Archive for August, 2014

Retooling for the information glut age: five things physicians should do to lead

In the last post, I talked about what physicians should stop doing if they wanted to have a leadership position in the rapidly evolving healthcare world. In the spirit of bringing solutions and not just problems, today’s list is five things that I think we as physicians collectively should start doing.
1. Start looking at medical care as a shared and finite resource. With the best of intentions, we have mostly looked at health care as an infinite resource, i.e., inexhaustible. As long as patients had insurance, we could order whatever we wanted, with little or no consideration of cost/benefit ratios. Even if something was very, very unlikely to work, so long as it didn’t harm patients in some obvious way, we got to do it. But pooling finite resources doesn’t make them infinite, just finite and bigger. And that’s exactly what we do when we create insurance pools. We’ve never had to think, “If I order expensive test for patient A, there might not be resources available for patient B.” But no less an authority than Don Berwick said, “Cost is the moral dimension of our times.” This is because he correctly identified health care as a limited resource. And, he also realized that if there’s a limit to what a society can pay for health care, then efficiency and efficacy matter, because anything spent ineffectively on one person can’t be spent effectively on another. This matters because there are only a couple of ways a group of people can keep spending within a budget: cutting out waste and inefficiency is one, so there’s enough to go around; reducing the number of people we are concerned with is another. Most of us in the medical field are pretty uncomfortable with the second way.
2. Start partnering with people who understand finance. If we are going to deal with care as a finite resource, it’ll be helpful to have partnerships with people who know how to manage money. This would be CFO types, whether they’re in our organization or someone else’s. Now in our historical physician culture, anyone who was fluent in money was viewed as prioritizing profit over patients’ well-being. Bean counters, we called them. But that view is an oversimplification. They got the t-shirt with the BAD COP logo on it, which made us look really good sporting the GOOD COP logo. In fact, many health care CFOs I have known feel a serious moral obligation informs their management; often they went into health care rather than some other field for many of the same emotional reasons we did. I think many of us have an irrational fear that if we actually understand the finances we’ll be influenced to view money to be more important than patient care. In essence, we feel ignorance is protective. I question the wisdom of employing this strategy.
3. Start thinking beyond health care to health. An inconvenient truth is our healthcare system is largely a rescue system, like the fire department: we don’t prevent fires, we just try to put them out once they start, mostly. It should not be surprising therefore that the healthcare system only affects about 10% of health outcomes. The rest? Genetics, environmental factors, and behaviors. Included in the environmental factors seems to be factors that are specific to neighborhoods, like resilience and social support. So while we would never get rid of fire departments, we also shouldn’t think that all firefighting and no fire prevention is our best strategy. Prudent communities do both, funding the fire department and clearing brush from around their houses in fire-prone areas. If there are ways to reduce the need for emergent interventions like fire department runs and emergency room visits, wouldn’t we want to do that? The hard truth about that is with the exception of those of us who went into pediatrics and/or public health, we received very little education and training in affecting those other factors. That brings me to the next thing.
4. Start acknowledging that we can’t win the health game without lots of other professional types, because we can’t affect lots of the other determinants. Social workers, housing organizations, social organizations—many of these organizations that have no way of dropping medical bills have their success expressible in medical outcomes, like drops in ER visit rates and hospitalizations. Producing health care by ourselves, no problem. Producing health by ourselves, big problem. Arguably it can’t be done. Now I don’t know about you, but I went into this because I wanted to fix things, and I was willing to work really hard to gain the skills to do that. So it’s something of a disappointment that I quickly found I was ill-equipped to fix lots of the problems that generate the symptoms I saw in my medical practice: health-destroying habits, ineffective stress management mechanisms, unstable housing and/or relationships, early childhood trauma. The list goes on and on. The good news is that there are lots of other professional types who by training and temperament are better equipped to address these factors than we are. The bad news is we have to ask them to help us, since we can’t fix what they can fix. That requires real humility and openness, and too often we left medical school thinking we could get through an entire career without invoking either one of those things. These days, that turns out to be wrong.
5. And while we’re at it, start acknowledging that the most important partner we have in winning the health game is the patient himself. I am nowhere near as eloquent on this topic as others like my friend e-Patient Dave, but his message that I agree with is, “I’m your patient and partner, and I’m here to help. Just ask me.” It reminds me of that bumper sticker, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” If we think partnering with patients is time and resource-intensive, that’s nothing compared with not partnering with them. Judy Hibbard’s work on the patient activation measure is pretty clear on this point. Highly activated patients get to effective strategies and treatments way faster than their less activated peers. This results in lower cost, and higher satisfaction for both the provider and the patient.
These five points are probably necessary and not sufficient, but they are a decent start, and hard enough all by themselves. I was on the phone a little while ago with a friend who also works in this field of health care transformation. He was telling me about all the cool things he was doing, from moving care out of clinics and into homes and “hubs” (places with high concentrations of patient need) to redesigning benefits for large companies personalized to individual patients. It struck me that he’s part of the vanguard of physicians that is willing to turn the traditional model on its head: little bricks and mortar, go where they are rather than make them come to us, use social media to meet them in their cyber environment rather than make them meet us in the physical world, etc.; all faster, cheaper, and more convenient than the status quo. But these innovations don’t even occur to us until we start thinking total dollars, total populations, and health rather than health care. Once we do, though, all kinds of possibilities pop into our heads, and we can help move things forward.

August 6, 2014 at 12:22 PM Leave a comment


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