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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Sick Around the World: Reflections

The complexity of the US health care system can overwhelm even an expert: both private and public come into play to provide a wide range of health services to the whooping three hundred million population of the country. The US is one of the richest countries in the world, yet, our health care ranks 37th(!!) in terms of quality and fairness. Undoubtedly, the system has its flaws, which became recognized by the government. Health care reform is aimed at improving access to health care and controlling its rising costs. It makes me wonder if the government learned any lessons from other capitalist countries that recently faced the same challenge.
After watching an eye-opening movie by US correspondent T.Reid Sick Around the World, I came to realize that various developed countries addressed the problems of health care access, quality, and cost in various ways. We can learn our lessons from Taiwan, but would it be wise to adapt the reform that was implemented in the country which economy at the time much differed from the well-developed US economy? We can learn our lessons from Japan, but would it be wise to compare US population to the population of the country with the longest life expectancy that may be due to a much healthier lifestyle and diet? We can also learn our lesson from Germany, but would it be wise to compare our physicians’ cost of education and malpractice insurance to their colleagues’ from “the other side of the pond”? I suppose, out of five health care systems, an amateur spectator like me would consider the one of Switzerland. First, a health care reform took place in the country where the system used to be similar to ours, with voluntary coverage. Second, the reform was recent – 1990’s. Third, the country’s stable capitalistic economy can somewhat be compared to the economy of the US.

T.Reid makes a very important point when he says that everyone has the right to vote, everyone has the right for a fair trial, so everyone should have a right to health care. If Switzerland could do it with eight million people, so can we, with three hundred and eleven. There are several reasons, why I think the model works. One of the key features of the reform is to reduce health care costs, and Switzerland has done so by reducing administrative costs, which a sky-high in the US. Next, the insurance companies compete for clients despite being non-profit organizations and offering the exact same benefit packet to the public. In a healthy economy, competition should always be present to ensure that there is a continuing effort for improvement. No one can be denied health insurance due to a re-existing condition, yet there is still room for insurance companies to make profit on the supplemental insurance. Another crucial component of the Switzerland’s health care system is its affordability: even though a seven hundred and fifty dollars monthly premium is a costly expense, it is still much cheaper than what we pay in the US. On top of that, the government controls prices on prescription medications – a concept unheard of in the US where a poor elderly person can be spending over a half of their monthly income on drugs…
To sum it up, I would like to share a personal story. A young American couple had their first born in one of the local hospitals. Soon it became clear that the infant was seriously ill; it took the best physicians in the country almost two month to diagnose the baby with a rare genetic disorder – APEX syndrome. The family spent an entire year of the baby’s short life in the hospital. In the end, they were left with a profound sense of loss and a monstrous bill that the new family could afford, even with health insurance. Sadly, such stories happen in our country. In Switzerland, this would have been a huge national scandal.  So wherever we learn our lessons from, we are definitely over-due for some change in the health care system.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

In Response to the Big Med

Can health care be managed in a way that combines quality control, cost control, and innovation?  With the presidential elections around the corner and the advent of the ACA, the question has never been more acute than now. Public health-care reform is sought to reshape the system with the goal to reduce cost and provide quality care for the population. Along comes the difference in opinions on the ways how re-structuring of the health care should be accomplished to decrease soaring costs and at times mediocre or unreliable services. According to some, we should take a look at the restaurant business and adopt their deliver a range of services to millions of people at a reasonable cost and with a consistent level of quality.
The idea to adopt a restaurant business model can raise an eyebrow or a mocking laugh in some, while it can seem appealing to others. Children of consumerisms, Americans expect quick, cheap, and reliable services. In a restaurant, every dish involves deviation from a set recipe and attention to detail for personal adjustments. We expect the restaurant chains, like Cheesecake Factory, manage to accomplish consistent quality results over and over again across the entire country. Similarly to the pager beeping that informs you about the table becoming available, we expect the emergency room staff to inform us about the time it is going to take to be seen by a physician, or the cardiac surgeon implanting the exact high-quality valve in the heart of our loved one as he did for some high-profile executive three surgeries ago.
I admit, I initially scoffed on the idea of adopt a restaurant business model to the health care, thinking, “Who is this person comparing intricacies of illnesses and individual health factors to the restaurant dishes?” Intrigued, I kept reading and found out that the author is a pretty much a colleague of mine who works in another hospital in the city and has not lost touch with reality. Sharing a personal experience in health care affirmed the thought that there is truth in what is said. Some patients chose a physician who has titles and titles after his name, but then they have to rely on doctors who may have insufficient information or economic incentives to pick the costliest treatment.
There are two sides to the coin. I think it is our duty as health care professionals to be informed about the best evidence regarding treatment options, and either to follow the best standards or to develop new standards. If the evidence shows that prescribing a blood-thinning medicine during the hospital stay prevents the formation of blood clots caused by decreased mobility, then it is only common sense to prescribe it to the qualified patients (note to deviate from a set recipe for contra-indications). Fewer blood clots leads ultimately to better patient recovery and lower hospital bill. Adhering to the best-researched evidence can after all allow the providers to deliver a range of services to millions of people at a reasonable cost and with a consistent level of quality.

The other side comes from the financial aspect of healthcare, ethical concerns, time that it takes to prove the effectiveness of certain interventions, and the nature of healthcare settings. Changes in healthcare seem to be harder to implement than in other customer-oriented areas. For example, I almost want to bet on the fact that it is easier to approve a new dish for a menu in a Cheesecake Factory at the Prudential than it is to implement the use of LUCAS chest compression system in a near-by BIDMC Emergency Room with well-trained, qualified personnel. Another example is treating a patient for pneumonia according to an algorithm that has been proven to be effective: one adhere to the best standard ever yet not to achieve the same result due to unforeseen factors like co-existing illnesses, constantly mutating microbes, religious beliefs against blood products, unnecessary tests the patient demands because “I read it on-line”, and what not. I am not saying that delivering quality care is an un-achievable goal in healthcare, I simply b

Read more: Atul Gawande: Big Med…Restaurant chains have managed to combine quality control, cost control, and innovation. Can health care?