Tuesday, January 27, 2009

My Chronic Condition

I don’t know why, but I can’t stop reading about, thinking about, and writing about Chronic Illness Care. The latest edition of Health Affairs focuses on the topic with a number of great essays. I won’t cite them individually, but there are a number worth reading.

I’m also a sucker for a great opening. Health Affairs' Editor-In-Chief kicks it all off with this doozy, “As in many things in health care and health spending, American “exceptionalism” is the rule. The United States is doing an especially rotten job of delivering chronic care, at spectacular cost.” How can you not read on?

She cites a November 2008 Commonwealth Fund survey of 7,500 chronically ill patients in eight countries, including the US, UK and Germany that found “US patients are far more likely than those in the other countries to report high out-of-pocket costs; to forgo care due to the expense; and to experience high rates of medical errors.” The study also found that the care systems in these countries were likely to fall short in delivering chronic care, with care coordination lacking everywhere.

In one essay, Paez, et. al. report, “In 2005, 43.8 percent of the US civilian noninstitutionalized population had one or more conditions that we classified as chronic. One in five reported living with one chronic condition while 10.7 percent of respondents reported two conditions, and 13.3 percent had three or more conditions.” Further, “An overall shift occurred from people reporting zero or only one chronic condition to people reporting multiple chronic conditions, particularly among people in midlife [45-64] and older.” Especially interesting to me was that socioeconomic status was not as correlated to increases in chronic conditions as you’d intuitively expect. From 1999 to 2005 the percentage of people with three or more chronic conditions grew 5.6% among the Poor, 5.5% among those categorized as Middle Income, and 6.7% among High Income individuals.

Beyond the incidence data, the question of prevention and treatment looms. Paez and her partners reported, “Higher drug copayments and three-tier pharmacy plans have been found to reduce adherence to drugs for management of such chronic conditions as diabetes, hypercholesterolemia, hypertension and schizophrenia. Reduced drug adherence includes delaying prescription fills, failing to fill prescriptions, cutting dosages and reducing the frequency of administration.”

So what to do? The suggestions that come from the issue’s authors seem to coalesce around a three-pronged approach: 1. Insurance initiatives, 2. Delivery system initiatives, and 3. Social initiatives.

Insurance Initiatives: Paez and her co-authors conclude by suggesting, “Insurers should consider value-based insurance designs that subsidize high-value chronic care while increasing cost sharing for elective services without proven benefit.” Bodenheimer et. al. assert, “Payment reform should move toward risk-adjusted per patient payment for incentives for quality, services provided by nonclinician team members [more in that in a bit] and population oriented panel management.”

Delivery System Initiatives: Ron Goetzel from Emory University tees up the notion that some big gains, and major innovation, in prevention could be, and is being realized in nonclinical settings, such as the workplace. Gabel, et. al. study the success of attacking obesity in the workplace and suggest, while they have made gains, questions about the right way to fund the programs (paid benefit, reduced premium from carriers, employee responsibility, etc.) persist.

On this topic I was most interested in Bodenheimer, et. al. and their paper on “Confronting the Growing Burden of Chronic Disease: Can the U.S. Health Care Workforce Do the Job?” They present research that on average, “family physicians manage 3.05 problems per [patient] visit; the number of problems grows to 3.88 for people over age sixty-five and 4.6 for patients with diabetes.” This leads to two conclusions. 1. Under current reimbursement pressures, physicians simply don’t have enough time to spend with complicated patients, and 2. Specialists are inefficient tools for tackling these complicated patients because of the multiple systems and comorbidities that interact with one another (and their medications).

They find, “Specialists are better than PCPs at treating some specific diagnoses and can provided procedural interventions that PCPs are not trained to do. Yet PCPs, compared with specialists, provide equal quality of care at lower cost for patients with diabetes, hypertension and lower back pain.”

However, there are problems with the PCP model too. They report patients who are seen for multiple chronic conditions by PCPs report low understanding of their care and only 9 percent of the time do they participate in clinical decisions.

Then there’s the issue of time. “It has been estimated that it would take a PCP 10.6 hours per working day to provide high-quality chronic care to a typical patient panel.”

This leads the authors and other essayists to advance the multidisciplinary team scenario. Simply put, there is evidence a coordinated team approach, often lead by medical assistants or Nurse Practitioners as care quarterbacks are delivering better results at a better price. My question is, who will own this solution? All the evidence comes from controlled situations like the Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound or Kaiser Permanente. In the fantasyland of the 1990’s, integrated delivery systems, receiving global capitation would be incentivized to force this kind of structural change. Without such a payment and delivery structure, this might become disintermediated to retail clinics…not necessarily more organized, just cheaper per encounter transactions.

Social Initiatives: Until chronic ill health, obesity, and “un-fitness” attain the stigma of drunk driving and smoking in public places, can we reasonably expect social forces to impact behavior? Borrowing from a colleague’s note, “Steven Gortmaker, professor of society, human development, and health at the [Harvard]School of Public Health, observes that the convenience-food culture is so ubiquitous that even conscientious parents have trouble steering their children away from junk food. "You let your kids go on a ‘play date,’" says
the father of two, "and they come home and say, ‘We went to Burger King for
lunch.’" (He notes that on any given day, 30 percent of American children
aged four to 19 eat fast food, and older and wealthier ones eat even more.
Overall, 7 percent of the U.S. population visits McDonald’s each day, and 20
to 25 percent eat in some kind of fast-food restaurant.)

Bodenheimer et. al. summarize it nicely when they conclude, “If payment restricted to face-to-face clinician visits continues as the dominant payment mode, high-quality chronic care will remain an unfulfilled dream…Without a multidisciplinary team, consistently good chronic care is impossible. Without payment reform, multidisciplinary teams are impossible.

And without societal disgust at a ballooning federal budget deficit, increased taxes and other hard choices regarding desired government programs, we’ll stay [seated of course] on this merry-go-round.

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