Observations on Managing Health Care Costs (Part 1 of 2)

Happy New Year.

I’ve just finished my first full year of blogging about managing health care costs, and just completed my sixth year of teaching a course “Managing Health Care Costs” at the Harvard School of Public Health.  I wanted to share some observations from our final class of 2009.  Class slides are at this URL.  

This posting will be in two parts – I’ll post the second part tomorrow.

Observation One: Sick people are expensive to care for.
 The top 1% of nonelderly patients represent 30% of all medical costs.  We need programs to better manage those with serious illness, and a regulatory framework to discourage risk shifting and patient dumping.
Observation Two: The problem in the US is much more unit cost than utilization
In the US, we have fewer doctor’s visits, fewer prescriptions, fewer (and shorter) hospitalizations compared to all other developed countries.  But our average hospitalization costs over $12,000, compared to under $10,000 (France, Canada) and under $4000 (UK and Netherlands).
In Japan, MRIs cost under $100, compared to $1500 in the US
Observation Three: Our lifestyles cause large medical costs
The good news is that we smoke less than we did. The bad news is that we’re getting more and more overweight. 
Observation Four: We don’t like to make tradeoffs
Everyone agrees we should perform more care that increases quality while lowering cost.  This means we should give more vaccinations –but there aren’t many money-saving medical interventions. We also agree that we should do fewer things that raise cost while lowering quality.  So let’s not give middle aged men Vioxx, which works as well as ibuprofen but increases the risk of heart attack.  The challenge is that we are not willing to give up tiny quality increases at enormous costs. See, for instance, a new cancer drug that for $36,000 a month decreases tumor size in under 1/3 of patients.   We’re also reluctant to design systems that  are 'decrementally cost effective.'   
Observation Five: There is huge variation
Atul Gawande’s “The Cost Conundrum” in the June 1 New Yorker   brought well-deserved attention to the work of Jack Wennberg, Elliot Fisher, and others at Dartmouth who have been showing us the vast variations in utilization of health care.  In expensive areas, we have too many hospital beds and too many doctors – and we use them.  Good example of how decreasing hospital beds does not decrease quality in David Leonhardt’s column in the New York Times this past week. 
Observation Six: Fee for service is toxic
Imagine if we paid auto manufacturers by the bolt rather than for a completed car. We would have cars chock full of bolts –each one an extra cost, extra weight, and an extra ‘point of failure.’  That’s what we’ve got in a fee for service health care system 
Observation Seven: There is a cultural clash between those seeking to preserve the “art” of medicine, and those looking to create more reliability and cost effectiveness through industrial redesign
Jerome Groopman worries that electronic medical records and standardization will take the personal relationship out of medicine.  I worry that lack of accountability and standardization is responsible for many medical errors –and we just can’t rely on the extraordinary effort of individual physicians to insure quality and cost-effectiveness.
Observation Eight: We pay a heavy economic and noneconomic price in our effort to banish uncertainty
It’s our intuition that every additional piece of data increases our knowledge.  This is simply not true. We often gather data in our quest to banish uncertainty, and that data doesn’t much change the chance of real, serious, treatable disease, but does increase cost and increase the risk that we’ll do further, more dangerous tests or interventions. I’ll be blogging more on the vain quest for certainty in the coming days. 

I'll post Part II of these thoughts tomorrow.
[Addendum: thanks to Wellescent Health Blog for note, and I have finished the sentence in observation four]

Part Two of this post is here.