Controlling the Costs of Healthcare

We continue to anguish over escalating healthcare costs.  To gain control of these costs, we need to understand one essential equation.   The total cost of healthcare is

Total Cost = Costs Per Use x Number of Uses

Careful design of delivery processes to eliminate unwarranted care process variations can decrease the costs per use.  Variations are unwarranted if practices differ from evidence-based medicine for no beneficial reason.  Such variations may yield significant revenue for providers, but if these variations do not benefit patients, they should be eliminated.

Prevention and wellness programs and chronic disease management programs can decrease the number of uses by keeping people out of in-patient treatment because either they do not get diseased or, if diseased, have crucial variables under control.  Such programs involve small investments per person now to avoid large costs per patient later.  These types of investments have repeatedly been shown to yield attractive returns, especially if one attaches value to healthy, productive people, as employers certainly do.

The central issue is how best to allocate resources across process (re)design, chronic disease management, and prevention and wellness to control healthcare costs with equal or better health outcomes.  This logic seems tractable, but is rarely pursued.  Why?  As I interact with executives of more and more providers, two things strike me:

Few executives are addicted to inefficiency.  They simply do not have the information to improve.  They do not understand their processes; do not know their costs, etc.  So they just try to maximize revenue and keep their capacity fully booked.  We are working on methods that take clinical, financial, and claims data and infer the providers’ processes, including the variability in these processes, to then determine which processes, when given attention by clinicians, should be the first targets for improvement.

However, increased efficiency often decreases revenues until providers figure out how to re-deploy capacity.  While it may increase profits by eliminating “bad” revenue, most providers have no means (i.e., information) to make this assessment.   Thus, for example, using non-MD care coordinators plus e-visits leads to increased costs (for added people and infrastructure) but less, maybe zero, revenue.  For this reason, Patient Centered Medical Homes may be terrible investments for providers unless they can re-deploy clinician capacity in profitable areas or, better yet, be paid in part, at least, for keeping people out of the hospital.  We are using the models described above to determine the best ways to do this.

The bottom line is that we know how to reduce total costs, as defined by the above equation, but there are strong disincentives to do this.  The current fee for service payment model encourages providing many services, regardless of whether they provably benefit patients.  The unwarranted process variations generate significant revenue for providers.  Payment for health outcomes can remove these disincentives.

For prevention and wellness, providers should be paid for risk reduction.  For chronic disease management, providers should be paid for keeping blood pressure, glucose levels, etc. in control.  For in-patient care delivery, providers should be paid for provision of the best evidence-based practices.  Payments should be paid for these outcomes regardless of how they are delivered, i.e., doctor vs. nurse vs. care coordinator vs. health coach.  Payment should also be independent of where they are delivered, i.e., hospital vs. clinic vs. telephone vs. Internet vs. at home.

If payment for outcomes is adopted, and it does not matter who delivers these outcomes or where these outcomes are delivered, providers will have enormous incentives to understand and redesign their processes to maximize the outcomes achieved and earn the economic benefits of these achievements.  We all will then have access to affordable, quality healthcare.


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  2. Absolutely providers should be paid for risk reduction and healthy outcomes. In human terms and on cost analysis, it’s the best of both.

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