Outpatient medical facilities must have an efficient procedure in place for obtaining results and delivering them to patients and the ordering physician in a timely manner. Let’s say a patient had an MRI because of an unidentified growth in breast tissue. If the MRI indicates suspicion for cancer, how does the facility ensure that test results aren’t getting lost in the shuffle? The cancer could spread and lead to a bad outcome. A system of checks and balances must be in place that helps the ordering physician see the results, and act quickly based on the findings. In an outpatient facility, all staff must be informed as to which test results need to be called in to the referring physician immediately.

Bottom Line – All of these reasons come back to the No. 1 issue: communication. For a busy outpatient facility, it can feel as though there simply isn’t enough time to talk to patients, but, from a risk management perspective, the importance cannot be stressed enough. It’s important to take the time to communicate every step of a patient’s care with her – to listen and answer her questions. Not only does this help to build trust, it can also minimize the risk of a lawsuit. Excellent communication between the provider and patient almost always creates a “win-win” situation.