« Complimentary White Papers | Main | Annual Census Report on Health Insurance Coverage: What Will this Report Look Like After 2014? »

“Health Care Productivity” is an Oxymoron

By Kim Bellard, September 26, 2013

It has long baffled me when politicians and others trumpet job growth in the health care sector, while at the same time bemoaning rising health costs, as if there was no connection. Some Rust Belt cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland have bet a large portion of their economic future on their growing health care industries, and some economists attribute much of the nation’s recent economic revival on the growth in the health care sector. But job growth in itself is not always a good sign. An insightful piece by Robert Kocher suggests that the situation is even worse than I already suspected.

Kocher concluded that productivity is actually dropping in health care, with hiring outstripping output. He figures that the health care workforce has increased 75% since 1990, with almost all of the growth coming from non-doctor workers. There are 16 non-doctor workers for every doctor, and only 6 of those have a clinical role. As Kocher says, “[T]he problem with all of the non-doctor labor is that most of it is not primarily associated with delivering better patient outcomes or lowering costs.” So what the heck are they doing?

Health care professionals would be quick to note that there are ever-more administrative demands, driven by the multiplicity of payors, health care plan designs, and the number of hoops through which they are expected to jump in order to justify payment. Fair enough; it is hard to think of many other industries in which there is so little standardization. Payors want more standardization from providers in how the deliver care, providers want more uniformity from payors in coverage and requirements, and patients are stuck in the middle with neither side listening to them very well.

The latter, at least, may be starting to change. Hospitals are now facing big Medicare penalties for poor scores on HCAHPS, and physicians have to be looking forward to that future. There are some signs that hospitals are paying more attention, such as reported for California hospitals. One of the initiatives mentioned was simply to ensure patient rooms are cleaner. It’s sad that in 2013 it takes the threat of penalties to make this a focus.

Providers may be going overboard on trying to improve patient satisfaction by focusing on amenities. The New York Times’ recent article “Is this a Hospital or a Hotel?” discussed this issue, and included a series of photos that dare the reader to determine which is which. I know I had a hard time distinguishing them. Is this really where our health care spending should be going, and is this improving productivity – or patient care?

Perhaps this kind of focus on amenities partially explains both our high costs and the productivity issues. Ironically, it’s not at all clear that patient satisfaction is directly tied to quality. A recent study found statistically significant correlations between the two, but with only a weak association. Another study from Johns Hopkins similarly found that patient satisfaction does not necessarily reflect the quality of surgical care patients receive.

Moral of the story: patient satisfaction is important, but we shouldn’t let it be a substitute for better empirical measures of quality and outcomes.

A crucial component of improved standardization – and, with it, increased productivity -- is with the data. HITECH is most commonly known for being the stimulus for EHR adoption, but it also spurred the development of health information exchanges (HIEs), which are critical for the sharing of all that desired electronic information. Progress certainly has been made, with HIEs now funded in every state, but a recent report by HIMSS Analytics reminds us that the war is not yet won. Although 73% of surveyed hospital IT executives indicated they participated in an HIE, only 20% indicated that it had improved patient safety, and only 12% believed it saved time for clinicians. The biggest challenge, voiced by 49%, was that other organizations were not sharing data robustly; 64% admit to still relying on faxing to get around this problem.

It is typical health care: spend lots of money – billions in this case – but do not use it to drive ruthlessly towards improving care or cutting costs. To make things worse, providers aren’t able to eliminate the old, paper-based processes, which means work flows can’t become more uniform, and all those new costs become additive.

I have a hard time believing Walmart, Apple, or GE have this much trouble transmitting and using data across their supply chains.

Indeed, David Cutler – former health aide to President Obama – argues that health care will be much more like Walmart once the effects of the information technology “revolution” is more fully realized. He likens health care to the retail industry of the early 1980’s, full of solo practitioners and lacking useful information technology. As companies like Walmart and Amazon have demonstrated, he sees the future as being made up of larger, more integrated institutions, and able to drastically cut administrative expenses through more effective information technology.

Cutler also believes the patient has to become more central -- connected to the most appropriate health resources and providers via technology and finally becoming a more equal contributor in his or her own care.

The lack of a patient-centered system is one of the key barriers Michael Porter names in a recent blog (and article). As he and co-author Thomas Lee say, “[P]roviders are organized and reimbursed around what they do, rather than what patients need.” This is not exactly news to anyone, but it is nonetheless a profound insight. The seemingly haphazard, provider-centric structure of our health care system goes a long way towards explaining both our high costs and the difficulty in improving productivity.

Porter’s solution is that health care must focus on value; again, hardly a unique proposal, but one that is hard to argue with. Porter outlines the barriers he believes is preventing our system from improving value. In addition to the previously mentioned provider-centric structure, he also cites the following barriers:

  • Free-agent physicians operate independently, rather than as part of an integrated team.
  • Patient volume is fragmented, making every patient a special case.
  • Massive cross-subsidies in reimbursement for individual services have distorted care and stalled care integration.
  • No participant in the system has good information about patient outcomes and the cost of care.
  • Information technology has often made care integration and value improvement harder, rather than enabling it.

Today’s health care “system” simply has too many entities pursing too many distinct goals, and limited ability to measure what is happening. None of these entities is particularly happy with the current situation, and most would agree that there’s too much waste in the system. Porter believes we can get to a value-based system, but it will take some radical changes in delivery systems, payment, and measurement. His article even includes a nifty infographic to illustrate. I hope I live long enough to see that future realized.

Cutler compared health care to 1980’s retail, and I would extend this to say that the productivity gap in health care is akin to what happened when personal computers became more widespread in offices in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Economists kept wondering where the productivity gains were. It wasn’t enough to simply add computers to existing business practices; business had to truly re-engineer their processes to take advantage of the new capabilities in order for productivity to soar, as it started to do in the late 1990s. Health care is not there yet.

Maybe the problem with productivity in health care – or even measuring its productivity – is that we’re too vague about exactly what we want to have happen. Process measures and patient satisfaction measures are all well and good, but what matters is what actually happens with the patient. When we can track that more effectively, maybe we can finally start identifying and attacking productivity more effectively.

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>