Blog | Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Transitioning from fee-for-service medicine to what really works

I just read in a recent issue of "Aequanimitas," the newsletter of Johns Hopkins Osler medical service, a brief interview with J. Mario Molina, the CEO of Molina Healthcare, an organization which coordinates managed care for recipients of Medicare and Medicaid for several states. It looks like he must have been one of my senior residents when I was an intern. It sounds like he practiced for a few years before taking on the leadership of his family business.

He expressed his firm belief that medical care would soon be moving away from paying physicians for the individual services they perform and, instead, paying them for keeping patients healthy. Since it will be organizations, not doctors, who are paid for care, it will quickly become clear that paying for anything that prevents dire illness with its astronomical associated costs will benefit the whole. Medical institutions may find themselves in the business of making their communities healthy. This is not foreign to large medical organizations, but being paid well to allow patients to become sick and then taking extravagantly good care of them does encourage organizations to focus more on the acute care aspect of what they do.

Physicians perform studies about whether a given medical intervention actually works, and whether, for what it costs, it is better than the intervention it seeks to replace. We have looked at the placement of stents in coronary arteries to treat or prevent heart attacks and have gained lots of information about which kind of stents are good for which kinds of coronary disease, comparing this technology to simply dilating arteries and looking at coating the stents with drugs that encourage blood vessels to stay open. This has at least given us information upon which to base what should be cost effective care.

But what about social programs? Giving a person financial aid, to eat, obtain housing, feed children, get medical care, is presumably for the purpose of improving health and happiness. But have we actually checked? Which social programs deliver the best result for the money? Could one public swimming pool prevent delinquency and save money on jail and public assistance? Could regular access to massage therapy save money of physical therapy or prevent orthopedic procedures? Could better training to prepare a person for work reduce devastating work related injury and associated medical costs?

It will be interesting to see how we make decisions about spending "health care" dollars as the dividing line between prevention and treatment of illness becomes blurred. If a community was given all of the health care dollars presently spent on caring for its members along with knowledge of which programs or services or projects made people healthier and so less in need of expensive medical interventions, effective prevention would be funded.

It may be a bit of a trick to get data on what works. Perhaps it's time to start looking at this sort of thing more scientifically. I'm thinking about an article on the front page of the New England Journal of Medicine in some happy future time entitled, "Effect of ballroom dance classes and weekly social dancing on emergency room visits and admissions in elderly adults." Or perhaps, "Health outcome effects of regular home visits by a mobile primary care physician team." Or "Reduction in total joint surgeries in a community with publicly funded massage therapy and Tai Chi Chuan classes." The possibilities make me smile.

Janice Boughton, MD, ACP Member, practiced in the Seattle area for four years and in rural Idaho for 17 years before deciding to take a few years off to see more places, learn more about medicine and increase her knowledge base and perspective by practicing hospital and primary care medicine as a locum tenens physician. She lives in Idaho when not traveling. Disturbed by various aspects of the practice of medicine that make no sense and concerned about the cost of providing health care to every American, she blogs at Why is American Health Care So Expensive?, where this post originally appeared.