Dark Bilious Vapors

But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors....
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Home » Archives » March 2005 » Such a wonderfully ironic twist....

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03/09/2005: Such a wonderfully ironic twist....

It's somehow become a dogma of secular religious faith in the United States that "socialized medicine" is an unalloyed evil. Therefore, it's ironic that there's stunning proof of the superiority of socialized medicine, according to an interesting study by Phillip Longman in The Washington Monthly, and it can be found right here in the United States: the Veteran's Administration health care system (since its reformation in the mid-1990s):

Yet here's a curious fact that few conservatives or liberals know. Who do you think receives higher-quality health care. Medicare patients who are free to pick their own doctors and specialists? Or aging veterans stuck in those presumably filthy VA hospitals with their antiquated equipment, uncaring administrators, and incompetent staff? An answer came in 2003, when the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine published a study that compared veterans health facilities on 11 measures of quality with fee-for-service Medicare. On all 11 measures, the quality of care in veterans facilities proved to be “significantly better.”

Here's another curious fact. The
Annals of Internal Medicine recently published a study that compared veterans health facilities with commercial managed-care systems in their treatment of diabetes patients. In seven out of seven measures of quality, the VA provided better care. It gets stranger. Pushed by large employers who are eager to know what they are buying when they purchase health care for their employees, an outfit called the National Committee for Quality Assurance today ranks health-care plans on 17 different performance measures. These include how well the plans manage high blood pressure or how precisely they adhere to standard protocols of evidence-based medicine such as prescribing beta blockers for patients recovering from a heart attack. Winning NCQA's seal of approval is the gold standard in the health-care industry. And who do you suppose this year's winner is: Johns Hopkins? Mayo Clinic? Massachusetts General? Nope. In every single category, the VHA system outperforms the highest rated non-VHA hospitals.

Not convinced? Consider what vets themselves think. Sure, it's not hard to find vets who complain about difficulties in establishing eligibility. Many are outraged that the Bush administration has decided to deny previously promised health-care benefits to veterans who don't have service-related illnesses or who can't meet a strict means test. Yet these grievances are about access to the system, not about the quality of care received by those who get in. Veterans groups tenaciously defend the VHA and applaud its turnaround. “The quality of care is outstanding,” says Peter Gayton, deputy director for veterans affairs and rehabilitation at the American Legion. In the latest independent survey, 81 percent of VHA hospital patients express satisfaction with the care they receive, compared to 77 percent of Medicare and Medicaid patients.

Outside experts agree that the VHA has become an industry leader in its safety and quality measures. Dr. Donald M. Berwick, president of the Institute for Health Care Improvement and one of the nation's top health-care quality experts, praises the VHA's information technology as “spectacular.” The venerable Institute of Medicine notes that the VHA's “integrated health information system, including its framework for using performance measures to improve quality, is considered one of the best in the nation.
Why is the VHA so much better? That's a complex subject, but one important factor is that the free market just isn't structured to provide sufficient incentives (in terms of profitability) to induce private health care providers to make the kinds of improvements that the non-profit VHA can make:
But when it comes to health care, it's a government bureaucracy that's setting the standard for maintaining best practices while reducing costs, and it's the private sector that's lagging in quality. That unexpected reality needs examining if we're to have any hope of understanding what's wrong with America's health-care system and how to fix it. It turns out that precisely because the VHA is a big, government-run system that has nearly a lifetime relationship with its patients, it has incentives for investing in quality and keeping its patients well—incentives that are lacking in for-profit medicine.


To understand the larger lessons of the VHA's turnaround, it's necessary to pause for a moment to think about what comprises quality health care. The first criterion likely to come to mind is the presence of doctors who are highly trained, committed professionals. They should know a lot about biochemistry, anatomy, cellular and molecular immunology, and other details about how the human body works—and have the academic credentials to prove it. As it happens, the VHA has long had many doctors who answer to that description. Indeed, most VHA doctors have faculty appointments with academic hospitals.

But when you get seriously sick, it's not just one doctor who will be involved in your care. These days, chances are you'll see many doctors, including different specialists. Therefore, how well these doctors communicate with one another and work as a team matters a lot. “Forgetfulness is such a constant problem in the system,” says Berwick of the Institute for Health Care Improvement. “It doesn't remember you. Doesn't remember that you were here and here and then there. It doesn't remember your story.”

Are all your doctors working from the same medical record and making entries that are clearly legible? Do they have a reliable system to ensure that no doctor will prescribe drugs that will interact harmfully with medications prescribed by another doctor? Is any one of them going to take responsibility for coordinating your care so that, for example, you don't leave the hospital without the right follow-up medication or knowing how and when to take it? Just about anyone who's had a serious illness, or tried to be an advocate for a sick loved one, knows that all too often the answer is no.

Doctors aren't the only ones who define the quality of your health care. There are also many other people involved—nurses, pharmacists, lab technicians, orderlies, even custodians. Any one of these people could kill you if they were to do their jobs wrong. Even a job as lowly as changing a bedpan, if not done right, can spread a deadly infection throughout a hospital. Each of these people is part of an overall system of care, and if the system lacks cohesion and quality control, many people will be injured and many will die.
As a professional techno-geek, I'm pleased to see that one way of making sure that the actions of all these various players in the health care game are coordinated towards the goal of getting the patient well, is to incorporate information technology into the plan:
Why doesn't this change? Well, much of it has changed in the veterans health-care system, where advanced information technology today serves not only to deeply reduce medical errors, but also to improve diagnoses and implement coordinated, evidence-based care. Or at least so I kept reading in the professional literature on health-care quality in the United States.
Not only does the information technology developed by the VHA streamline and improve health care within the system, but the software that makes such improvement possible is free for anyone to use:
Developed at taxpayer expense, the VistA program is available for free to anyone who cares to download it off the Internet. The link is to a demo, but the complete software is nonetheless available. You can try it out yourself by going to http://www1.va.gov/CPRSdemo/. Not surprisingly, it is currently being used by public health care systems in Finland, Germany, and Nigeria. There is even an Arabic language version up and running in Egypt. Yet VHA officials say they are unaware of any private health care system in the United States that uses the software. Instead, most systems are still drowning in paper, or else just starting to experiment with far more primitive information technologies.

Worse, some are even tearing out their electronic information systems. That's what happened at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, which in 2003 turned off its brand-new, computerized physician order entry system after doctors objected that it was too cumbersome. At least six other hospitals have done the same in recent years. Another example of the resistance to information technology among private practice doctors comes from the Hawaii Independent Physicians Association, which recently cancelled a program that offered its members $3,000 if they would adopt electronic medical records. In nine months, there were only two takers out of its 728 member doctors.

In July, Connecting for Health—a public-private cooperative of hospitals, health plans, employers and government agencies—found that persuading doctors in small- to medium-sized practices to adopt electronic medical records required offering bonuses of up to 10 percent of the doctors' annual income. This may partly be due to simple techno-phobia or resistance to change. But the broader reason, as we shall see, is that most individual doctors and managed care providers in the private sector often lack a financial incentive to invest for investing in electronic medical records and other improvements to the quality of the care they offer.
The problem, simply, is that the American for profit health care model simply isn't structured to make such improvements profitable for physicians and other health care providers:
Why care about quality?

Here's one big reason. As Lawrence P. Casalino, a professor of public health at the University of Chicago, puts it, “The U.S. medical market as presently constituted simply does not provide a strong business case for quality.”

Casalino writes from his own experience as a solo practitioner, and on the basis of over 800 interviews he has since conducted with health-care leaders and corporate health care purchasers. While practicing medicine on his own in Half Moon Bay, Calif, Casalino had an idealistic commitment to following emerging best practices in medicine. That meant spending lots of time teaching patients about their diseases, arranging for careful monitoring and follow-up care, and trying to keep track of what prescriptions and procedures various specialists might be ordering.

Yet Casalino quickly found out that he couldn't sustain this commitment to quality, given the rules under which he was operating. Nobody paid him for the extra time he spent with his patients. He might have eased his burden by hiring a nurse to help with all the routine patient education and follow-up care that was keeping him at the office too late. Or he might have teamed up with other providers in the area to invest in computer technology that would allow them to offer the same coordinated care available in veterans hospitals and clinics today. Either step would have improved patient safety and added to the quality of care he was providing. But even had he managed to pull them off, he stood virtually no chance of seeing any financial return on his investment. As a private practice physician, he got paid for treating patients, not for keeping them well or helping them recover faster.

The same problem exists across all health-care markets, and its one main reason in explaining why the VHA has a quality performance record that exceeds that of private-sector providers. Suppose a private managed-care plan follows the VHA example and invests in a computer program to identify diabetics and keep track of whether they are getting appropriate follow-up care. The costs are all upfront, but the benefits may take 20 years to materialize. And by then, unlike in the VHA system, the patient will likely have moved on to some new health-care plan. As the chief financial officer of one health plan told Casalino: “Why should I spend our money to save money for our competitors?”

Or suppose an HMO decides to invest in improving the quality of its diabetic care anyway. Then not only will it risk seeing the return on that investment go to a competitor, but it will also face another danger as well. What happens if word gets out that this HMO is the best place to go if you have diabetes? Then more and more costly diabetic patients will enroll there, requiring more premium increases, while its competitors enjoy a comparatively large supply of low-cost, healthier patients. That's why, Casalino says, you never see a billboard with an HMO advertising how good it is at treating one disease or another. Instead, HMO advertisements generally show only healthy families.

In many realms of health care, no investment in quality goes unpunished.
Here's an especially galling example:
A telling example comes from semi-rural Whatcom County, Wash. There, idealistic health-care providers banded together and worked to bring down rates of heart disease and diabetes in the country. Following best practices from around the country, they organized multi-disciplinary care teams to provide patients with counseling, education, and navigation through the health-care system. The providers developed disease protocols derived from evidence-based medicine. They used information technology to allow specialists to share medical records and to support disease management.

But a problem has emerged. Who will pay for the initiative? It is already greatly improving public health and promises to bring much more business to local pharmacies, as more people are prescribed medications to manage their chronic conditions and will also save Medicare lots of money. But projections show that, between 2001 and 2008, the initiative will cost the local hospital $7.7 million in lost revenue, and reduce the income of the county's medical specialists by $1.6 million. An idealistic commitment to best practices in medicine doesn't pay the bills. Today, the initiative survives only by attracting philanthropic support, and, more recently, a $500,000 grant from Congress.
Basically, the almighty free market isn't so almighty, and alternatives need to be considered. Ultimately, a complete restructuring of the health care system might be the only truly viable solution:
VHA's success shows that Americans clearly could have higher-quality health care at lower cost. But if we presume—and it is safe to do so—that Americans are not going to accept the idea of government-run health care any time soon, it's still worth thinking about how the private health-care industry might be restructured to allow it to do what the VHA has done. For any private health-care plan to have enough incentive to match the VHA's performance on quality, it would have to be nearly as big as the VHA. It would have to have facilities and significant market share in nearly every market so that it could, like the VHA, stand a good chance of holding on to customers no matter where they moved.

It would also have to be big enough to achieve the VHA's economies of scale in information management and to create the volumes of patients needed to keep specialists current in performing specific operations and procedures. Not surprisingly, the next best performers on quality after the VHA are big national or near-national networks like Kaiser Permanente. Perhaps if every American had to join one such plan and had to pay a financial penalty for switching plans (as, in effect, do most customers of the VHA), then a business case for quality might exist more often in the private health-care market. Simply mandating that all health-care providers adopt electronic medical records and other quality protocols pioneered by the VHA might seem like a good idea. But in the absence of any other changes, it would likely lead to more hospital closings and bankrupt health-care plans.

As the health-care crisis worsens, and as more become aware of how dangerous and unscientific most of the U.S. health-care system is, maybe we will find a way to get our minds around these strange truths. Many Americans still believe that the U.S. health-care system is the best in the world, and that its only major problems are that it costs too much and leaves too many people uninsured. But the fact remains that Americans live shorter lives, with more disabilities, than people in countries that spend barely half as much per person on health care. Pouring more money into the current system won't change that. Nor will making the current system even more fragmented and driven by short-term profit motives. But learning from the lesson offered by the veterans health system could point the way to an all-American solution.

Len on 03.09.05 @ 08:06 AM CST

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