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The Healthcare Agenda For The New President And Congress?

The Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard School of Public Health teamed up to survey Americans about their healthcare reform priorities (Kaiser has been doing this every year since 1992). A random sample of 1,628 adults participated in the telephone survey between December 4-14th, 2008. The results were presented at a press conference that I attended on January 15th.

Although you might want to view a presentation of the entire webcast here, I’ll summarize the points that I found the most interesting:

Dr. Robert Blendon (Professor of Health Policy at the Harvard School of Public Health) offered some fascinating commentary on the survey results:

1. Americans Are Fickle About Healthcare Reform Issues. Most public opinion polls do not take into account the degree of conviction with which people describe their health reform priorities. In reality, the public is generally quite ambivalent regarding the specifics of how to achieve reforms like improved access to care, and decreased healthcare costs. The Kaiser survey clearly demonstrated the public’s tendency to agree with specific reform ideas, but then change their minds when the potential downsides of such initiatives were described. So for example, most survey respondents liked the idea of an employer insurance mandate (requiring employers to subsidize employee health insurance costs), but when asked if they would favor it if it might cause some employers to lay off workers, then they no longer supported the mandate.

2. Public And Government Priorities Differ. While the public is primarily focused on relief from skyrocketing healthcare costs, the government is focused on healthcare delivery reform.

3. Americans Don’t Want Change To Affect Them. An underlying theme in the survey was that the average respondent didn’t want to pay more for healthcare, and they also did not want to be forced to change their current care and coverage arrangements.

4. It’s All About Money. America is in a near economic depression, and therefore the healthcare reform climate is very different from that of 1992 (when the Clinton reform plan stalled). Middle income Americans in an economic downturn are not willing to pay more taxes. The only way forward in our current economy is to find a revenue stream for reform that does not increase taxes on the average American. Blendon summarizes:

“It isn’t enough that all the groups agree on how to spend money on healthcare. ‘Who is going to pay?’ is the critical issue.”

At this point in time, it looks as if the American public is most supportive of the healthcare reforms listed below (but their opinion is certainly subject to change, depending on how the political discussions unfold, and how the media influences the debate). Blendon also cautions: “This doesn’t mean that this is a sensible health reform plan, it’s just what has public support at the moment.”

Healthcare Reform Initiatives Currently Favored By Americans

Expanding Coverage

1. Health insurance mandate for children

2. Fill the Medicare doughnut hole

3. Tax credits to employers to help them offer coverage to more employees

4. Health insurance for the unemployed

5. Eliminate medical underwriting (“pre-existing condition” carve outs and such)

6. Expand Medicare to cover people ages 55-64 who are without health insurance

7. Require employers to offer health insurance to their workers or pay money into a government fund that will pay to cover those without insurance

8. Increased spending on medical care for veterans

9. Increased spending on SCHIP

Controlling Costs

1. Negotiate for lower drug costs under Medicare

2. Allow Americans to buy prescription drugs imported from Canada

3. More government regulation of healthcare costs

4. More government regulation of prescription drug costs

5. Regulate insurance companies’ administrative spending and profits

Raising Revenue

1. Increase the cigarette tax

2. Increase income taxes for people from families making more than $250,000 a year


As you can see, the public supports reform that would result in substantial increases in healthcare spending without a clear idea of how to pay for those initiatives. Our government, in partnership with healthcare’s key stakeholders, is going to need to come up with a reform plan that identifies new revenue streams to cover the costs associated with expanding coverage. I find it hard to believe that increasing taxes on cigarettes (and a few very wealthy Americans) is going to be sufficient. If ever there were a time to nurture our American entrepreneurial spirit, it’s now.

Dr. Atul Gawande: Check Lists Are Critical To Improving Patient Safety

Photo of Atul Gawande

Dr. Gawande

Kaiser Permanente sponsored a special event in DC today – Charlie Rose interviewed Dr. Atul Gawande about patient safety in front of an audience of physicians. Dr. Gawande is a young surgeon at Harvard’s Dana Farber Cancer Institute, has written two books about performance improvement, and is a regular contributor to the New Yorker magazine. I had heard many positive things about Atul, but had never met him in person. I was pleasantly impressed.

Atul strikes me as a genuinely humble person. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair as Charlie Rose cited a long list of his impressive accomplishments, including writing for the New Yorker. Atul responded:

I’m not sure how my writing became so popular. I took one fiction-writing class in college because I liked a girl who was taking the class. I got a “C” in the class but married the girl.

He went on to explain that because his son was born with a heart defect (absent aortic arch) he knew what it felt like to be on the patient side of the surgical conversation.  He told the audience that at times he felt uncomfortable knowing which surgeons would be operating on his son, because he had trained with them as a resident, and remembered their peer antics.

Atul explained that patient safety is becoming a more and more complicated proposition as science continues to uncover additional treatment options.

If you had a heart attack in the 1950’s, you’d be given some morphine and put on bed rest. If you survived 6 weeks it was a miracle. Today not only do we have 10 different ways to prevent heart attacks, but we have many different treatment options, including stents, clot busters, heart surgery, and medical management. The degree of challenge in applying the ultimate best treatment option for any particular patient is becoming difficult. This puts us at risk for “failures” that didn’t exist in the past.

In an environment of increasing healthcare complexity, how do physicians make sure that care is as safe as possible? Atul suggests that we need to go back to basics. Simple checklists have demonstrated incredible value in reducing central line infections and surgical error rates. He cited a checklist initiative started by Dr. Peter Pronovost that resulted in reduction of central line infections of 33%. This did not require investment in advanced antibacterial technology, and it cost almost nothing to implement.

Atul argued that death rates from roadside bombs decreased from 25% (in the Gulf War) to 10% (in the Iraq war) primarily because of the implementation of check lists. Military personnel were not regularly wearing their Kevlar vests until it was mandated and enforced. This one change in process has saved countless lives, with little increase in cost and no new technology.

I asked Atul if he believed that (beyond check lists) pay for performance (P4P) measures would be useful in improving quality of care. He responded that he had not been terribly impressed with the improvements in outcomes from P4P initiatives in the area of congestive heart failure. He said that because there are over 13,000 different diseases and conditions, it would be incredibly difficult to apply P4P to each of those. He said that most providers would find a way to meet the targets – and that overall P4P just lowers the bar for care.

Non-punitive measures such as check lists and applying what we already know will go a lot farther than P4P in improving patient safety and quality of care.

Atul also touted the importance of transparency in improving patient safety and quality (I could imagine my friend Paul Levy cheering in the background). In the most touching moment of the interview, Atul reflected:

As a surgeon I have a 3% error rate. In other words, every year my work harms about 10-12 patients more than it helps. In about half of those cases I know that I could have done something differently. I remember the names of every patient I killed or permanently disabled. It drives me to try harder to reduce errors and strive for perfection.

Atul argued that hospitals’ resistance to transparency is not primarily driven by a fear of lawsuits, but by a fear of the implications of transparency. If errors are found and publicized, then that means you have to change processes to make sure they don’t happen again. Therein lies the real challenge: knowing what to do and how to act on safety violations is not always easy.

Photo of Charlie Rose

Charlie Rose

Charlie Rose asked Atul the million dollar question at the end of the interview, “How do we fix healthcare?” His response was well-reasoned:

First we must accept that any attempt to fix healthcare will fail. That’s why I believe that we should try implementing Obama’s plan in a narrow segment of the population, say for children under 18, or for laid off autoworkers, or for veterans returning from Iraq. We must apply universal coverage to this subgroup and then watch how it fails. We can then learn from the mistakes and improve the system before applying it to America as a whole. There is no perfect, 2000 page healthcare solution for America. I learned that when I was working with Hillary Clinton in 1992. Instead of trying to fix our system all at once, we should start small and start now. That’s the best way to learn from our mistakes.

Joan Lunden Loves Personal Health Records

Photo of Joan Lunden

Joan Lunden

Former Good Morning America host, Joan Lunden, is getting behind the personal health record industry. As the daughter of a physician, Joan grew up believing that she’d become a doctor one day. She told me that all that came to a screeching halt when she “realized that she didn’t like blood or stitches.” But Joan has always kept women and children’s health advocacy initiatives close to her heart.  She will soon be starring in a new Lifetime TV show called Health Corner. I caught up with her about her recent work with PassportMD.

Listen to the podcast here, or read a summary of our discussion below.

Dr. Val: Tell me about your experiences in taking care of your mom, and what led you to become involved with a PHR company.

Lunden: I lost my brother to type 2 diabetes a little over a year ago. As it happens, he had been managing my mom’s medical care, and so with his loss I needed to step in and take it over. Of course she lives on one coast and I live on the other. I’ve got 4 little kids (two sets of twins) and three young adult children. It becomes really daunting to keep track of everyone’s medical care. Around that time I met some folks from PassportMD, and when they showed me how easy it could be to keep everyone’s records in one place, I said, “this is exactly what I need.”

I think I’m really typical of a lot of women out there in what we call “the sandwich generation.” Today a high percentage of women with small children are working outside of the home. It’s really a lot to juggle – a career, raising a family, and getting everyone to the doctor on time – forget about getting YOU to the doctor on time. As good as we women are at nurturing others, we tend to be at the bottom of our own to-do lists.

What I really love about PassportMD is not just the organization (I can immediately see all my kids’ vaccination schedules for example) but the fact that I’m building a family medical history. It’s so important to know your family history so that you can engage in appropriate screening tests and take preventive health measures. This PHR even sends you reminders when its time for immunizations, mammograms, or other appropriate screening tests.

Dr. Val: As a doctor I’ve encountered resistance to PHRs from patients because they don’t want to have to enter all the data themselves. They’d like it to be auto-populated with their medical record data so that they don’t have to start from scratch. Has the PassportMD tool solved that problem?

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