Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. The Healthcare Metric-Industrial Complex

 

Brady Harold never knew what a miracle he was.

After his car accident, he was rushed to his nearest trauma center. Unconscious, the trauma team inserted a breathing tube and resuscitated him. A CT scan of the brain revealed an epidural hematoma, life-threatening bleeding on the brain. Dr. Oliver, the local neurosurgeon, was called in and deftly removed the blood clot, preventing a catastrophic brain injury.

Brady underwent his recovery. Dr. Oliver rounded on him daily, carefully documenting his progress in his clinical notes.

“Dr. Oliver, we have to talk about your notes,” the administration would say to him. He would be called into a meeting where they highlighted how his documentation is sub-par. There were six members of the coding team, all present at the meeting. Two were MDs and four were RNs.

What was his offense? Not making Brady Harold look sicker in his notes.

“When you state his CT scan showed ‘swelling,’ we can’t risk-adjust for that. You need to use these terms approved by the coders,” the coding team would lecture him. “We need you to make the patient look as sick as possible.”

They would pester and hound Dr. Oliver, pointing out how his documentation didn’t make Brady look sick enough. They would send him angry emails, page him during surgery and call his cell phone after hours. Dr. Oliver would eventually relent and try his best to alter the documentation. It took him away from other patient care duties, but that was beside the point. After the administrators were done, they could paint the picture of Brady Harold, chronically ill patient who already had an unusually high risk of death. He never knew what a miracle he was.

So how did we get to this place? I, for one, blame baseball. Don’t get me wrong, I love the sport. It conjures up associations with warm summer days, hot dogs, and statistics. In fact, it’s the perfect statistical game. It’s zero-sum; for every offensive accomplishment, there is a corresponding defensive blight. Many kids’ understandings of statistics, probabilities, and averages comes from baseball. As the science of statistics has advanced, analysts have fine-tuned metrics that closely approximate the “true skill” of players. Batting average gave way to OPS which gave way to exit velocity and launch angle: better and better numbers to reflect the players’ skills.

If we care so much about a silly game to devote years of brainpower to its statistical analysis, surely, we could do the same with medicine. Physicians and hospitals should have their statistics published. A patient should know which doctor has the best “batting average,” right? This is where the analogy breaks down. Patient care is not a zero-sum game. There is no official scorer in medicine. There is not even consensus on the ideal outcomes.

Despite this, the government thought that incentivizing outcomes would improve patient care. The reasoning is easy to see. Instead of incentivizing more care, the government thought it would make more sense to incentivize better care. This is only necessary because there isn’t a functional free market in medicine. As Hayek eloquently stated, “Once the free working of the market is impeded beyond a certain degree, the [government] planner will be forced to extend his controls until they become all-comprehensive.”

Of course, that meant statistics must be derived. If the patient can’t determine value themselves, as is the case with a functioning market, the government must determine value. Therein lies the problem. It’s not as simple as baseball, where an objective scorekeeper can decide what is a hit or what is an error. Medicine is an infinitely complex system without defined “good” or “bad” outcomes. Instead of hits, outs, errors, and runs, what are the scorekeepers of medicine to measure?

“…as if only that which can be counted really counts.” – Jerry Z. Muller stated in The Tyranny of Metrics. Tracking statistics for physicians is not as simple as it seems. What statistics should be tracked? Comparing the survival rate between a trauma surgeon, oncologist, and pediatrician doesn’t seem appropriate. In fact, looking at the mortality rate of a pediatrician would yield very little information about the quality of said pediatrician. It’s very difficult to find reliable, objective measures of physician quality. Creating artificial metrics can have disastrous outcomes in any industry. Every centrally planned economy in history has faced this problem.

Of course, what really matters is the patient. The metrics should align with what the patients value. However, patient satisfaction scores, as measured by a number of quantifiable surveys, is highly subjective. In fact, it’s influenced by wait times, hospital décor, and cafeteria quality more than the ability of the physician. One study even showed that the patients with the highest satisfaction had the worst outcomes (along with costing the most). In some cases, notably drug-seeking patients or those wanting to self-harm, satisfying the patient’s wishes would be counter-productive to health. How does one judge value at the end of life? Some patients want to live as long as possible, while others just want to die a dignified death at home.

Early metric tracking in medicine seemed to be filled with promise. Just tracking the number of infected central lines (IVs inserted into the big veins near the heart) led to an improvement in practices and drops in the number of infections. The same principle was applied to urinary tract infections (UTI) after urinary catheters. Then hospitals realized they could game the system. A hospital-acquired UTI would count against the statistics, but not if the patient had one on arrival. All patients were suddenly tested for UTI when they enter the hospital, leading to a massive increase in testing costs in order to document UTI on arrival. Then, when a physician wanted to test for a UTI during the hospitalization, that test would be blocked by administration. You can’t find a UTI if you don’t look.

Gaming metrics reached its peak with the observed to expected complication ratio. Some hospitals have sicker patients at baseline than other hospitals. It wouldn’t be fair to penalize those hospitals with sicker patients. Thus, the metrics all must be risk-adjusted. Based on a risk-adjustment formula, hospitals would have an expected complication rate that would be compared to their observed complication rate. There’s a much bigger return on investment in making the expected complication rate as bad as possible rather than actually improving care. Just by having the coders round with the physicians, revenue on a single service was increased by 40%. This was without improving care in any way.

A whole industry has grown around this metric fixation. The US government has spent over $1.3 billion on developing quality metrics from 2008-2018. This money has gone to several private firms to devise these metrics and risk adjustment formulas. Five organizations alone were awarded nearly $900 million. On top of that, given the complexity of these metrics, consulting firms have sprung up. These firms will assist hospitals in coding and tracking metrics, improving the expected to observed ratio. This also partly explains the continued rise in administrative costs within US healthcare. More metrics require more administrators. People who say our system of multiple private insurers is what’s driving administrative growth have never dealt with Medicare.

On top of the expense in creating metrics and hospital tracking of metrics, it is handcuffing independent physician practices. Annually, the cost to physician practices in metric tracking exceeds $15 billion. Physicians spend over 12 hours every week simply entering metric data into the electronic medical record.

These expenses are necessary from the hospital standpoint, as they can make or break the bottom line. In 2019, CMS adjusted $1.9 billion in Medicare part A payments. This program is revenue-neutral, so that $1.9 billion was simply shifted from the “worst” hospitals to the “best.” Losing out on these payments could mean closing hospitals. In some communities, it leaves populations with only one choice for healthcare (or employment if you’re an HC worker). Even worse, it leaves some communities without any healthcare.

Are these value-based payments worth it? If healthcare quality improves, one could argue it is worth the cost. The data is robust: it does not help. The hospitals treating the most vulnerable patients are hurt the most. It worsens disparities. This makes sense, as Medicaid patients tend to be sicker, cost more to treat, and reimburse less. This leaves these hospitals with less money to spend on consultants to help game the numbers. It can also detract from actual attempts to improve care. As coders get better and better in making patients look as sick as possible, stagnant care will actually appear to be improving. This “improvement” in care is just a byproduct of improvement in risk adjustment coding. It has even been shown that hospitals will engage in behaviors that increase mortality in order to meet statistical benchmarks.

Shared medical decision making is the core of the patient-physician relationship. The patient and physician should arise at a treatment plan after careful discussion. Each patient will have different goals and willingness to accept treatment recommendations. This is the core of healthcare. Fostering this relationship should be the goal of government intervention. The metric-industrial complex does the opposite. It inserts metric fixation into the patient-physician relationship. Physicians are forced to care about their stats, either consciously or by aggressive administrators.

Medicine is not baseball.

Published in Healthcare
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  1. DonG (Biden is compromised) Coolidge

    I suspect the Covid reimbursement rates lead to many extra deaths in NYC as poor people with govt insurance were given aggressive treatments with high returns. They were using ventilators like crazy there. They were poor people with no advocate and govt. voucher. Patients on a ventilator don’t complain, right?

    • #1
    • October 20, 2020, at 8:23 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  2. Raxxalan Member
    RaxxalanJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Diagnostics on any complex system is more an art than a science as well. It is frightfully hard on large computer systems, which are nowhere near as complex as a human body. Art doesn’t yield itself well to prediction. Additionally there are the meaningless metrics. Like 80% of costs are in the last year of life, etc. etc. The reason is obvious. That is when the attempts to save the patient fail and more attempts are tried which also fail and so forth. Much like looking for car keys. They are always in the last place you look because once you find them you stop looking. Likewise if the first treatment works the next is unnecessary, so it is of course the case that most of the costs are going to be when the treatments quit working.

     

     

    • #2
    • October 20, 2020, at 9:37 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  3. JosePluma Thatcher

    And nurses were left out, again.

    Nursing quality and quantity has a big effect on outcomes.

    They’re getting to us, too. One of my favorite sayings is “My main job is playing a very complex and boring computer game (i.e. computer charting) and I occasionally get to do some nursing.”

    • #3
    • October 20, 2020, at 10:32 PM PDT
    • 10 likes
  4. Dr. Craniotomy Coolidge
    Dr. Craniotomy

    JosePluma (View Comment):

    And nurses were left out, again.

    Nursing quality and quantity has a big effect on outcomes.

    They’re getting to us, too. One of my favorite sayings is “My main job is playing a very complex and boring computer game (i.e. computer charting) and I occasionally get to do some nursing.”

    Nurses absolutely got screwed over by all of this. I simply don’t have the first hand experience to write on that. My heart goes out to you all as well!

    • #4
    • October 20, 2020, at 11:18 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  5. Kozak Member
    KozakJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Dr. Craniotomy: Creating artificial metrics can have disastrous outcomes in any industry. Every centrally planned economy in history has faced this problem. 

    In the Soviet Union every industry had production metrics that had to be met.

    For glass the metric was in square feet of glass produced. This created the perverse incentive to make the glass as thin as possible to increase the square footage from a volume of glass produced.

    As a result much of the glass produced broke before it could be used. But the factory didn’t care because the metric was fulfilled.

     

    • #5
    • October 21, 2020, at 3:45 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  6. Kozak Member
    KozakJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    DonG (skeptic) (View Comment):

    I suspect the Covid reimbursement rates lead to many extra deaths in NYC as poor people with govt insurance were given aggressive treatments with high returns. They were using ventilators like crazy there. They were poor people with no advocate and govt. voucher. Patients on a ventilator don’t complain, right?

    At the time, physicians did not know how to treat covid infections. When patients progress to respiratory failure you don’t have any option but to put them on a ventilator or watch them die. Thats why they used so many ventilators.

    • #6
    • October 21, 2020, at 3:47 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  7. Blondie Thatcher

    Dr. Craniotomy (View Comment):

    JosePluma (View Comment):

    And nurses were left out, again.

    Nursing quality and quantity has a big effect on outcomes.

    They’re getting to us, too. One of my favorite sayings is “My main job is playing a very complex and boring computer game (i.e. computer charting) and I occasionally get to do some nursing.”

    Nurses absolutely got screwed over by all of this. I simply don’t have the first hand experience to write on that. My heart goes out to you all as well!

    And it is one reason why I’m cutting out early. Nice post, @craniotomy. Every staff meeting we are told about some new CMS measure that if we don’t meet we won’t get paid for that patient’s visit. If we let a patient go to surgery that wasn’t admitted with the proper “bed status” we won’t get paid. Last I looked I didn’t work registration or in the business office. I take your history, start your IV, and give you drugs (and whatever silly mess CMS and JC have come up with this week to “improve” your outcome). I could go on, but I look forward to others input on this topic.

    • #7
    • October 21, 2020, at 3:55 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  8. EODmom Coolidge

    Blondie (View Comment):

    Dr. Craniotomy (View Comment):

    JosePluma (View Comment):

    And nurses were left out, again.

    Nursing quality and quantity has a big effect on outcomes.

    They’re getting to us, too. One of my favorite sayings is “My main job is playing a very complex and boring computer game (i.e. computer charting) and I occasionally get to do some nursing.”

    Nurses absolutely got screwed over by all of this. I simply don’t have the first hand experience to write on that. My heart goes out to you all as well!

    And it is one reason why I’m cutting out early. Nice post, @craniotomy. Every staff meeting we are told about some new CMS measure that if we don’t meet we won’t get paid for that patient’s visit. If we let a patient go to surgery that wasn’t admitted with the proper “bed status” we won’t get paid. Last I looked I didn’t work registration or in the business office. I take your history, start your IV, and give you drugs (and whatever silly mess CMS and JC has come up with this week to “improve” your outcome). I could go on, but I look forward to others input on this topic.

    I’ve felt for awhile, but now even more strongly – don’t get sick. 

    • #8
    • October 21, 2020, at 4:59 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  9. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White MaleJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    This is the problem with rule by “experts”.

     

    • #9
    • October 21, 2020, at 5:50 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  10. John H. Member
    John H.Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Would it be in bad taste (or something worse) to broach this subject at a medical school interview? Would the admissions committee think this applicant is a troublemaker? Are aspiring physicians expected to be nobly incurious about their future work conditions?

    • #10
    • October 21, 2020, at 5:50 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  11. Charlotte Member
    CharlotteJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    What an informative and depressing post.

    • #11
    • October 21, 2020, at 10:25 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  12. CarolJoy, Thread Hijacker Coolidge

    Excellent essay and observations.

    I knew there is a lot of emphasis on how well doctors score on items like patients surviving. And that often, the more desperate the patient’s situation, the more there is a need to have an experienced doctor. But if the experienced doctor has participated in too many dire situations, his score might not look that good. I hope they figure that aspect out.

    I had no idea of the huge amounts of money going into “metric analysis of med statistics.”

    Also, if “peaceful protesters” were blocking a highway that some neurosurgeon needed to use to get to the hospital where another Brady was desperately awaiting his care, perhaps that good doctor would arrive too late. In areas like San Francisco, where many communities are basically peninsulas with only one highway to serve vast distances, this is a real possibility. But you know, “Black Lives Matter.”

    • #12
    • October 21, 2020, at 2:35 PM PDT
    • 1 like
    • This comment has been edited.
  13. CarolJoy, Thread Hijacker Coolidge

    DonG (skeptic) (View Comment):

    I suspect the Covid reimbursement rates lead to many extra deaths in NYC as poor people with govt insurance were given aggressive treatments with high returns. They were using ventilators like crazy there. They were poor people with no advocate and govt. voucher. Patients on a ventilator don’t complain, right?

    Swedish officials pointed out that due to their more lenient lockdown measures, older experienced nurses with families still came into work, as day care centers were open.

    In places like New York City where lockdown measures were so stringent, nurses with families used their vacation time, so in many cases, the least experienced nurses were on hand at a time of absolute crisis.

     

    • #13
    • October 21, 2020, at 2:39 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  14. JoelB Member

    CarolJoy, Thread Hijacker (View Comment):

    DonG (skeptic) (View Comment):

    I suspect the Covid reimbursement rates lead to many extra deaths in NYC as poor people with govt insurance were given aggressive treatments with high returns. They were using ventilators like crazy there. They were poor people with no advocate and govt. voucher. Patients on a ventilator don’t complain, right?

    Swedish officials pointed out that due to their more lenient lockdown measures, older experienced nurses with families still came into work, as day care centers were open.

    In places like New York City where lockdown measures were so stringent, nurses with families used their vacation time, so in many cases, the least experienced nurses were on hand at a time of absolute crisis.

    I am forever in the debt of three “older experienced nurses” who conferred together in my hearing and got me into the ICU when I had a “remarkable” pneumonia infection.

     

    • #14
    • October 21, 2020, at 3:28 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  15. JosePluma Thatcher

    Blondie (View Comment):

    Dr. Craniotomy (View Comment):

    JosePluma (View Comment):

    And nurses were left out, again.

    Nursing quality and quantity has a big effect on outcomes.

    They’re getting to us, too. One of my favorite sayings is “My main job is playing a very complex and boring computer game (i.e. computer charting) and I occasionally get to do some nursing.”

    Nurses absolutely got screwed over by all of this. I simply don’t have the first hand experience to write on that. My heart goes out to you all as well!

    And it is one reason why I’m cutting out early. Nice post, @craniotomy. Every staff meeting we are told about some new CMS measure that if we don’t meet we won’t get paid for that patient’s visit. If we let a patient go to surgery that wasn’t admitted with the proper “bed status” we won’t get paid. Last I looked I didn’t work registration or in the business office. I take your history, start your IV, and give you drugs (and whatever silly mess CMS and JC have come up with this week to “improve” your outcome). I could go on, but I look forward to others input on this topic.

    I get paid by the hour, so none of that BS matters to me. We constantly are lectured about “metrics,” and have charts all around the briefing room showing our month to month patient satisfaction status. I don’t care. If the departments order to admission time is more than 60 minutes, do I get paid any less? No. If our patient satisfaction score is 100%, do I get paid any more? No. Do I have any real control over either of those? No. Still, the management spends their time yakking about these meaningless statistics and making useless graphs.

    • #15
    • October 22, 2020, at 1:35 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  16. I Walton Member

    Good example of what happens when markets are eliminated, or so distorted they mean little whether by public or private organizations. Good practices still occur and may be picked up by others, but not necessarily, and good practices may vanish for any number of reasons including interests of managers or MD’s, or more often group interests. It becomes random and might improve briefly only if some noble soul actually studies what works and tries to foster it. We can look at any practice and find the same reasons for failure under collectivism.

    • #16
    • October 22, 2020, at 6:08 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  17. MarciN Member

    My favorite scene in Yes, Minister:

    • #17
    • October 22, 2020, at 7:40 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
    • This comment has been edited.
  18. MISTER BITCOIN Member

    The problem is people don’t pay for their medical care. Almost 90% is paid by a third party, i.e. insurance or Medicare or Medicaid

    There are too many middle men between the doctor and his patient.

     

    • #18
    • October 22, 2020, at 6:04 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  19. MISTER BITCOIN Member

    One of my favorite comments from another Ricochet member:

    In 1969 his first daughter was born. 300 bucks, no insurance.

    In 1980 another daughter was born. 6000 bucks with insurance.

    300 and 6000 are not typos, 3 digits vs 4 digits

     

    • #19
    • October 22, 2020, at 6:06 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  20. Dr. Craniotomy Coolidge
    Dr. Craniotomy

    MISTER BITCOIN (View Comment):

    One of my favorite comments from another Ricochet member:

    In 1969 his first daughter was born. 300 bucks, no insurance.

    In 1980 another daughter was born. 6000 bucks with insurance.

    300 and 6000 are not typos, 3 digits vs 4 digits

     

    The doctor got reimbursed less, the hospital got more. The increase all went to administrators. And those administrators are directly a result of Medicare policies, NOT private insurance. 

    • #20
    • October 22, 2020, at 7:37 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  21. MISTER BITCOIN Member

    Dr. Craniotomy (View Comment):

    MISTER BITCOIN (View Comment):

    One of my favorite comments from another Ricochet member:

    In 1969 his first daughter was born. 300 bucks, no insurance.

    In 1980 another daughter was born. 6000 bucks with insurance.

    300 and 6000 are not typos, 3 digits vs 4 digits

     

    The doctor got reimbursed less, the hospital got more. The increase all went to administrators. And those administrators are directly a result of Medicare policies, NOT private insurance.

    Medicare and Medicaid?

     

    • #21
    • October 22, 2020, at 8:02 PM PDT
    • Like
  22. Dr. Craniotomy Coolidge
    Dr. Craniotomy

    MISTER BITCOIN (View Comment):

    Dr. Craniotomy (View Comment):

    MISTER BITCOIN (View Comment):

    One of my favorite comments from another Ricochet member:

    In 1969 his first daughter was born. 300 bucks, no insurance.

    In 1980 another daughter was born. 6000 bucks with insurance.

    300 and 6000 are not typos, 3 digits vs 4 digits

     

    The doctor got reimbursed less, the hospital got more. The increase all went to administrators. And those administrators are directly a result of Medicare policies, NOT private insurance.

    Medicare and Medicaid?

     

    CMS makes the rules for both, but the Medicare rules have the most wide reaching effects. The way they make our lives miserable even if we work for a private hospital is to make Medicare funds contingent on following rules XYZ. Medicaid differs greatly from state to state. Some states make it miserable while some are more tolerable. 

    • #22
    • October 22, 2020, at 9:41 PM PDT
    • 1 like