November 28, 2016

Something to be Thankful For

Back in February, I wrote that “some news is good news.The news in question came from the Framingham study and it showed that the incidence of dementia had been falling in the US by 20 percent each decade since the 1980s. However, I was concerned about the generalizability of the finding since the total number of people identified as having dementia was 371—and they were all from Framingham, MA. Now another, larger study points to a similar decrease. That’s something to be grateful for this Thanksgiving season. 

Before we get too excited—or complacent—let’s consider a few caveats. The new study was based on data from the Health and Retirement Study, a large, nationally representative cohort study that’s been going on since 1992. It looked at the prevalence of dementia in all those in their survey who were over age 65 and lived either in the community or a nursing home in one or both of two sample years, 2000 and 2012. That turned out to be 21,057 people, of whom a total of about 2000 developed dementia. So far, so good: a bigger sample, drawn from the entire country, with a respectable sized group of individuals with dementia. 

But now for the problems. Dementia was diagnosed using a modified version of the Telephone Interview on Cognitive Status, a measure involving a 27-point scale. Sounds good, except that the full Telephone Interview on Cognitive Status is not an established way to diagnose dementia, and the abridged version used by the investigators is even less well established. And indeed, when compared to a different test which the authors regard as the gold standard, the telephone interview correctly classified dementia in 78 percent of respondents. The other 22 percent of people were either falsely diagnosed as having dementia or incorrectly assessed as normal. That’s worrisome. The point of the study was to compare the prevalence of dementia in 2000 and 2012, which is awfully difficult to do if you can’t accurately determine prevalence.

Still, the findings of a decline in prevalence from 11.6 percent in 2000 to 8.6 percent in 2012 (corrected for the change in age and sex distribution of the population) are consistent with those of the Framingham Heart Study and of a British study. They show a 24 percent decline in prevalence of the disease, despite an increase in obesity and diabetes during the same period. And, as with the earlier studies, increases in education and improvement in control of cardiovascular risk factors (high blood pressure, smoking, and diabetes) are associated with the fall in dementia.

So maybe it’s really true. Maybe the risk for each us individually is not quite as bleak as I have been suggesting in this blog. On the other hand, the projection is that by 2050, there will be 83.7 million people age 65 or older. If even 8.6 percent of them have dementia, as suggested in the current study, that’s over 7 million people. Unless we find a cure soon, which doesn’t seem terribly likely, we’re still going to be faced with an enormous public health problem.  

November 20, 2016

It's the Social Stuff, Stupid

Health care policy mavens are finally recognizing that we need to do a better job taking care of the sickest and costliest patients in American society. These are people on whom we spend a large percentage of our health care dollars without much to show for it, either in terms of standard health care outcomes or quality of life. Many of them have advanced illness. Many have multiple chronic diseases plus functional impairment plus extensive social needs. They’ve gotten the attention of people like David Blumenthal, who published an article called “Caring for High-Need, High-Cost Patients—An Urgent Priority” in the New England Journal in September and another article in JAMA sounding a similar call to action a few weeks later. They are the focus of the Coalition to Transform Advanced Illness, which produced a white paper mapping out a strategy for care and which just held a National Summit on Advanced Illness Care. Everyone defines the relevant population slightly differently and everyone makes somewhat different proposals for moving forward. One of the most creative is an idea that has been tried in England with good results.

This model gives high need patients a personal health care budget. The budget is determined by negotiation between the patient and the health care team. It “relies on a goal-setting and care-planning process in which patients and health care teams consider medical and social needs.” The budget allows payment for home supports and for technology that facilitates their remaining at home. It includes coverage for unusual and somewhat controversial non-medical needs such as a garden shed for someone with dementia so he could stay home because he had something to keep him occupied—the alternative was for him to become agitated and restless and quite likely require sedation and/or institutionalization. Interestingly, the budgets exclude access to primary care and hospital care, which are uncapped. Studies to date have found the system cost effective and associated with enhanced quality of life for the participants.

The result is not entirely surprising in light of the pioneering work done by Elizabeth Bradley and Lauren Taylor, popularized in a NY Times article in 2011 (and recently the subject of a book, The American Health Care Paradox.) What these researchers found was that though the US spends as much as 50% more than other developed countries on acute hospital care, imaging studies, lab tests, and other standard medical care, it spends much less than most other OECD countries on social services including old age pensions, disability, family support, and housing. If you combine the expenditures on both health and social services to give the true per capita spending in each country (with the amounts adjusted for GDP), it becomes clear why American health outcomes are so often inferior to those achieved in other countries: our total per capita spending is actually less than that of similar countries. The US over-invests in medical care and under-invests in social services.

A personal health budget that allows individuals to buy social services and other not strictly medical items that have the potential to enhance the coordination of care—a smart phone or a laptop, for example—is a way to compensate for America’s weakness. It fits into the prevailing ethos of individual control and of having “skin in the game.” 

If dressed up in sufficiently capitalistic sounding language, the proposal might even pass muster in a Republican-controlled federal government. It could finally transform care for the sickest, most vulnerable patients in the US health care system--and save money, too.


November 08, 2016

Medicare and the Election

Today is Election Day. The choice is stark. And it’s not just a matter of choosing a knowledgeable, capable, and rational, although flawed Democratic candidate over an ignorant, incompetent, bombastic narcissistic Republican candidate. The election matters for health issues and older people as well. Here’s how.

The Trump and Ryan plans call for a repeal of the ACA. That means more uninsured people who will be sicker and costlier to care for once they become Medicare eligible.  That’s bad for those individuals and it is bad for Medicare. Trump and Ryan want to permit interstate sales of health insurance, which they think will create more competition and bring down costs. They don’t seem to understand that regional insurers don’t want to expand nationally: they have to negotiate contracts and rates with the hospitals in every state whose market they enter. Health insurance is not the same kind of commodity as furniture. That goes for Medicare Advantage plans along with private plans for those under age 65. Trump and Ryan want to expand the use of health savings accounts—potentially to Medicare patients. These high deductible plans encourage people to make foolish decisions about their health. Moreover, they affect the first few thousand dollars of health care expenses—enough to make a difference to people with limited incomes, but of no consequence for the most expensive parts of the health care system, namely hospital care.

Clinton and the Democrats would make insurance coverage more affordable by increasing tax credits for low income households. That means fewer uninsured people who will be sicker and costlier to care for once they become Medicare eligible. Families USA wants to add dental coverage to all public and private health plans—the one big gap in coverage for older individuals, even though poor dentition has been associated with pneumonia, nutritional problems, and other disorders. Clinton et al favor Medicare negotiating drug prices with manufacturers, potentially controlling one of the major contributors to out of pocket spending among older people.

For a more detailed analysis of “the choices on health reform in the US presidential and congressional elections” that doesn’t focus on older people, see the viewpoint piece in today’s JAMA Internal Medicine

Go out and vote! It matters, for Medicare along with so much else.

November 01, 2016

V is for Value

Ten years ago, Michael Porter, a professor at Harvard Business School, began shaking up the health policy world when he published, together with his colleague Elizabeth Teisberg, the book Redefining Health Care: Value-Based Competition. The concept became the official mantra of the American health policy establishment in 2010, when Porter summarized his ideas in the New England Journal of Medicine, asserting: “Achieving high value for patients must become the overarching goal of health care delivery, with value defined as the health outcomes achieved per dollar spent. This goal is what matters for patients and unites the interests of all actors in the system. If value improves, patients, payers, providers, and suppliers can all benefit while the economic sustainability of the health care system increases.”

Over time, this has been taken to imply the necessity for “value-based payment,” or VBP, also known as "pay for performance" (PFP). Just how pervasive this thinking is can be seen in a series of editorials published in JAMA and taken from the National Academy of Medicine’s “Vital Directions.” From the piece called “Tailoring Complex Care Management for High-Need, High-Cost Patients,” to the piece on “Improving Benefit Design to Promote Effective, Efficient, andAffordable Care,” VBP is assumed to be the answer. Even the article on Preparing for Better Health and Health Care for an Aging Population” sneaks in mention of VBP. But will a reimbursement scheme that rewards “high value” care more than “low value care,” and presumably somewhat more than care that is somewhere between “high” and “low” on the value spectrum, really solve the problems of today’s health care system?

Underlying the fervent belief in the value of value is the assumption that in the bad old days—and still today in many places—when physicians and hospitals were reimbursed for the volume of services, it was this system that created over-use. Of course doctors order too many tests and prefer expensive procedures over cheaper ones, according to this reasoning, because what drives their behavior is reimbursement. It was the payment system that created the monster in the first place, and it’s the payment system that must be reformed today. But is this an accurate description of why tests and medicines and procedures are over-used today, let alone a plausible explanation of how the status quo arose in the first place? Isn’t it at least possible that the economists have it backwards—that the payment system reflected prevailing practice?

The trouble with the current ideological insistence that VBP is The Answer, aside from the fact that supposedly value-based reimbursement systems haven’t so far produced the desired result, is that it totally discounts the role of culture, of advertising, of popular expectations. When a physician orders an expensive test instead of relying on a cheaper one or, God forbid, on history and physical exam, maybe the reason is that the patient expects and wants the test—and may even be willing to pay a little extra to get it. Perhaps the physician, too, believes the expensive test is superior to the alternatives and doesn’t believe the calculation of “outcomes per dollar spent” accurately reflects the true value of the test. Perhaps the physician has been barraged with "information" by the producer of the machine used to perform the test and has come to accept the evidence and arguments of the device manufacturer as legitimate. Maybe the members of the group practice in which the physician works are collectively persuaded by the claims of the medical device industry. Maybe the physician gained experience with a particular type of device during residency and prefers this one, even though it is more expensive, because he is convinced that the outcomes in his hands will be superior if he uses the familiar equipment. Physicians are professionals who make decisions based on their education and training, not just based on their financial self-interest.

I don’t want to suggest that reimbursement has no effect on physician practice. There is compelling evidence that some medical students choose a particular specialty because, overall, it is far better paid than another one. The Medscape Physician Compensation Report for 2016 reveals the large and persistent gap between the earnings of different specialists: orthopedists make $443,000 whereas general internists make only $222,000, with general surgeons in between at $322,000. Geriatricians, incidentally, with the complete absence of procedures, earn less than anyone else. I agree that reimbursement schemes have the potential to influence behavior to some extent, perhaps more so for hospitals than for individual physicians (or even group practices).

What I mainly want to suggest is that tweaking reimbursement, by itself, is not likely to be enough to dramatically change practice. If we want physicians to change the way they care for patients, we need to modify what they learn in medical school and residency. We need to educate patients to expect something different from what they expect today. And we need to limit the capacity of drug companies and device manufacturers to sway opinion with huge expenditures on marketing.

Everyone wants "value." It's a great word: after all, who wouldn't want something that is valuable? But I'm not persuaded that it is wise for CMS to plan to convert all reimbursement to VBP over the next few years, as it is planning. If we don't make other far more profound changes, modifications of education, training, and cultural expectations, the revisions of the reimbursement system are destined to fail.