Blog | Monday, December 2, 2013

Quality over quantity: The only surprise is that it took so long for health care

Over the last couple of years, we have been witnessing the start of a seismic shift in health care philosophy. For far too long, the system has been totally focused on rewarding quantity: The more patients seen, tests performed, procedures completed—the higher the incentives.

Now, instead of rewarding health care providers for quantity in the “fee-for-service” model, we are moving towards a system that rightly focuses on the quality of care that is actually being delivered. This is one of the basic tenets of health care reform, and a change that’s long needed. It fits in completely with today’s 21st century society, where we place a high emphasis on quality and customer satisfaction for all of our products and services. From the consumer goods we buy, to the restaurants and hotels we frequent, most organizations will only flourish by maintaining the highest possible standards.

In my career, I’ve encountered colleagues in health care (and to be fair, it’s the minority) who take pride in being able to churn through large numbers of patients in a short amount of time. “I can see 20 patients in one hour!”, or “I can operate on 10 patients in a single morning session”! Whenever I hear something like this, I always think to myself: Is this really something to be proud of?

I like to draw an analogy of a painter that you call over to your house for an estimate, who tells you with a big smile on his face that he can paint your whole house in under an hour. What would your reaction be? If you’re like most proud homeowners, you’d probably be a little horrified, and promptly show the painter the way out. “Sorry, but I want a painter who will do a good and thorough job”. Imagine then that if we take so much care of our homes, how important it is to apply the same principle to health care. If we would be so alarmed with someone painting our house with such haste and doing a low-quality job, wouldn’t we be even more concerned with a doctor who only has a few rushed minutes with a patient, to deal with a complex and life-threatening illness? Doctors and nurses spending inadequate amounts of time with their patients not only lowers quality, but it is also dangerous. In an occupation where someone’s life is in your hands, there can be no other way but a mentality of “no stone left unturned” thoroughness.

But while most of us may agree that quality is important, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is the debate about who pays for this higher quality health care? Speaking as someone who has worked in both public and privatized systems in Western countries, this issue is complicated and at times convoluted. As a rule with other industries, it’s usually the private for-profit marketplace that delivers the highest quality products and services. But health care is very different, because it isn’t conducive to the usual free-market competition that exists in other industries. Who has time to shop around when faced with an emergency? The fee-for-service model simply hasn’t produced many of the desirable high-quality outcomes.

On the other side of the coin, it’s actually the public systems that often tend to see more patients in less time! An extreme example would be what happens in developing countries, where hospital units containing dozens of beds lined up in a single room is the norm, and high quality cannot be delivered due to a critical lack of resources. In terms of quantity, the U.S. doesn’t even come close to such extremes. Ironically, it may also have partly been the medico-legal environment in the United States that has driven standards upwards.

Whichever method we use to finance the health care system, shifting away from incentivizing quantity doesn’t necessarily have negative financial implications for hospitals and providers. It shouldn’t work that way. When we get the reimbursement model right, the system will reap rewards on the good performers appropriately, much like our society does for other brand names.

There are of course certain challenges that are unique to the industry. For example, a hospital which serves disadvantaged populations may struggle if judged by the same standards as a hospital in a comfortable suburb. There is also the patient compliance concern. Doctors and hospitals can only go so far in striving for high quality, but in the end it’s also the patient (and society) who has to be compliant in doing all that they can to stay healthy. Factors such as these must be taken into account when allocating resources.

Some of the quality measures currently being used to judge hospitals include:
• better outcomes on metrics such as length of stay and readmission rates,
• commitment towards customer service and patient satisfaction, and
• a safer medical environment with lower risks of complications and hospital acquired infections

The ideal health care system of the future will judge success by lack of illness. Organizations should be striving for high standards, evidence-based practices, putting patients first, and a philosophy of zero harm. Good medical care will be defined as patients recovering quickly, avoiding complications, and receiving excellent service. Whatever the intricacies of the policies that get us there, one thing is certain: dedication to quality is the only way to advance health care.Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing physician in Massachusetts. He has published numerous articles in clinical medicine, covering a wide range of specialty areas including; pulmonology, cardiology, endocrinology, hematology, and infectious disease. He has also authored chapters in the prestigious "5-Minute Clinical Consult" medical textbook. His other clinical interests include quality improvement, hospital safety, hospital utilization, and the use of technology in health care. This post originally appeared at his blog.