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Most ‘sentinel events’ caused by poor communication

LOS ANGELES—I’m on the west coast now, first for the  USC Body Computing Conference here Friday, and then for the annual Health 2.0 conference up in San Francisco Monday and Tuesday.

Friday there was a lot of talk of healthcare reform. One interesting — and plausible — idea I heard for the first time is that the new Medicare policy of denying reimbursements for preventable readmissions within 30 days of discharge for patients with heart attack, heart failure or pneumonia might have an unintended consequence: We’ll start seeing a lot of readmissions on or after Day 31.

The new policy is one of the many aspects of true reform in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act beyond the controversial insurance expansion. And there seems to be a loophole that you can be sure  a lot of hospitals will seek to exploit. Even if they don’t, it is hard to change patient behavior, so it’s likely many will come back to the hospital for the same condition, even if it’s not within 30 days.

More importantly, I heard some statistics presented by Stanford dermatology resident Michelle Longmire, M.D., about medical errors: 7o percent of all sentinel events in U.S. healthcare facilities — and there were 8,859 such events voluntarily reported to the Joint Commission between 1995 and the first quarter of 2012, meaning that many times more probably occurred —result from breakdowns in communication. Half occur during patient handoffs such as shift changes, specialist consultations and transfers to other wards or facilities, Longmire said.

I am convinced all the buffoonery that took place while my dad was hospitalized prior to his death was due to communication problems, poorly designed work processes and a culture of covering one’s posterior in an error-prone organization.

This happens far too often, yet some politicians who want to repeal “Obamacare” keep trying to convince the ignorant masses that American healthcare is just in need of a few tweaks.

At the Republican National Convention in August, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said the following: “”Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to end the debacle of putting the world’s greatest healthcare system in the hands of federal bureaucrats and putting those bureaucrats between an American citizen and her doctor.” PolitiFact.com generously rated this as “half true.” However, PolitFact itself noted that the World Health Organization rated U.S. healthcare as 37th of 191 countries in terms of “overall performance.” The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says we spend more on healthcare as a share of gross domestic product than any of the other 33 OECD countries. If that’s the “world’s greatest,” I’d sure hate to be worst.

Last week, during the first presidential debate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the very same Gov. Romney who championed near-universal health insurance coverage with an individual mandate in his home state — a plan first hatched by the conservative Heritage Foundation as an alternative to the Clinton healthcare reform proposal in 1993 — said this:

Look, the right course for — for America’s government — we were talking about the role of government — is not to become the economic player picking winners and losers, telling people what kind of health treatment they can receive, taking over the healthcare system that — that has existed in this country for — for a long, long time and has produced the best health records in the world.

Without getting into what the role of government should or should not do, our health records suck, Our record on producing healthier people is not so wonderful, either. So no matter what Romney meant by “best health records in the world,” he was lying.

I couldn’t help thinking he was playing to this crowd:

 

Now, this cartoon makes it seem like Obamacare is so wonderful. It’s not. As I’ve said before, having insurance does not mean you will get good care. Having “good” insurance that requires very little out-of-pocket for the patient doesn’t guarantee good care, either, nor does being a VIP. Recall the case of James Tyree, who died from a medical error at a prestigious teaching hospital he was on the board of. The late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) suffered a similar fate despite having “Cadillac” insurance coverage.

I’m going to repeat what is fast becoming my mantra: It’s quality, stupid.

UPDATE, Oct.8: Here’s a summary of what actually is in the Affordable Care Act, and when each provision takes effect, courtesy of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

 

October 7, 2012 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

Sen. Whitehouse, make some more noise, please

I have railed more often than I can count against politicians and the national media for misleading or at least failing to inform the public on what health reform is all about. For me, it was quite refreshing to see an interview in the Washington Post with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), attempting to shed some light on the parts of reform that have nothing to do with insurance.

“The Affordable Care Act is mostly known as an insurance expansion, expected to extend coverage to more than 30 million Americans,” started the post by Sarah Kliff. “But … a big chunk of the law is dedicated something arguably more ambitious: an overhaul of the American business model for medicine. ‘This is a very significant piece of the bill that has received virtually no attention because it’s so non-controversial,’ Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told me in a recent interview.”

On Thursday, Whitehouse released a 52-page document outlining what he sees as the 47 changes the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is making to how care is delivered. That doesn’t even count the reforms in the HITECH section of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act from a year earlier, by the way.

Health IT, of course, is a big part of reform.”The HITECH Act took important steps to restructure financial incentives to shift the pattern of health IT adoption. The HITECH Act’s Medicare and Medicaid incentive payments are encouraging doctors and hospitals to adopt and “meaningfully use” certified
electronic health records,” Whitehouse noted.

Also from that report:

Health information technology (IT) will radically transform the health care industry, and is the essential, underlying framework for health care delivery system reform. The ACA’s payment reforms, pilot projects, and other delivery system reforms are built with the expectation of having IT-enabled providers. In particular, the shift to new models of care, like ACOs, will rely heavily on information exchange and reporting quality outcomes. Indeed, the formation of ACOs is contingent on having providers “online” to transfer information and patient records, and report quality measures.

Whitehouse did discuss ACOs with the Washington Post, but there’s a reason why the interview appears on a page called the WonkBlog. This stuff is too complicated and wonky for the average person.

What isn’t complicated is explaining that throwing more money at a broken system, as the insurance expansion does, will not lower the cost of care. It also isn’t complicated to explain that tens of thousands of Americans needlessly die each year due to medical errors or low-quality care. Yet, more than a few defenders of the ACA have said that the insurance mandate would help guarantee “quality care” for millions.

Wrong!

The insurance expansion guarantees insurance coverage. It does not guarantee quality care. Whoever wins Friday’s Mega Millions drawing wouldn’t necessarily be able to buy quality care, either. Nor would Bill Gates, for that matter. You can’t get quality care unless you’re willing to address the causes of errors and adverse events. Period.

Sen. Whitehouse seems to understand that. I doubt too many other members of Congress do, despite the fact that a former colleague, the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), who had the “Cadillac” coverage so many people covet, died as a result of a medical error.

March 30, 2012 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.

More reasons why CMS needs Berwick

On Jan. 28, Ron Pollack, executive director of the liberal advocacy group Families USA, introduced President Obama at a Families USA event by saying, “Numerous presidents over many decades tried to secure health reform legislation that would move us toward high-quality, affordable healthcare for all Americans. You, Mr. President, actually achieved it.”

The crowd ate it up.

During the contentious debate over health reform in 2009 and 2010, countless lobbyists, pundits and politicians touted “quality healthcare” as a reason to pass the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Some called for the same “Cadillac” health plans that members of Congress provided for themselves. Many opponents of the legislation countered by saying the U.S. already has the “best healthcare in the world.”

The problem was not one of philosophical differences. The problem was a misunderstanding of a basic fact: health insurance is not the same thing as health care.

Still, politicians keep making the same mistake over and over, and the mass media keep giving them a free pass.

Anyone in the healthcare industry knows that the United States does not have the best healthcare in the world. We have the most expensive care in the world. (Another myth often passed off as truth is that more care and more expensive care automatically equals better care.) Having a “Cadillac” health plan won’t assure you better care, either. Just ask the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), who, as a member of Congress had such a plan, but still likely died as a result of a surgical error last year.

Another such episode occurred last week. James C. Tyree, chairman and CEO of financial services firm Mesirow Financial, died Wednesday at the University of Chicago Medical Center at age 53. Though Tyree had stomach cancer and pneumonia, the official cause of death was an intravascular air embolism, the result of an improperly removed catheter. That’s one of the National Quality Forum’s so-called “never events.”

As the chief executive of a financial firm, Tyree no doubt had the resources and the insurance to get what some people might call “good, quality care.” He also happened to be on the board of the U of C Medical Center, the very same institution that was so proud of being named one of U.S. News and World Report’s best hospitals in America. Yes, even at the “best” hospitals, mistakes happen, and they happen to people with money and connections.

This is yet another reason why CMS needs someone with a long record of quality improvement, even at institutions with supposedly sterling reputations. Someone like Don Berwick.

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read the defense of Berwick that I wrote last week so you understand why politics is hijacking better healthcare in America.

March 20, 2011 I Written By

I'm a freelance healthcare journalist, specializing in health IT, mobile health, healthcare quality, hospital/physician practice management and healthcare finance.