Last June, Medicare announced preliminary results from its “Independent at Home” demonstration project. They showed the program provided high quality care and at the same time saved money. Not only that, but the population it served was the sickest of the sick and the frailest of the frail—people with multiple chronic conditions who needed help with personal care. But the reports in the news media didn’t explain what exactly the program did. Now, a study in the latest issue of Health Affairs explains how the program works and analyzes its achievements to date.
The new study confirms the earlier reports: participants in the study had lower rates of acute hospitalization, which saved Medicare money. They also had a lower risk of nursing home admission, which saved Medicaid money. But the results so far—the analysis is based on data from the first year of a three-year pilot project—are modest. In one group of program participants, the hospitalization rate fell 14%; in a second group (the criteria for enrollment were somewhat different), the hospitalization rate fell only 1%. And understanding the analysis is almost impossible for the general reader. Not only were there two different sets of participants, with slightly different characteristics, but there were four different comparison groups. Then the authors invoked something called “entropy balancing.” The most it seems to me reasonable to conclude at this point in time is that the program isn’t hurting and it might be helping both patients and Medicare’s budget woes. But the benefits, if they exist at all, are likely to be small.
But what really struck me about the program is the description of what it actually involves—and what it doesn’t. Independent at Home does not support ongoing, comprehensive primary care provided in the home. It is nothing like a program reported on in the media at the same time that the Health Affairs article came out, a program on Long Island, New York that in fact moves all of health care into the home of its frail enrollees. That House Calls program sends doctors and nurses into the home and offers simple lab tests, basic x-rays and services such as physical therapy in the home. The doctor or nurse who visits the patient goes back again and again, providing continuity. The Independent at Home initiative, by contrast, provides a single home assessment each year that involves a history, physical exam, and lab tests, including a screen for depression, a review of medications, and a needs assessment. The upshot of this home evaluation is the development of a “plan of care” that is transmitted to the primary care physician for implementation. That plan might include referrals to social work or palliative care, but the individuals providing these services are not members of the primary team. When the patient develops an acute medical problem, nobody comes to the home to assess the patient--the primary care doctor is called. No medical personnel return to the home until it’s time for the next annual home assessment.
How can such a limited program possibly work? And if it does, what does that say about our usual way of providing care? It’s worth noting that the design of Independent at Home took into account the utter failure of an earlier demonstration program that tested the effectiveness of “care coordination” and “disease management.” In this model, which had been instituted by 34 programs and which the Congressional Budget Office pronounced ineffective, patients were encouraged to participate actively in their own care and a case manager helped them negotiate the system and facilitated communication among all those involved. Perhaps not surprisingly, a system that relies on very frail older people, many of whom suffer from cognitive as well as physical impairments, to self-manage their care is fraught with peril, however effective such an approach might be in other patient populations. So the new model, the basis for the Independent at Home project, has as its centerpiece a plan of care and it’s the primary care physician, not the patient, who is supposed to implement the plan. It draws on studies such as the University of Pennsylvania’s transitional care program that found that a single home visit by a nurse after a hospitalization could markedly decrease the risk of readmission to the hospital the following month.
Conceptually, the new model is an improvement over its care coordination/disease-management predecessor. It makes sense to determine whether anything short of comprehensive home-based primary care can provide high quality, cost-effective care, since the more all-encompassing home care won’t be cheap. But why place the responsibility for implementing the “care plan” squarely on the shoulders of the primary care physician, when we already know that most primary care physicians aren’t equipped to care for frail elders? Why rely on the primary care doctor to follow the plan when we already know from studies of geriatric consultation done years ago that when doctors receive recommendations for how to take care of patients that are based on unsolicited medical consultations, they ignore them? Why not focus on the caregiver as a crucial and untapped resource?
The older patients who enroll in Independent at Home need help to get by day to day. Almost by definition, they have caregivers. Only when we involve the caregivers in medical care (and not just in providing personal care or crisis decision-making) will we be able to provide the kind of care that patients want and deserve. Yes, we will need a home visit to develop a plan—a plan which must reflect the values, preferences, and resources of the patient and caregiver. And yes, the physician needs to be involved in implementing the plan. But so, too, does the caregiver.