America has a disease industry, not a health care system

The decade ahead is one likely to be full of turbulence. How everything will shake out is anybody’s guess.

But we can be sure that technology advancements will slow for no one. The rate of medical technology advancement now is very fast and the speed will only accelerate. One big problem is that technology advances so fast that there is no time for a purchase – say new CT scanner or diagnostic device in a clinical laboratory – to create any return on the investment before a new or upgraded technology becomes available.

The electronic health record is a case in point. Despite years of work and billions spent, we are essentially still in an early generation of the EHR. It will be years and many more billions before the EHR begins to bring the true value of improved care with increased quality, better safety and reduced costs while improving provider productivity.

America does not have a healthcare system; we have a “disease industry.” We focus on disease and pestilence and do a good job of caring for those with acute illnesses and trauma. But we certainly do not address health well and we are not good at caring for chronic illnesses – which are rapidly overtaking acute illnesses as most common and already they consume the bulk of our healthcare dollars.

At some point we must break from our current disease care model and shift to a health promotion and disease prevention model. Until that occurs, the cost of medical care will continue its rapid rise. As a disease industry, the incentives are all based on doing more and more but there is little or no incentive to work on prevention.

Although it is tempting to blame the current problem on the insurers, the device manufacturers, the drug companies or the providers, the truth rests more in the way we have set up our payment systems for care. Insurers pay for doing “something.” This leads to more and more diagnostic and treatment efforts and it encourages the manufacturers to constantly find new approaches. Not bad in and of it self but the incentive is not there to prevent illness and not there to coordinate the care of those with chronic illness. And without this shift in incentives, the cost of care will just keep rising.

Two good steps for the future would be:

Change the Medicare payment code to encourage prevention, coordination, and primary care. With Medicare taking the lead, commercial insurance would likely follow.

Let everyone have a high deductible policy so that each of us will have a real interest in asking about our care and being sure that each and every recommendation for a test, a procedure or a prescription is really the best and really necessary.

Stephen C. Schimpff is a retired CEO of the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore and is the author of The Future of Medicine — Megatrends in Healthcare. He blogs at Medical Megatrends and the Future of Medicine.

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