Saturday, November 27, 2010

Prominent Health Care Policy Advice from People Sans Health Care Expertise

It is two days after the US Thanksgiving holiday, and one thing I am thankful for is the continued hilarity generated by health care corporate CEOs who pretend to be health care experts.  Of course this all really is not so funny, because the bogus expertise appears not in MAD Magazine, but in the most respected media outlets with the most influence over health care policy.

 This week's example comes from the Wall Street Journal's vaunted CEO Council.  A summary of its health care panel appeared early this week in that newspaper.

The panel included Angela Braly President and CEO, Wellpoint Inc., William A. Hawkins Chairman and CEO, Medtronic Inc., and Klaus Kleinfeld Chairman and CEO, Alcoa.  Angela Braly, a lawyer with no obvious record of direct experience in health care or related fields (see her bio here), received total compensation from WellPoint of more than $13 million in 2009, while presiding over various snafus and ethical missteps (most recently here, and with a further catalog here.)   William Hawkins, who has an undergraduate degree in engineering, and an MBA, received total compensation from Medtronic of over $9 million in fiscal 2010.  His direct involvement in health care or related fields apparently ended after his undergraduate years, when he was said to have done research in pathology (see his bio here).   He presided over Medtronic's settlement of thousands of patients' lawsuits that alleged injuries due to a faulty lead on one model of a Medtronic implantable cardiac defibrillator for over $200 million.  The company's other recent questionable activities may be found here.  Dr Kleinfeld's doctorate is in strategic management, but he has no obvious health care background (see his bio here.)   (The panel apparently had a "subject expert," Dr Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, a physician who is now CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, but she was not quoted directly in the WSJ edited transcript.)

So what could we expect from a panel on health care that included no one with direct experience or expertise in health care, but two CEOs who managed to become extremely wealthy courtesy their employment by health care companies? 

Here is Ms Braly on changing incentives:
This really gets to the fact that right now we have a fee-for-service payment system, so we pay for quantity rather than quality. And very importantly, we think we need to redesign the way in which we reimburse for health care.

Reimbursement could come in the form of accountable care organizations or patient-centered medical homes or pay-for-performance or risk sharing. There are a number of ways—and we didn't want to be completely prescriptive in terms of what that reimbursement formula would be.

The issue is not quantity versus quality, but cognitive, including primary care vs procedures. Ms Braly completely ignores how the government takes only the advice of the RUC to set physician payments, and how her company just apes that example (see posts here). Ms Braly also completely ignored how her company could actually try to change reimbursement on its own. There is no law that says it must follow the example set by Medicare.

So what she said about changing "delivery incentives" is just nonsense, to use a polite term.

Then we have Dr Kleinfeld ostensibly on transparency, but really on thinking about health care as if it were done on a production line:
Let me first talk about the transparency aspect. It was very informative to hear from those that are in the industry how big a variation you have in practices across the board.

If I were to look at a set of factories that make the same thing, and one does it in five days and the other one in 10 days, and the one that does it in five days is cheaper than the one that does it in 10 days, why would I not bring everybody down to the five days?

So the question is, what hinders the health-care industry from applying the same mechanics? There was agreement that today for every important disease category there are also quality indicators that are accepted that you could use to see what is the quality delivered.

Once you control the process, once you bring the quality up, the costs go down.

Dr Kleinfeld does not seem to realize that health care involves taking care of unique patients. Even when patients have common problems, they have unique mixtures of other medical problems and personal characteristics. The physician's most basic pledge is to do what is best for each individual patient. Treating them as if they were identical widgets on a production line makes absolutely no sense.  One cannot apply the "same mechanics" that apply on a production line, because actually taking care of patients is not done, and does not at all resemble what happens on a production line. It goes without saying that Dr Kleinfeld seems to have no idea how complex and fraught with error the process of measuring quality in health care actually is.

His remarks again, to put it politely, were nonsense.

Finally, there was Mr Hawkins in a similar vein:
Contrary to popular belief, we actually have very good medical care in this country, and with the proliferation of evidence-based medicine, we have determined that there are best practices for how we can treat hypertension or some of the neurodegenerative diseases or diabetes. And the reality is, as you look across different systems, there's a lot of variability in what people are doing.

We talked about the importance of publishing or being very clear about what are the best practices for dealing with hypertension, and then making sure that we have the means by which people will be held accountable moving forward in that area.

Maybe we should acknowledge that at least Mr Hawkins tried to concentrate on hypertension, which may have a slightly more secure evidence base than some other conditions. But the implication still is that there are "best practices" when the complexity of real patients in a real health care context makes figuring out what really is best for individual patients very challenging. Maybe that is why we used to try to leave such decisions up to doctors, other health professionals, and their patients.

However, it seems that the CEOs of big health care corporations seem to feel the need to justify their ridiculous total compensation by opining on health care topics that are completely beyond their experience, training, and expertise. The real problem is that probably because of the assumption that those huge salaries must correlate with huge expertise and intelligence, their opinions are taken seriously. The quotes above did not come from MAD Magazine. They came from a highly respected and prestigious conference sponsored by and whose results were published by the Wall Street Journal.

To truly reform health care, we need to stop pretending that general business or law training makes someone a health care expert, and that being paid a lot of money by a health care corporation makes one a bigger health care expert.   We need to go back to developing health care policy with the help of people who actually know something about health care, and who are not paid by particular health care corporation to support their vested interests. 


InformaticsMD said...

You are right. Nonsense is too polite a term.

I would enjoy also seeing these folks' high school and undergraduate records. It's not at all unimaginable they didn't have what it takes to have gotten into medical school, let alone become physicians.

-- SS

Anonymous said...

We need a new way of determining compensation for blowhard corporate air is cheap, and they are over paid.

Live it or live with it said...


Anonymous said...

Roy, I'm merely a lay-person who has experiences a long life with good health. I live with a chronic-disease spouse, however, and your most telling statement is this: "the complexity of real patients in a real health care context makes figuring out what really is best for individual patients very challenging."

What does it take to wake up these over-paid leaders to the realization that in healthcare, one size NEVER fits all (or even most). My curse would be that they experience, individually or personally, a bit of ill health, and see how well their 'solutions' fit reality.


Doug Perednia, MD said...

An excellent post, Dr. Poses. It is a message that should be brought up time and again.