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Messiness and Health Management to Change the World

by Scott MacStravic

I was struck by what I assume was an unintended connection between two recent posts to this blog – one by Nick Jacobs on “Change the World”, and the other by Fred Fortin on “Miscellany, Messiness and Medicine”.  To these I add an article noting a plan for fixing health care, published in WIRED in May [K. Philipkoski “Intel’ Andy Grove Pitches a Plan for Fixing Health Care” Wired.com May 2, 2007]

Andy Grove sees information technology as having a huge potential in fixing health care, along with efforts to “shift left” such care by moving it toward care that is not expensive, does not require hospitals and other institutions, but empowers consumers and innovative approaches to serving them such as retail clinics to take on otherwise highly expensive care.  High-tech gadgets can be used to monitor and manage the care of chronic disease and elderly patients at home, keeping them out of institutions.

Retail clinics can provide care in inexpensive “kiosks” or inexpensive retail and drug store space, and keep people out of hospital emergency rooms.  His other suggestion is the use of information technology in the form of electronic medical records which could be made portable all consumers carry their own with them at all times, making access to them when needed universally available, to ensure the quickest and best diagnosis and treatment of patients possible when they need hospital or physician care.

For some reason, however, Mr. Grove has little good to say about “prevention” as a way to fix healthcare, despite wide agreement among both health gurus and presidential candidates that prevention is an essential element for both reducing healthcare costs and enabling universal insurance coverage.  His objection to prevention is that it requires changing individuals’ behaviors, and he doesn’t think we have the capacity to do this yet in a cost-effective manner, although it is, theoretically, at least, in his view “…absolutely the right answer…”.

I can only conclude that Mr. Grove, as CEO of Intel, has not yet encountered the applications of information and communications technologies to prevention, rather than traditional physicians’ annual checkups, immunizations, and usually unsuccessful or overly expensive coaching for patients.  The search for cost-effective prevention has already concluded that technology innovations are essential to its realization.

Fortunately, such innovation is well under way and already in use.  While I know of no healthcare organization, in the traditional sense, that uses such innovations, the new brand of organizations usually deemed wellness, risk and disease management vendors are well underway.  Examples such as HealthMedia, Inc. and Thomson Healthcare, both in Ann Arbor Michigan, are already using online health risk assessments (HRAs) and customized online feedback therefrom to promote wellness, prevent or reduce risks, and manage chronic diseases.

They have also recognized that commercial or government insurance plans are not the best customers for such innovations.  Employers are, because they gain dramatically more positive impact from having healthier employees than do insurance plans from having healthier members or beneficiaries.  Employer gains include the full range of insurance costs combining healthcare, workers compensation and disability.  Moreover, healthier employers are absent less, produce more output and perform better across the balanced scorecard of business performance, realizing many multiples of sickness care cost reductions.

Instead of or augmented by physical examinations and screenings, online HRAs can be inputted directly into computers and automatically translated into individualized feedback, recommendations and continuous coaching, for a few dollars per employee per month in many cases.  These same HRAs can be used to estimate the productivity and performance value, as well as the extent of employee behavior changes and health status improvements.

The technologies used by most vendors, as well as most traditional healthcare organizations, have tended to emphasize, if not be exclusively devoted to professionals interacting one-on-one with patients in managing disease.  This is often cost effective, when the right patients, diseases and professionals are involved, but usually quite expensive.  Witness the costs of fifteen vendors and healthcare organizations involved in a Medicare DM demonstration project whose costs per participant ranged from $80 to $440 per month! and whose effects were generally negative in terms of savings vs. costs.

As far as I know, none of the new-technology-enabled approaches to affordable prevention have been tried with commercial insurance plans and either Medicare or Medicaid beneficiaries.  It may be that vendors who employ such technologies are focusing on employer clients whose pockets can be more generous, given their already demonstrated significant savings, even without counting the full economic benefits of employee health.

In any case, it would be a shame to characterize the entire armamentarium of “prevention” as not yet cost effective.  The new information and communications technologies available include many that are indeed “messy”, including consumer-directed communications with each other in support groups, and by the full array of wireless technologies, not merely the ones most providers seem to have tried.  And this approach to prevention still does have the capacity to “change the world”, since it can be used world wide as even underdeveloped countries are finding at least some of its technologies affordable.

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