Can Hospital Chains Improve the Medical Industry? : The New Yorker

A good, if somewhat lengthy, article by Atul Gawande (he of hospital checklist fame), contrasting current hospital models with restaurant chain standardization, and some innovations within the US healthcare system towards greater focus on outcomes through standardized procedures.  Public systems already have some elements of standardization (e.g., fees, allowed medications and the like), but not, to my knowledge, to the extent that some of the leading examples suggest. And as always, culture change is the challenge. Worth reading. Quote:

Reinventing medical care could produce hundreds of innovations. Some may be as simple as giving patients greater e-mail and online support from their clinicians, which would enable timelier advice and reduce the need for emergency-room visits. Others might involve smartphone apps for coaching the chronically ill in the management of their disease, new methods for getting advice from specialists, sophisticated systems for tracking outcomes and costs, and instant delivery to medical teams of up-to-date care protocols. Innovations could take a system that requires sixty-three clinicians for a knee replacement and knock the number down by half or more. But most significant will be the changes that finally put people like John Wright and Armin Ernst in charge of making care coherent, coördinated, and affordable. Essentially, we’re moving from a Jeffersonian ideal of small guilds and independent craftsmen to a Hamiltonian recognition of the advantages that size and centralized control can bring.

Yet it seems strange to pin our hopes on chains. We have no guarantee that Big Medicine will serve the social good. Whatever the industry, an increase in size and control creates the conditions for monopoly, which could do the opposite of what we want: suppress innovation and drive up costs over time. In the past, certainly, health-care systems that pursued size and market power were better at raising prices than at lowering them.

A new generation of medical leaders and institutions professes to have a different aim. But a lesson of the past century is that government can influence the behavior of big corporations, by requiring transparency about their performance and costs, and by enacting rules and limitations to protect the ordinary citizen. The federal government has broken up monopolies like Standard Oil and A.T. & T.; in some parts of the country, similar concerns could develop in health care.

Mixed feelings about the transformation are unavoidable. There’s not just the worry about what Big Medicine will do; there’s also the worry about how society and government will respond. For the changes to live up to our hopes—lower costs and better care for everyone—liberals will have to accept the growth of Big Medicine, and conservatives will have to accept the growth of strong public oversight.

The vast savings of Big Medicine could be widely shared—or reserved for a few. The clinicians who are trying to reinvent medicine aren’t doing it to make hedge-fund managers and bondholders richer; they want to see that everyone benefits from the savings their work generates—and that won’t be automatic.

Can Hospital Chains Improve the Medical Industry? : The New Yorker.

 

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