Posts Tagged ‘healthcare’

The Three Horsemen of the Coming Healthcare Apocalypse

April 8, 2016

Ok, so not really – It’s not about horsemen, it’s already partially here, and it won’t be an apocalypse either. It is however going to be a very big problem, it’s going to bankrupt some people, destroy some industries, and it’s going to put a massive hurt on almost everybody for many decades to come.

There are three healthcare issues that interact with each other, and which would have been a huge problem individually, but are going to slap us hard across the face when put together. I am talking about the Aging Population, Obesity, and Climate Change.

Aging Population

Here’s the thing. 10,000 Boomers are retiring per day, they did a horrible job of preparing the next generation to take the helm, and there are fewer of the next generation to do so anyway. We already have a looming shortage of nurses and doctors and medical technicians, and when a bolus of them retire and need medical help, we simply won’t have enough replacements to take care of the aging population. If your organization didn’t have a knowledge management, and training and recruitment plan already in motion ten years ago, the bottom line is that it’s too late. The chances are that you won’t save your organization from collapsing, and the best you can do is arrange a slightly more elegant landing than a straight-up belly flop from the highest diving board.

The medical schools have been focused on keeping profits high, the APA on keeping competition down, and who in heck knows what legislators were doing. Probably nothing. Maybe just pulling practical jokes on each other. So we have let the Magic Sparkle Fairy of the Invisible Market and siloed interests and perverse incentives drive how we scaled, staffed, and recruited for medical schools, and we are going to be massively, monstrously, marvelously short. We are already short, and it gets worse.

We are going to have the same problem across every part of healthcare, and our normal go-to plan of stealing skills from other countries isn’t going to work because they have the same problems.

That was the good news.

The bad news is it’s going to be much, much, much worse than I said. We didn’t invest in the infrastructure or save for this either, so this is going to be a huge, nasty drag on getting anything done in healthcare.


The entire world is getting heavier, and the US is one of those leading the charge. I mean of course the people are getting heavier. All ages, all genders, all races. All income groups. Some a bit more than others, but all of them are slowly getting heavier. Actually, not so slowly. Kinda fast. In fact, very fast – the rate has doubled globally since 1980. Obesity is now something that 35% of Americans can call their own, and the number is climbing.

With obesity comes a rapid increase in a whole raft of medical conditions, including diabetes, coronary disease, cancer, depression, and so on. All of them very expensive, chronic, and thoroughly entangled in social determinants of health and perverse incentives. One example is that we subsidize corn production. That creates cheap corn syrup. Corn syrup is added to every food and drink imaginable. It contributes to obesity, diabetes, stroke, and tooth decay. Wonderful stuff. So we fund a thing that kills us. Wonderful. We do that a lot.

We have entire industries whose focus is to craft very unhealthy food that is very appealing to our instincts, the way our brains work, and are kinda habit forming. The more money they make, the sicker we get, and they like making more money.

Climate Change

Despite Congress being really conflicted over whether it is happening, whether we are causing it, whether it is more important to bring out tortuous laws about gender assignment and public restrooms, Climate Change is increasingly a topic in healthcare. The anticipated effects of Climate Change of healthcare can be seen in research papers, conference sessions, and lectures at medical schools. The news isn’t very good. Well, actually not “good” as much as really bad.

There is almost no healthcare problem that is not made worse by Climate Change. On its own, Climate Change would be a darned pest. It will disrupt the agricultural supply chains, submerge some of our business transport links and cities, and increase damage to infrastructure through storm surges, hurricanes, tornados, and other forms of interesting peak weather. However, that’s just the entertaining stuff. It will also lead to resurgence of old medical enemies, shift vendors into novel regions, and hike up emergency visits for everything from asthma to zoonotic infections.


So even together these three aren’t an apocalypse, and won’t end the planet, our species, or even halt the amount of sports we watch. From the couch. With a Big Mac and Fries. And a soda. A big one. The super-slurp one that’s five times the size of our bladders and has enough corn syrup to kill off a platoon of insulin-producing beta cells. Not an apocalypse.

While it won’t be an apocalypse, each one will be a bit like getting a backhander through the face. On a cold morning. With a fish. A large wet fish. The three together will be like getting three individual fishy-slaps through the face, followed by another, bigger fish. With spines and slime. And frozen. A hearty backhander though the face on a cold morning with a large frozen fish, wielded by an Olympic medalist in fish throwing.

A bit like that.

Are you ready?

Utilization Management and Climbing Healthcare Costs

January 14, 2015

With all the attention that the soaring cost of healthcare has been getting over the last few election cycles, it’s easy to assume that this is a new phenomenon, and that back in the “old days”, it wasn’t a concern.

Quoting my own previous papers on the topic: The actual  history of healthcare and cost is different, however, and the rising cost of healthcare has been an issue in the US since the early 1920’s, and led to the formation in 1927 of the Committee on the Costs of Medical Care.
Although health insurance firms had been concerned over high medical costs which they identified as being at least partly the result of unnecessary procedures and hospital stays, it was the creation of the Social Security Act of 1965 for Medicare and Medicaid Title XVII and XIX that provided the impetus for a focus on methods to standardize admission and hospital stay decisions.

During this time, there was significant variation between physicians, hospitals, and regions on the use of procedures or inpatient admissions, and it was typical for patients to be admitted for weeks or even months for observation or for procedures that would currently require less than a week or even be performed on an outpatient basis.

The Social Security provisions required clinical evaluation and review, but did not set criteria. In the early 1970’s a Congressional subcommittee estimated that were over two-million unnecessary surgeries per year across the US. As a result, there was a growing requirement for standards regarding procedures and inpatient admissions. [1]

To give a context of scale, physicians who fail to follow evidence-based clinical criteria add a $500 billion cost burden to U.S. healthcare by providing overly aggressive or ineffective care. [2] In a study of contribution to cost by cases that do not meet clinical guidelines, Cutler et al found that patient demand was not a significant contributor, but that physician preferences unsupported by clinical evidence accounted for 36%  of end-of-life spending, and 17% of total health care spending. [3]

One approach to reducing costs and controlling the “exuberance” of a free market that would naturally tend towards increasing use of medical products and services, is to have clinical episode of care criteria. Utilization Management criteria can be used prior to encounters  (prospective review), as part of the triage and episode of care decisions (concurrent review), or as a quality improvement tool to assess episode of care after the case (retrospective review).

With this backdrop of cost burden, it is clear that UM plays a critical role in provision of appropriate care. UM adds value by reducing the incidence of unnecessary care, and by placing the patient at the most appropriate level of care with the least possible delay. Effective UM supports efficient scheduling of inpatient admissions and procedures by reducing the number of unnecessary admissions, and providing an evidence-based mechanism for admission decisions. Modern UM balances Cost vs. Care through a systematic process and evidence-based criteria.

1. Field, M. J. (1989). Controlling costs and changing patient care?: the role of utilization management. National Academies.
2. Goldberg, C. ‘Cowboy’ Doctors Could Be A Half-A-Trillion-Dollar American Problem, 2014.
3. Cutler, D. Skinner, J. Stern, D. and Wennberg, D. “Physician beliefs and patient preferences: a new look at regional variation in health care spending,” National Bureau of Economic Research, 2013.

Learning from the Past – Risk Management at National Scale Using PHR

July 23, 2014


The 2014 World Development Report from the World Bank sketches how confronting risks, preparing for them, and adopting appropriate coping strategies can make a vast difference in outcomes, sometimes at an epic scale. In 2010, both Haiti and Chile were victims of large natural disasters of similar destructive capacity. Both countries experienced serious earthquakes, the larger of which struck Chile. However, while Chile suffered a loss of 300 lives as a result, Haiti lost in the order of 250,000 lives.

The World Bank attributes this to several causes, one of which is the degree to which Chile learned from a previous experience and invested in insurance, undertook preparation to reduce risk, and improved their capacity to cope with the aftereffects of future disasters. Chile confronted the lessons of the previous disaster, there was a national awareness, and as a result, building codes were changed, and the country took insurance both against damage and in terms of divestiture of investments and commerce. These changes allowed Chile to suffer less damage to people and infrastructure, recover faster from the shock economically, and to learn from what worked and what did not. Without these investments, it is believed that Chile’s death toll in the 2010 earthquake would have been of an even greater magnitude than that of Haiti.

The WDR2014 report is an evolution from early risk management approaches, and instead of the highly technical perspective taken in earlier years, the report views risk management as a long-term and strategic process. The WDR2014 report sketches two principles in risk management: To be realistic, and to build foundations. In the former, they are recommending that risk reduction attempts be pragmatic and simple rather than theoretical and extensive, and in the latter case, they are advising that risk reduction efforts build on each other and take a long-term view. To comply with this advice and to manage risk effectively requires that the efforts take into account several obstacles, such as the information requirements of the population involved, human behavior and change, resources available, and the uncertainty of risk.

Risk Management in the WDR2014 report thus rests on four “pillars”

  • Knowledge
  • Insurance
  • Protection
  • Coping

The focus of this article takes a cue from the two principles, and offers a narrow perspective on a single issue, that of the health records of people forced to migrate because of shocks such as natural disasters. This focus addresses the knowledge needs when receiving healthcare organizations must care for refugees and people affected by shocks such as natural disasters, but could hold true for any form of shock in which healthcare delivery was disrupted. The paper addresses a form of insurance in the shape of planning for eventualities, protection from medical delays and mistakes, and a coping strategy for dealing with migrant patients or disrupted healthcare delivery.

Case: Typhoon Haiyan 2013

In November of 2013, typhoon Haiyan reached the Philippines with the strongest winds ever recorded. As a result, the infrastructure was severely damaged, a large proportion of the population was displaced, and over six-thousand people died. The Philippines comprise over 7,000 islands, and few hospitals or health care providers (HCP) have Electronic Health Records (EHR). One highly specific problem was that people’s health records became unavailable both for those who fled and to those who stayed but were unable to reach their HCP.

For this article, a local doctor providing endocrine care was interviewed on Twitter using the hashtag #wdrrisk.

Throughout the typhoon, many Tacloban residents went to Manila either to escape danger or join family or friends who had left, and of these were people who were already ill with current or long-term chronic illnesses such as cancer, or became ill while away from their homes in Tacloban. Few people had made provision to take their medical records with them, and valuable medical information such as test results was lost or otherwise not available to HCPs in Manila.

The doctor interviewed for this paper is an endocrine specialist based in Manila, and saw many patients who were refugees from Tacloban. Patients typically had no documentation of their medical history, and no ability to access the facilities in Tacloban where their records were kept. Because few medical facilities in the region use electronic records available through the cloud, even those patients whose providers were on an EHR lacked the ability to access their records. Patients typically have only a vague recollection of what tests or procedures they have previously undergone, when these were carried out, and what the results were. As a result, patients without medical records experienced increased risks, delayed care, and additional burden of repeated tests. Where patients were on medication, a lack of a definitive history regarding dosages, patient reactions, and allergies required that HCPs started drug regimens from base dosages and take a conservative and cautious approach in order to avoid potential overdose or adverse reactions. As a result, many patients may have experienced sub-optimal results until the drug selection and dosages were calibrated to their individual needs and responses.

The doctor reported that repeating tests delayed treatment, increased patient risk, and raised the cost of care, but some tests cannot be repeated at all because the results are based on historical progression of a condition. The doctor was unable to fill in the blanks in some cases, and was left with an incomplete clinical picture that increased patient risk. For example, for some chronic patients the doctor needed histology test results that are helpful in cancer staging and which could not be reconstructed. Without these historical data, the doctor had uncertainty and had to make best estimates that may have increased patient risk or resulted in sub-optimal care. The lack of a longitudinal view of these patient’s history and healthcare journey, lost or missing data, and gaps in patient history increased the risk of inappropriate or ineffective care.

Personal Health Records

In order to provide effective healthcare, clinicians and other providers need information related to the patient’s present condition, past medical history, and core health records such as medication use, existing conditions and treatment, and medical images, prescriptions, and procedures. These are usually kept by the person’s primary care facility, and may be kept either as physical records such as patient files, x-ray plates, and the like, or as electronic records and images. However, when the patient migrates or their provider’s infrastructure is disrupted, these records may be unavailable. Personal Health Records (PHR) are an alternative that gives individuals the ability to either carry their health records on removable storage such as thumb drives, DVD, etc. or to link to them on the web using a secure repository, e.g. Microsoft HealthVault.

PHR puts the patient’s medical history in their own hands in a way that is likely to be transportable during a disaster, and unlike paper records, can be encrypted and secured in order to maintain patient privacy. The downside is that PHR relies on a certain level of technology and computer literacy on the part of the patient to realize the full benefits. However, simply providing the patient with their records in the form of an encrypted memory stick requires minimal computer literacy on the part of the patient, and is more likely to accompany the patient and be available during disasters than paper records.

The advantages of having PHR are:

  • Faster triaging leading to fewer delays in care
  • Definitive drug and test data, enabling better targeting of treatment
  • Longitudinal views of illness progression, allowing more appropriate treatment and drug dosing
  • Documented endorsement back to their home town HCP, allowing better continuity of care


Tacloban had been hit previously by natural disasters, and although many aspects of the four pillars of Knowledge, Insurance, Protection, and Coping had been addressed with regard to physical infrastructure and administrative processes, the need for maintaining the fidelity of medical histories was not adequately addressed. Lack of learning from those events with regard to medical records resulted in preventable morbidity and mortality across the region, but there is hope for improvements due to new frameworks. The PHR framework for the Philippines described by Dr. Alvin Marcelo outlines a way in which lessons from Haiyan and other natural disasters in the Philippines could be put to use in creating a way to utilize PHR to avoid losing valuable medical data, and reduced cost, patient risk, and delays in provision of care during disasters.


This paper was developed as a result of interactions with the participants of the #HealthXPh tweetchat where the issue was first discussed. Further thanks go to #HCLDR, #BioEthx, and #HCSM tweet groups. A special thank you is due to Dr. Iris Thiele Isip Tan for her willingness to be interviewed online for this paper and for providing insight into the effects of not having access to patient history during disasters. Doc Iris also provided the links to the PHR framework created by Dr. Marcelo.

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