Saturday, December 24, 2011

The F Words of Health Care

Vassily Kandinsky, 1923
Fragmentation, Fee-for-service and Futile care are the trifecta of what is supposedly ailing our health care system, or non-system, as it is fashionably described nowadays. Modern health care has reached its crisis point not due to hordes of people keeling over and dying in the streets, as they did during historical health care crises brought on by plagues and famine, but due to exploding costs of delivering decent care to all people. Since the issue now is mostly financial, health care as a discipline is attracting the interests of those who practice the dismal science of Economics. Over the last two centuries, economists have successfully addressed the F words in other industries with spectacular results in developed countries, so why not apply lessons learned to health care? 

The obvious reason to treat economists with suspicion in health care is the quintessential argument that people are not widgets, but there is another problem. Most tried-and-true solutions for increasing availability and quality while lowering costs of products are not accounting for the other explosion occurring as we speak – the Internet.  How can this assertion be true when we are in the midst of a government sponsored spending spree to computerize medical records and adopt Health Information Technology (HIT)? Apparently, even those who lead and define the HIT revolution are reluctant (or unable) to grasp its full implication, thus they are consistently underestimating the power of the Internet to serve the individual, and as a result are hedging their bets on technology with classic industrial models from days gone by.

In a 2008 Health Affairs article, Dr. Donald Berwick has defined what has become the official goal of policy making for the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Better known as the Triple Aim, the goals are to create better health, provide better care and lower costs of care. If you look at health care as just another industry, the Triple Aim translates into a better product with a better process at a lower cost. Well, when put this way, the solution is pretty obvious and it has been obvious for over two centuries. We must address the F words: eliminate Fragmentation by aggregating independent artisans in one physical location, stop paying Fee-for-service (piecework) and pay salaries instead, and most important, eliminate Futile work by standardizing the process. In short, apply the industrial revolution to health care and realize the economies of scale that brought prosperity and happiness to the developed world. Except that for some strange reason, this solution doesn’t quite work in health care.

Case in point: Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC). FQHCs started out in the early 1960s as community run clinics to provide medical care to the poor. By the mid-nineties, and with the best of intentions, the Federal government and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), created funding grants and reimbursement methods to support these clinics. Today there are thousands of FQHCs of different types, operating in health care shortage areas and providing team-based comprehensive care including preventative care, basic primary care, behavioral care, dental care, lab and pharmacy services, mostly to Medicaid beneficiaries and the uninsured, but also to small numbers of Medicare and privately insured patients. FQHCs must use mid-levels to provide and coordinate care and must report on quality measures. In return, FQHCs receive millions of dollars in grants for building and improvements, have access to cost effective workforce, can obtain free malpractice protection, are tax exempt and are paid more than double what a private practice is paid for Medicaid services. By all accounts, FQHC are addressing the triple Fs of health care rather well, but how are they doing against the Triple Aim objectives?

Studies are mixed regarding quality of care provided by FQHCs, and patients cared for by FQHC are largely sicker than those seen in private practice. Interestingly enough, neither Medicare, nor privately insured patients are flocking to FQHCs, in spite of the financial advantages offered, particularly to Medicare patients, and in spite of the spiffy state of the art facilities. This may, or may not be, an indicator for perceived quality of care. How about lowering costs? Do FQHCs provide care at a lower cost than, say, an independent solo private practice?  Adding direct reimbursement rates, grants, tax breaks and other benefits, FQHCs visits cost more than twice the amount paid by Medicaid to private practices, which cannot compete with FQHCs and all but disappeared from areas where FQHCs operate. What would have been the results if twenty years ago CMS would have decided to increase Medicaid fees and pay for uninsured visits to independent practices, instead of exclusively backing the creation and operations of a separate but equal clinic system for the poor? We may never know for sure.

FQHCs are only a small example* of why economies of scale are not easily achieved in health care. Large hospital organizations and even fully integrated health systems, which may be providing better care (or not) seem equally incapable of reducing costs in spite of attacking all three Fs, or seeming to do so, and there are two reasons for this failure: a) larger health care facilities have disproportionately larger overhead costs and b) large systems are better equipped to charge more for services, which renders their efficiency efforts less urgent. And this is not a matter of opinion. CMS acknowledges this built-in inefficiency as evident in the physician fee schedule which pays an additional “facility fee” for services provided in hospital owned outpatient clinics, presumably to cover the extra overhead. Surprisingly, CMS is consistently creating incentives and regulations to accelerate provider consolidation into these big inefficient and expensive systems. The only possible explanation would be that CMS is betting that elimination of the last two Fs (Fee-for-service and Futile care) will be easier in a consolidated environment and the gains will ultimately exceed the losses from doing away with independent practice (Fragmentation). What about information technology? Well, it is supposed to help with process standardization, data collection and performance measurements, similar to what computers do in every other industry.

We have all seen the infomercials for high-tech hospitals, where a bunch of doctors are seated around a conference room table, each holding a laptop or tablet, presumably discussing patients in a team environment. There is something very wrong with these pictures. First, it costs us a fortune to have all these physicians in one room. Second, there is almost no added utility for them to be using computers instead of passing around a piece of paper, and computers are expensive. Third, there is no patient in the room. Now let’s imagine a different picture: a primary care physician sitting in his office, with a patient next to him, both interacting with a computer on which a Skype conference is taking place with an oncologist sitting in his own office thirty miles away, a surgeon in a hospital lounge in the city and perhaps a radiologist half a continent away. Everybody on the call has access to the same electronic medical record, appointments can be made in real time, literature can be consulted and shared, prescriptions can be changed and a common care plan agreed upon by all and understood by all can be created and by using intelligent predictive analytics tools various options can be explored. Perhaps a family member in a different country is conferenced in and perhaps the patient is at home or in a break room at work. Perhaps there’s an electronic sign-up sheet for the oncologist, if the patient wants to ask something else later and have a physician friend in New Zealand listen in. And with one click on a PayPal button all doctors are paid for their time.

In this Internet age, manufacturing style physical consolidation is not only unnecessary, it is cost prohibitive. Modern lifestyles and modern medicine have created a need for doctors and patients to collaborate and the Internet is providing the means to accomplish such collaboration without having to physically gather everybody under one expensive roof. There is no need to obliterate the operational efficiencies of private practice and replace it with the bloated bureaucracy of large institutions, and there is no need to dispense with long lasting doctor-patient relationships in favor of computerized care coordination, and there is absolutely no need to substitute a bunch of numbers in a computer for a real patient. The Internet is decentralizing and individualizing everything from politics to manufacturing. Health care is, and always has been, decentralized, individualized and based on the local patient-doctor dyad. The resemblance is striking. We either embrace the fully aligned collaborative nature of the Internet to achieve better health, better care at lower costs, or engage in a doomed effort to impose an unnatural centralized command and control structure in health care just because it worked well for nineteen century steel manufacturing and because policy makers don’t truly understand the magnitude of the connectivity revolution.

* According to the Kaiser Family Foundation FQHCs had about $12.7 Billion in revenues in 2010, 75% of which came from Federal and State agencies. They served almost 19.5 million patients with over 77 million encounters. Simple math yields a cost of approximately $165 per encounter.


  1. Did you write this after some holiday cheer? the numbers are way off. Total FQHC revenue was 13 billion! Not 39 Billion!

  2. Thanks, tooearly.

    Must have been.... You are of course correct and the encounter cost comes to about $165. Still nice to have, but not as extravagant as my $500.
    I apologize for the error....

    I edited the article to that effect.

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