Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Reasoning By (Mis)Analogy: Should Hospitals be Compared to Microchip Factories?

Rant alert: I have become increasingly distressed by changes in health care prompted by poor analogies between it and various businesses. One of my pet peeves has been hospital quality improvement schemes based on what purportedly works to improve quality on production lines.
Hospitals couldn't resemble mass production in a factory less. Yes, of course, most products used in hospitals are mass-produced in a factory, and physicians and other health care professionals depend on products manufactured with great uniformity and predictability. Each patient presenting to a hospital, however, has a unique set of problems and issues. Attempts to manage these issues are based on our currently far from complete understanding of human biology, and how psychosocial factors impinge on it. Patients present at any time, with varying degrees of severity, at various stages in their life. The goal is to provide the best approach to each patient customized to that patient's situation and problems. Doing so is likely to require using drugs, devices, and equipment that will perform predictably and reliably. But the choice of what tests to do, what treatments to employ, how to discuss and inform the patient of what is going on, etc are unique to each patient.
In contrast, the goal of production lines is to produce identical products, designed by humans, based on good understanding of physics, chemistry etc., and the principles of engineering. So how would practices designed to improve the design and manufacture of goods and equipment on a production line likely apply to how hospitals take care of unique patients?
In this week's JAMA there appears a good example of the genre of applying industrial production techniques to health care, an article by Andrew S. Grove PhD, the "former chairman of the board of Intel Corporation." [Grove AS. Efficiency in the health care industries: a view from the outside. JAMA 2005; 294: 490.]
Grove starts off with this comparison: "the health science/health care industry and the microchip industry are similar in some important ways: both are populated by extremely dedicated and well-trained individuals, both are based on science, and both are striving to put to use the result of this science." These criteria are extremely broad. One could use them to compare health care with the airline industry, major league baseball, or the Communist Party in the Soviety Union under Vladimir Lenin. All these organizations could have claimed to be populated by well-trained, dedicated people, who based their work to some extent on scientific principles.
Then blithely dismissing that "one industry deals with the well-defined world of silicon, the other with living human beings," Grove goes on to tell us how to do health care better.
Particularly galling, I think, is his criticism of the slow pace of the "war on cancer" compared to the increase in the number of transistors included on microchips.
Maybe he really got to the point nearer the end, when he pushed for more and quicker implementation of the electronic medical record. "When it comes to operational efficiency, nothing illustrates the chasm between the 2 industries better than a comparison of the rate of implementation of electronic medical records with the rate of growth of e-commerce." This comparison is hard to fathom. EMRs, to be useful, need to digitally categorize data that is very hard to organize. No one yet knows how to store, for example, the contents of the medical history in anything other than a text file. Yet an electronic medical record that consists mostly of text and image files may be no easier to manipulate than a paper chart. E-commerce, on the other hand, must simply keep track of stereotyped transactions. (Readers of Health Care Renewal have seen why the EMR may not be as much of a panacea as its promoters proclaim.) But selling more EMR systems may increase the demand for Intel's chips.
I have no objection to inter-disciplinary work. And health care can obviously benefit from insights from other fields. But why are we in health care constantly berated by people based on bearing such bad analogies as those proposed by Grove?

2 comments:

marc said...

what do you think about vista
http://www1.va.gov/vhaitsharing/page.cfm?pg=33
it is open source and therefore the standards are open and expandable. this would allow many people to work on the problem of "digitally categorize data that is very hard to organize. No one yet knows how to store, for example, the contents of the medical history in anything other than a text file. Yet an electronic medical record that consists mostly of text and image files may be no easier to manipulate than a paper chart." etc

Anonymous said...

Is Grove's op-ed available free anywhere, as it should be?

Grove should take a look at the computerisation of the NHS in Britain. The official site of this huge project is http://www.connectingforhealth.nhs.uk/ There is lots of critical discussion elsewhere: the British government rarely gets big IT projects right, and GPs as well as IT buffs are often sceptical, but resources are being poured in. This is politically too big to fail.

One analogy with the chip industry that may disturb American health-care professionals is that the rapid progress in desktop computing has gone hand-in-hand with the de facto "Wintel" technical monopoly. Even open-source fans will have to admit this. At some point, it pays to settle on an imperfect standard and go for it. The market for medical administration services is not an economist's competitive market, so market convergence on a standard will be far too slow without government intervention. Britain will have imperfect nationwide EMRs (and secure electronic transmission of images and prescriptions) well before the USA, or even France, see http://www.dossier-patient.net/ .