The health care quality debate has a myopic view

Medicine is a lot like grade school mathematics. The days are long gone when instantly knowing or quickly arriving at the right answer was enough. Now it’s all about showing your calculations. Process is everything. It’s almost like having the right answer doesn’t matter anymore.

If you ask a patient with a given symptom, like tremor, lameness or a skin eruption, only a few questions and then conclude that they have a rare disease you happen to have seen before during your years of training and experience or read about in your diligent study of the leading medical journals, you get paid next to nothing. If, on the other hand, you ask a hundred questions and examine them from head to toe and then decide to refer them on to someone who knows more than you do, you can charge a bigger fee, at least a 99214 instead of a 99213.

We get reimbursed for complexity that is sometimes a result of incompetence. That is one definition of value in health care delivery.

These days, quality in health care is also measured in “outcomes”; how many people comply with our recommendations by eating better, quitting smoking or exercising more. Or at least whether we documented that we told them to.

Of course, you could talk about more things in greater depth in your precious fifteen minutes together if you didn’t also have to document everything you touched on in a Byzantine electronic record better suited for billing than patient care. But, if you didn’t document it, it didn’t happen.

Diagnostic accuracy doesn’t figure prominently in the quality literature, only sometimes when it comes to missing heart attacks and cancer, but in my world, primary care, you can still achieve great quality scores from documenting sometimes meaningless housekeeping tasks like annual microalbumin tests for diabetics, even if you don’t manage to decrease the kidney damage.

Good quality measures are ones that are easy to collect and manipulate statistically. But does a good and tidy measure convey better quality?

We are still stuck in the Deming manufacturing mindset. But people are not machines and diseases are not manufacturing processes.

Do we ask how a teacher managed to inspire a young student to become a great scientist? Do we demand an explanation of how a priest brought a distraught parishioner from the brink of suicidal despair? Do we ask how Da Vinci held his paint brush when he painted Mona Lisa’s smile? Do we value an athlete with “good” technique more than one with good scores?

I think our health care quality debate has a myopic view. We are often ignoring the big picture and the real purpose of caring for the sick. That’s because health care is a business now.

“A Country Doctor” is a family physician who blogs at A Country Doctor Writes:.

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