Tag Archives: Health Policy

House Bill Aims to Curb Employers Ability to Force Doctors to Leave State

I prepared this potential op-ed prior to the death of HB 2931 in the Washington legislature. Non-compete clauses (also known as restrictive covenants) in physician contracts have had a devastating effect on the primary care workforce in Vancouver, Washington and other border regions of the state.

I understand the need to protect employers from the costs of recruiting a physician who then turns around and threatens to compete from across the street (really… who does that?) On the other hand, large groups in the state have thrown their weight around and hospital systems have thrown temper tantrums. I would prefer to eliminate restrictive covenants for family physicians, but there is good evidence from numerous sectors fo the economy that putting sharp limits on the enforceability of restrictive covenants is good for the economy. The best example is Silicon Valley,  where companies treat their employees very well, manage them extraordinarily well and continue to work with the intellectual capital they attract long after it leaves to spin off new entities and foster even more innovation.

Other physicians need the support, but so do baristas, hairdressers, nail spa workers and tattoo artists, who are unfairly unlimited by the legacy companies. I have to believe it makes these companies lazy and less considerate than they would be otherwise.

There were several bills, but I addressed the one widely regarded as the most likely to cross to the senate. In the Senate there was SB 6625 sponsored by Senators Conway, Hasegawa, Keiser, Chase, which restricted non-competes to 6 months for hourly wage workers. HB 2406 was sponsored by Representatives Manweller, Sells, Stanford, Magendanz, Tarleton, Moscoso, Ormsby and S. Hunt and stipulated that non-compete clauses were null and void in the case of a listed number of low hourly wage work such as fast food and dry wall applicators. HB 2931, sponsored by Representatives Stanford and Ormsby was the most sophisticated of the three and tried to outline certain parameters for which it is inappropriate to impose a non-compete. In short, if you are not an executive, non-competes would not be enforceable beyond one year.

None of the bills proposed geographic limits as “reasonable” in a non-compete.

All I can say is “we’ll be back,” even though I am poised to become an employer of physcians and stand to benefit from the applicability of these absurd covenants. There is still this thing called “doing the right thing.” Here is my unpublished opinion piece.

 

House Bill 2931 limits how employers can impose non-compete agreements on prospective employees and will be good for all industries in the state, although it will have an unexpected beneficial effect on health of Washingtonians. The bill received a vote on the House Floor Tuesday and will now go to the Senate for consideration.

 

Non-compete agreements in health care protect hospitals and larger medical groups, ostensibly from the high cost of physician recruitment. However, once a doctor agrees to be employed by a medical group, these agreements become a not-so-subtle means of controlling the doctors. An unhappy doctor could be required to leave the city, county or state because the agreement states that he or she is not allowed to practice their profession under any circumstances within the exclusion area. Since doctors have families and children, the non-compete agreement becomes a leash which can only be broken at substantial personal cost, which many families simply are not willing to accept. In one draconian example, one employer in Southwest Washington defines the geographic exclusion area as three counties. The doctor is often left with a Hobson’s choice of staying at an unhappy job with incompetent and potentially dangerous management or leaving town. No one is left to advocate for you, the patient.

 

Non-compete agreements are outrageous and unethical in healthcare. They disrupt the doctor patient relationship and hurt our workforce. When physicians leave the state, even for a short period of time, they rarely come back. Most medical groups spend a huge amount of money recruiting, but nobody tracks losses when doctors leave. In the end, it is the patients who suffer when they lose a trusted provider. I have never seen an administrator look an elderly woman in the eye and explain how his contract forced her doctor out of town.

 

It should come as no surprise that the Washington Hospital Association is profoundly opposes HB 2931. The Washington State Medical Association debated the issue heatedly, and emerged officially neutral. At least one large group made veiled threats to leave the association if even a watered down proposal were considered. The Washington Academy of Family Physicians is the only group that supports the bill, reflecting the public health orientation of primary care sector. Oddly enough, Republicans tend to like bills like HB 2931, because they foster free markets. Democrats like them because they protect employees. This is a bipartisan issue that aims to clip “Big Corporate,” not “Big Government.”

 

In many industries, non-compete agreements are merely an over-reaching effort to own their workforce. As one misdirected lobbyist asserted at the House Labor Committee, “our people ARE our intellectual property.” One wonders how Silicon Valley has thrived, since California is a place where these covenants are nearly completely unenforceable. Perhaps economic development is constrained when tech companies are allowed to impose draconian non-compete clauses?

 

There are numerous options which would make covenants more fair to communities, patients and doctors, but none of the corporations that run the state’s health care apparatus will even discuss the matter. It is time to reclaim the natural rights of individuals to work where they please without undue interference from anonymous corporations. Now it is up to the Senate to make HB 2931 law.

 

Addressing Primary Care Gaps

I recently met Diane Lund-Muzikant, publisher, editor, organizer and all ’round charm for The Lund Report.

Every state should have such a publication focused on the local health system. And a fireplug to match Diane’s energy. She said I could write an editorial whenever I would like to highlight primary care issues.

Here is my first effort published September 22, 2015.

The greatest success of Obamacare, is the reduction in the number of uninsured. Most of this improvement has come in lower income groups, who disproportionately suffer the burden of illness and the most difficult social circumstances, including poor employment prospects. So it is unsurprising that Medicaid expansion accounts for over 2/3 of the newly insured, according to the Heritage Foundation. The political partisans use this as a weapon arguing that Obamacare resulted in little more than the expansion of the Medicaid entitlement. The other side feels that more has to be done to cover the remaining 10 million uninsured.

What about the social value of medical coverage to vulnerable populations, the economic benefits of health care to this group and a questioning of the cost relative to the benefits? Sometimes it is OK to spend tax money if there is value and accountability. If our nation is to spend public money on healthcare, it is incumbent on policy-makers to ensure the greatest value for the effort.

The greatest public value derived from modern medicine is derived from immunizations, maternal-child health and primary care. When the newly insured report that they do not have access, they mean primary care docs who understand their situation and listen to their concerns. Unfortunately, the healthcare system as it stands commoditizes primary care and works against the functions of primary care, especially continuity. Each time someone looks for new primary care provider, the system has failed.

Because healthcare in the US is purchased through employers, their entire family would change provider when jobs turn over. As health plans move to narrow networks, odds are increasing that their doctor will not be in the network offered by the next employer. This interferes with continuity of care over time and erodes outcomes.

The situation is worse for low income individuals and the Medicaid population. Some in this population suffer from mental health problems and are easily overwhelmed by the normal demands of life. They find it difficult to hold onto jobs for a long periods of time. Unstable insurance source from a Medicaid provider to a narrow network and back, repeatedly forcing them into new primary care relationships.

Long term relationships between doctors and their patients build trust. It is the trust built on years of knowing the person embedded within the context of family and community which improves outcomes and reduces costs. The lower the income level, the greater the vulnerability, the greater the risk of bouncing on and off Medicaid, with lapses and fluctuating access determined by deductibles and coinsurance.

Erika Bliss, the CEO of QLiance, a Direct Primary Care company in Seattle, suggested to me a few months ago an idea that could help bolster how primary care improves health system performance. Perhaps it is time to consider a primary care benefit that is portable from employer to employer and continuous with Medicaid. It is easy to carve primary care out of traditional insurance, where it should always represent the top dollar of healthcare spending. This is the idea behind the growing Direct Primary Care movement where high impact primary care is paid for on a monthly subscription basis. First, this helps maintain continuity between a doctor and their patient, a foundation stone of primary care. Second, it serves to create a sustainable business model for medical students to do what they idealistically entered medicine to accomplish and attract more smart people to primary care specialties. Third, primary care increases the efficiency of healthcare systems around the world, which seems to be the fundamental motivation behind the notion of value-based purchasing. If you want to buy value, invest in primary care not MRIs and pay as much as you reasonably can.

Reflections on Health Care Past, and Future

The Portland Business Journal recently sponsored a forum entitled Health Care of the Future, providing a glimpse into what Portland companies are doing to disrupt the healthcare system. Panelists discussed new models for healthcare, new technologies that extend the reach of physicians and financing methods. It was a hugely attended event, with a great buzz, fantastic networking opportunities and a lot of great information. But close to the end of the conference, a couple of comments were made by panelists that I found incredibly frustrating reflections of an old, broken, sick health care system that were oddly out of place.

 

First, Jared Short, the head of Cambia’s Insurance group (Regence BCBS) who recounted diagnostic failure in the primary care setting as one reason for high cost to the system. He brought up a personal experience with his son’s diagnosis of a chronic rheumatic condition that took over two years to diagnose, despite elaborate investigations. Of course we don’t know the clinical details, but that’s why it’s an unfair characterization of primary care.

 

As an intern, I was responsible for the diagnosis of a case of lupus in a man who had been searching for a cause over ten years. I was not smarter than my colleagues or professors, but rather, the unique evolution of his disease made it impossible to diagnose earlier. Doctors knew that waiting and watching was the best possible strategy and in this patient’s specific case, there was sufficient trust that the patient was content to wait rather than pursue useless investigations. This is always necessary in a market where distortions are introduced by the fact that advanced investigations are essentially subsidized by payers. If patients understood what little value they added at time, they would decline. It is frightening that the head of one of the largest and most powerful payers in the Northwest has such a distorted view of the diagnostic process and value within the system.

 

If primary care is inadequate, then we should invest in supporting primary care and attracting the smartest minds. You do not get to underinvest in a key health system function for decades and then complain that it doesn’t do its job.

 

The other inexplicable comment is one I used to hear frequently in healthcare business circles in the past. Martie Ross, a principal in a consulting firm out east, made the point that insurers needed to find mechanisms of transferring risk to health providers with new value-based payment methodologies.

 

My point is that healthcare providers are not risk bearing entities and should generally be discouraged from doing so. It is not clear which features of ACOs predict their success, but some of the most successful ones have been where the risk was transferred to the ACO, but not necessarily to the providers. Providers should be in the business of taking care of people and doing the right thing, irrespective of the cost. As far as insurers go, their business is the management of risk, not the transfer of risk. To a lifelong family physician, insurance companies transferring risk seems like cheating.

 

Moreover, the only entities large enough to absorb this kind of risk are large integrated health systems which is the birthplace of perverse incentives for high volume, excessive and sometimes unnecessary care. Small practices arguably do better at quality where large systems are better at collecting data and generating revenue.

 

The disdain for primary care and the industry’s tone-deaf dehumanization of health to “risk transfer” are part of the reason our old system is broken and we are experiencing this generational opportunity for disruption. This is the health care of the past, not the Health Care of the Future.

 

 

Primary care is key piece to U.S. healthcare puzzle

Another article, this one published in the Vancouver Business Journal on June 19, 2015, found here.

 

Healthcare in the U.S. is sick, bloated and ineffective. In some circles, investment in primary care infrastructure is prescribed as one of the important components in an effort to fix the U.S. healthcare system. My personal opinion is that primary care infrastructure is the single most important piece of the puzzle.

Healthcare is a $4 trillion industry that represents more than 1/6th of GDP. It is also growing at a rate that threatens to exceed the 20 percent threshold in the next few years. The Soviet Union’s economy collapsed when non-productive spending on defense exceeded 25 percent, and it has been argued that this level in healthcare expenditures would cause enormous misery for U.S. businesses. However, it is a mistake to examine healthcare as a monolith. The system is made up of various parts, each of which has varying interests to assure their survival within the system.

Hospitals, for instance, rely on flow-through of as many procedures as possible. Orthopedic, heart and urological procedures traditionally lead the way. Physicians in these specialties are especially prized by hospitals since they tend to refer the most valuable patients. Other physicians have professional and financial interests that are diametrically opposed. If primary care was enabled to do its job, it would keep interventions in community offices, where charges are at lower rates and the care, while some would argue is technically less precise, is often more personalized and therefore more prized by individual patients.

Even the insurance industry is not monolithic in the market conditions that maximize their bottom lines. Some insurers manage care very little, limiting the review of utilization and making their money from processing transactions. In some ways, these companies are aligned with the hospitals and specialty physicians. The managed care plans assume risk for their subscribers’ healthcare costs. They stand to make money if patients use fewer services and as such, are more closely aligned to the average primary physician rather than the average specialist.

Of course, this varies tremendously from person to person. A provider at Kaiser tends to think of fewer procedures, tests and consults as better care, whereas a for-profit primary care practice may gravitate to concierge care, and developing niche service lines like Botox, varicose vein treatments and selling nutraceuticals. Some of the more abusive niche products are narcotic pill mills, medical marijuana clinics and some of the new testosterone-centered men’s clinics.

Primary care has been marginalized in an overtly specializing society. The main driver of this phenomenon is that the financial incentives for a significant portion of the industry are aligned with generating more procedures, more testing and more specialty consultations. After all, that is where the best margins are.

On the other hand, managed care and primary care tend to have aligned interests in saving money for people and the health system in general. Primary care cannot stand on its own; there is no point to having preventive services and first line care if curative care and specialized care is not available. But not every person with high blood pressure or heart failure needs a cardiologist. In fact, specialists would spend more time treating and caring for conditions more suited to their degree of specialization if front line medicine was better built up than it is today.

The trend toward healthcare purchasers utilizing narrow networks of high value providers is related to effective primary care and an appropriate specialty network. Trouble is that the infrastructure for primary care has been neglected for so long that competition for primary care services is likely to raise prices to the extent that, in the near future, it will compete with current health plan offerings. For now however, high-value primary care holds the promise of reducing employer costs and putting enough money into primary care to attract medical students and resident graduates into areas of healthcare that have been spurned for so long.

Where are the primary care providers?

This is an unpublished Op-Ed intended for The Columbian at the end of May. I got bumped by WSMA President Dale Resiner, so no hard feelings. Here is WSMA version of the Columbian editorial.

Last week, the news hit that The Vancouver Clinic was going to reduce the number of Medicaid patients they care for. This kind of patient selection is nothing new. Many county elderly already know nearly every practice is closed to Medicare. In fact, some offices that do not accept Medicare simply hand you your walking papers when you become eligible. Anyone with a background in public health will cringe at that behavior, but anyone with healthcare business experience will know that you can’t blame them.

The announcement comes at a bad time for the state as Medicaid expansion can impact health only if the new sign-ups have access to doctors, especially in primary care. There are several industry wide factors that contribute to this kind of decision: low payment rates, penalties for fraud that are so over-reaching a single billing error could potentially cost a practice over $10,000 and the extra staff time required to get approvals from Medicare Advantage plans. The same is true for Medicaid except the payments are even lower.

Clark County has severe access problems for patients insured by government plans. Physician incomes in the Pacific Northwest are considerably lower than much of the nation and particularly in Vancouver that was once a rural county and historically did not justify the higher costs associated with being a suburb of Portland. In fact Clark sports one of the lowest primary care physician to population ratio that can be found in any urban county on the West Coast. According to the Graham Center, a primary care think tank in Washington DC, “a relative shortage in the physician workforce with geographic and specialty maldistribution contributes to difficulties in accessing needed services.” Clark County is a case in point.

When an area doesn’t have enough primary care but plenty of specialists, a few things will happen: 1) costs rise because seeing a specialist results in higher costs than seeing a primary care doctor, 2) primary care office fees rise because of a simple supply and demand equation, 3) where fees cannot rise because they are regulated, doctors opt out.

Opting out can take various forms: 1) a physician can decide do concierge medicine and cater to the wealthy, 2) they can become selective and refuse to take patients covered by low-paying insurers, 3) they can stop dealing with the hassle of sick patients’ ongoing needs and simply do urgent care for the easy no-headache payments or 4) they can close their doors.

All these options have been exercised by Clark County physicians in the past few years. Either way, patients lose out because they are the ones in need of lower cost access, coordination of care and the insights that can only be gained by a longitudinal long-term relationship between a patient and provider.

It’s just that this kind of work is thankless. It is high risk because of the awesome regulatory burden and exhausting because of the breathtaking scope of knowledge required. Every specialist knows more about their chosen field than the primary care physician, but every primary care doc is more competent than that one specialist at every other of the 130 specialties recognized in the US. A very few specialists become insensitive, unsupportive, preachy and intrusive. Intrusiveness is increasingly the hallmark of legislatures around the country with mandates for extra medical education on their pet subjects, like pain management, suicide prevention and AIDS, just to name a few. Some state imposed medical education requirements may be relevant and other times merely a distraction from the real work of medicine. It is ironic that this is the year of the suicide prevention mandate from Olympia, imposed on physicians, the profession with the highest suicide risk of all.

The question no longer is why you can’t find a primary care doctor, but how can any still exist. The problem with healthcare is not Obamacare, and definitely not the absence of Obamacare. What got us into this mess is under-investment in the primary care workforce. With or without Obamacare, the current path is not sustainable and will adversely affect the greater economy soon, that without draconian government efforts, it could be too late to fix. If we had an effective source of primary care, the whole system would be efficient enough to take care of everyone without some practices dropping whole groups of patients.

Measles and the Upcoming Outbreak

The following article was published April 2, 2014 as a guest editorial in the Oregonian and can be found on Oregon Live here. Today, we can say the North American measles epidemic is in full swing. We are just waiting for the body count, a comment the Oregonian in their wisdom elected to remove from my submitted draft. 

 

Measles is near. Last Aug.18, Texas health officials announced 12 cases of measles in that state. By Aug. 20, the number of officially reported cases was 16. The majority belonged to a single church whose pastor had been recommending that parents avoid vaccines. It wasn’t even the biggest outbreak last year. There were 58 cases in New York. So far this year, we’ve had five cases near San Francisco, 20 in Orange County and over 320 cases in Canada’s Fraser Valley to our north, which has spread to at least one resident of Whatcom County Washington. We’ve also had an outbreak of mumps at Ohio State.

It is only a matter of time before the most vulnerable start suffering the consequences of an American epidemic. Oregon is the state with highest exemption rate in the US. This makes our local area particularly vulnerable to an explosive epidemic. Just for perspective, only 3 percent of children are exempted in California, and they have had the biggest outbreak so far this year. As the ring gets tighter, it is only a matter of time before officials in the Portland metro area have to scramble to respond to a disease we thought we had eliminated from our shores in 2000.

Measles is not the flu. It is much worse. Influenza has an attack rate of about 50 percent, measles 90 percent. That means that 90 percent of non-immune people who come in contact with the measles virus will actually acquire the disease. Complications range from the trivial, like ear infections and diarrhea, to dehydration, to pneumonia, dehydration and encephalitis, a serious type of brain infection.

Traditional epidemiology reports that 20 percent of children can expect to be hospitalized, and three out of a 1,000 will die. Most recent data from Europe would suggest that the numbers are closer to 30 percent hospitalized and a 1-2 percent fatality rate.

In the 1950s and 1960s,  an average of 450 American deaths were annually attributed to measles or its complications. Following the introduction of the measles vaccine, the number of cases steadily declined until 2000, when there were no cases at all.  In 2013, the latest year for which the CDC has reported statistics, there were 189 cases of measles.  Many were imported from countries with inadequate vaccine coverage, but we are seeing more cases in vaccine refusers. There have been no recent deaths, but in a large epidemic, the odds are not promising.

After 15 years of misinformation, complacency due to the lack of domestic deaths and a series of paranoid and ignorant conspiracy theories, we are starting to see outbreaks. This is misinformation with a body count.

When the percentage of people immune to measles drops significantly, massive and sudden increases in the number of measles cases follow. In France, where the anti-vaccine movement caught fire in the middle of the last decade, cases of measles went from about 30 in 2005 to 15,000 in 2011. There were six deaths. Last year, the United Kingdom suffered 1,219 cases with one death.

Some of the cases are occurring among children who have received the vaccine. Since vaccines are never 100 percent effective in preventing any disease, the risk of failure rises proportionately to the cumulative weight of exposure. The more cases are in your neighborhood, the greater the chance that your vaccinated child may get the disease.

No vaccine is entirely safe. Balancing the risks of preventing disease with the risks of the actual vaccine is not an easy task. Informed consent is a cornerstone of any medical practice, and every parent has the responsibility of weighing the evidence for themselves. But how do parents decide when the information about vaccines is more about conspiracies and wrong data? How do responsible and critical thinking parents who chose the vaccine react when a significant proportion of their neighbors undermine collective efforts to keep a deadly disease out of their home?

 

Some goals, like eliminating measles, can only be accomplished by group action, taken with full knowledge that a few will suffer, but the majority will gain something significant. This is what it means to live in a community. This is what it means to be responsible.

Employed Physicians

This old post is here because I have been thinking a lot lately about the impact of employed physicians on a community’s health. Since this post was written, I have worked for a large hospital-based primary care practice where I was being pressured to produce referrals and tests. When I left, the company waived any non-compete clauses. If they had elected to enforce them, my current community would have been deprived of a family physician in an area of primary care penury. So the lack of independence in primary care may lead to overuse of specialty and technological services and deprive communities of the specific function (primary care) that makes health systems more efficient. This 2008 post contains the seed of an idea to develop a sustainable business model for the independent primary care physician in the interests of the public health. But there are several steps I will have to fill in, so stay tuned. Meanwhile, enjoy…

 

I had an interesting conversation with a feller from Texas the other day. I was telling him how I had formed my impressions of docs in employed situations from my experience on the East Coast. It just seemed that the solo practitioner was almost dead, if not completely so. Even in rural Maryland, it was more likely to find groups of two or three docs in private practice fiercely holding on to their independence in the face of large single- or multi-specialty groups encroaching from the suburbs. Many of the large groups have found Stark-compliant ways of working with nearby hospitals, or, in some areas, are outright owned by the hospitals.

I reflected to my acquaintance how different it was out here in the Western desert regions, where it seemed the employed docs sometimes felt they could act like it was their own shop and close up with less than a day’s notice to stay home with the kids or go duck hunting or take whatever break is justified by a hard-working, highly-valued provider of a needed service by a grateful community.

You can’t do that when there are 50 physicians and 300 employees whose work schedules are dependent on physicians providing billable services on razor-thin margins.

Well, maybe you can. It’s all about the supply and demand equation, isn’t it? If there aren’t enough primary care physicians to go ’round, the tolerance for behavior inconsistent with a larger organization’s overall well-being is better tolerated. And certainly the local physicians’ culture has an important role to play. Texas docs, I was told were nearly never in large groups and they never tolerated overbearing administrative intrusions to their clinical or vocational independence.

I walked away from my conversation with a tall and lanky Texan (sorry for the cliche, but he was tall and nearly lanky), with an understanding of how different the situation is for physicians across the country and how my approach to change management and performance management is colored by my East Coast experience.

In areas where managed care penetration is high, employed physicians predominate by choice, and a high regard for academic analysis output exists, there is an atmosphere of understanding and willingness to work within a corporate environment. Evidence-based medicine, quality and performance improvement are all perceived as methods to improve health care delivery systems for the betterment of the community. Physicians understand the choice to enter employed positions and accept the trade-offs, giving up some independence for the sake of fewer administrative headaches, better benefits and perhaps, a reasonable lifestyle.

In areas where one or more of these conditions do not hold, physicians resent encroachment on their judgment, style or authority and mistrust the motives of administrators of all stripes. EBM, QI, and PI are bridles of control to be avoided at all costs and administrative entities are regarded to exist for their personal betterment and not the benefit of communities nor the doctors, Such physicians enter into an employed arrangement begrudgingly and only if they feel that their work is not subject to the kind of oversight that will reduce their independence.

OK, I’m dumb. I didn’t realize the obvious until now. I have grown up in academic environments which are so dominated by various stakeholders that the independence of the community physician a distant recollection from the stories of William Carlos Williams; the vague memory of a historical work of fiction read in childhood. The East coast and its large cities are places where independent practitioners are aberrations or mavericks worthy of awe, disbelief and admiration.

Elsewhere in the country, in smaller cities and younger landscapes, the independent practitioner has thrived and the battle for physicians’ independence is much more vigorous.

It is possible to engage physicians any number of ways in future improvements to health care. The lessons of the East tell me that the best way is not confrontational. Without physicians, no meaningful reform is possible, despite the best efforts of other stakeholders. On the East Coast, docs have been beaten into submission. It took a long time, created a lot of ill feelings and did not accomplish much. The rest can do it faster, more collaboratively and with greater focus. The first step is to get a clear understanding of the situation and adapt to local environments.

Revolution or Evolution

I resurrected this old blog post because it reflects some of the most basic and fundamental issues that were not addressed by the ACA. It is as current today as in 2008. Changes in health technology, consumer-facing health tools, payment reform and Meaningful Use have not moved the needle on establishing a unified view on the the nature and purpose of health care systems in general.

 

Call me a skeptic, but this health care system (which does not serve the majority of its stakeholders) is not likely to change overnight, even (especially) if Obama wins the election. What we have in the US is an undesigned, organic, chaotic system which accomplishes exactly what it is designed to accomplish. Problem is, everybody thinks it is designed to do something different and the result is incoherent.

Some treat health care as an entitlement. It is the right thing to do because nobody should ever go without access to care in the face of illness. Illness is frightening, as are many other things in the world. But fear of getting sick is about as good a justification for universal health care as universal access to… say, attorneys. It may be a good thing to do, but I would rather push for universal access to information.

Many physicians see the health care system as a vehicle for the intellectual challenges and exercises in skill required of the practice of medicine. As an exercise in meritocracy, health care should be more available to those best able to pay for it. There has always been and will always be value in having uncommon skill or knowledge. I firmly believe that this drive, rather than the profit motive, is what pushes most physicians to specialize, sub-specialize and constantly and marvelously push back the limits of what can be done with the human body.

Health systems are also an opportunity to find a margin. Yes, health care is a business and in America, profit is not a dirty word.

Health care is also as “issue” for politicians, and to the extent that it affects voters, it influences the government agenda. It represents a way to get a vote.

Health care can be seen as a public health measure, which I tend to do. This suggests that those interventions that are most likely to help the health of populations (as distinct from the health of individuals) should get the most resources. With all due apologies to my sub-specialty colleagues,who are critical to our health care infrastructure from many perspective, it is here that primary care wins out hands down.

In fact, the broader the definition of health, the less medical it becomes. Securing water, adequate shelter, safe employment, reliable food sources, traffic safety and basic literacy are health issues that hardly fit into our usual conception of health care or the current reform debate. Immunizations, prenatal care and primary care are the most cost-effective things the medical world has to offer. PAHO and WHO publish guides for policy makers.

A health system like ours is at cross-purposes. Many advocate a total overhaul but that’s not how change happens. Incremental change is more likely. Even if we were to reach some sort of tipping point in technology, or delivery, or insurance we will not likely see a complete change in a high resource service sector. Despite the complexity of the health system, care is still delivered one-on-one. All other discussions remain MBA-speak appropriate for the Harvard Business Review and little else.

Don’t get me wrong, I like what I see in the health reform world. I like Dr. Val. I like Steve Case for that matter. I think what they are doing in consumer-driven health care is valuable. Jay Parkinson sounds like a smart guy and I might even ask him what he thinks about spreading his model to rural areas. I believe that the Future of Family Medicine project has enormous potential for change as evidenced by the TransforMED project and the rising popularity of the medical homes concept. PHR‘s have potential. RHIO‘s even more.

But none of these ideas are sufficiently transformative to represent the answer to a broken health system. Together, they represent a significant change in direction that incrementally may have an outsize impact.

The single notion that could have the greatest effect is the one that says we cannot and should not provide for every possible health benefit under the sun.

Rationing by cost (a barrier to access) is more acceptable than rationing by mandate, regulation, insurance company ruling or queuing. No rationing does not exist in any industry.

This means we must prioritize the things we cover. We make decisions all the time about what is covered and what is not covered, but we currently decide based on politics; that is to say the sum total of influence exerted by stakeholders and lobbies.

Frankly, it’s not a bad way to do it; I don’t believe in central planning. Look at Canada. But a better way to do it is follow the data. Otherwise every right wing crackpot and left wing entitlement-creator will have outsize say according to the way the political winds blow. Right now, we have two nutty ideas floating around: one way is expanding health care coverage under government tutelage and the other is giving tax credits to poor people to buy health insurance. As far as I’m concerned, government should only guide and create an environment for market forces to accomplish common goals (in this case, health.) Expanding government programs is not the way to do it. Tax credits for poor people are ridiculous; I can’t get my poor patients to spend on bus fare if there is no IMMEDIATE benefit.

McCain is also promoting an idea to allow insurance companies to compete across state lines. Bob Vineyard at Insureblog seems to feel it won’t work because of differing state mandates (the analogy is with credit card companies). In other words, states are already making choices about which benefits are to be covered. This may be viewed as rationing, or alternatively, choosing which parts of health care to subsidize. In fact, I prefer the subsidy position, because it puts us on more firm moral ground. If we chose to subsidize any industry, we should do it on the basis of data and a specific goal in mind. A utilitarian like me will view government’s responsibility as creating the greatest common good i.e. the most wellbeing. This merges nicely with the broader definitions of health.

What I like about the McCain idea is that it represents incremental change. To address Vineyard’s correctly pointing out that state mandates represent a serious obstacle, they are not insurmountable. A federal rule for companies selling insurance across state lines could be that they meet or exceed the benefits coverage of most states. These policies will be more expensive than policies sold in low-mandate states, but provide useful alternatives for those willing to pay. They will represent real competition in high mandate states, which are sufficiently populous to get people asking questions. There are other legislative and regulatory hurdles to get over, but ideas should not be discarded before a full and public airing.

Transparency in the insurance industry and in hospital pricing, expanding coverage for the uninsured and under-insured, a more flexible tax code to allow for the purchase of alternative insurance products, increasing adoption of IT and maximization of its potential in measuring and affecting quality, aggressive changes in models of care delivery and defining different levels of coverage according to health impact analysis are all a small part of the solution. Overall, there is a tremendous amount of value yet to be unlocked in the US medical system, but tearing a system apart to rebuild it from the ground is not a good option. Revolutions tend to be more destructive than creative.

Cost effectiveness of well child visits

We published this back in 2008 on the old blog. It remains germane to the economics of primary care and I updated it with a link to The Incidental Economist.

 

Immunizations are simply the best and most cost-effective intervention ever conceived by the science of medicine. They are so important that health care providers have toyed with various techniques to improve immunization rates. For example, my current facility has a full-time immunization nurse who can give missing vaccines to children following a sick visit (as long as they don’t have a fever.)

The principle of vaccinating when you got ’em in the clinic is common in many developing countries and under-served areas, since you never know when you will see these children again.

Now the practice is being questioned. According to an article in Pediatrics, some parents don’t bring their children back for well visits. The well-child visit includes a brief developmental assessment, physical examination and anticipatory guidance. These aspects of the visit have great value, especially for the young, low-income mothers who are the most likely to conflate a well visit with a shot.

As a clinician, I understand the value of well child visits, but my public health degree must question the data. There is insufficient evidence to support annual adult examinations. Studies with children are naturally more likely to yield a benefit, but I just haven’t seen them. After all the well-child visit schedule is tied to… you guessed it, immunizations.

It’s good to know that there is documentation of the downside of opportunistic immunization (which has been our experience). I am not sure it matters in the big picture. After all, one of the few things on which health economists agree is that prevention usually doesn’t pay off.