Major Healthcare Issues I Think IT Could Help Solve

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Yesterday and today I spent my time at the Accountable Care Expo in Las Vegas. It was a small intimate event, but those that were there were some really smart people who knew a lot about healthcare and about accountable care organizations. It was quite the education for me. Plus, as with most learning, as I learned more about ACOs I realized how much more I still don’t know.

During the conference I started to think about something I’d heard quoted quite a few times. At this conference they said, “3% of patients are consuming 60% of healthcare dollars.” I’ve heard a lot of different numbers on this. I remember hearing that 10% of patients have 80% of healthcare costs. Regardless of the exact numbers, I’ve heard this enough to believe that a small number of patients drive a abnormally large portion of the healthcare costs in this country.

When you think about this, it becomes quite clear that these “expensive patients” are likely those with chronic conditions. That’s the easy part. The harder part is that I’ve never seen anyone analyze the makeup of the 3-10% that are driving up healthcare costs. For example, what if 90% of those “expensive patients” are chronic patients over the age of 65. Solving this problem would be very different than if we found that 50% of expensive patients are diabetics under the age of 20.

How does this apply to health IT? First, health IT should be able to sort through all the big data in healthcare and answer the above questions. How is anyone going to solve the problems of these “expensive patients” if we don’t really know the makeup of why they’re so expensive?

Second, I believe that some health IT solutions can be implemented to help lower the costs of these chronic patients. I’ve seen a number of mHealth programs focused on diabetes that have done tremendous things to help diabetic patients live healthier lives. That’s a big win for the patients and healthcare. We need more big wins like this and I think IT can facilitate these benefits.

Since this post has taken a slight diversion away from my regular topics, I wanted to look at another thought I had today about healthcare. This tweet I sent today summarizes the idea:

All of the numbers I’ve seen indicate that hospitals are the most expensive part of healthcare today. Hospitals are just expensive to run. They have a lot of overhead. They work miracles regularly, but they come at a cost. While more could always be done, I feel safe saying that many hospitals have squeezed out as much cost savings they can out of the hospital. This means that in order to save money in healthcare we can’t strip more cost savings out of hospitals. Instead, we need to work to keep patients from going to the hospital.

There are a lot of ways to solve this problem (I heard of one payer putting instacare clinics next to ERs to save money), but the one I hear most common is the need for primary care doctors to have a more active role in the patient care. If they had a more active role once a patient is discharged from the hospital, then fewer patients would be readmitted to the hospital.

How then can we structure a program for primary care doctors to be paid to keep their patients from being readmitted to the hospital? That’s the million dollar question (literally). Everyone I know would happily pay a primary care doctor a half a million dollars in order to save millions of dollars in hospital bills. That extra money might also help us solve the primary care doctor shortage that I hear so many talk about.

I can’t say I have all the solutions here, and I don’t expect these things to change over night. Although, I think these will be important changes that will need to happen in healthcare to lower costs. Plus, I think IT will facilitate an important role in making these changes happen. Imagine something as simple as an HIE notifying a primary care doctor that their patient was admitted or discharged from the hospital. This would mean the doctor could go to work. Now we just need to find the right financial mechanism to be sure they act on that notification.

I’ll be chewing on these ideas this weekend. I look forward to hearing other people’s thoughts on these issues.