Hospital Leadership, Strategy, And Culture In The Age of Health Care Reform

With just eleven months to go before the Value-Based Purchasing component of the Affordable Care Act is scheduled to go into effect, it is an auspicious time to consider how health care providers, and hospitals specifically, plan to successfully navigate the adaptive change to come. The delivery of health care is unique, complex, and currently fragmented. Over the past thirty years, no other industry has experienced such a massive infusion of technological advances while at the same time functioning within a culture that has slowly and methodically evolved over the past century. The evolutionary pace of health care culture is about to be shocked into a mandated reality. One that will inevitably require health care leadership to adopt a new, innovative perspective into the delivery of their services in order to meet the emerging requirements.

First, a bit on the details of the coming changes. The concept of Value-Based Purchasing is that the buyers of health care services (i.e. Medicare, Medicaid, and inevitably following the government’s lead, private insurers) hold the providers of health care services accountable for both cost and quality of care. While this may sound practical, pragmatic, and sensible, it effectively shifts the entire reimbursement landscape from diagnosis/procedure driven compensation to one that includes quality measures in five key areas of patient care. To support and drive this unprecedented change, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is also incentivizing the voluntary formation of Accountable Care Organizations to reward providers that, through coordination, collaboration, and communication, cost-effectively deliver optimum patient outcomes throughout the continuum of the health care delivery system.

The proposed reimbursement system would hold providers accountable for both cost and quality of care from three days prior to hospital admittance to ninety days post hospital discharge. To get an idea of the complexity of variables, in terms of patient handoffs to the next responsible party in the continuum of care, I process mapped a patient entering a hospital for a surgical procedure. It is not atypical for a patient to be tested, diagnosed, nursed, supported, and cared for by as many as thirty individual, functional units both within and outside of the hospital. Units that function and communicate both internally and externally with teams of professionals focused on optimizing care. With each handoff and with each individual in each team or unit, variables of care and communication are introduced to the system.

Historically, quality systems from other industries (i.e. Six Sigma, Total Quality Management) have focused on wringing out the potential for variability within their value creation process. The fewer variables that can affect consistency, the greater the quality of outcomes. While this approach has proven effective in manufacturing industries, health care presents a collection of challenges that go well beyond such controlled environments. Health care also introduces the single most unpredictable variable of them all; each individual patient.

Another critical factor that cannot be ignored is the highly charged emotional landscape in which health care is delivered. The implications of failure go well beyond missing a quarterly sales quota or a monthly shipping target, and clinicians carry this heavy, emotional burden of responsibility with them, day-in and day-out. Add to this the chronic nursing shortage (which has been exacerbated by layoffs during the recession), the anxiety that comes with the ambiguity of unprecedented change, the layering of one new technology over another (which creates more information and the need for more monitoring), and an industry culture that has deep roots in a bygone era and the challenge before us comes into greater focus.

Which brings us to the question; what approach should leadership adopt in order to successfully migrate the delivery system through the inflection point where quality of care and cost containment intersect? How will this collection of independent contractors and institutions coordinate care and meet the new quality metrics proposed by HHS? The fact of the matter is, health care is the most human of our national industries and reforming it to meet the shifting demographic needs and economic constraints of our society may prompt leadership to revisit how they choose to engage and integrate the human element within the system.

In contemplating this approach, a canvasing of the peer-reviewed research into both quality of care and cost containment issues points to a possible solution; the cultivation of emotional intelligence in health care workers. After reviewing more than three dozen published studies, all of which confirmed the positive impact cultivating emotional intelligence has in clinical settings, I believe contemplating this approach warrants further exploration.

Emotional intelligence is a skill as much as an attribute. It is comprised by a set of competencies in Self-Awareness, Self Management, Social Awareness, and Relationship Management, all leading to Self Mastery. Fortunately, these are skills that can be developed and enhanced over the course of one’s lifetime.

Keeping the number of handoffs and individuals involved in delivering the continuum of care, let’s examine how emotional intelligence factors into the proposed quality measures the Department of Health and Human Services will be using come October, 2012:

1.) Patient/Caregiver Experience of Care – This factor really comes down to a patient’s perception of care. Perceptions of care are heavily shaded by emotions. Patients consistently rate less skilled surgeons that have a greater bedside manner as better than maestro surgeons that lack, or choose not to display, these softer skills. Additional research into why people sue over malpractice also indicates how perceptions of care are formed. People don’t sue over a medical mistake in and of itself. People sue because of how they felt they were treated after the error occurred. From the patient’s perspective (and often their family’s) there’s a difference between being cured and being healed. The difference often can be found in the expression of authentic empathy through healthy, professional boundaries.

This is a key driver in patient decision-making as well. Patients tend to choose a hospital based upon one or two criteria; the recommendation of their primary care physician (with whom they have an established relationship) and/or upon the recommendations from family members or friends that have experienced care in a particular hospital or an individual surgeon. A quick look into the field of Applied Behavioral Economics supports this finding. Economic decision making is 70% emotionally driven with the remaining 30% based in rational thought. In many instances, it would appear that a lot of hospital marketing initiatives don’t seem to reflect an understanding of this phenomena. Waiting room times in Emergency Rooms have little to do with why patients choose a hospital, yet we see billboards everywhere that have the actual E.R. wait times electronically flashing along the roadside.

A patient’s experience (and perception) of care can be highly impacted at the handoff points within the continuum of care. Any new model of care will require exceptional cross-organizational communications to emerge. This requires a high level of engagement and commitment to the new vision at every patient touch-point.

This metric also addresses the caregivers’ experience of care. This speaks largely to the experience of nurses that are delivering that care. The research related to the impact of cultivating emotional intelligence in nurses clearly demonstrates a reduction in stress, improved communication skills, improved leadership and retention, the ability to quickly connect and engage patients, as well as a reduction in nurse burnout (which leads to turnover and additional stress amongst the remaining staff).

2.) Care Co-ordination – Again, this will require optimal engagement and pro-active communication intra-organizationally and cross-organizationally. Each handoff introduces opportunities for variable care to emerge that must be seamlessly co-ordinated. Poor co-ordination also introduces the risk of eroding the quality of the patient’s experience.

3.) Patient Safety – Research shows that the cultivation of emotional intelligence competencies in nursing contributes to positive patient outcomes, lowers the risk of adverse events, lowers costs at discharge, and reduces medication errors, all while lowering nurse stress, burnout, and turnover. Each time a nurse resigns it adds to the nursing shortage on the floor, requires additional hours from other nurses, and costs the hospital approximately $64,000, on average, to backfill the open position. Improving how an institution cares for its nurses improves the level of patient care and safety as well. In many institutions, this will require a shift in leadership’s perspective in order to support a culture that embraces and values the critical role nurses play in maintaining patient safety.

4.) Preventive Health – Elevating Self-Awareness and Social Awareness in clinicians helps them quickly connect and effectively communicate with patients. Subtle, non-verbal cues become more readily apparent, helping clinicians understand the fears and emotions of their patients. Self Management and Relationship Management helps clinicians communicate appropriately and supports the expression of authentic empathy through healthy, professional boundaries. All of these factors come into play when speaking with patients about lifestyle choices, course of treatment, and preventive health care.

From our own personal lives we’ve all learned we cannot “fix” other peoples’ behaviors. We can, however, be in relationship and help support healthy changes they’re ready to embrace. Pro-actively moving to improve preventive health will require deeper, more authentic relationships to emerge between front-line health care providers and patients.

5.) At-Risk Population/Frail Elderly Health – Like preventive health, being measured on the care of the community’s at-risk population and elderly will require an innovative approach to community outreach and pro-active communication. These are not populations that can be easily reached via Facebook or Twitter. Building effective relationships with these demographics will require trustful, human contact and deep engagement with each population, both of which are supported through the development of a mindful approach (i.e. emotionally intelligent) to the challenges at hand.

It will be interesting to see how reform unfolds and how leadership within the health care delivery system chooses to respond to the challenges that lie ahead. Systems and hospitals that choose to take an honest, evidence-based look at how they choose to lead, how they create and execute strategy, and the organizational culture they’re cultivating will be well served in preparing to successfully navigate this unprecedented change.

© 2011, Terry Murray.

Terry Murray is a professional coach and business executive with twenty-five years of progressive experience in strategic development, executive leadership, and the deployment of highly profitable business teams. His executive leadership with Fortune 1000 and start-up companies has directly contributed more than $1 billion in market capitalization growth throughout his career.

Terry is the founder and president of Performance Transformation, LLC a Professional Coaching and Strategic Development firm focused on igniting breakthrough performance through the authentic engagement and development of human talent. The company’s evidence-based programs and philosophical approach employs their proprietary Adaptive Coaching Process. The organization’s engagements align the clients’ human capital with their strategic imperatives driving tangible results, delivering a sustainable competitive advantage and an exceptional Return on Investment.

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Patient Abandonment – Home Health Care

Elements of the Cause of Action for Abandonment

Each of the following five elements must be present for a patient to have a proper civil cause of action for the tort of abandonment:

1. Health care treatment was unreasonably discontinued.

2. The termination of health care was contrary to the patient’s will or without the patient’s knowledge.

3. The health care provider failed to arrange for care by another appropriate skilled health care provider.

4. The health care provider should have reasonably foreseen that harm to the patient would arise from the termination of the care (proximate cause).

5. The patient actually suffered harm or loss as a result of the discontinuance of care.

Physicians, nurses, and other health care professionals have an ethical, as well as a legal, duty to avoid abandonment of patients. The health care professional has a duty to give his or her patient all necessary attention as long as the case required it and should not leave the patient in a critical stage without giving reasonable notice or making suitable arrangements for the attendance of another. [2]

Abandonment by the Physician

When a physician undertakes treatment of a patient, treatment must continue until the patient’s circumstances no longer warrant the treatment, the physician and the patient mutually consent to end the treatment by that physician, or the patient discharges the physician. Moreover, the physician may unilaterally terminate the relationship and withdraw from treating that patient only if he or she provides the patient proper notice of his or her intent to withdraw and an opportunity to obtain proper substitute care.

In the home health setting, the physician-patient relationship does not terminate merely because a patient’s care shifts in its location from the hospital to the home. If the patient continues to need medical services, supervised health care, therapy, or other home health services, the attending physician should ensure that he or she was properly discharged his or her-duties to the patient. Virtually every situation ‘in which home care is approved by Medicare, Medicaid, or an insurer will be one in which the patient’s ‘needs for care have continued. The physician-patient relationship that existed in the hospital will continue unless it has been formally terminated by notice to the patient and a reasonable attempt to refer the patient to another appropriate physician. Otherwise, the physician will retain his or her duty toward the patient when the patient is discharged from the hospital to the home. Failure to follow through on the part of the physician will constitute the tort of abandonment if the patient is injured as a result. This abandonment may expose the physician, the hospital, and the home health agency to liability for the tort of abandonment.

The attending physician in the hospital should ensure that a proper referral is made to a physician who will be responsible for the home health patient’s care while it is being delivered by the home health provider, unless the physician intends to continue to supervise that home care personally. Even more important, if the hospital-based physician arranges to have the patient’s care assumed by another physician, the patient must fully understand this change, and it should be carefully documented.

As supported by case law, the types of actions that will lead to liability for abandonment of a patient will include:

• premature discharge of the patient by the physician

• failure of the physician to provide proper instructions before discharging the patient

• the statement by the physician to the patient that the physician will no longer treat the patient

• refusal of the physician to respond to calls or to further attend the patient

• the physician’s leaving the patient after surgery or failing to follow up on postsurgical care. [3]

Generally, abandonment does not occur if the physician responsible for the patient arranges for a substitute physician to take his or her place. This change may occur because of vacations, relocation of the physician, illness, distance from the patient’s home, or retirement of the physician. As long as care by an appropriately trained physician, sufficiently knowledgeable of the patient’s special conditions, if any, has been arranged, the courts will usually not find that abandonment has occurred. [4] Even where a patient refuses to pay for the care or is unable to pay for the care, the physician is not at liberty to terminate the relationship unilaterally. The physician must still take steps to have the patient’s care assumed by another [5] or to give a sufficiently reasonable period of time to locate another prior to ceasing to provide care.

Although most of the cases discussed concern the physician-patient relationship, as pointed out previously, the same principles apply to all health care providers. Furthermore, because the care rendered by the home health agency is provided pursuant to a physician’s plan of care, even if the patient sued the physician for abandonment because of the actions (or inactions of the home health agency’s staff), the physician may seek indemnification from the home health provider. [6]

ABANDONMENT BY THE NURSE OR HOME HEALTH AGENCY

Similar principles to those that apply to physicians apply to the home health professional and the home health provider. A home health agency, as the direct provider of care to the homebound patient, may be held to the same legal obligation and duty to deliver care that addresses the patient’s needs as is the physician. Furthermore, there may be both a legal and an ethical obligation to continue delivering care, if the patient has no alternatives. An ethical obligation may still exist to the patient even though the home health provider has fulfilled all legal obligations. [7]

When a home health provider furnishes treatment to a patient, the duty to continue providing care to the patient is a duty owed by the agency itself and not by the individual professional who may be the employee or the contractor of the agency. The home health provider does not have a duty to continue providing the same nurse, therapist, or aide to the patient throughout the course of treatment, so long as the provider continues to use appropriate, competent personnel to administer the course of treatment consistently with the plan of care. From the perspective of patient satisfaction and continuity of care, it may be in the best interests of the home health provider to attempt to provide the same individual practitioner to the patient. The development of a personal relationship with the provider’s personnel may improve communications and a greater degree of trust and compliance on the part of the patient. It should help to alleviate many of the problems that arise in the health care’ setting.

If the patient requests replacement of a particular nurse, therapist, technician, or home health aide, the home health provider still has a duty to provide care to the patient, unless the patient also specifically states he or she no longer desires the provider’s service. Home health agency supervisors should always follow up on such patient requests to determine the reasons regarding the dismissal, to detect “problem” employees, and to ensure no incident has taken place that might give rise to liability. The home health agency should continue providing care to the patient until definitively told not to do so by the patient.

COPING WITH THE ABUSIVE PATIENT

Home health provider personnel may occasionally encounter an abusive patient. This abuse mayor may not be a result of the medical condition for which the care is being provided. Personal safety of the individual health care provider should be paramount. Should the patient pose a physical danger to the individual, he or she should leave the premises immediately. The provider should document in the medical record the facts surrounding the inability to complete the treatment for that visit as objectively as possible. Management personnel should inform supervisory personnel at the home health provider and should complete an internal incident report. If it appears that a criminal act has taken place, such as a physical assault, attempted rape, or other such act, this act should be reported immediately to local law enforcement agencies. The home care provider should also immediately notify both the patient and the physician that the provider will terminate its relationship with the patient and that an alternative provider for these services should be obtained.

Other less serious circumstances may, nevertheless, lead the home health provider to determine that it should terminate its relationship with a particular patient. Examples may include particularly abusive patients, patients who solicit -the home health provider professional to break the law (for example, by providing illegal drugs or providing non-covered services and equipment and billing them as something else), or consistently noncompliant patients. Once treatment is undertaken, however, the home health provider is usually obliged to continue providing services until the patient has had a reasonable opportunity to obtain a substitute provider. The same principles apply to failure of a patient to pay for the services or equipment provided.

As health care professionals, HHA personnel should have training on how to handle the difficult patient responsibly. Arguments or emotional comments should be avoided. If it becomes clear that a certain provider and patient are not likely to be compatible, a substitute provider should be tried. Should it appear that the problem lies with the patient and that it is necessary for the HHA to terminate its relationship with the patient, the following seven steps should be taken:

1. The circumstances should be documented in the patient’s record.

2. The home health provider should give or send a letter to the patient explaining the circumstances surrounding the termination of care.

3. The letter should be sent by certified mail, return receipt requested, or other measures to document patient receipt of the letter. A copy of the letter should be placed in the patient’s record.

4. If possible, the patient should be given a certain period of time to obtain replacement care. Usually 30 days is sufficient.

5. If the patient has a life-threatening condition or a medical condition that might deteriorate in the absence of continuing care, this condition should be clearly stated in the letter. The necessity of the patient’s obtaining replacement home health care should be emphasized.

6. The patient should be informed of the location of the nearest hospital emergency department. The patient should be told to either go to the nearest hospital emergency department in case of a medical emergency or to call the local emergency number for ambulance transportation.

7. A copy of the letter should be sent to the patient’s attending physician via certified mail, return receipt requested.

These steps should not be undertaken lightly. Before such steps are taken, the patient’s case should be thoroughly discussed with the home health provider’s risk manager, legal counsel, medical director, and the patient’s attending physician.

The inappropriate discharge of a patient from health care coverage by the home health provider, whether because of termination of entitlement, inability to pay, or other reasons, may also lead to liability for the tort of abandonment. [8]

Nurses who passively stand by and observe negligence by a physician or anyone else will personally become accountable to the patient who is injured as a result of that negligence… [H]ealthcare facilities and their nursing staff owe an independent duty to patients beyond the duty owed by physicians. When a physician’s order to discharge is inappropriate, the nurses will be help liable for following an order that they knew or should know is below the standard of care. [9]

Similar principles may apply to make the home health provider vicariously liable, as well.

Liability to the patient for the tort of abandonment may also result from the home health care professional’s failure to observe, examine, assess, or monitor a patient’s condition. [10] Liability for abandonment may arise from failing to take timely action, as well as failing to summon a physician when a physician is needed. [11] Failing to provide adequate staff to meet the patient’s needs may also constitute abandonment on the part of the HHA. [12] Ignoring a patient’s complaints and failing to follow a physician’s orders may likewise constitute a tort of abandonment for a nurse or other professional staff member.

1. Lee v. Dewbre, 362 S.W.2d 900 (Tex. Civ. App. 7th Dist. 1962).

2. Kattsetos v. Nolan, 368 A.2d 172 (Conn. 1976).

3. 61 AM. Jur. 2d, Physicians and Surgeons § 237 (1981).

4. See, e.g., Tripp v. Pate, 271 S.E.2d 407 (N.C. App. 1980).

5. Ricks v. Budge, 64 P.2d 208 (Utah 1937).

6. M.D. Nathanson, Home Healthcare Answer Book: Legal Issues for Providers 212 (1995).

7. See, generally, E.P. Burnzeig, The Nurse’s Liability for Malpractice (1981).

8. Sheryl Feutz-Harter, Nursing Caselaw Update: In appropriate Discharging of Patients, 2 J. Nursing L. 49 (1995).

9. Id., 53.

10. See, e.g., Pisel v. Stamford Hosp., 430 A.2d1 (Conn. 1980) (nurses were held liable for failing to monitor the condition of a patient).

11. See, e.g., Sanchez v. Bay General Hosp., 172 Cal. Rptr. 342 (Cal. App. 1981); Valdez v. Lyman-Roberts Hosp., Inc. 638 S.W. 2d 111 (Tex. 1982).

12. Czubinsky v. Doctors Hosp., 188 CAl. Rptr. 685 (1983).

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How Did Health Care Costs Get So High?

First, let’s get a little historical perspective on American health care. To do that, let’s turn to the American civil war era. In that war, dated tactics and the carnage inflicted by modern weapons of the era combined to cause terrible results. Most of the deaths on both sides of that war were not the result of actual combat but to what happened after a battlefield wound was inflicted. To begin with, evacuation of the wounded moved at a snail’s pace in most instances causing severe delays in treatment of the wounded. Secondly, most wounds were subjected to wound related surgeries and amputations and this often resulted in massive infection. So you might survive a battle wound only to die at the hands of medical care providers whose good intentioned interventions were often quite lethal. High death tolls can also be ascribed to everyday sicknesses and diseases in a time when no antibiotics existed. In total something like 600,000 deaths occurred from all causes, over 2% of the U.S. population at the time!

Let’s skip to the first half of the 20th century for some additional perspective and to bring us up to more modern times. After the civil war there were steady improvements in American medicine in both the understanding and treatment of certain diseases, new surgical techniques and in physician education and training. But for the most part the best that doctors could offer their patients was a “wait and see” approach. Medicine could handle bone fractures and perform risky surgeries and the like (now increasingly practiced in sterile surgical environments) but medicines were not yet available to handle serious illnesses. The majority of deaths remained the result of untreatable conditions such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, scarlet fever and measles and/or related complications. Doctors were increasingly aware of heart and vascular conditions, and cancer but they had almost nothing with which to treat these conditions.

This very basic understanding of American medical history helps us to understand that until quite recently (around the 1950’s) we had virtually no technologies with which to treat serious or even minor ailments. Nothing to treat you with means that visits to the doctor if at all were relegated to emergencies so in that scenario costs were obviously minuscule. A second factor that has become a key driver of today’s health care costs is that medical treatments that were provided were paid for out-of-pocket. There was no health insurance and certainly not health insurance paid by someone else like an employer. Costs were the responsibility of the individual and perhaps a few charities that among other things supported charity hospitals for the poor and destitute.

What does health care insurance have to do with health care costs? Its impact on health care costs is enormous. When health insurance for individuals and families emerged as a means for corporations to escape wage freezes and to attract and retain employees after World War II, almost overnight there was a great pool of money available for health care. Money, as a result of the availability of billions of dollars from health insurance pools, encouraged an innovative America to increase medical research efforts. As more and more Americans became insured not only through private, employer sponsored health insurance but through increased government funding that created Medicare, Medicaid and expanded veteran health care benefits, finding a cure for almost anything has become very lucrative. This is also the primary reason for the vast array of treatments we have available today. I do not wish to convey that this is a bad thing. Think of the tens of millions of lives that have been saved, extended and made more productive as a result. But with a funding source grown to its current magnitude (hundreds of billions of dollars annually) upward pressure on health care costs are inevitable. Doctor’s offer and most of us demand and get access to the latest available health care technology, pharmaceuticals and surgical interventions. So there is more health care to spend our money on and until very recently most of us were insured and the costs were largely covered by a third-party (government, employers). This is the “perfect storm” for higher and higher health care costs and by and large, the storm is intensifying.

At this point, let’s turn to a key question. Is the current trajectory of U.S. health care spending sustainable? Can America maintain its world competitiveness when 16%, heading for 20% of our gross national product is being spent on health care? What are the other industrialized countries spending on health care and is it even close to these numbers? Add politics and an election year and the whole issue gets badly muddled and misrepresented.

I believe that we need a revolutionary change in the way we think about health care, its availability, its costs and who pays for it. And if you think I am about to say we should arbitrarily and drastically reduce spending on health care you would be wrong. Here it is fellow citizens – health care spending needs to be preserved and protected for those who need it. And to free up these dollars those of us who don’t need it or can delay it or avoid it need to act. First, we need to convince our politicians that this country needs sustained public education with regard to the value of preventive health strategies. This should be a top priority and it has worked to reduce the number of U.S. smokers for example. If prevention were to take hold, it is reasonable to assume that those needing health care for the myriad of life style engendered chronic diseases would decrease dramatically. Millions of Americans are experiencing these diseases far earlier than in decades past and much of this is due to poor life style choices. This change alone would free up plenty of money to handle the health care costs of those in dire need of treatment, whether due to an acute emergency or chronic condition.

Let’s go deeper on the first issue. Most of us refuse do something about implementing basic wellness strategies into our daily lives. We don’t exercise but we offer a lot of excuses. We don’t eat right but we offer a lot of excuses. We smoke and/or drink alcohol to excess and we offer a lot of excuses as to why we can’t do anything about it. We don’t take advantage of preventive health check-ups that look at blood pressure, cholesterol readings and body weight but we offer a lot of excuses. In short we neglect these things and the result is that we succumb much earlier than necessary to chronic diseases like heart problems, diabetes and high blood pressure. We wind up accessing doctors for these and more routine matters because “health care is there” and somehow we think we have no responsibility for reducing our demand on it.

It is difficult for us to listen to these truths but easy to blame the sick. Maybe they should take better care of themselves! Well, that might be true or maybe they have a genetic condition and they have become among the unfortunate through absolutely no fault of their own. But the point is that you and I can implement personalized preventive disease measures as a way of dramatically improving health care access for others while reducing its costs. It is far better to be productive by doing something we can control then shifting the blame.

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How Did Health Care Costs Get So High?

First, let’s get a little historical perspective on American health care. To do that, let’s turn to the American civil war era. In that war, dated tactics and the carnage inflicted by modern weapons of the era combined to cause terrible results. Most of the deaths on both sides of that war were not the result of actual combat but to what happened after a battlefield wound was inflicted. To begin with, evacuation of the wounded moved at a snail’s pace in most instances causing severe delays in treatment of the wounded. Secondly, most wounds were subjected to wound related surgeries and amputations and this often resulted in massive infection. So you might survive a battle wound only to die at the hands of medical care providers whose good intentioned interventions were often quite lethal. High death tolls can also be ascribed to everyday sicknesses and diseases in a time when no antibiotics existed. In total something like 600,000 deaths occurred from all causes, over 2% of the U.S. population at the time!

Let’s skip to the first half of the 20th century for some additional perspective and to bring us up to more modern times. After the civil war there were steady improvements in American medicine in both the understanding and treatment of certain diseases, new surgical techniques and in physician education and training. But for the most part the best that doctors could offer their patients was a “wait and see” approach. Medicine could handle bone fractures and perform risky surgeries and the like (now increasingly practiced in sterile surgical environments) but medicines were not yet available to handle serious illnesses. The majority of deaths remained the result of untreatable conditions such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, scarlet fever and measles and/or related complications. Doctors were increasingly aware of heart and vascular conditions, and cancer but they had almost nothing with which to treat these conditions.

This very basic understanding of American medical history helps us to understand that until quite recently (around the 1950’s) we had virtually no technologies with which to treat serious or even minor ailments. Nothing to treat you with means that visits to the doctor if at all were relegated to emergencies so in that scenario costs were obviously minuscule. A second factor that has become a key driver of today’s health care costs is that medical treatments that were provided were paid for out-of-pocket. There was no health insurance and certainly not health insurance paid by someone else like an employer. Costs were the responsibility of the individual and perhaps a few charities that among other things supported charity hospitals for the poor and destitute.

What does health care insurance have to do with health care costs? Its impact on health care costs is enormous. When health insurance for individuals and families emerged as a means for corporations to escape wage freezes and to attract and retain employees after World War II, almost overnight there was a great pool of money available for health care. Money, as a result of the availability of billions of dollars from health insurance pools, encouraged an innovative America to increase medical research efforts. As more and more Americans became insured not only through private, employer sponsored health insurance but through increased government funding that created Medicare, Medicaid and expanded veteran health care benefits, finding a cure for almost anything has become very lucrative. This is also the primary reason for the vast array of treatments we have available today. I do not wish to convey that this is a bad thing. Think of the tens of millions of lives that have been saved, extended and made more productive as a result. But with a funding source grown to its current magnitude (hundreds of billions of dollars annually) upward pressure on health care costs are inevitable. Doctor’s offer and most of us demand and get access to the latest available health care technology, pharmaceuticals and surgical interventions. So there is more health care to spend our money on and until very recently most of us were insured and the costs were largely covered by a third-party (government, employers). This is the “perfect storm” for higher and higher health care costs and by and large, the storm is intensifying.

At this point, let’s turn to a key question. Is the current trajectory of U.S. health care spending sustainable? Can America maintain its world competitiveness when 16%, heading for 20% of our gross national product is being spent on health care? What are the other industrialized countries spending on health care and is it even close to these numbers? Add politics and an election year and the whole issue gets badly muddled and misrepresented.

I believe that we need a revolutionary change in the way we think about health care, its availability, its costs and who pays for it. And if you think I am about to say we should arbitrarily and drastically reduce spending on health care you would be wrong. Here it is fellow citizens – health care spending needs to be preserved and protected for those who need it. And to free up these dollars those of us who don’t need it or can delay it or avoid it need to act. First, we need to convince our politicians that this country needs sustained public education with regard to the value of preventive health strategies. This should be a top priority and it has worked to reduce the number of U.S. smokers for example. If prevention were to take hold, it is reasonable to assume that those needing health care for the myriad of life style engendered chronic diseases would decrease dramatically. Millions of Americans are experiencing these diseases far earlier than in decades past and much of this is due to poor life style choices. This change alone would free up plenty of money to handle the health care costs of those in dire need of treatment, whether due to an acute emergency or chronic condition.

Let’s go deeper on the first issue. Most of us refuse do something about implementing basic wellness strategies into our daily lives. We don’t exercise but we offer a lot of excuses. We don’t eat right but we offer a lot of excuses. We smoke and/or drink alcohol to excess and we offer a lot of excuses as to why we can’t do anything about it. We don’t take advantage of preventive health check-ups that look at blood pressure, cholesterol readings and body weight but we offer a lot of excuses. In short we neglect these things and the result is that we succumb much earlier than necessary to chronic diseases like heart problems, diabetes and high blood pressure. We wind up accessing doctors for these and more routine matters because “health care is there” and somehow we think we have no responsibility for reducing our demand on it.

It is difficult for us to listen to these truths but easy to blame the sick. Maybe they should take better care of themselves! Well, that might be true or maybe they have a genetic condition and they have become among the unfortunate through absolutely no fault of their own. But the point is that you and I can implement personalized preventive disease measures as a way of dramatically improving health care access for others while reducing its costs. It is far better to be productive by doing something we can control then shifting the blame.

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