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It Was Those Other Guys

Kim Bellard, July 26, 2013

A fascinating study in JAMA on physician’s attitudes towards controlling costs helps illustrate the bipolar attitudes our health system tends to generate.  The study found that physicians generally believe other players in the health system have the major responsibility for controlling costs – led by the popular culprits: trial lawyers (60%), insurance companies (59%), and pharmaceutical/device manufacturers (56%).  Patients were cited by 52%.

Only 36% of the physicians cited physicians as bearing a major responsibility for controlling costs.

When I saw the latter result, I initially assumed the respondents would simply plead ignorance about costs, or at least take the 5th, but nope: 76% agreed that they were aware of the costs of services they recommend.  Even more surprising, 73% disagree that doctors are too busy to worry about costs of tests and procedures, and 75% agree that trying to contain costs was every physician’s responsibility.  There’s a certain cognitive dissonance here that is hard to understand.

As for cost containment strategies the physicians were enthusiastic about, mom-and-apple-pie approaches dominated: promoting continuity of care (75%), the ever-popular “rooting out fraud and abuse” (70%), and chronic disease care coordination (69%).  Only 7% were in favor of eliminating fee-for-service and only 6% liked the approach of bundled payments.  I guess they haven’t gotten the memo that FFS is supposedly dying.

I was particularly disappointed that the physicians were not more enthusiastic about more empirical approaches to controlling costs, with only 51% in support of expanding access to quality and safety data and only 50% supporting head-to-head trials of competing treatments. 

Support for head-to-head trials should be much higher, based on some findings recently released by the Mayo Clinic.  The researchers reviewed ten years of articles in a “high impact” medical journal, looking both at articles studying new medical practices and ones evaluating existing treatments.  The results are disturbing: 40% of the existing treatments reviewed were no better or worse than the prior standards of care; i.e., the results recommended reversing an existing practice that was considered the current standard of care.  Only 38% reaffirmed existing practices, with the rest inconclusive.  This is medicine by ready-shoot-aim.

New treatments fared better, with only 17% failing to improve upon existing practices.  I suppose I should be comforted by that result, but it just makes me wonder if the discredited practices ended up being used anyway (especially if they resulted in higher revenue).  

Another recent survey of physicians – this one by Wolters Kluwer Health – didn’t paint a better picture than the JAMA study.  For one thing, 34% reported that it was somewhat or very likely that they’d leave their practice in the near future.  The respondents found it challenging to manage shifting reimbursement models with payors (91%) as well as their practice’s financial management (90%); as a result, 88% reported it challenging to spend enough time with patients.  Improving patient care was seen as further down their list of challenges (78%, but with the lowest result for being seen as very challenging -- only 20%). 

These physicians do think that HIT is making progress in having an impact on ensuring patient safety and in improving quality of care (both 55%), but are more skeptical that it is making progress in improving ease of use (56% disagree) or managing costs (63%). 

In terms of areas of focus for the next 3-5 years, 48% listed improving practice efficiency, 34% planned to explore different business models, while only 14% were focused on public reporting of quality metrics and only 11% wanted to concentrate on patient safety.  To be fair, 31% did hope to adopt technology to improve clinical decision-making/evidence-based medicine. 

One likes to think that it truly isn’t all about the money, but it’s also easy to be cynical about this.  The Washington Post recently wrote about how an AMA committee is driving Medicare reimbursement decisions, using some questionable assumptions.  The Post asserts that some of the committee’s assumptions grossly exaggerate the time involved in procedures, such as for colonoscopies.   The assumptions can be as 100% higher than actual time and effort. 

The Post also notes that the committee is seven times more likely to raise time estimates than to lower them, in apparent contradiction to presumed technology and productivity advances.  Despite the billions of dollars at stake, CMS only uses “six to eight” people to review the recommendations, and none of them are devoted full-time, in contrast to the “hundreds” of people the AMA and specialty societies use to develop their recommendations.

Former Medicare chief Tom Scully is quoted as saying, “The concept of having the AMA run the process of fixing prices for Medicare was crazy from the beginning.  It was a fundamental mistake.”  The Harvard researcher who originally developed the RBRVS point system, William Hsiao, says, “The AMA fought very hard to take over this updating process.  I said this had to be done by an impartial group of people.  This is highly political.”

The AMA committee’s recommendations do not directly result in higher payments, nor is it likely that most individual physicians are aware of the assumptions embedded in their payment rates, but the process is another illustration at how no one is minding the store.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the IOM’s new report “Variation in Health Care Spending: Target Decision Making, Not Geography.”  They were asked to investigate since Congress has been considering shifting money from high-cost areas of the country to lower cost ones.  Somewhat surprisingly, IOM did not support that tactic.  They reaffirmed that geographic spending differences do exist, for both Medicare and private insurance, and that there is essentially no correlation between quality and spending.  However, they did not support geography-based reimbursement models, finding that the geography is not the issue.

For Medicare, they found that higher spending differences were most associated with post-acute care, and to acute care only to a lesser extent; indeed, post-acute care differences accounted for 73% of Medicare’s geographic spending differences.  For private insurance, spending differences were due to price markups rather than utilization differences.

The IOM’s main conclusion is in the subhead of their report’s title: “Target Decision Making, Not Geography.”  Now if only we could figure out who is making the decisions.   The physicians don’t think it’s them; the government is delegating theirs to special interests and lobbyists; the payors can’t negotiate tough enough with the provider systems (especially now that those systems continue to consolidate); the provider systems – well, they’re terrified that the physicians will stop generating all that revenue for them. 

We can continue to pin the tail on new culprits, but we need to get past blame.  I’m naïve enough to think that there aren’t many villains here (although there are, allegedly, some), but it boils down to too many involved parties not being willing to be accountable for their actions.

When it comes to increasing value – not just controlling health care costs but also improving quality – in our health care system, I think of words of the always wise Benjamin Franklin: we must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.

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