The case for healthcare cooperation with Cuba


I learned quite a bit from a brief Perspective in the New England Journal of Medicine (The United States and Cuba –Turning Enemies into Partners for Health).

A June Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the US Department of Health and Human Services and the Cuban Ministry of Public Health lays out a wide variety of areas for cooperation, including infection diseases like Zika, plus cancer and chronic conditions.

Thanks to the embargo, products developed in Cuba aren’t available in the US because they are not allowed into the FDA approval process. As a result, certain drugs like Heberprot-P, to reduce amputation risk for diabetic foot ulcers, aren’t available in the US even though they are on the market in many other countries.

We don’t need to copy the Cuban health system, but there are some lessons to be learned from Cuba’s experience with population health, community-based programs, disease control, and chronic care management.

It isn’t possible to fully implement the MoU now, because the embargo remains in place and only Congress can lift it. If Democrats take control of Congress, that could happen soon. If not, the author argues that the President has the authority to allow Cuban products into the US regulatory process just like products from any other country. He’d also like to see the President allow US students to attend medical school in Cuba, where some have been offered scholarships.

These all sound like good ideas to me and I hope they are implemented.

Image courtesy of taesmileland at


By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

Mass Health Quality Partners: 21 years young


Barbra Rabson, MHQP President and CEO

Health Business Group is a sponsor of the upcoming anniversary party for Massachusetts Health Quality Partners (MHQP). I asked MHQP’s President, Barbra Rabson to reflect on the first couple decades.

MHQP is about to celebrate its 21st anniversary. What are you celebrating?

We are celebrating the courage and vision it took 21 years ago to found MHQP, and the amazing two decades of progress we’ve made since our inception. Our 21st anniversary is symbolic of our coming of age and reaching a level of maturity. MHQP has become an important part of the Massachusetts healthcare landscape over the decades thanks to the commitment and hard work of our diverse stakeholders – including patients, physicians, hospitals and payers.  More than 40 sponsors and over 300 people are gathering on November 2 to celebrate MHQP’s unwavering commitment to reliable healthcare measurement and transparency and our pioneering work in the Commonwealth and the nation to systematically capture the patient voice and integrate it into care improvements.

At our anniversary celebration we will be honoring the vision of MHQP’s Founding Circle –Blue Cross Blue Shield of MA, Fallon Health Plan, MA Business Roundtable, MA Hospital Association (MHA), MA Medical Society (MMS), Harvard Pilgrim Health Care (HPHC), Tufts Health Plan and the State (Governor Charlie Baker was a founding member of MHQP when he was Secretary of Administration and Finance).

We will also be awarding MHQP’s first award in honor of the late Richard Nesson, MD, a founding visionary of MHQP when he was the Chair of the MHA Board in 1995 when MHQP was established.  We are delighted that Susan Edgman-Levitan, the executive director of the John D. Stoeckle Center for Primary Care Innovation at Massachusetts General Hospital and the founding president of the Picker Institute will be the first recipient of MHQP’s H. Richard Nesson Award.

How has the environment changed in MA over the past 21 years? What role has MHQP played in that?

The healthcare environment is drastically different than it was when MHQP was founded in 1995.  When MHQP first started collecting and reporting comparative statewide performance information, we were the only game in town.  For example, MHQP’s first in the nation statewide patient experience survey of acute care hospitals and public release came a full decade before CMS developed the hospital H-CAHPs survey! Likewise, when MHQP began collecting and reporting statewide clinical and patient experiences measures for ambulatory care, MHQP’s data was the only reliable source for quality benchmarks for our provider organizations.  Before MHQP’s comparative quality reports, Massachusetts provider organizations only knew their own performance scores, they had no comparative benchmarks or best practices to drive performance improvements.  Physician leaders  (Barbara Spivak, Tom Lee and others) have told us MHQP’s performance reports were invaluable to them because our reports became the writing on the wall that they needed to make significant investments in their organization in the form of electronic health records and quality improvement infrastructure to advance their performance to the level they aspired to.

Another big change is that our reimbursement systems now provide millions of dollars of incentives for provider organizations to improve performance.  When MHQP first started the term ‘pay-for-performance’ had not yet been coined.  MHQP has always [encouraged] improvements through public reporting of reliable and trusted comparative performance information – relying on physicians’ intrinsic motivation to perform as well as they can. Now that provider compensation depends heavily on measurement we need to work harder to make sure we have accurate and fair measurements of quality care.

Finally, back in 1998 when MHQP first started reporting on patient experiences of care, patient experience was not considered a core measure of quality.  MHQP’s statewide collection and reporting of patient experience helped draw national attention to the importance of listening to patients, and in 2001 the IOM introduced the concept of patient centered care as a key element of quality care in the Crossing the Quality Chasm Report.

Kindred organizations to MHQP have arisen around the country over the last couple decades. How do you relate to them?

MHQP was one of the first regional health improvement collaboratives (RHICs) to be founded in the country. Gordon Mosser (founding CEO of ICSI in Minnesota) and I organized the first meeting of regional collaboratives in 2004.  As a founding member and past Board chair of NRHI (the Network for Regional Healthcare Improvement), it has been very gratifying to see so many new RHICs being established.  There are now more than 40 across the country.  I have been told by many of the younger RHICs that MHQP was a role model for them when they were first starting out, and I take great pride in that.

What does the future hold?

Great question, and one I have been reflecting on as we have been looking back on our first 21 years. One of the biggest challenges (and one of our greatest failures as a health care system) has been that we have not done a good job engaging our patients as a resource to help us improve outcomes. In many cases we have actively refused to seek input from patients, and when given feedback we have ignored it.  We are now trying to make a 180 degree shift on this, to better engage patients in the co-production of solutions, and it is not easy because it requires a shift in mindset.  I believe that MHQP’s two decades of experience capturing the patient voice and integrating that voice into care improvements positions us extremely well to support our practices and healthcare systems as they embark on this journey.


By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

Is radiology doomed?


Which path to take?

The radiology profession is a famously paranoid lot, often worried about encroachment on imaging from non-radiologists, competition from teleradiology, reimbursement squeezes, and more. is a good place to go to observe how these worries play out.

The latest article, Will machine learning turn radiologists into losers? is a case in point. It reports on a New England Journal of Medicine article that asserts that machine learning will replace radiologists. Images will be sent straight to algorithms, bypassing radiologists completely, they say. There are differences of opinion on how soon this will happen, but an appreciation that once the electronic tools are good enough they will be preferred.

As a patient I’m all in favor of faster, more accurate, and cheaper interpretation of images and if that means there’s no future role for radiologists, so be it. But actually what I hope is that radiologists start to assert themselves as diagnostic quarterbacks, helping to organize and analyze information from pathology, genomics, lab tests and physical examinations. They can work with teams of clinicians in new ways, to speed diagnosis and treatment decisions.

I am aware that some enlightened radiology leaders are already thinking in these terms. I hope the fears spurred by the development of machine learning will accelerate the movement.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at


By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

Boston Children’s gets the go-ahead. I’m quoted

From the Boston Globe (Children’s gets green light for hospital expansion, with conditions)

Massachusetts health regulators said Friday that Boston Children’s Hospital should be allowed to go forward with a $1 billion expansion project, a recommendation that seeks to support one of the state’s premier hospitals without undermining efforts to control medical spending.

The staff at the Department of Public Health recommended approval of the plan to build an 11-story building in Longwood and an eight-story outpatient clinic in Brookline.

Here’s my quote:

“DPH seems to be trying to satisfy everyone here, including taxpayers, health insurers, [Children’s Hospital], and competing hospitals,” said David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group, a Boston consulting firm. “The conditions DPH lays out may help achieve these goals, but it is hard for a government agency to manage the hospital market so tightly.”

Children’s plan to use its expanded capacity to draw patients from out of state and overseas is consistent with the hospital’s overall strategy. DPH appears to accept Childrens’ explanation, but wants assurances that MassHealth patients will not be displaced and that Childrens will not attempt to lure well insured, healthier patients away from local competitors.

Ironically, DPH seems to be fighting the last war. After all it was Partners, not Children’s, that expanded widely within the local market. Meanwhile Children’s big recent acquisition was in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut not Massachusetts.


By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.

Justifying EpiPen pricing, once again


Back with more

I enjoyed Medical hackers create $30 DIY EpiPen in defiance of corporate greed over at inhabitat. The Four Thieves Vinegar collective cobbled together an “EpiPencil” from an auto injector for insulin, a hypodermic needle, and epinepherine. It’s a pretty cool trick but it proves nothing about EpiPen pricing nor does it help real patients.

Actually, it unwittingly reinforces the points I made in my very unpopular EpiPen may still be too cheap post, which is that the pricing of EpiPen has almost nothing to do with the cost of its parts.

Consider these caveats about the DIY EpiPencil from the inhabitat post:

However, it is worth mentioning that many experts have voiced concern about the EpiPencil and warned that it’s not advisable to try to create a piece of medical equipment at home – it can be difficult to ensure the correct dose is being administered, the epinephrine inside is delicate and might lose its effectiveness if stored this way, and of course, if someone were to create the device without paying close attention to hygiene, it could become contaminated. A miscalibration of the device could even cause the medicine to be injected into a vein, which can have dangerous side effects.

To recap, here’s what you’re paying for when you buy a real EpiPen:

  • The ability to send your kids to school, playdates, summer camp, hikes, and restaurants with reasonable confidence that they’ll survive an allergic reaction
  • An auto-injector that works. Remember, Twinject was rejected by the market for being clumsy, Auvi-Q was recalled because it could administer the wrong dose, and Teva’s autoinjector was rejected by FDA for “major deficiencies”
  • A device that many, many people know how to use: school nurses, babysitters, passers-by. That means someone is likely to be there to help you if you need it. Good luck with getting someone to learn how to use your EpiPencil in an emergency, even if somehow it worked as advertised

EpiPen’s maker, Mylan has done a lot of sleazy things, which I don’t defend, and as a result they may well deserve the opprobrium that is being directed at them. But I stand by my argument that EpiPen is not $2 of epinephrine and a syringe. Instead its a differentiated solution that provides plenty of value to users.

If someone can come up with something better and cheaper, please do!


By healthcare business consultant David E. Williams, president of Health Business Group.