As I read Jonathan Bush’s new book, Where Does It Hurt? the most salient problem that Bush discusses is that hospitals can’t effectively measure or attribute their costs. As a result, they can’t make good decisions since they don’t know how to attribute costs and revenues.
Although this has been widely known for sometime, the implications of this are particularly interesting. Since hospitals don’t know how much it costs to actually deliver care (especially multi-faceted, complicated care), their various revenue streams are effectively subsidizing their expenses in an almost random manner. Accounting for costs and attributing revenue is nearly impossible.
Bush notes that more focused care centers – such as standalone labs, imaging centers, and minute clinics – can afford to offer many of the same services as hospitals with equal or greater quality at a lower cost. They can achieve this because they have dramatically less operational overhead than hospitals and have staff performing the same core basic functions repetitively. Indeed, practice makes perfect.
There are hundreds of companies all over the country building healthcare practices based on this very premise: labs, imaging, procedures, home health agencies, ASCs, birthing centers, cath labs, urgent care, retail clinics, and more. Focused-centers are slowly eating away at hospitals by providing better services at lower costs.
Today, hospitals make enormous profits by dramatically marking up routine procedures and services. But that won’t continue forever. As the ACA pushes patients towards high-deductible plans so that patients act more cost consciously, they will seek the more affordable alternatives. Patients will not agree to pay a $300 ER copay and $2000 MRI when the urgent care center down the street offers a $99 copay and $400 MRI. As patients make better decisions, hospitals will lose some of their easiest, most profitable revenues: extremely marked up lab tests, images, procedures, etc.
What will hospitals be left to do when their easiest, most profitable revenue vanishes? They will shift focus to what they do best: performing miracles. Hospitals will compete for high-end services such as-complex surgeries and intensive care. However, because routine services subsidize the hospital’s overhead, they currently offer surgeries and intensive care at a “discount.” When hospitals can no longer subsidize their complex care with routine care, hospitals will raise prices for the highest acuity services that can’t be performed elsewhere. If you thought acute sickcare was unaffordable, think again. The cost of complex care is going to grow dramatically in the coming years.