When will technology actually transform health care?

After decades of bravely keeping them at bay, health care is beginning to be overwhelmed by “fast, cheap, and out of control” new technologies, from BYOD (“bring your own device”) tablets in the operating room, to apps and dongles that turn your smart phone into a Star Trek tricorder, to 3-D printed skulls. (No, not a souvenir of the Grateful Dead, a Harley decoration or a pastry for the Mexican Dia de Los Muertos, but an actual skullcap to repair someone’s head. Take measurements from a scan, set to work in a CAD/CAM program, press a button and boom! There you have it: new ear-to-ear skull top, ready for implant.)

Each new category, we are told, will revolutionize health care, making it orders of magnitude better and far less expensive. Yet the experience of the last three decades is that each new technology only adds complexity and expense.

So what will it be? Will some of these new technologies actually transform health care? Which ones? How can we know?

There is an answer, but it does not lie in the technologies. It lies in the economics. It lies in the reason we have so much waste in health care. We have so much waste because we get paid for it.

Yes, it’s that simple. In an insurance-supported fee-for-service system, we don’t get paid to solve problems. We get paid to do stuff that might solve a problem. The more stuff we do, and the more complex the stuff we do, the more impressive the machines we use, the more we get paid.

A tale of a wasteful technology

A few presidencies back, I was at a medical conference at a resort on a hilltop near San Diego. I was invited into a trailer to see a demo of a marvelous new technology: computer-aided mammography. I had never even taken a close look at a mammogram, so I was immediately impressed with how difficult it is to pick possible tumors out of the cloudy images. The computer could show you the possibilities, easy as pie, drawing little circles around each suspicious nodule.

But, I asked, will people trust a computer to do such an important job?

Oh, the computer is just helping, I was told. All the scans will be seen by a human radiologist. The computer just makes sure the radiologist does not miss any possibilities.

I thought, if you have a radiologist looking at every scan anyway, why bother with the computer program? Are skilled radiologists in the habit of missing a lot of possible tumors? From the sound of it, I thought what we would get is a lot of false positives, unnecessary callbacks and biopsies, and a lot of unnecessarily worried women. After all, if the computer says something might be a tumor, now the radiologist is put in the position of proving that it isn’t.

I didn’t see any reason that this technology would catch on. I didn’t see it because the reason was not in the technology, it was in the economics.

Years later, as we are trending toward standardizing on this technology across the industry, the results of various studies have shown exactly what I suspected they would: lots of false positives, callbacks and biopsies, and not one tumor that would not have been found without the computer. Not one. At an added cost trending toward half a billion dollars per year.

It caught on because it sounds good, sounds real high-tech, gives you bragging rights and because you can charge for the extra expense and complexity. There are codes for it. The unnecessary callbacks and biopsies are unfortunate, but they are also a revenue stream — which the customer is not paying for anyway. It’s nothing personal, it’s just business. Of course, by the time the results are in saying that they do no good at all, you’ve got all this sunk cost you have to amortize over the increased payments you can get. No way you’re going to put all that fancy equipment in the dumpster just because it fails to do what you bought it for.

Is this normal? Or an aberration? Neither. It certainly does not stand for all technological advances in health care. Many advances are not only highly effective, they are highly cost effective. Laparoscopic surgery is a great example — smaller wounds, quicker surgeries, lower infection rates, what’s not to like? But a shockingly large number of technological advances follow this pattern: Unproven expensive technologies that seem like they might be helpful, or are helpful for special rare cases, adopted broadly across health care in a big-money trance dance with Death Star tech.

Cui bono?

But that is in health-care-as-it-has-been, not in health-care-as-it-will be. How we think about the impact of new technologies is bound up with the changing economics of health care.

Under a fee-for-service system the questions about a new technology are as follows: “Is it plausible that it might be helpful?”, “What are the startup costs in capital and in learning curve?” And, “Can we bill for it? Can we recoup the costs in added revenue?”

In any payment regime that varies at all from strict fee for service (bundled payments, any kind of risk situation), whether we can bill for it becomes irrelevant. The focus will be much more on efficiency and effectiveness: Does it really work? Does it solve a problem? Whose problem?

Many times, extra complexity and waste are added to the system for the convenience and profit of practitioners, not for the good of patients. For example, why do gastroenterologists like to have anaesthesiologists assisting at colonoscopies, when the drugs used (Versed and fentanyl) do not provoke general anaesthesia and can be administered by any doctor? The reason is simple: It turns a 30-minute procedure into a 20-minute procedure. The gastroenterologist can do three per hour instead of two per hour. In the volume-based health care economy, they make more money. The use of the anaesthesiologist adds an average of $400 per procedure to the cost without adding any benefit, lowering the value to the patient. Altogether this one practice adds an estimated $1.1 billion of waste to the health care economy every year.

So in thinking about whether these new technologies will propagate across health care, we can ask how exactly they will fit into the ecology of health care, who will benefit from their use, and how that benefit will tie in to the micro economy of health care in that system, with those practitioners and those patients.

Change is systemic

A cardiologist in an examining room whips out his iPhone and snaps it into what looks like a special cover. He hands it to the patient, shows the patient where to place his fingers on the back of the cover, and in seconds the patient’s EKG appears on the screen. Dr. Eric Topol, speaking at last summer’s Health Forum Summit, performs a sonogram on himself on stage using a cheap handheld device. These things are easy to imagine in isolation, as something a single doctor or nurse might do with an individual patient.

In reality, in most of health care, the things we need to do to incorporate such technologies are systemic. To be secure, reliable, HIPAA-compliant and connected to the EMR, they can’t be used randomly by the clinicians who happen to like them. They must be tied into and supported by the IT infrastructure.

Similarly, in moving from “volume” to “value” we are talking about changes that don’t happen at the level of a single doctor or single patient. In most cases we cannot treat the patients for whom we are at risk differently from those we are treating on a fee-for-service basis. When you are paid differently, you are producing a new product. When you are producing a new product, you are a beginner. The shift from “volume” to “value” demands and dictates broad systemic changes in revenue streams, which dictate changes in business models, compensation regimes and governance structures. Getting good at these new businesses means changing practice patterns, collaboration models and cultures.

Hospitals, integrated health systems and medical groups face a stark choice: They can either abandon the growing part of the market that demands a “value” business arrangement and stick to the shrinking island represented by old-fashioned “volume” arrangements. Or they can transform their entire business.

The use and propagation of these new low-cost technologies are entirely wrapped up in that decision. In old-fashioned fee-for-service systems, they will be used only where their use can be billed for, or where they lower the internal costs of something that can be billed for. They will not be used to replace existing services that can be billed at higher rates.

“That’s a lot of money”

Dr. Topol in his talks likes to make the point that there are over 20 million echocardiograms done in the United States every year at an average billing of $800. As he puts it, “Twenty million times $800 — that’s a lot of money. And probably 70 to 80 percent of them will not need to be done, because they can be done as a regular part of the patient encounter.”

Precisely: That is a lot of money. In fact, it’s a big revenue stream. It’s difficult to imagine that fee-for-service systems for which various types of imaging, scanning and tests represent large revenue streams are going to be early adopters of such technologies that diminish the revenue streams to revenue trickles. When you are paid for waste, being inefficient is a business strategy.

In the “value” ecology of the next health care, the questions are much more straightforward: Does it work? Does the technology make diagnosis and treatment faster, more effective, more efficient? Does it make it vastly cheaper?

Imagine replacement bones (and matrices for regrowing bones) 3-D printed to order. Imagine replacement knee joints, now sold at an average price of €7000 in Europe and $21,000 in the United States, 3-D printed to order. (Imagine how ferociously the legacy makers of implants will resist this change, and how disruptive it will be to that part of the industry.)

Imagine the relationship between the doctor, the nurse and the patient with multiple chronic conditions, now a matter of a visit every now and then, turned into a constant conversation through mobile monitoring.

Imagine a patient at risk for heart attack receiving a special message accompanied by a special ring tone on his cell phone — a message initiated by nano sensors in his bloodstream — warning him of an impending heart attack, giving him time to get to medical care.

Imagine all of this embedded in a system that is redesigned around multiple, distributed, inexpensive sensors, apps and communication devices all supporting strong, trusted relationships between clinicians and patients.

Imagine all this technological change supported with vigor and ferocity because the medical organizations are no longer paid for the volume they manage to push through the doors, but for the extraordinary value they bring to the populations they serve.

That’s the connect-the-dots picture of a radically changed, mobile, tech-enabled, seamless health care that is not only seriously better but far cheaper than what we have today.

Joe Flower is a healthcare speaker, writer, and consultant who blogs at Healthcare Futurist: Joe Flower

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