Like our nation at large, I live in a politically divided state. We are equally Republicans and Democrats. This was demonstrated in the ‘16 election and evident by our two Senators being in separate parties. Everyone is hotly debating healthcare. In the lead up to the BRCA vote after the AHCA passed the House, I emailed both of them. Eventually, I received carefully crafted responses, likely sent by a staffer. Neither were focused on the real issues, instead they were filled with the same partisan lines we’ve seen in the news.
I thank my senators for their responses but neither had a true grasp on the real problems occurring within healthcare. We should not have acted like either
ACA or BRCA is better for the country. There are pros and cons to each bill. It would behoove lawmakers and citizens alike to investigate the facts before offering a canned assessment of healthcare. However, I believe we can unite and fix healthcare despite the circus in Washington.
I See Something Different
Virtually every week of my life I am helping healthcare organizations transform themselves through the IHI Triple Aim–better outcomes, lower cost and patient satisfaction through innovation practices. I have helped many of these organizations make enormous progress toward this goal, despite regulatory constraints. We could easily improve Triple Aim metrics by a factor of two through the adoption of a fraction of the best practices I have seen. With or without ACA, if we don’t act, insurance premiums will continue to increase. The trend is staggering. Premiums will not begin to match inflation until four things are done:
Healthcare providers must: streamline their operations, maximize licensure usage, apply the most effective technology, and focus on treating the person, not the disease.
Addressing the Four
Healthcare operations are among the most clunky of any industry. Streamlining through the use of operational excellence principles is critical. Every person in America could be meaningfully insured and treated without a government mandate or a single payer system; however, we have to lower the cost to deliver care. It’s actually easier than the industry would like you to believe. I have audited thousands of appointments across multiple healthcare systems: many do not require an actual office/hospital visit, a large percentage do not require a physician, and many are not required by evidence based practices. These appointments fill the schedules, restricting access for higher acuity patients.
In addition, there is excessive waste in clinical and administrative processes. These add zero value yet are repeated constantly. I have seen major waste removed time and time again by expert practitioners working with health systems to modernize their operations to these best practices.
Staffing in healthcare is not unlimited. It takes half a generation to train many of them. We need to take advantage of every level of licensure. For example, in many states Advanced Practice Clinicians (APCs – Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners) can see many of the cases that currently go to a physician. In primary care, there needs to be an about face. High acuity, complex patients are the ones who should be using physician’s time the most. There is a perception that the patient only wants to see their doctor.
In the thousands of patients I have surveyed and interviewed, I have found this to be the case only about one third of the time when the patient is facing an appointment delay. Doctors need to see only the patients and cases that other clinicians cannot handle. APCs, RNs, LPNs and others can all focus more of their daily activity to match what their state allows them to do.
Next is technology. I’ve seen repeated installations of technology for technology’s sake. Only a handful of healthcare delivery organizations have the capability to determine the needs for a technology from both the clinician and patient viewpoint, research options and make purchase decisions. What I typically see is a radiography department leader being courted by an imaging firm or an EMR vendor singing praises of the latest module to a CIO. You can’t fix a broken process with a shiny new object.
This recipe is simple: fix the process and then add technology to advance the process toward the Triple Aim. Don’t let the medical device companies push what they think is best for clinicians and the patient. They’re not close enough to really know. The best innovations are ones created in the hospital or clinic, not the R&D center of a multinational conglomerate.
Treating The Patient
Finally, we have to treat the person. Unfortunately, many people who need care are not entering the system until it’s too late for an optimal outcome. A variety of social determinants impact a person’s health and their ability to get appropriate care. Areas that desperately need attention are behavioral health and patient education. The break-fix treatment model doesn’t work anymore. We can’t afford it so it’s time to be proactive. There aren’t enough physicians entering the workforce or enough dollars allocated to treat the future issues as we are now. We have to address poor health choices sooner in life.
Take Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus (DM) as an example. Diabetes plagues almost 10% of our population. This condition skews toward impoverished, minority communities. It is the 7th leading cause of death yet understanding and adherence to best practice care by patients remains elusive.2 Untreated, DM leads to vascular damage which then leads to more serious issues like nerve damage, amputations, blindness and eventually death, significantly raising the cost of care for that patient while simultaneously having a profound negative impact on their life. Patients following a proper treatment protocol significantly reduce or eliminate those expensive, life-altering exacerbations. This is true many conditions including congestive heart failure, hypertension or asthma.
Escape the Noise
I attended multiple, so-called healthcare innovation conferences last year. I listened to dozens of speakers. There were zero presentations on reducing cost. Instead, every organization, whether it was a payer, a medical device maker, software provider or provider, was looking to get a bigger chunk of the existing insurance premium dollar from another company for their own organization. This doesn’t save money, it merely shifts it around.
If lawmakers truly cared about health, we would ban smoking, the number one contributor to health issues and costs. Close to smoking is obesity. We have allowed our restaurants and grocery shelves to be full of low-cost, high-sugar and high-fat foods, practically begging for obesity. A myriad of health issues arise later in life due to obesity. These issues are expensive to treat, significantly more than the healthier, lean population.
Focusing on the number of insured won’t fix healthcare nor will it break it. Patients are empowered to cooperate when we focus on getting the proper treatment to them using a method they prefer. Reimbursements must reward outcomes achieved, not actions taken. Healthcare providers that continue to force patients to high-cost facilities (hospitals) by overqualified medical staff (MD/DOs) with a protocol that doesn’t follow the latest evidence based medicine (EBM) can no longer be tolerated. Patient behavior must be guided by insurers, including Medicaid, by pushing EBM practices. Allowing these things to continue is kicking the proverbial can down the road until we hit a healthcare version of the 2008 subprime market collapse.
Leading the Charge
Institutions like Jefferson Health, UPMC and Kaiser Permanente are leading the way in true healthcare reform with thought leadership practices like population health, innovation centers and vertical integration.
We cannot allow partisan politics continue to slow true transformation of our healthcare system for those it impacts most, patients. We don’t need regulations to deliver the right care. I’ve seen it. However, I’ve more frequently seen the opposite.
Worse, the division, angst and spectacle Congress has created and the media has fueled has paralyzed and misled those inside and outside healthcare. Regardless of government direction, hospital administration must take the reigns. We need strong leadership cooperating and developing a real solution; our country’s and citizens’ health depend on it.
Adam Ward is an Innovation Consultant for Simpler, an IBM Company. Initially trained as an engineer, he designed cars for 12 years before switching to improving processes, products and services in healthcare, where he has worked as a consultant for several large healthcare systems, public and private in the 10 years since. His passion is radical performance improvement while delighting the customer–patients and clinicians. He started his personal health transformation in 2009 and has finished multiple Ironman triathlons.