Survivable Health Care

by joeflower on September 24, 2014

Health care is fragile. It survives in a much narrower band of circumstances than most of us realize. Right now many hospitals and systems are having a second down year in a row. They’re consolidating, laying off people, working through major shifts in strategy — all because of what we must admit (if we are honest) are relatively minor economic shifts, such as small reductions in utilization and Medicare payments, a blunting of accustomed price rises, and stronger bargaining from health plans. If minor revenue stream problems put your entire institution in jeopardy of chaotic deconstruction, it cannot be called robust. At the same time, an increasing number of vectors outside the sealed world of health care could overwhelm and kill your institution, from climate chaos to pollution disasters to epidemics and the loss of antibiotics. These two concatenations of threats, within and without health care, have similar and interlocking answers. The extent to which your institution is bloated, profligate of resources and highly dependent on its current streams of revenue, energy and human resources is exactly the extent to which it is a system with very little reserve capacity. In an increasingly high-variance world, your survival depends on getting green, lean, resilient and smaller.

[click to continue…]


Half the Cost. Half the Jobs?

by joeflower on July 24, 2014

(Originally published in the American Hospital Association’s Hospitals and Health Networks Daily on July 22, 2014)

Healthcare costs far too much. We can do it better for half the cost. But if we did cut the cost in half, we would cut the jobs in half, wipe out 9% of the economy and plunge the country into a depression.

Really? It’s that simple? Half the cost equals half the jobs? So we’re doomed either way?

Actually, no. It’s not that simple. We cannot of course forecast with any precision the economic consequences of doing healthcare for less. But a close examination of exactly how we get to a leaner, more effective healthcare system reveals a far more intricate and interrelated economic landscape.

In a leaner healthcare, some types of tasks will disappear, diminish, or become less profitable. That’s what “leaner” means. But other tasks will have to expand. Those most likely to wane or go “poof” are different from those that will grow. At the same time, a sizable percentage of the money that we waste in healthcare is not money that funds healthcare jobs, it is simply profit being sucked into the Schwab accounts and ski boats of high income individuals and the shareholders of profitable corporations.

Let’s take a moment to walk through this: how we get to half, what disappears, what grows and what that might mean for jobs in healthcare.

Getting to half

How would this leaner Next Healthcare be different from today’s?

Waste disappears: Studies agree that some one third of all healthcare is simple waste. We do these unnecessary procedures and tests largely because in a fee-for-service system we can get paid to do them. If we pay for healthcare differently, this waste will tend to disappear.

Prices rationalize: As healthcare becomes something more like an actual market with real buyers and real prices, prices will rationalize close to today’s 25th percentile. The lowest prices in any given market are likely to rise somewhat, while the high-side outliers will drop like iron kites.

Internal costs drop: Under these pressures, healthcare providers will engage in serious, continual cost accounting and “lean manufacturing” protocols to get their internal costs down.

The gold mine in chronic: There is a gold mine at the center of healthcare in the prevention and control of chronic disease, getting acute costs down through close, trusted relationships between patients, caregivers, and clinicians.

Tech: Using “big data” internally to drive performance and cost control; externally to segment the market and target “super users;” as well as using widgets, dongles, and apps to maintain that key trusted relationship between the clinician and the patient/consumer/caregiver.

Consolidation: Real competition on price and quality, plus the difficulty of managing hybrid risk/fee-for-service systems, means that we will see wide variations in the market success of providers. Many will stumble or fail. This will drive continued consolidation in the industry, creating large regional and national networks of healthcare providers capable of driving cost efficiency and risk efficiency through the whole organization.

What’s the frequency?

So what’s the background against which this has to take place? What’s going to affect healthcare from the outside? Mainly three broad trends:

The economics of yawns: We can expect more of the same, with continued inequality, most economic gains going to the top 1%, and continued deprecation of the middle and working classes. This will express itself in an ever mounting need and demand to bring people greater access to healthcare, which includes bringing the actual costs to the consumer/patient/voter down.

Boomers again: Boomers will continue bulking up the Medicare demographic. The current trends will become even more stark: costs per beneficiary down, overall costs up. Just pre-retirement Boomers were the group hit hardest by the great sucking sound of 2008 which magically disappeared massive amounts of equity in home values, IRAs and 401Ks. The effects span generations: Not only are the Boomers struggling themselves, they have far fewer resources available to give help when their children and grandchildren sink into a health crisis.

Political momentum: The relative success of the ACA in getting people covered  gives the political momentum to expanding coverage further, such as through expansion of Medicaid in states that have not accepted it. It will especially add oomph to any political or market attempt to lower the actual cost of healthcare for the patient/consumer/voter.

What will grow anyway?

However successful we are or are not at making healthcare leaner, one thing the next few years will not be is business as usual. The current trend toward massive regulatory complexity will most likely continue. There are no forces or mechanisms emerging yet that would change that trend. At the same time, the economics of running a healthcare organization will get much more complex, which means so will strategic planning, capital planning, and every other top management task.

So we can expect growth in the regulatory compliance sector of healthcare employment. At the same time, healthcare planning, forecasting, financing, and strategy skills need to put on muscle, whether in-house or through consultants.

How will parts of healthcare get lean, trim down, atrophy?

Waste: Any payment system that gets around fee-for-service and puts the healthcare provider at some risk for good outcomes will push healthcare providers to compete to give the best possible outcome at the best available price. Any such competition will tend to drive wasteful, unnecessary, and unhelpful practices out of the market — you’re not going to do it if you can’t get paid for it. These include such common practices as complex back fusion surgery for simple back pain, computer analysis of mammograms, the use of anesthesiologists in routine colonoscopies, the routine use of colonoscopies for mass screening, some two thirds of all cesarean sections, over $1 billion worth of unnecessary cardiovascular stents done every year, and on and on. If your business model or your career depends on a technique that honestly doesn’t score all that well on a cost/benefit scale, this would be a good time to rethink your business model or career.=

Prices: With growing price transparency and a growing willingness of buyers to go far afield if need be to find the right deal, it will become increasingly difficult for manufacturers of devices, implants, pharmaceuticals — indeed, any supplier to healthcare – to continue to insist on outsize profit-driven prices. It will be hard to charge $21,000 for a knee implant when the exact same device can be bought in Belgium for $7000. Similarly, with reference pricing and comparison shopping becoming more common, it will be very difficult for your hospital to get business if you insist on charging over $100,000 for a new knee.

Automation: Many job categories across healthcare, from messengers and janitors to neurosurgeons and oncologists will be supplemented or in some cases entirely replaced by robots and software.  We are already seeing widespread automation of  labs and pharmacies. HVAC systems are auto controlled and remotely monitored. Security is enhanced with surveillance cameras, robotic patrols, and position sensitive ID badges. But automation will move much higher up the skill scale, as DNA analysis and volumetric CT and MRI scans replace much of the work of many oncologists, and next-generation scan-driven high precision proton beams replace neurosurgeons at some of their most delicate tasks — even as new custom-built DNA-based personal pharmaceuticals may obviate any need for surgical removal of tumors at all.

Automation of various kinds will show up increasingly in every task category throughout healthcare, extending individual’s powers, raising productivity, and increasing the team’s capacity while eliminating jobs.

Cost Accounting And Lean: Under a fee-for-service system, in which you can charge for each item, inefficiency is a business model. If you’re getting paid a bundled price or a per-patient per-month stipend, suddenly inefficiency is a drain on the bottom line. You simply must recognize your true costs and use strong “lean manufacturing” protocols to get them down. In the organizations that get this right we can expect large increases in productivity, which will mean both increases in capacity and loss of some jobs, either in the organization that is succeeding or the organizations that it is competing against.

What will grow?

In a healthcare economy that is moving toward “leaner and better,” which categories would increase?

A leaner and better healthcare will have to do far more in preventing and managing chronic disease. We are losing rather than gaining the extra primary care physicians that we need to lead that charge. The most successful disease prevention and management programs are based on team care. The most efficient and effective way to influence behavior, especially of “super users,” is through trusted lines of communication with real clinicians — being efficient requires putting a crew on it, increasing rather than decreasing the people who have actual patient contact. So we can expect strong growth in any category that could add to that crew, such as:

“Complementary and alternative” practitioners: When you get paid to do medical stuff to people, why give any business to rival modes? But when you get paid to help people be healthier, why not throw into the mix modalities such as chiropratic, acupuncture, and others which can often show strong results at a fraction of the cost? Why not try them first?

Physical therapy: Remember those Boomers massed at the gates? Many of the aches and pains of aging are better served by cortisone, ibuprofen and yoga than by back fusion surgery and new hips. Physical therapists, like chiropractors and acupuncturists, can be a first line of defense against higher medical costs.

Home health: Vulnerable populations (such as pregnant women, newborns, people with multiple chronic conditions, and the frail elderly) can often be cared for in the home for far less cost than any acute care that can be avoided. New communication technologies can make home health care cheaper, more constant, more data-driven, and more effective.

Enhanced medical home: The Vermont Blueprint and other programs have shown the efficiency and effectiveness of expanding the “medical home” home concept into teams staffed by physician assistants, nurse practitioners, community health specialists, behavioral health specialists, indeed any category of helper that can strengthen and deepen the bond with the family caregiver or the patient.

Behavioral health and addiction: In a fee-for-service world, the behavioral practices have been given short shrift. Considering how much illness and accident is driven in one way or another by addictions and other behavioral problems, any healthcare system run by “value” rather than “volume” is going to hire a lot more psychologists and family counselors.

IT support: The Next Healthcare will be modulated not only through docs’ BYO devices, but through multiple types of cheap sensors, gadgets, dongles, and apps. In order for them to be medically useful, they must be integrated into the system’s IT and EMRs. The need for integration and support of the device swarm will grow rapidly.

Tech industry: We can expect that creating such devices and software, especially those connecting the patient and caregiver to the clinic and clinician, will be a big growth area in the tech industry.

What’s the trend?

The shift can’t be captured in one Big Trend That Devours Everything. But there is this: Most of the things we will doing less are the kinds of things that have made a lot of the “procedure guys” rich over the last few decades, unnecessary procedures and tests that use lots of big machines, expensive implants and other hardware. Most of the parts that will grow emphasize real patient contact, though often at a lower skill and expense level. “Fewer back surgeons and implants, more physical therapists and exercise classes” could stand as a metaphor for the shift.

So while “healthcare at half the cost” would definitely mean fewer jobs in healthcare, it would not mean half the jobs. It would mean more jobs in direct patient handling, especially in primary care, while allowing less profit for suppliers and providers and high-end procedure specialists doing unnecessary work as well as charging unsupportably high prices. And that, my friends, would be a success.


Will Tech Revolutionize Health Care This Time?

by joeflower on May 27, 2014

First published in Hospitals and Health Networks Daily, the online publication of the American Hospital Association, on May 27, 2014.

After decades of bravely keeping them at bay, health care is beginning to be overwhelmed by “fast, cheap, and out of control” new technologies, from BYOD (“bring your own device”) tablets in the operating room, to apps and dongles that turn your smart phone into a Star Trek Tricorder, to 3-D printed skulls. (No, not a souvenir of the Grateful Dead, a Harley decoration or a pastry for the Mexican Dia de Los Muertos, but an actual skullcap to repair someone’s head. Take measurements from a scan, set to work in a cad-cam program, press Cmd-P and boom! There you have it: new ear-to-ear skull top, ready for implant.)

Each new category, we are told, will Revolutionize Health Care, making it orders of magnitude better and far less expensive. Yet the experience of the last three decades is that each new technology only adds complexity and expense.

So what will it be? Will some of these new technologies actually transform health care? Which ones? How can we know? 

There is an answer, but it does not lie in the technologies. It lies in the economics. It lies in the reason we have so much waste in health care. We have so much waste because we get paid for it.

Yes, it’s that simple. In an insurance-supported fee-for-service system, we don’t get paid to solve problems. We get paid to do stuff that might solve a problem. The more stuff we do, and the more complex the stuff we do, the more impressive the machines we use, the more we get paid.

A Tale of a Wasteful Technology

A few presidencies back, I was at a medical conference at a resort on a hilltop near San Diego. I was invited into a trailer to see a demo of a marvellous new technology — computer-aided mammography. I had never even taken a close look at a mammogram, so I was immediately impressed with how difficult it is to pick possible tumours out of the cloudy images. The computer could show you the possibilities, easy as pie, drawing little circles around each suspicious nodule.

But, I asked, will people trust a computer to do such an important job?

Oh, the computer is just helping, I was told. All the scans will be seen by a human radiologist. The computer just makes sure the radiologist does not miss any possibilities.

I thought, Hmmm, if you have a radiologist looking at every scan anyway, why bother with the computer program? Are skilled radiologists in the habit of missing a lot of possible tumors? From the sound of it, I thought what we would get is a lot of false positives, unnecessary call-backs and biopsies, and a lot of unnecessarily worried women. After all, if the computer says something might be a tumor, now the radiologist is put in the position of proving that it isn’t.

I didn’t see any reason that this technology would catch on. I didn’t see it because the reason was not in the technology, it was in the economics.

Years later, as we are trending toward standardizing on this technology across the industry, the results of various studies have shown exactly what I suspected they would: lots of false positives, call-backs and biopsies, and not one tumor that would not have been found without the computer. Not one. At an added cost trending toward half a billion dollars per year.

It caught on because it sounds good, sounds real high-tech, gives you bragging rights (“Come to MagnaGargantua Memorial, the Hospital of the Jetsons!”) — and because you can charge for the extra expense and complexity. There are codes for it. The unnecessary call-backs and biopsies are unfortunate, but they are also a revenue stream — which the customer is not paying for anyway. It’s nothing personal, it’s just business. Of course, by the time the results are in saying that they do no good at all, you’ve got all this sunk cost you have to amortize over the increased payments you can get. No way you’re going to put all that fancy equipment in the dumpster just because it fails to do what you bought it for.

Is this normal? Or an aberration? Neither. It certainly does not stand for all technological advances in health care. Many advances are not only highly effective, they are highly cost effective. Laparoscopic surgery is a great example — smaller wounds, quicker surgeries, lower infection rates, what’s not to like? But a shockingly large number of technological advances follow this pattern: unproven expensive technologies that seem like they might be helpful, or are helpful for special rare cases, adopted broadly across health care in a big-money trance dance with Death Star tech.

Cui Bono?

But that is in health-care-as-it-has-been, not in health-care-as-it-will be. How we think about the impact of new technologies is bound up with the changing economics of health care.

Under a fee-for-service system the questions about a new technology are, Is it plausible that it might be helpful? What are the startup costs in capital and in learning curve? And: Can we bill for it? Can we recoup the costs in added revenue?

In any payment regime that varies at all from strict fee for service (bundled payments, any kind of risk situation), whether we can bill for it becomes irrelevant. The focus will be much more on efficiency and effectiveness: Does it really work? Does it solve a problem? Whose problem?

Many times, extra complexity and waste are added to the system for the convenience and profit of practitioners, not for the good of patients. For example, why do gastroenterologists like to have anaesthesiologists assisting at colonoscopies, when the drugs used (Versed and fentanyl) do not provoke general anaesthesia and can be administered by any doctor? The reason is simple: It turns a 30-minute procedure into a 20-minute procedure. The gastroenterologist can do three per hour instead of two per hour. In the volume-based health care economy, they make more money. The use of the anaesthesiologist adds an average of $400 per procedure to the cost without adding any benefit, lowering the value to the patient. Altogether this one practice adds an estimated $1.1 billion of waste to the health care economy every year.

[Edit: Diane Brown, MD reminds me that for safety it is best to have a pair of eyes dedicated to monitoring the anesthesia. But it need not be an anesthesiologist. It can be a nurse trained to the task, a regular member of the endoscopy team.]

So in thinking about whether these new technologies will propagate across health care, we can ask how exactly they will fit into the ecology of health care, who will benefit from their use, and how that benefit will tie in to the micro economy of health care in that system, with those practitioners and those patients.

Change Is Systemic

A cardiologist in an examining room whips out his iPhone and snaps it into what looks like a special cover. He hands it to the patient, shows the patient where to place his fingers on the back of the cover, and in seconds the patient’s EKG appears on the screen. Dr. Eric Topol, speaking at last summer’s Health Forum Summit, performs a sonogram on himself on stage using a cheap handheld device. These things are easy to imagine in isolation, as something a single doctor or nurse might do with an individual patient.

In reality, in most of health care, the things we need to do to incorporate such technologies are systemic. To be secure, reliable, HIPAA-compliant and connected to the EMR, they can’t be used randomly by the clinicians who happen to like them. They must be tied into and supported by the IT infrastructure.

Similarly, in moving from “volume” to “value” we are talking about changes that don’t happen at the level of a single doctor or single patient. In most cases we cannot treat the patients for whom we are at risk differently from those we are treating on a fee-for-service basis. When you are paid differently, you are producing a new product. When you are producing a new product, you are a beginner. The shift from “volume” to “value” demands and dictates broad systemic changes in revenue streams, which dictate changes in business models, compensation regimes and governance structures. Getting good at these new businesses means changing practice patterns, collaboration models and cultures.

Hospitals, integrated health systems and medical groups face a stark choice: They can either abandon the growing part of the market that demands a “value” business arrangement and stick to the shrinking island represented by old-fashioned “volume” arrangements. Or they can transform their entire business.

The use and propagation of these new low-cost technologies are entirely wrapped up in that decision. In old-fashioned fee-for-service systems, they will be used only where their use can be billed for, or where they lower the internal costs of something that can be billed for. They will not be used to replace existing services that can be billed at higher rates.

“That’s a Lot of Money”

Dr. Topol in his talks likes to make the point that there are over 20 million echocardiograms done in the United States every year at an average billing of $800. As he puts it, “Twenty million times $800 — that’s a lot of money. And probably 70 to 80 percent of them will not need to be done, because they can be done as a regular part of the patient encounter.”

Precisely: That is a lot of money. In fact, it’s a big revenue stream. It’s difficult to imagine that fee-for-service systems for which various types of imaging, scanning and tests represent large revenue streams are going to be early adopters of such technologies that diminish the revenue streams to revenue trickles. When you are paid for waste, being inefficient is a business strategy.

In the “value” ecology of the Next Health Care, the questions are much more straightforward: Does it work? Does the technology make diagnosis and treatment faster, more effective, more efficient? Does it make it vastly cheaper?

Imagine replacement bones (and matrices for regrowing bones) 3-D printed to order. Imagine replacement knee joints, now sold at an average price of €7000 in Europe and $21,000 in the United States, 3-D printed to order. (Imagine how ferociously the legacy makers of implants will resist this change, and how disruptive it will be to that part of the industry.)

Imagine the relationship between the doctor, the nurse and the patient with multiple chronic conditions, now a matter of a visit every now and then, turned into a constant conversation through mobile monitoring.

Imagine a patient at risk for heart attack receiving a special message accompanied by a special ring tone on his cell phone — a message initiated by nano sensors in his bloodstream — warning him of an impending heart attack, giving him time to get to medical care.

Imagine all of this embedded in a system that is redesigned around multiple, distributed, inexpensive sensors, apps and communication devices all supporting strong, trusted relationships between clinicians and patients.

Imagine all this technological change supported with vigor and ferocity because the medical organizations are no longer paid for the volume they manage to push through the doors, but for the extraordinary value they bring to the populations they serve.

That’s the connect-the-dots picture of a radically changed, mobile, tech-enabled, seamless health care that is not only seriously better but far cheaper than what we have today.


Obamacare premiums are going to “skyrocket”? Forget about it.

April 5, 2014

It’s getting harder and harder on the right to come up with new ways to say it isn’t working when it actually seems to be working.
So what’s the latest? This fall, Obamacare premiums are going to “skyrocket”!

Read the full article →

Strategies for Doing More with Less

March 29, 2014

How can hospitals and health systems survive on a lot less money? What are the strategies that turn “impossible” to “not impossible”?

Read the full article →

What About the Poor?

January 28, 2014

In comparison with the actual scale of the problems, most of the business models and strategies in health care have been sleeping like overfed dogs. It’s wake-up time in America.

Read the full article →

The Mind of the Building: Capital Planning in the Next Healthcare

September 24, 2013

Health care organizations are changing shape — and building. Think it through — or you will fetter your change.

Read the full article →

The Missing Ts: Four Key Dimensions of Strategy

July 31, 2013

If you don’t have a structured way of driving your choices through the four Ts — transparency, targeting, trust and trim — you’re headed for T as in trouble.

Read the full article →

How to Fail at the Next Health Care

June 4, 2013

The Next Health Care calls for very different strategies and tool sets. Many systems are acting as if they read a manual on how to do it wrong. How many of these critical strategic and tactical mistakes is your system making?

Read the full article →

The Ghost of Steve Jobs and Your Bottom Line

March 19, 2013

The progeny of the iPhone and the iPad will change the shape of every healthcare institution — and their balance sheets — in ways that are hard to imagine.

Read the full article →