Category Archives: Research

USPSTF adopts my reasoning on PSA screening for prostate cancer

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Which way on PSA?

I oppose over-testing and over-treatment, so I really had to think hard five years ago when I turned 45 and my doctor offered PSA screening for prostate caner. The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) had just come out against PSA screening, concluding that the harms outweighed the benefits.

Nonetheless (Why I decided to get a PSA screening test for prostate cancer), I did go forward. As I wrote:

I know that PSA is a very imperfect indicator. I definitely want to avoid the stress and possible discomfort of having a biopsy. I’m worried about false positive and false negative biopsy results. And I don’t relish the significant potential for incontinence, impotence, or bowel problems from treatment.

But at this stage of my life I am willing to accept a significant risk of morbidity in exchange for a small reduction in mortality risk, which is my impression of what my choice to have the PSA test means. In 10 or 20 years I probably won’t feel that way. And I hope there will be better detection, follow-up and treatment options by then.

I’m also confident in my ability to make informed choices with my physicians along the way. The PSA test itself was done as part of routine blood work and there was no additional risk from that. My doctor and I agreed that if the PSA is elevated we’ll discuss what to do next. At that stage I’ll also have the chance to do more research and get more opinions if necessary. I’m not automatically going to get into a cascade of follow-up and treatment.

Now the USPSTF appears to be coming around to my way of thinking. In particular, they note that more men are choosing “active surveillance,” i.e., keeping a close watch rather than jumping straight to aggressive treatment.

The choice about whether to undergo PSA testing and what to do once results are in is a great opportunity for shared decision making. And this is what should be encourage.

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

Just a granule of sugar makes the medicine go down (and out)

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What Would Mary Do?

Many drugs fail in development due to safety problems. A study indicates that impurities in the non-active ingredients may sometimes be to blame. According to lead researcher Daniel Weinbuch from Leiden University:

“We found that sugar excipients themselves contain nanometer-sized particles, which can damage proteins and make drugs unsafe. These nanoparticle impurities in sugar could even trigger the immune system itself.”

Obviously, drug companies need to learn about this problem and find sugar manufacturers who can make pure products.

It’s unfortunate that this problem exists, but it also holds out the possibility that some drugs that were previously thought to be unsafe could actually be safe. If so, it would be time to restart the development process.

The academic paper (Nanoparticle Impurities in Pharmaceutical-Grade Sugars and their Interference with Light Scattering-Based Analysis of Protein Formulations) was published in Pharmaceutical Research.

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

 

Mass Health Quality Partners: 21 years young

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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.

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

LBJ would think walking meetings are pretty lame

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Don’t talk to me about walking meetings

The Wall Street Journal continues to go soft on us. I just read about “walking meetings,” which are just what they sound like: conducting meetings while walking around. According to the Journal, these meetings are great for combating obesity and diabetes, and improving creativity. With meetings, phone calls and emails taking up more than 90 percent of the workday for some people (consultants like myself included), the Journal touts studies purporting to show the benefits of wandering around at work.

Walking meetings aren’t really new. Kaiser’s Dr. Ted Eytan touted the idea on my blog five years ago.

Sure it’s good to get moving, and taking a walk can be just the thing to clear one’s head, but when I’m in a meeting I’m usually taking notes and often viewing documents. Many meetings are confidential and sometimes they involve 10 or more people. So IMHO most serious meetings are not suitable for walking.

When I was an economics student at Wesleyan in the 1980s, professor Stanley Lebergott told me about a pretty crazy job interview his colleague Douglas Cater had with Lyndon Johnson at the White House –swimming nude in the pool and having to keep up with Johnson while trying to answer questions. Although I believed my professor, you might not, so here’s how it’s recounted in Jack Valenti’s memoirs:

I’ll never forget the day LBJ brought Doug to the White House to sort of interview him. ‘Let’s go for a swim, Doug. Okay with you?’ said the president. Well, of course it was, so Doug, Bill Moyers, and I followed the president to the swimming pool. Doug’s eyes almost popped out when LBJ, Bill, and I threw off our clothes and jumped into the pool, nekkid, as we say in Texas. After a moment’s hesitation, Cater stripped and plunged in, too.

As we splashed around, the president began chatting with Doug about his ideas for making the Johnson administration more effective. I daresay, many of us have been interviewed in odd places, but as Doug said later, ‘Nothing compares with my waterlogged birthday suit interview with the president.’

Compared to this, walking meetings are nothing. Can’t the Journal find something more inspiring or scandalous to write about?

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

Smoking and the ACA

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The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has created a wonderful laboratory for studying the impact of changes in healthcare policy. One of the more interesting papers on the topic appears in the latest Health Affairs (Evidence suggests that the ACA’s tobacco surcharges reduce insurance take-up and did not increase smoking cessation). (You’ll need a subscription to read the full article.)

Health plans can’t charge higher prices to people who are sicker, but they can tack on surcharges of up to 50 percent for tobacco users. States can limit or ban the surcharges, and some do. Not surprisingly, people subjected to high surcharges are a lot less likely to purchase insurance, especially because the way the surcharges work has a very significant impact on their out of pocket costs.

Beyond the headlines, there were several additional findings:

  • When smokers faced no, moderate or high surcharges rates of smoking cessation were unaffected
  • Low surcharges significantly reduced the degree of smoking cessation
  • Young smokers were much more likely than older smokers to be deterred from health insurance coverage by the imposition of surcharges
  • Surcharges were typically higher than the extra medical costs incurred by smokers

These findings have some interesting implications:

  • If the goal of the surcharge policy is to get people to quit smoking, then it doesn’t seem to be working very well. The least effective approach of all is to impose low surcharges. The authors speculate that the low surcharge smokers may feel they are being fairly charged and therefore don’t have an incentive to change. This is like the parents who are more likely to pick up their kids late from day care when a small fine is imposed
  • Surcharges knock younger people out of coverage disproportionately, which may destabilize the risk pools since younger people are generally more profitable than older people
  • The rising penalties for not purchasing insurance may not have much effect on smokers who face surcharges. Many low or moderate income smokers will be exempt from the penalties because the premiums –with surcharges– are deemed unaffordable
  • Patients with mental health problems are being discriminated against because they have much higher smoking rates than the general population. (I have been making similar arguments since 2007)

The authors mention in passing that high surcharges may encourage people to quit in order to obtain affordable coverage. They also note that the smoking surcharge isn’t always apparent on the exchanges, so smokers may not understand that they are paying more or how much.

I’d like to see the law tweaked to make the financial consequences of smoking more apparent to smokers. Surcharges could be displayed more explicitly, and the bar for being exempt from the insurance coverage requirement could be raised. Exceptions could be made for those with a mental health diagnosis.

These changes won’t necessarily be easy to achieve. Congress so far shows no signs of being willing to improve the law –though that may change if the Democrats retake Congress. Another issue is that tobacco use is generally self-reported for exchange customers, so we don’t know how many people are classifying themselves as non-users when in fact they are not.

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

Trouble ahead: Obese, diabetic 50 somethings heading for bleak senior years

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It’s not too late

Today’s middle-aged adults (50-64) are much fatter and more likely to have diabetes than their predecessors from 15 years ago. Obesity is up 25 percent, diabetes 55 percent and the percentage reporting being in very good or excellent health declined by 9 percent, according to the latest America’s Health Rankings Senior Report from the United Health Foundation.

At the state level, some of the changes were far more dramatic. Prevalence of diabetes among middle-aged Coloradans is up 138 percent, while obesity rates in Arizona are up by 96 percent.

The report warns that today’s middle-aged cohort is on track for an expensive and unhealthy experience when they hit the ranks of seniors by 2030.

The news isn’t all bleak. My home state of Massachusetts is rated the healthiest for seniors in the latest report (overtaking Vermont). Seniors here have become more physically active; many have stopped smoking. On the negative side the rate of flu vaccination dropped in Massachusetts. (Maybe it has something to do with the vaccine’s recent lack of effectiveness — I got the flu vaccine and the flu this past season.)

As usual, this year’s report is chock full of statistics and insights, with a variety of national indicators and state-by-state comparisons. And no surprise, the Southern states remain the unhealthiest –with Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arkansas and West Virginia bringing up the rear.

It’s not too late for middle-aged Americans to improve their health and well-being. Reports like this may spur individuals, governments and private sector players into action. For the sake of seniors-to-be and the country as a whole, I sure hope it happens.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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

 

 

The false link between mental illness and gun violence

It would be nice if we could eliminate mass shootings by improving the mental health system, coaxing (or forcing) potential shooters into treatment before they have a chance to wreak havoc.  As the Washington Post (Most mass shooters aren’t mentally ill. So why push better treatment as the answer?) reports:

“It would be ridiculous to hope that doing something about the mental-health system will stop these mass murders,” said Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons and author of “The Anatomy of Evil,” which examines the personalities of brutal killers. “It’s really folly.”

This seems pretty obvious, and yet Republican and Democratic leaders, along with the general public and the media seem to think mental illness is the root cause of shooting sprees and that improving the mental health system can fix the problem.

After mass shootings, reporters often jump quickly to mental illness as the cause. Remember after the Sandy Hook shooting when there was speculation that the shooter’s Asperger’s diagnosis was to blame?

Asperger’s? Are you kidding me?

The danger of our fixation on mental illness as the root cause of violence is that we end up stigmatizing people with mental illness –and developmental disorders– while ignoring more direct causes of gun violence, such as ready access to guns.

Mass shootings are rare outside the US. Is there someone who can tell me with a straight face that the difference is due to better mental health systems abroad?

Meanwhile, Australia has seen a major decrease in gun violence over the past 20 years since adopting strong gun control after a mass murder. That seems like a more evidence and logic based response than what we’ve tried here.

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