Incentive structures in health care have to change. Right now, we pay for services, or have a so-called, fee-for-service system. The idea is that the more patients doctors see, the more expensive tests doctors order and the more patients doctors hospitalize, the more money clinics and hospitals make. This incentive structure has transformed our health care into sick care.
The reality is, in America, we are adept at caring for complicated medical problems that require multiple tests, specialists, long hospitalizations, and frequent clinic visits. We focus a lot of resources and attention on this part of medicine because it is what we are paid to do. And to further our efficiency in providing this model of care, many medical systems have adopted business practices, like Toyota’s Lean Strategy, to run our hospitals and clinics more like factories. We essentially increase the number of cogs, or patients in this case, on our conveyor belt, to increase profit margins.
Now, it is only fair to acknowledge that “Lean” and other strategies to improve health care efficiency also have real hopes of lowering healthcare costs. In fact, there may be evidence of that. And streamlining health services so that every patient gets a standard quality of care, will likely create equity in the system and reduce costly medical errors, preventing patients from receiving disparate care based on race, gender, or cultural affiliation.
But as we extol the benefits of these patterns of practice, we must also be critical of their overall impact. Is the way we are paying for medicine coming at the expense of delving deeper into the heart of our field? As care becomes more standardized and protocolized, with each patient treated with machine-like accuracy and precision, we do improve “quality” and efficiency in the system. But where is the healing? Where is the prevention? Where is the practice of medicine caring for the human condition and working to keep us well?
Being well isn’t simply having your diabetes under control, it is preventing you from getting diabetes in the first place. If we continue to commoditize patients, valuing their ailments over their wellness, we miss the opportunity to provide the very care we claim to offer, health.
So how do we re-organize the way we pay for care to build a health care system instead of perpetuating a sick care system?
First, if we recognize that social needs have profound and costly health impacts, then as we transform our payment structures under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), we have to support innovative models that address social inequity. That means, using health care dollars that are typically spent on clinic visits and hospitalizations to also pay for education, food, housing, and job creation in low-income communities of color. That also means that in the spaces where we provide medical care, we should also be equipped to address patients associated needs. There are models for this.
Second, we have to change the narrative about what it means to provide care. We need to think about the overlap between natural life processes, like birth and death and medicine, and learn the limitations or boundaries of the medicines we wield. When there are no quick fixes or magic pills, how will we care for the human condition? In the spaces where listening is better than treating and healing doesn’t come at the end of a needle, we need to foster the relationships in our communities that provide healing and build resilience.
Third, it is time to transform the physician-patient relationship, a dynamic historically limited to a clinics and hospitals, to team-based care. In team-based models, physicians use their trusted relationship with patients to lead a team of community health advocates to address patients’ health needs in the places where they arise. Sometimes those places are hospitals and clinics but more often they are in homes and neighborhoods. The future of care, if we are smart, will deploy complex networks of healers that extend the reach of the system into people’s lives, supporting their wellness as we address their disease. This will require thinking across sectors, partnering with unconventional liaisons in the social service and for-profit sector, to have a coordinated approach for health.
Right now, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is doing historic work to re-design how we will pay for health care. With the guidance of the ACA, HHS is laying out a plan for a population-based payment structure that incentives providers to be efficient with precious medical resources. Doing less for more means we will have to learn how to keep people well. These new changes have the opportunity to shift the focus of our system, towards health. Looking down the pike, let’s be actively engaged in ensuring quality, efficiency, and equity guide how care and healing are provided.