August 20, 2018

Hospital at Home?

For years, I’ve been arguing that frail older patients are often better off being treated for acute medical problems at home than in the hospital. I began making this claim during my residency when I wrote about The Ethics of Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation,” claiming that it created cognitive dissonance for physicians in hospitals to go all out for some patients and to withhold selected treatments for others. Better, I suggested, to keep those individuals who didn’t want everything under the sun, and particularly those who didn’t want attempted cardiopulmonary resuscitation, out of the hospital altogether. 

I picked up the theme during my geriatrics fellowship in a paper entitled “Adverse Consequences of Hospitalization in the Elderly," which quantified the frequency with which older patients developed iatrogenic complications, unrelated to the medical problem for which they had been admitted and found it was 40.5 percent in those aged 70 or older, compared to 8.8 percent in those under 70. And instead of suggesting that we build higher siderails—or institute the kinds of interventions that eventually were adopted by Acute Care for the Elderly (ACE) units—we try to avoid hospitalization altogether. 

Over time, increasing evidence has accumulated that many people can be cared for at home and that this approach not only decreases the chance of adverse events (including unwanted treatment), but also results in comparable outcomes. A new study in JAMA Internal Medicine  suggests a way to pay for “hospital at home” model--by paying a single fee for acute care plus 30 days of post-acute care.
The Hospital at Home model (which, unlike the study authors, I won’t abbreviate as HaH since that makes it seem like a joke) used in this study offers hospital-style care for any of 19 common medical conditions (including pneumonia, urinary tract infection, flare of heart failure, and cellulitis) in clinically stable, interested adults who have adequate home supports. Their outcomes were compared to those of contemporaneously hospitalized adults who were eligible but either declined to participate in the study or couldn’t participate because services could not be set up for them at the particular time (night time) or day (weekends) when they showed up in the emergency department.
The results were overwhelmingly positive. Patients cared for at home, when compared to controls, were much less likely to be (re)hospitalized for any reason in the month after discharge (8.6 percent vs 15.6 percent); they were less likely to go to a skilled nursing facility after treatment of the acute episode (1.7 percent vs 10.4 percent); and they were far more likely to rate the quality of their care as excellent (68 percent vs 45 percent). While 12.2 percent of the Hospital at Home patients did end up in the hospital for treatment of the acute illness, there were no differences in mortality. There were also no differences in complications such as falls or infections, but the number of either of these adverse events was too small to draw any definitive conclusions.
On the other hand, as the authors of the accompanying commentary indicate, the study was a case control study, not a randomized trial, and the “controls” were significantly different from the cases: they were younger (a lot younger—an average of 71.5 compared to 76.0), less well educated, and better functioning (55.5 percent had at least one area of difficulty in daily activities, compared to 71.5 percent in the Hospital at Home patients). However, finding that the home care patients fared at least as well and, in many instances, better than their hospitalized counterparts, even though they were older and frailer suggests that they may have more to gain by staying out of the institution.
It's heartwarming to see evidence that treating many medical problems at home is achievable without sacrificing any important benefits and to discover there are plausible ways of paying for such care. My concern is that the “hospital at home” model, while an improvement over the hospital environment precisely because it takes place in a familiar location, may bring too much hospital technology with it. I would like to have a better understanding of just what hospital at home includes. I’m reminded of the final days of Pope John Paul II, dying of Parkinson’s disease and its complications. The Pope was cared for at home—but with a feeding tube, a ventilator, and physician care. He was, for all intents and purposes, receiving ICU care at home. So, by all means, let’s make medical care available to older people at home; let’s keep them out of the hospital if possible. But that should not mean bringing the hospital in entirety to them.

August 12, 2018


Think “A Man Called Ove,” Fredrik Backman’s bittersweet novel about a lonely man who tries repeatedly and unsuccessfully to commit suicide but ultimately finds meaning in life by helping others. Water down Ove-- take away his rage against injustice and dilute his frustration with modern technology. Make him 85 instead of 59-going-on-80. Preserve the pet cat, the needy neighbor, and the enduring love for his deceased wife. What you get is the protagonist of Elizabeth Berg’s new novel, “The Story of Arthur Truluv.” The book is a sentimental portrait of another octogenarian, Arthur Moses, nicknamed “Truluv” by the lost teenager he befriends because of his devotion to his wife, whose grave he visits daily. 

It’s high time we had more fictional treatments of older people, so I’m happy we have another contribution to the genre. And Truluv is an endearing old fellow with a big heart—albeit one apparently affected by heart failure. He, unlike Ove, is a glass-half-full sort of a fellow, whereas Ove, at least until the end of his story, is a glass-with-a-hole-in-it sort of a guy. While I appreciate that Berg does not completely sugar coat old age, giving both Arthur and his neighbor Lucille an assortment of maladies and expeditiously killing off Lucille’s elderly boyfriend with a massive heart attack, Arthur is so nice that he’s a bit hard to take. His teenaged friend Maddy, pregnant and estranged from her father, needs both a job and a place to stay? No problem, Arthur lets her move in and serve as his housekeeper. The irksome woman across the street, whose main virtue is her baking skill, decides she’d like to move in, too? Fine, she can do the cooking. Maddy hasn’t seen her father in months and secretly would like to reconcile with him before she gives birth? Arthur intuits what’s going on and invites him for Thanksgiving dinner. 

I’m a pushover for over-the-top amazing octogenarians, so I confess I enjoyed reading this book. It’s short—222 small pages, peppered with dialogue—so I only had to devote a few hours of my life to this endeavor. Maybe I would have liked it more if I hadn’t recently read “A Man Called Ove,” a tragicomic masterpiece with a protagonist who seems old even if he isn’t, a NY Times bestseller that has been translated into 43 languages. But maybe Elizabeth Berg will next turn her talents to writing about an octogenarian who is frail but who nonetheless finds meaning in life. Now that would be a major contribution to the literature on aging.

August 07, 2018

The Truth About Hospice

Hospice is widely touted as the best form of care near the end of life. As a result, the proportion of people who are enrolled in hospice at the time of death has been steadily increasing. Nearly half of all Medicare patients are receiving hospice care at the time of death. But a new report suggests that the quality of care they receive may not be what it should be. Moreover, a chunk of the $16.7 billion that Medicare spends on hospice (that was in 2016; it's more today) goes towards care that is unnecessary or not provided at all. What exactly is the problem? How widespread is it and how can patients and families identify hospices that provide high quality care?
While substandard care and fraudulent billing are distributed throughout the country, these practices occur disproportionately in the 64 percent of hospices that are for-profit. The bad behavior predominantly involves two specific variants of hospice care: general inpatient hospice care and hospice services that are provided within institutions, whether skilled nursing facilities or assisted living facilities. General inpatient care is an intensive form of care offered when symptom control cannot be achieved elsewhere (ie at home], so the patient is transferred to a hospital or skilled nursing facility. For this type of care, Medicare pays a per diem rate of $720, compared to $187 for home hospice (actually this is the rate for days 1-60, after that, the rate drops to $147 per day). The kinds of abuses that have been reported are indeed disturbing: the report gives several examples.
However,  General Inpatient Care accounts for only 1.5 percent of all the days that patients were enrolled in hospice. 
Other cases of allegedly inappropriate billing take place in Skilled Nursing Facilities (SNF) or in Assisted Living Facilities (ALF). Some instances were unequivocally fraudulent, as when hospices paid facilities to enroll patients in hospice, sometimes without the knowledge of patients or their families.  But again, it’s important to keep this in perspective.  A minority of hospice patients are cared for in these environments: 25 percent of hospice beneficiaries during the period the study examined (2006-2016) lived in a SNF and only 13 percent in an ALF.
Several of the criticisms leveled by the report are of questionable significance. The study says that many hospices fail to develop the mandatory “comprehensive care plan,” a document that spells out what services the patient needs and how they will be provided. This failing was especially egregious in the inpatient setting, where in 85 percent of cases, no such plan was documented. But the absence of a written plan doesn’t mean there was no plan or that inadequate care was provided. It means just what it says—the hospice did not create the requisite piece of paper. Maybe, just maybe, they thought it was a waste of time, a meaningless bureaucratic requirement.
Hospice care is also criticized for failing to provide physician visits. Actually, hospice does provide one physician visit. A face to face visit with a physician at the time of admission to hospice has been mandatory since 2011, so hospice patients do see a physician at least once during their hospice stay, which in many cases is short: over half of all hospice patients are enrolled for less than 30 days, and over one-fourth are enrolled for a week or less. Many hospice patients and their families would like more involvement of the medical profession, particularly their primary care physician or the relevant specialist, but that’s different from suggesting that the quality of care was poor because there were no medical visits at all.
Skilled nursing facilities are accused of double dipping, of billing Medicare for services that they already routinely provide as part of their usual care. This has been a worry since Medicare agreed to cover hospice care in a SNF. Care by nurses and nurses’ aides are a normal component of nursing home care. But that doesn’t mean that the services offered by hospice are redundant; on the contrary, the reason that hospice can be beneficial in the SNF environment is precisely because the usual nurses may not be skilled in pain management and the amount of aide time may be totally inadequate for a dying patient.
Lastly, the report argues that the payment system incentivizes hospices to minimize services and to cherry pick patients, selecting low-need, long-stay patients, such as those with advanced dementia, rather than high-need, short-stay patients, such as those imminently dying of cancer. We’ve known about this phenomenon for some time. In fact, CMS responded by modifying its payment system to pay more for the first few days of care and for the last few days of care and less for the in-between days. The practice of complementing high-cost patients with low-cost patients is only a problem if the low-cost patients don’t deserve to be enrolled in hospice at all. If they do, and there’s every reason to think they do, then it’s simply a good business strategy. Hospitals do the same thing when they add services for which they are generally reimbursed well to compensate for the services for which they are poorly reimbursed. The alternative would be to abandon the per diem payment system and go to fee-for-service. But that’s the model that is gradually fading away from the rest of the medical system because it promotes the use of volume rather than quality.
What should we conclude about hospice care in America? How should prospective patients respond to this report and how should Medicare respond? 
Patients and their families would do well to consult Hospice Compare, the CMS website, for basic information about quality. This tool relies principally on patient and family satisfaction surveys rather than objective measures, but it’s very revealing. Rather than add more measures, which is what the authors of the report propose,  I think the tool should be publicized: I was familiar with Hospital Compare and Nursing Home Compare, but I confess I did not know about Hospice Compare until recently--and the site was launched in August, 2017. 
If families have a choice between a not-for-profit hospice and a for-profit hospice, they may find it prudent to select the not-for-profit option.  On average, not-for-profit facilities are associated with higher quality care. 
As to steps that Medicare should take, increased across the board regulation, which is what the report advocates, seems unduly burdensome. Far wiser would be to target enhanced supervision and regulation to those areas that need it most, namely skilled nursing facilities and assisted living facilities. Stiffer penalties for malfeasance would also be wise. As with banking fraud, it’s not enough to slap the owner or executive director on the wrist. Jail time is a much more powerful disincentive to bad behavior. And the bad behavior we’re talking about here is neglecting people who are dying and in pain.