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Health Costs, Health Policy, Patient Care, Research

Medicare payment reform shown to cut costs and improve patient care

Medicare payment reform shown to cut costs and improve patient care

PT got Margie practicing on crutches, including going up and down a step.A few years back, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) made a straightforward change: No longer would it pay for easily preventable conditions that develop in the hospital. A care-team fails to help ambulate a patient following a hip or knee surgery and the patient develops deep-vein thrombosis? Unfortunate for the patient and unfortunate for the hospita, which now has to absorb the cost of that care.

It seems obvious, yet slightly disturbing, that this approach would be successful. In my idealized worldview, all patients are treated the same, regardless of who’s picking up the tab.

But when you change the financial incentives, change happens. Stanford health economist Jay Bhattacharya, MD, PhD, and health economist Risha Gidwani,DrPH, who is affiliated with the VA and Stanford, found the prevalence of two preventable conditions – deep-vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolisms – for patients with a recent hip or knee surgery dropped after Medicare stopped paying. The study was published today in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

From our press release on the work:

When CMS stopped paying for treating deep-vein thromboses and pulmonary embolisms, the incidence of those conditions after hip or knee replacement surgery dropped 35 percent in the Medicare population, Gidwani said. In the younger, non-Medicare population, the incidence of these two conditions increased, although they also decreased in the patients over age 65 who had private insurers. There are more than 1 million hip or knee replacements performed in the United States each year, and over 60 percent of them are paid for by Medicare.

“We have a win-win,” Gidwani told me. “We have patients who are avoiding adverse events while Medicare saves money.”

Previously: Beyond Berwick brouhaha: Medicare chief another step to health-care reform, Experts discuss high costs of health-care — and what it will take to change the system and Competition keeps health-care costs low, Stanford study finds
Photo by Dave & Margie Hill

Health Costs, Health Policy, Patient Care, Research

Spotting stellar primary care practices, Stanford study identifies 10 practices that lead to excellence

Spotting stellar primary care practices, Stanford study identifies 10 practices that lead to excellence

crutches-538883_1280Many of us know first-hand that expensive, substandard health care abounds in America. The problem has been analyzed and bemoaned, measured and critiqued. Solutions, bright spots and success stories are less abundant—in fact they are downright rare. That’s why recent findings from a partnership between Stanford’s Clinical Excellence Research Center and the Peterson Center on Healthcare, a new organization that aims to improve health care in the United States, are so exciting. Bucking current theories, researchers found that independent, primary care medical practices can provide superior care while saving money. And, they identified 10 principles these practices embrace, which distinguish them from their peers.

I had the chance to speak with CERC Director Arnold Milstein, MD, about the Stanford-based project:

What exactly did you do?

We examined the performance of more than 15,000 primary care practices looking for “positive outliers” or practices that provide excellent care at a lower cost. This is the first  systematic comparison of its kind and we weren’t sure we’d be able to discern any differences. But we did. We found a substantial difference in measures of quality and the total annual amount of health care spending between sites. Then, we arranged for  observers (independent physicians) to visit these offices to understand what was different about care delivery at sites associated with less spending and high quality scores.  They discovered 10 distinguishing features of successful health-care practices that were present much more frequently in these positive outlier practices than in other offices. There are some major differences in how they deliver care.

What were some these features? Did any surprise you?

About two-thirds align with current national initiatives such as Choosing Wisely and the Patient Centered Medical Home, but about one-third are new ideas.

The 10 features are not abstract ideas, they are tangible and therefore more easily transferable. For example, the higher-performing sites are ‘always on’ — patients can reach the care team quickly 24/7. I use the word ‘care teams’ because I’m not referring to physicians only. These teams include nurses, nurse practitioners, medical assistants and/or office managers, developed  to the highest of their abilities. These teams often treat conditions in a gray zone between primary care and specialist care. They follow up with their patients when a case is referred to a specialist. They check in with patients to ensure they are able to follow self-care recommendations.  Their work station is shared, so they can learn from each other. These teams adhere to systems to deliver care — choosing individual tests and treatments carefully. Distribution of revenues among physicians is not  solely based on service volume. Finally, these practices invest much less in office rent and costly testing hardware.

 

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Cardiovascular Medicine, Chronic Disease, Health Costs, Research, Stanford News

Home health-care treatments for lymphedema patients cut costs and improve care

Home health-care treatments for lymphedema patients cut costs and improve care

Lymphedema, an incurable chronic illness that involves severe swelling of the limbs, is frequently ignored, often misdiagnosed and under treated. Now a study by a Stanford researcher, who has for years worked to change this, illustrates how the use of home health-care treatment can help. The research appears today in PLOS ONE.

In a story I wrote on the study, Stanley Rockson, MD, a leading expert on lymph disorders, explains that one of the major challenges to improving care for lymphedema patients is that home care is poorly reimbursed by third-party payers. Rockson and colleagues set out to examine the cost effects of the use of one of these home-care therapeutics called a compression device to reduce swelling.

This is clearly a compelling argument for increased coverage of compression devices and similar home-care devices to reduce costs

By examining the health-care claims from a national private health insurer from 2007 to 2013, researchers found that patients who used these compression devices reduced annual health-care costs from $62,190 to $50,000. As Rockson explains in a press release, “Total health-care costs for these patients are very high, but can be profoundly reduced with treatment intervention, in this case a compression device. This is clearly a compelling argument for increased coverage of similar home-care devices to reduce costs.”

Rockson, who both researches lymphedema and treats patients with the disorder, has worked over the years to educate both the public and health-care professionals about this “hidden” disease. As a reporter who covers his research, he has also helped educate me – and in my piece I describe both the cause of the disease and available treatments:

Lymphedema is most commonly caused by the removal of or damage to lymph nodes as a part of cancer treatment. It results from a blockage in the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. The blockage prevents lymph fluid from draining well, and the fluid buildup leads to swelling, which can be painful and debilitating. These symptoms can be controlled with various treatments, including treatments done at home and outpatient physical therapy. Home treatments for lymphedema include manual lymphatic massage, multilayer bandaging techniques and application of various compressive garments to reduce tissue fluid.

I’ve written several other stories about Rockson’s work on lymphedema over the years. One such piece, published in 2009, helps bring a greater understanding to the disease by describing how it impacted one patient. Hearing firsthand from a patient about what it’s actually like to live with lymphedema day-in and day-out makes the ongoing search for better treatments and possible cures all the more pressing:

Julie Karbo fights a battle every day to keep her lymphedema under control. Every night she hooks her arm up to a portable pump to help drain away fluids. Every day she wears compression sleeves to keep the swelling down. She limits the number of groceries she carries into the house to make sure she doesn’t put undue strain on the affected arm, and keeps a close watch for any possible infection-causing scratches or spider bites.

“A bee sting or a spider bite can lead to a very serious infection,” says Karbo, 49, a high-tech public relations executive and single mother of two in the Bay Area, who—unlike many lymphedema patients—never had cancer. “It’s something that greatly impacts the way you live your life.”

Previously: New blood test could bring lymphedema detection (and treatment) into the 21st century and New Stanford registry to track lymphedema in breast cancer patients

Global Health, Health Costs, Health Disparities, Stanford News

Stanford undergrad works to redistribute unused medications and reduce health-care costs

Stanford undergrad works to redistribute unused medications and reduce health-care costs

1Sanchay Gupta arrived at Stanford with a strong interest in income inequality. In 2013, he spent two weeks of his summer vacation in Guatemala exploring issues of global chronic underdevelopment as part of an intensive field research internship sponsored by the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. While on the trip, he shadowed Stanford doctors in ad-hoc rural clinics serving the indigenous communities and got a firsthand look at the country’s rural health-care system. He also interviewed patients about how their health status affected their family’s welfare while conducting field research.

Among the patients he interviewed was a father of nine children who made his living carrying firewood. One day the man injured himself carrying a particularly heavy load and was declared unfit for work. Seemingly overnight, the family income drastically fell below $3 a day and the father could no longer afford to see a doctor for treatment. But until he received proper medical care, there was no way that he could recover from his injury and resume supporting his family.

“It was during my time in these community settings that I witnessed how disparities in access to medical care can perpetuate inequality,” said Gupta, who was recently named one of the “15 incredibly impressive students at Stanford” by Business Insider. “As a result, I became really interested in how solving issues of inequality could break the cyclical theme of poverty.”

At the same time, Gupta was  fostering a vested interest in the fate of America’s health-care system. He had taken a few courses on U.S. health policy and strategies for health-care delivery innovation, and the experiences sparked a desire to get involved in efforts to eliminate costly inefficiencies within the health-care sector.

In looking for opportunities to get involved in helping reduce inefficiencies in health care, he learned about Supporting Initiatives to Redistribute Unused Medicine (SIRUM), a non-profit launched by Stanford students that engages with health-facility donors, converting their regulated medicine destruction process into medicine donation.

Nearly one-third of patients don’t fill first-time prescriptions and many say concerns about costs are a key reason for their non-compliance. At the same time, an estimated $5 billion of unused and unexpired prescriptions drugs are destroyed in the United States annually. To address these problems, SIRUM has developed an online platform that allows medical facilities, manufacturers, wholesalers and pharmacies to donate unused drugs instead of destroying them.

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Health Costs, Health Policy, Patient Care, Stanford News

A call for medical malpractice reform

Golden Lady Justice, Bruges, BelgiumA new report in the Journal of the American Medical Association offers a look at the current decline in medical malpractice suits and makes some predictions about their future. The authors include two Stanford faculty, Michelle Mello, JD, PhD, and David Studdert, LLB, ScD, who both have joint appointments at the School of Medicine and the School of Law.

Using national databases, the researchers found that the paid claims against doctors decreased between 2002 and 2013. Rates decreased by an average of 6.3 percent for medical doctors (MDs) and 5.3 percent for doctors of osteopathy (DOs). The amount of an average paid claim peaked in 2007 at $218,400, but had gone down a bit as of 2013. A post on the Stanford Law School’s blog explains why this may be a good time for policy-makers to consider reforms in the medical liability system:

“After years of turbulence, the medical liability environment has calmed,” said Mello. “Although many aspects of the malpractice system are dysfunctional, causing angst for physicians, the cost of malpractice claims and insurance have been stable for the last few years and the number of claims has been declining.”

She added, “Usually, attention is only focused on reform during ‘malpractice crises,’ but highly charged political environments are not conducive to cool-headed policy decisions. This current period of calm is a good time to be thinking about reforms that could improve our medical liability system.”

In their piece, the authors describe seven different novel approaches to medical malpractice reform, including one that encourages medical institutions and providers to communicate with complaining patients and find resolutions that might include payouts to patients before they file suit.

The paper also includes some predictions about the trends that will be important for medical liability policy in the coming decade. The authors assert that traditional tort reforms “will never deliver,” but the previously mentioned communication-and-resolution programs are likely to expand, as will “safe harbor” laws that protect clinicians and their institutions if they can show they are following a prescribed course of clinical treatment. Other trends include the increasing consolidation of health care within hospitals and large health systems. These large entities are likely to use their growing size to influence the liability system.

More ominously, authors note that liability insurance crises have happened in regular cycles since the system was expanded in the 1960s, and warn that another is imminent. They conclude their report by saying:

Action now to reduce the amplitude of the next medical liability cycle is both prudent and feasible. Further testing of nontraditional reforms, followed by wider implementation of those that work, holds the most promise. Prospects for permanent improvement in the medical liability climate depend on it.

Photo by Emmanuel Hybrechts

Events, Health Costs, Health Policy, In the News, Medicine and Society, Stanford News

Experts discuss high costs of health-care – and what it will take to change the system

Experts discuss high costs of health-care - and what it will take to change the system

4386861133_5e79734a6f_zNew York Times reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal, MD, visited Stanford this week for a Health Policy Forum, “Can we put a price on good health? Controlling the cost of health care,” with Stanford health-policy researcher Doug Owens, MD.

Those who attended looking for answers, easy fixes, or a master villain were out of luck. Instead, attendees gained insight into a convoluted system that all agree is broken, yet no one has the total power, or know-how, to fix. Here’s Rosenthal:

The issues and the problems are so diffuse… There’s the tendency to be very reductionist – ‘Oh, it’s the hospital, it’s the insurance companies, it’s pharma’… We’re all so codependent and it’s all so intertwined.

Finances dictate what we do and the incentives are so powerful. The message to patients is that we’re responsible too.

So that complimentary coffee you might get in a hospital lobby? Not actually free, Rosenthal said. She knows: While reporting for the well-known series “Paying Till It Hurts” she has talked to scores of patients and doctors and insurance representatives and policy-makers.

The main problems with the American health-care system are cost, quality and access, Owens said. The Affordable Care Act improved access, yet did little to lower costs or improve quality, he said.

And costs will continue to escalate if all the players remain most responsive to economic pressures, Rosenthal said. “Physicians feel like their income is being squeezed. Hospitals are better prepared to push back, and hospitals and physicians are looking to recoup some of that lost income in other ways. What’s lost in that very real tug of war is that patients are held hostage in the middle. That’s what’s distressing,” she said.

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Health Costs, Health Policy, Medicine and Society, Public Health, Research, Stanford News

Competition keeps health-care costs low, Stanford study finds

Competition keeps health-care costs low, Stanford study finds

The term market competition usually sparks a mental image of business suits and ties, not white coats and stethoscopes. Yet even the health-care system plays by the rules of the economic market place.

A new study, conducted by Stanford researchers Laurence Baker, PhD; M. Kate Bundorf, PhD; and colleagues, provides important evidence that less competitive health-care markets are more likely to charge higher prices for office visits. The article was published today in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

There’s a push through the private sector and through Medicare to encourage the formation of larger practices, which could improve the efficiency of the health-care system, said Bundorf.  The researchers sought to understand what effect these larger practices have on health-care spending.

To make the comparisons, the researchers used a database to establish the prices paid by PPOs for the most commonly billed office visits within 10 physician specialties. Next, they adapted a standard economic competition measure to calculate physician practice competition for different U.S. regions.

As I wrote in a release today:

Studying a measure that averaged prices across multiple types of office visits, in their most conservative model, being in the top 10 percent of areas with the least competition was associated with 3.5 to 5.4 percent higher mean price. The researchers point out that in 2011, privately insured individuals in the United States spent nearly $250 billion on physician services. In that context, these small percentage increases could translate to tens of billions of dollars in extra spending.

The study’s findings show the importance of developing policies that will encourage a balance between the quality of care and health-care spending. As Baker explained, “Sometimes it can be tempting to say our goals for the health care system should be only about taking care of patients and doing it as well as possible – we don’t want to worry about the economics. But the truth is we do have to worry about the prices because the bill does come even if you wish it wouldn’t.”

Previously: What’s the going rate? Examining variations in private payments to physicians

Chronic Disease, Health Costs, Infectious Disease, Research

Despite steep price tag, use of hepatitis C drug among prisoners could save money overall

Despite steep price tag, use of hepatitis C drug among prisoners could save money overall

pills-384846_640There’s nothing free about the revolution that’s shaking up hepatitis C treatment. A slew of newer drugs, including sofosbuvir, are nearly eliminating the virus with fewer side effects than the old standbys, pegylated interferon and ribavirin, which had limited effectiveness and caused fatigue, nausea and headaches. But at a cost of $7,000 a week, it seems obvious they are more expensive.

Not necessarily, however, says Jeremy Goldhaber-Fiebert, PhD. Working with colleagues including former Stanford graduate student Shan Liu, PhD, Goldhaber-Fiebert developed a model that examines the overall costs and benefits of treating hepatitis C with sofosbuvir rather than the traditional drugs in prisons. Prisoners are more likely than those in the general population to be infected with hepatitis C, a virus that attacks the liver, because it can be transmitted through intravenous drug use and unclean tattoos.

The researchers found that the high upfront cost saves money in later years by reducing the number of liver transplants and other more invasive treatments needed. In accordance with standard practices, this  study examined the overall societal cost without accounting for the source of the money. For example, the prison system’s are more likely to spend more money upfront, although savings might be recouped by Medicaid or other private insurers several decades later. From our release:

“Overall, sofosbuvir is cost-effective in this population, though its budgetary impact and affordability present appreciable challenges,” said Goldhaber-Fiebert,who is also a faculty member at Stanford’s Center for Health Policy/Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research, which is part of the university’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Goldhaber-Fiebert called hepatitis C a “public health opportunity.”

“Though often not the focus of health-policy research, HCV-infected inmates are a population that may benefit particularly from a highly effective, short-duration treatment,” he said.

The research appears in this week’s Annals of Internal Medicine.

Previously: Fortune teller: Mice with ‘humanized’ livers predict HCV drug candidate’s behavior in humans, A primer on hepatitis C and For patients with advanced hepatitis C, benefits of new drugs outweigh costs
Photo by stevepb

Health Costs, Health Policy, In the News, Media, Medicine and Society, NIH

#ACT4NIH campaign seeks stories to spur research investment

#ACT4NIH campaign seeks stories to spur research investment

ACT4NIH_Samples_FINAL

No ice buckets are involved in the latest push for investment in medical research. Instead Act for NIH: Advancing Cures Today, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit led by a former National Institutes of Health staffer, is a good ‘ol fashioned media campaign using data, stories and images, including a haunting photo of a presumably sick child captaining its home page.

The need is real. NIH funding has failed to keep pace with inflation or with investments by other nations including China. Now, only one in six research proposals, the lowest ever, are accepted, according to Act for NIH.

The campaign’s goal is simple: “We advocate an immediate, significant funding increase for the NIH, followed by steady, predictable budget growth in the future.”

Not so simple, of course, is the actual funding hike. That’s why the campaign is hunting for stories, as well as money. It urges supporters to photograph themselves besides a ACT for fill-in-the-blank poster. ACT for cancer, for hope, my grandfather, for AIDS – you name the reason to support research, action (and money) is needed.

Science released an interview with leader Patrick White today. White admitted the group lacks a formal plan, but it does have momentum, thanks to the backing by real estate developers Jed Manocherian.

It’s launch comes just in time for the 2015-16 federal budget cycle, which usually begins with the president’s budget proposal in February.

Becky Bach is a former park ranger who now spends her time writing about science and practicing yoga. She’s an intern with the Office of Communications and Public Affairs. 

Previously: How can health-care providers better leverage social media to improve patient care?, NIH network designed to diagnose, develop possible treatments for rare, unidentified diseases and Federal investments in research and higher education key to U.S. maintaining innovation edge
Photo by Act for NIH

Health Costs, Health Policy, In the News, NIH, Public Health, Science Policy

Research investment needed now, say top scientists

Top scientists made the case for continued investment in basic science and engineering earlier this week by unveiling a new report, “Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream” by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Here’s why this is important: Federal investment is needed to power innovation engines like Stanford’s School of Medicine, and if that money gets funneled to roads, the military, Medicare, or any of a variety of other uses, fewer jobs, and fewer discoveries, could result. From the report:

Unless basic research becomes a higher government priority than it has been in recent decades, the potential for fundamental scientific breakthroughs and future technological advances will be severely constrained.

Compounding this problem, few mechanisms currently exist at the federal level to enable policy-makers and the research community to set long-term priorities in science and engi­neering research, bring about necessary reforms of policies that impede progress, or facilitate stronger cooperation among the many funders and performers of research…

Stanford President John Hennessy, PhD; biochemist Peter S. Kim, PhD; and physicist (and former U.S. Secretary of Energy) Steven Chu, PhD, are among the scientific rock-stars who co-authored the report.

For an excellent piece on the political debate surrounding the report’s release, check out the coverage in Science here. NPR also recently aired a series that colorfully illustrates the effects of research cutbacks, including a piece on a patient suffering from ALS, and a profile of several underemployed scientists.

Becky Bach is a former park ranger who now spends her time writing or practicing yoga. She’s a science writing intern in the Office of Communications and Public Affairs. 

Previously: More attention, funding needed for headache care, “Bold and game-changing” federal report calls for $4.5 billion in brain-research funding, Federal investments in research and higher education key to U.S. maintaining innovation edge

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