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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

Health Costs, Research, Women's Health

Menopausal symptoms tied to lost work productivity, higher health-care costs

Menopausal symptoms tied to lost work productivity, higher health-care costs

Previous studies have shown that hormone therapy, a common treatment for menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, can lead to a higher risk of breast cancer, heart disease, stroke and blood clots in some women. For that reason, many women no longer use the treatment for their symptoms.

Now, a study from Yale School of Medicine researchers has highlighted the economic consequences of this aspect of menopause, with hot flashes being tied to lost productivity at work and to increased health-care costs. Medical News Today reports on the findings (subscription required), which appear in the journal Menopause:

[The research team] used data on health insurance claims to compare over 500,000 women, half with and half without hot flashes. The team calculated the costs of health care and work loss over a 12-month period. Participants were all insured by Fortune 500 companies.

The team found that women who experienced hot flashes had 1.5 million more health care visits than women without hot flashes. Costs for the additional health care was $339,559,458. The cost of work lost was another $27,668,410 during the 12-month study period.”

“Not treating these common symptoms causes many women to drop out of the labor force at a time when their careers are on the upswing,” Philip Sarrel, MD, said in the piece, later adding that there are options for those suffering: “The symptoms can be easily treated in a variety of ways, such as with low-dose hormone patches, non-hormonal medications, and simple environmental adjustments such as cooling the workplace.”

Jen Baxter is a freelance writer and photographer. After spending eight years working for Kaiser Permanente Health plan she took a self-imposed sabbatical to travel around South East Asia and become a blogger. She enjoys writing about nutrition, meditation, and mental health, and finding personal stories that inspire people to take responsibility for their own well-being. Her website and blog can be found at www.jenbaxter.com.

Previously: Studying the link between post-menopausual hormones, cognition and moodAnxiety, poor sleep, and time can affect accuracy of women’s self-reports of menopause symptoms  and Most physicians not prescribing low-dose hormone therapy 

Cancer, Health Costs, In the News, Stanford News, Videos

TV spot features a more humane approach to late-stage cancer care

Updated 8-4-14: The video is no longer posted on the Al Jazzera website, but the online story is still available.

***

7-30-14: Is it possible to cut the costs of late-stage cancer care by 30 percent and provide a much better experience for patients?

That’s the question that recently brought an Al Jazzera America TV news crew out to the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, to interview patients enrolled in a new Stanford-designed pilot study on cancer care. You can watch their 9-minute video on this topic here.

The guiding principle behind this cancer-care program is this: Make sure that patients are fully informed about survival odds and treatment side effects well before they’re on the brink of death, when emotions overwhelm the decision-making skills of patients, their families and clinicians.

“Eighty percent of all cancer patients express a desire to die at home, yet only 10 percent do,” says Manali Patel, MD, the VA hospital oncologist running this study. “These end-of-life conversations, which typically take two hours in the beginning and require many follow-on conversations, are too hard, time-consuming and draining for a busy oncologist to do well.”

For these life-and-death discussions, patients are assigned personal care coaches who help them understand the big picture — treatment side effects, survival odds and pain-relief options. They also have access to a 24-hour symptom-management hotline and an option for in-home chemotherapy.

Architects of this new cancer care model, working with Arnold Milstein, MD, at Stanford’s Clinical Excellence Research Center, estimate that this program will lead to fewer unwanted treatments and expensive emergency room visits, saving the overall heath-care system money, while at the same time improving patient quality of life.

Previously: Communicating with terminally ill patients: A physician’s perspective, Identifying disparities in palliative care among cancer and non-cancer patients, Uncommon hero: A young oncologist fights for more humane cancer care, The money crunch: Stanford Medicine magazine’s new special report and New Stanford center to address inefficient health care

Chronic Disease, Health Costs, Health Policy, Nutrition, Obesity, Stanford News

Study shows banning soda purchases using food stamps would reduce obesity and type-2 diabetes

Study shows banning soda purchases using food stamps would reduce obesity and type-2 diabetes

soda

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, carbonated beverages such as Coca-Cola, Dr Pepper and 7UP were sold as nerve tonics and health drinks. But, we now know that sugary sodas contribute to obesity, type-2 diabetes and cavities. Still, most Americans drink more soda than they like to admit.

Even though sugar-laden soft drinks have no nutritional value, they are still eligible for food stamps. Nutrition researchers and some politicians have advocated for a ban on buying sugar-sweetened drinks with food stamps but the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the program, is under tremendous pressure from beverage company lobbyists to keep the existing regulations.

Sugary drinks are especially concerning because too many liquid calories put consumers at a higher risk of developing type-2 diabetes. Some nutrition experts are concerned that taxpayers are subsidizing an unhealthy diet, which will result in higher medical costs for Medicare and Medicaid down the road, when food stamp recipients experience the health problems associated with obesity and diabetes.

In a new study (subscription required) published in this month’s Health Affairs, Sanjay Basu, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, and his colleagues created a computer model to simulate the effects of a soda ban on the health of food stamp recipients. They found that obesity would drop by 1.12 percent for adults, and by 0.41 percent for children, affecting about 281,000 adults and 141,000 children. Type-2 diabetes would also drop by 2.3 percent.

The researchers also calculated the effects of reimbursing participants 30-cents for each dollar spent on fruits and vegetables. The subsidy did not affect obesity or diabetes rates, but doubled the number of people who ate the recommended number of fruits and vegetables each day. A county in Massachusetts tried the same reimbursement system as part of the USDA’s Healthy Incentives pilot study, and saw a similar increase in the fruit and vegetable purchases of food stamp recipients.

“It’s really hard to get people to eat their broccoli,” said Basu in a press release. “You have to make it really cheap, and even then, sometimes people don’t know what to do with it.” But, with one in seven Americans receiving food stamps, he points out that these small changes can have wide-ranging effects.

“It’s very rare that we can reach that many people with one policy change and just one program.”

Patricia Waldron is a science writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs.

Previously: Food stamps and sodas: Stanford pediatrician weighs inCan food stamps help lighten America’s obesity epidemic? and Stanford’s Sanjay Basu named a Top Global Thinker of 2013
Photo by Andy Schultz

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