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Health Costs, Health Policy, Stanford News

Improving care for the frailest, elderly patients

Improving care for the frailest, elderly patients

6193352974_7f7e6ff120_zCaring for the oldest, frailest patients isn’t easy. They can bounce in and out of the hospital with less-than-ideal outcomes. They see handfuls of specialists, who each look at just a slice of the patient: their heart, or eyes, or knees.

Arnold Milstein, MD, director of Stanford’s Clinical Excellence Research Center, laid out the problem for me in a recent email:

Care-delivery methods are in a constant state of evolution as poorly met patient needs become widely apparent, though the pace quickened after the enactment of the Affordable Care Act.

As a cumulative tsunami of NIH-catalyzed new medical treatments triggered narrower and narrower medical specialization, adverse health and financial consequences from coordination failures grew especially severe for medically fragile patients with multiple conditions.

With Harvard MD-MBA student Brian Powers and Sachin Jain, MD, a consulting professor of medicine at Stanford, Milstein presents two potential fixes in a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

One model, called the comprehensive care model, is based on a University of Chicago Health System program that matches Medicare patients with one hospitalization in the previous year with a “comprehensive care physician” who leads both inpatient and outpatient team-based care. These physicians meet with outpatients in clinics in the morning and are paged when one of their assigned patients is admitted to the emergency room, where they can help direct care and potentially avoid unnecessary hospitalizations.

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Education, Health Costs, In the News, Patient Care, Research, Stanford News, Technology

Medical errors caused by doctors not examining their patients

Medical errors caused by doctors not examining their patients

800px-Child_examined_by_doctorStories of shocking medical errors that occur because doctors miss something during a physical exam — or forget to examine a patient at all — are common. Every physician knows them, says Stanford physician Abraham Verghese.

A missed breast mass in a patient that presents with chest pain. A missed gunshot wound in a patient wheeled into the emergency room. A missed pregnancy in a patient with a large belly.

But little has been done to quantify this type of medical error. In a first step toward creating data-based measurements of medical errors due to inadequacies in the physical exam, a study published recently in the American Journal of Medicine reports on a collection of 208 such occurrences, and their consequences.

I think of it as my worst nightmare, that a patient will slip through my grasp with a diagnosable or treatable condition.

Researchers collected the incidents from responses to surveys sent to 5,000 physicians asking for first-hand stories of such medical errors. The cause of the oversights in the 208 responses was most often a failure to perform the physical examination at all — in 63 percent of the cases, the study states. Other times, errors were caused by misinterpretating or overlooking physical signs.

“I think of it as my worst nightmare, that a patient will slip through my grasp with a diagnosable or treatable condition,” says Verghese, who is known as a champion of bedside medicine. “I call it the ‘low hanging fruit,'” he says, referring to the simple yet essential process of conducting the physical exam — and its low cost.

The consequences of these mostly preventable mistakes varied from missed or delayed diagnoses in 65 percent of the patients, to incorrect diagnosis in 27 percent or unnecessary treatment in 18 percent, the study says.

“We are talking about missing things that are very common, a mass, or a sore or a heart murmur or something in the lungs, that leads you down the wrong path,” says John Ioannidis, MD, senior author of the study. “This is something that happens everyday, and it’s something that could be corrected to a good extent.”

A well-known report conducted by the Institute of Medicine titled, “To Err is Human,” found that medical errors cause nearly 100,000 deaths per year, according to the study. The extent to which physical examination errors contribute to this figure remains uncertain and, as a result, little has been done to prevent them, it says.

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Global Health, Health Costs, Health Policy, Research, Stanford News

A new framework for expanding treatment guidelines for parasitic worm diseases

A new framework for expanding treatment guidelines for parasitic worm diseases

Schistosomiasis outbreakA new health economics evaluation unveiled last week shows historical World Health Organization treatment guidelines for the two most common parasitic worm diseases are far too restrictive, and it provides a framework for the necessary expansion of global treatment programs.

The findings were presented by Nathan Lo, a third-year Stanford medical student, at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, which convened infectious disease experts from around the world to share the latest scientific advances in tropical medicine and global health.

These diseases – schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted helminthiasis – are caused by tiny worms found in water and soil that can cause severe discomfort and even death after coming into contact with humans. Together, they infect some 1.5 billion people in the developing world.

The medications to treat these diseases are cheap and highly effective, but there’s a large unmet need in treatment. Under the current WHO guidelines, treatment is focused upon school-aged children living in high prevalence areas. These guidelines have been largely unchanged for nearly a decade and leave many infected people untreated.

“The prevalence thresholds that have defined mass drug administration for nearly a decade were developed based upon expert opinion, but they are not based on rigorous scientific evidence,” said Lo. “We are urging the WHO to consider lowering the current thresholds and expanding global treatment programs.”

Stanford’s Jason Andrews, MD, the senior author of the study, Lo and colleagues have proposed a new framework for determining the optimal treatment strategy – who to treat, how often, and with what medicines – based on prevalence thresholds in a specific community using economic modeling. The findings show that expanding mass drug administration in communities with much lower disease prevalence would not only be cost-effective, but would result in improved quality of life, reduce re-infection rates and lower disease intensity. If adopted, this would result in a five-fold increase in the number of people who would receive treatment in sub-Saharan Africa alone.

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Health Costs, Health Policy, Public Health, Research

Is it time to compensate kidney donors?

Is it time to compensate kidney donors?

7272346858_ce4d2c871d_o_flickr_Tareq_560x372SalahuddinA recent New York Times blog entry editorialized on the worldwide shortage of transplant kidneys, raising the question of whether it’s time to compensate kidney donors to meet the growing need. The blog echoed the debate that is emerging in the United States among some doctors, medical societies, and groups that oversee organ transplants.

Taboos against paying for transplant organs are powerful. But these may be overcome by necessity, since the demand for transplant kidneys is growing at an alarming rate largely due to kidney failure from diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity-related diseases. According to the National Kidney Foundation, 450,000 Americans are on dialysis and the severe shortage of transplant kidneys in the U.S. results in 12 patient deaths each day.

In sum, having the government compensate kidney donors would be a win-win-win situation

Laying the groundwork for change, a collaboration of nephrology and finance experts, including Philip J. Held, PhD, a Stanford consulting professor of nephrology, performed a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of a proposed government program for kidney donor compensation. In a study published last week in the American Journal of Transplantation, the authors estimate the shortage of transplant kidneys would be eliminated within five years if the government compensates living kidney donors $45,000 and the estates of deceased donors $10,000. The proposed compensation would also include an insurance policy against any health problems that might result from the donation.

The authors’ analysis shows that the benefits of a donor compensation program would greatly exceed the costs for society in general and taxpayers in particular. The researchers calculate the monetary value of a longer and healthier life for each kidney recipient at $1.3 million, with the added bonus of saving $1.5 million for not needing expensive dialysis treatments. After subtracting from these benefits the cost of transplants, society would enjoy a net welfare gain of $1.9 million over the lifetime of each kidney recipient. Since taxpayers currently pay about 75 percent of the cost of both dialysis and kidney transplants, this represents a taxpayer savings of about $400,000 per kidney recipient.

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Health Costs, Health Policy, Research, Stanford News

Stanford study: Medical procedures more expensive where physicians cluster in large medical practices

Stanford study: Medical procedures more expensive where physicians cluster in large medical practices

doctors shaking handsAs more physicians move from solo and small practices, a dozen common medical procedures are becoming more expensive in areas where physicians are clustered into large medical practices, according to new research appearing in Health Affairs.

The study assessed the relationships between physician competition and prices paid by private organizations in 2010 for 15 common, high-cost procedures to determine whether high concentrations of physician practices and accompanying increased market power were associated with higher prices for services.

They found that prices were indeed 8 to 26 percent higher in the thousands of counties analyzed, with the highest average physician concentration compared to counties with the lowest. This was for 12 of the 15 procedures they examined, including colonoscopy with lesion removal, vasectomy, laparoscopic appendectomy and knee replacement surgery.

“Our findings are consistent with the hypothesis that greater market power allows physicians to bargain for higher prices from insurers,” wrote Dan Austin, MD, a graduate of Stanford’s medical school and a resident physician at the University of California, San Francisco, and Laurence Baker, PhD, chair of health research and policy at Stanford and a core faculty member at the Center for Health Policy and Center for Primary and Outcomes Research.

“We concluded that physician competition is frequently associated with prices,” they said. “Policies that would influence physician practice organization should take this into consideration.”

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Global Health, Health Costs, Health Policy, Stanford News

Pharmaceutical adventures in India

Pharmaceutical adventures in India

medication in IndiaIn the course of a recent trip to India, I developed some minor health problems and found myself doing what many locals do: consulting with a pharmacist. India’s cities are peppered with these modest little storefronts, some the size of a large closet, which sit along the street, the pharmacists stationed on a stool behind a counter awaiting customers.

The pharmacies are stocked floor-to-ceiling with a plethora of remedies for whatever ails the human body and spirit. My husband and I sought treatment for an affliction common both to travelers and local Indians, caused by contamination in food and water: diarrhea. Despite our best food precautions, we managed to contract a case of the runs after eating at a very elegant restaurant in Jaipur in the northern province of Rajasthan. When a dose of Lomotil did not prove entirely effective, we decided to turn to a pharmacist for advice, as my experience traveling abroad is that local practitioners often know best how to treat common local problems.

The pharmacist asked us several questions in perfect English: Did we have a fever? Any vomiting? Any stomach cramps? No to the first two, yes to the last. He radiated a sense of confidence. He then produced two sets of pills in silver and green packages. We were advised to take these twice a day. He also gave us an electrolyte replacement solution, to be mixed with purified water and consumed twice daily as well. The pills had names I did not recognize, so I largely took them on faith, explicitly following his directions. The total cost for both of us: the equivalent of $2.50.

“You actually behaved in many ways like a many locals would – like a person who doesn’t have easy access to a health-care provider,” Nomita Divi, program manager of the Stanford India Health Policy Initiative, told me recently when I related my experiences.

Divi took a group of Stanford students – one med student, one masters and two undergraduates – to India for 8 weeks this summer to study this very phenomenon: the role of pharmacists in healthcare delivery in India, where a dire shortage of physicians, particularly primary care physicians, severely limits access to care. These pharmacists often serve as first-line providers, she said. Some have formal training, but many do not and operate on the basis of experience, as the students observed this summer, she said.

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Big data, Events, Health Costs, Health Policy, Medicine X

Peter Bach on drug pricing: “A system so broken even a child could manipulate it”

Peter Bach on drug pricing: “A system so broken even a child could manipulate it”

Peter Bach at MedX

The U.S. medical system is like a New England toll road: It’s designed to extract tolls from patients all along their health-care journeys, with a callous disregard for whether or not these travelers arrive at their desired destination, a place of better health.

This was the angry message delivered by Peter Bach, MD, director of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Center for Health Policy and Outcomes, who was the keynote speaker at today’s Medicine X conference.

Dr. Bach is a physician, an epidemiologist, a researcher and a respected health-care policy expert whose work focuses on the cost and value of anti-cancer drugs. He was also a caregiver who has traveled down the patient side of the system as his wife died of cancer.

In his talk, Bach discussed three of the major toll takers in the system — pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and researchers — and how the public’s wielding of a growing body of health-care data could be used to reign in a process that is driven more by profit than health outcomes.

This week no discussion on escalating health-care costs could pass without mentioning Martin Shkreli, the 32-year-old hedge fund manager whose drug company raised the price of a decades-old anti-parasite drug by more than 5,400 percent. “He made it clear that the system is so broken even a child could manipulate it,” said Bach.

But Bach went on to show some promising quality improvement projects that are helping to bring accountability into the health-care system.

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Global Health, Health Costs, Health Policy, Stanford News

Exploring the cost-effectiveness of treating parasitic-worm diseases

Exploring the cost-effectiveness of treating parasitic-worm diseases

A group of tiny worms are the source of great distress – and sometimes death – for a staggering 1.5 billion people in the developing world. Yet a small percent of affected people are treated for these ailments, which include helminth infections, such as hookworm, roundworm and whipworm, and schistosomiasis.

The offending worms, found in soil and water, can latch onto people while they walk barefoot in contaminated soil or bathe in infested lakes and streams. The parasitic worms then slither their way into the intestine or into the blood vessels around the intestines or bladder, where they cause great discomfort and disease.

Children commonly develop anemia and stunted growth and cognitive problems. Adults may also have abdominal discomfort and pain, wasting and sometimes more serious complications, such as a bowel or bladder obstruction or renal failure, which can be deadly.

WHO guidelines mostly target school-aged children for treatment, which costs pennies to administer, because children are heavily affected and are easily treated as they congregate in schools, says Stanford’s Nathan Lo, author of a new study on treatment of these parasitic worm diseases. The study, which appears online in Lancet Global Health, shows that treating an entire community, including adults, reaches many more people and is highly cost-effective.

Lo, a third-year Stanford medical student and research associate, said he decided to do the study after he realized the WHO guidelines hadn’t changed for decades and had never been rigorously analyzed. He and his colleagues modelled patterns of these diseases in four different communities in the Ivory Coast to see whether it was worthwhile and cost-effective to expand drug treatment, which is cheap and readily available. The drug albendazole costs about 3 cents and a pill and significantly reduces the number of worm eggs from the soil-transmitted helminths, while praziquantel costs 21 cents a pill and effectively reduces egg production in cases of schistosomiasis, he said.

“Most of the money spent on treating these diseases is focused on helping kids,” Lo told me. “But there are a lot of symptoms of disability in adults as well, and our results support the expansion of treatment to this adult population.”

Moreover, he noted, “If you only treat children, it might help them, but they often come home to neighbors, parents and teachers who may be infected, and the children can once again become infected. It’s more effective for children if you treat them and the people around them.”

In fact, the researchers’ findings show that community-wide treatment is highly cost-effective, even if it’s assumed that costs are 10 times what the researchers assumed. They also found that it’s worth the investment to treat people more frequently – at six-month intervals – and to do the drug treatments together, rather than as separate programs.

Given the findings, the scientists strongly urge the WHO to re-evaluate its guidelines to expand treatment to communities as a whole.

Photo of hookworms from Wikipedia

Global Health, Health Costs, Health Policy, Medicine and Society, Research

Chinese clinicians use inpatient visits to compensate for drug revenue loss

Chinese clinicians use inpatient visits to compensate for drug revenue loss

For decades, many doctors in rural China boosted their incomes by both recommending and selling drugs, often at steep markups. With mounting evidence of overprescription, in 2009 the Chinese national government largely banned markups, undermining doctors’ financial incentive to over-provide them. Instead, the government provided physicians with a subsidy to compensate for the loss in profits.

Since then, a number of scholars have examined the effects of the policy. But no one has looked at the unintended consequences — until now.

In a study published today in Health Affairs, a team of researchers found the policy had the unintended consequence of boosting hospitalizations and the provision of inpatient care.

“When you have a regulation that affects pricing, it’s like pushing a balloon in in one place — then it pops out in another,” said Grant Miller, PhD, director of the Stanford Center for International Development, senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and an associate professor of medicine. The first author is Hongmei Yi, PhD, program manager of FSI’s Rural Education Action Program in China.

The team, which also includes Scott Rozelle, a senior fellow at FSI, examined data from rural Chinese clinics between 2007 and 2011. They found clinics that were most heavily reliant on drug revenues before the policy change more than doubled their provision of inpatient services when compared with the clinics least reliant on drug revenues before the change. These centers also experienced little change in revenue, which indicates they were able to offset the losses of drug revenue with income from inpatient stays.

Based on their analysis, the team also believes that this increase is not driven by demand for inpatient services, Miller said.

By also surveying and conducting follow-up phone interviews with patients, the researchers also found some evidence that clinics may be artificially boosting their inpatient tallies to increase their compensation from the government.

He said he was not surprised the policy had unexpected ramifications. “Humans are adaptive creatures and doctors are not categorically different than the rest of us. If you take away a source of livelihood, it’s not surprising they found another way to make it up.”

Rural primary care doctors in China “are also not at the top of the economic pyramid,” Miller said.

Health-care reform is on the national agenda in China and it’s possible that this study could inform future policies, Miller said. “It raises a much broader set of questions about how you design in a more holistic way a proper set of incentives for providers,” he said.

Previously: Seeking solutions to childhood anemia in China, Better school lunches — in China and Stanford India Health Policy Initiative fellows are in Mumbai — come follow along

Aging, Health Costs, Health Policy, Patient Care

A look back at Medicare’s 50 years

Hand in HandOn Friday, KQED’s Forum offered a look at Medicare and Medicaid to mark the programs’ 50-year anniversary. Stanford health policy researcher Laurence Baker, PhD, participated in the discussion, which covered issues such as how the programs drive the way prices for care are negotiated with medical providers, how the large population of Baby Boomers will affect the system, and how reimbursement rates affect the kind of care Medicare and Medicaid patients receive.

The panel also discussed the gaps in coverage — services like dental care are not covered by Medicare — and the challenges they create. Medicare coverage has grown from the narrow set of conditions it first covered, and Baker thinks the conditions are right to begin a new national conversation about expanding coverage:

One of the things that’s really ripe for discussion is how this country is going to handle the long-term care issues. Medicare’s got to be at the center of that. And it almost feels like the time is coming that we’re going to have to think about that much more seriously.

And when host Mina Kim asked Baker the question that’s on a lot of people’s mind — Is Medicare sustainable for the long term? — Baker noted:

The program is pretty important; it’s clearly something the country values across the political spectrum. Lots of people want to see it sustained. It may not be a pretty process. It might not be fun to watch the politics of how we work all this out, but there are lots of ways to keep the program solvent, so I’m optimistic.

Previously: Competition keeps health-care costs low, Stanford study findsWhat’s the going rate? Examining variations in private payments to physiciansCheck the map – medical procedure rates vary widely across CaliforniaMedicare payment reform shown to cut costs and improve patient care and KQED health program focuses on baby boomers and the future of Medicare
Photo by Garry Knight

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