Don’t pave the cow paths: The challenge of re-conceptualizing health care processes

There is a popular adage for information technology professionals: “Don’t pave the cow paths.”

I recently worked with a client from Texas, and they were fond of this adage. They said it with the most excellent drawl, giving it extra credibility, as if they may have actually learned it the hard way on their own ranches.

In the IT context, I interpret the adage to mean:

When designing an information technology solution for a business area, don’t just learn how they did the process manually and then create a software application to transfer that same process to computers. Rather, try to understand the underlying problem that the business process is trying to solve and the value that the business process is intended to create, and then take the opportunity to design a different processone that is rendered feasible with enabling information technology and that delivers greater value.

When designing a new process to replace an old one, the starting point is re-conceptualization. The process designer must shed some of the terminology used to describe the old process when that terminology is too strongly tied to the details of the old process. Rather, the designer must dig down to the more essential concepts, and choose labels that are simpler and purer, seeking fresh metaphors to provide cleaner terminology. Then, the new process and the associated data structures can be re-constructed on top of a conceptual foundation that is easier to talk about, simpler to manage, and more stable.

Once we have a strong conceptual foundation, we can then flesh out the details of how the process can be made leaner and more effective, enabled by information technologies. Obviously, the proposed new process design influences the selection and configuration of enabling technologies. But, awareness of the capabilities of various technologies can also help generate ideas about candidate process designs that will be rendered feasible by the technologies. Therefore, this process is inherently iterative. The old-school philosophy of getting sign-off on detailed system requirements before considering the technology solution was a response to a valid concern that people will fall in love with a technology and then inappropriately constrain their process design accordingly. But, applying that philosophy too rigorously causes the opposite problem. If process designers don’t know what’s possible, they naturally stick with their old conceptualization, which also serves to inappropriately constrain their process design. As with most hard things, effectiveness requires finding the right balance between two undesirable extremes.

An example: the case of “registries.”  

A “registry” is a list of patients. The list includes the evidence-based services they need and whether or not they have received them. It is like a tickler file to help members of the clinical team remember what preventive services and chronic condition management services need to be done, so the team can improve their performance on quality of care metrics and provide better care to their patients.

But, if you dig down, the more fundamental purpose of the registry can be conceptualized as enabling care relationship management and care planning processes. Conceptually, health care providers need to know which patients they are taking care of. That’s care relationship management. It involves integrating different sources of information about care relationships, including derived care relationshpis based on claims data (also called “attribution”) and declared care relationships from health plans, patients and physicians. Part of the function of a registry is to clarify and make explicit those care relationships. This simple function can be considered  radical to clinicians who have become accustomed to an environment where such care relationships have been ambiguous and implicit.

If a physician has a care relationship with a patient, then, conceptually, he or she has a professional responsibility to make and execute a plan of care for that patient. Care planning is the process of determining which problems the patient has and what services are needed to address those problems. Conceptually, a good care planning process also includes provisions for multi-disciplinary input by members of the clinical team.  And, a good care planning process also includes decision support, including alerts for necessary things missing from the care plan, and critique of things that have been put on the care plan.  Such critique can be based on clinical grounds, such as drug-drug interactions, drug allergies and drug dosing appropriateness. Or, they can be based on evidence-based medicine or health economic grounds, such as in utilization management processes.

The name “registry” is tied historically to the word “register” which is a type of paper book used for keeping lists of things. In the health care context, “registries” were used by public health officials to track births, outbreaks of infectious diseases and cancer tumors. So, when people think about chronic disease registries, their mental model of keeping a paper list is a barrier to their willingness to re-conceptualize the underlying function differently.  But, more fundamentally, a “registry” is just one type of tool to facilitate care relationship management and care planning — a tool designed to be used for a narrowly defined list of problems and services, rather than being designed for more general use.

Today, there is no single care plan for most patients.  The function of keeping track of the problems that need to be addressed is either not done or it is done in a haphazard way, peppered across various structured and unstructured encounter notes, scribbled on problem lists, auto-generated in clinical summaries based on diagnosis codes on billing records, checked off on health risk appraisals, etc.   The function of figuring out which services are necessary to address each problem is peppered across numerous clinical notes, requisition forms, e-prescribing systems, order entry systems, care management “action lists” and in the fields of registry systems.  The function of facilitating interdisciplinary input to a patient’s care occurs informally in hallway conversations, morning rounds, tumor board meetings, or, most commonly, not at all.  These are all care planning functions, but most clinicians have no familiarity with the concept of linking these diverse bits of data and process in a cleaner, simpler notion of managing a single care plan to be used and updated over time by the entire care team.  As far as they are concerned, such a notion is probably infeasible and unrealistic.  They’ve never seen a technology that can enable it to become reality.

Choosing the right leap distance.

Of course, when re-conceptualizing processes, it is possible to go too far.  Old habits, mental models, terminology, and processes die hard.  If your re-conceptualization is a great leap to a distant future state of elegantly conceptualized processes, it might end up being too difficult to convince people to take the leap with you.  Other adages come to mind:  “Don’t get in front of your headlights.” Then there is President Obama’s version: Don’t get “out over your skis.”  And my favorite, often quoted by Tom Durel, my old boss at Oceania, “Never confuse a clear vision for a short distance.”

The optimal “leap distance” is a function of motivation to change.  If people start to experience great pain in their current state and begin to fear the consequences of sticking to their old ways, change happens.  As we move forward to a world where providers are taking more economic risk and facing more severe consequences for failing to improve quality of care, we will be able to pursue bolder innovation and leap greater distances in our process and technology improvements.

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Google engineering too slow? Facebook too invested in the wrong data model to adapt? Are you kidding me?

Few things in my work life are better than finding mind-blowing information from other industries and figuring out the implications for healthcare.

I recently read a set of slides by Paul Adams, a user experience designer that worked at Google and Facebook.  Although Adams’ presentation had 224 slides, the main thesis was relatively simple and obvious. The best insights usually are. Adams pointed out that online social media applications create a single category of relationships, called “friends.” They put every social relationship in that one bucket.  Wife, college sweetheart, boss, party friends, kids …  all just “friends.”  In contrast, real-world social networks — the kind that humans have cultivated for millions of years — are characterized by various groupings of people representing different roles, life-stages and social contexts, with different levels of strength and trust.

Diagram from Paul Adams' presentation on Real World Social Networks

He described the research that shows that people typically have 4-6 different groupings of friends.  People typically have fewer than 10 strong ties that consume most of their communication attention.  They typically don’t have more than 150 weak ties.  They have many “temporary ties” that may influence their behaviors for relatively short periods of time.  He points out that existing social media applications create problems for their users because the users publish information intended for one group of people that ends up being received by others.  Like wild party pictures being viewed by your prospective employer.

I came across Adams’ presentation through a link from a CNN article by Dhanji Prasanna that tells the story of how Adams developed these ideas when he was part of a team at Google that was developing Google’s response to Facebook.  The CNN article explains that Google had an engineering culture and a technology infrastructure that made them too slow to develop an application that took Adams’ insights to heart.  Adams then left Google to join Facebook.  But, Facebook was deeply invested in the simplified one-big-bucket social graph at the heart of the system that now has 750 million users.  So, despite Facebook’s “hacker” engineering culture that allows it to develop applications rapidly, they were unable to solve their fundamental problem.  They eventually launched Facebook Groups, which is a superficial answer to the insight that people have multiple groups of relationships.  But, Facebook’s central “one-big-bucket” friends model was apparently deemed too risky to touch.

My eyes rolled.  Google’s culture makes them too slow?  Facebook can’t innovate?  Are you kidding me?  If only we could experience a tenth of the agility shown by those two companies in health care, which has long suffered from a powerful aversion to risk and change in both care delivery and information technology.

But, there are deeper connections between Adams’ insights about social networks and our challenges in transforming our health care system.

First, the health behaviors of patients are strongly influenced by their social networks. For years, health care providers, health plans and vendors of wellness and care management services have attempted to promote smoking cessation, exercise, healthy diet, compliance with medication orders, and other health and lifestyle behaviors by designing “interventions” that target individual patients.  A whole industry of “health risk assessment” and “predictive modeling” was built up to try to identify which individual patients to target.  But, such an approach has produced unimpressive results.  That should not have been surprising.  Decades old research about the diffusion of innovations has shown that lifestyle behaviors in a population change through social networks.  People follow the lead of the people around them.  Therefore, to be effective, wellness and care management programs need to be designed to work through those existing social networks.  We need to be targeting groups of people that are already connected, rather than just reaching out to individuals.  We need to be designing our communications and incentive approaches so as to augment and leverage our patients’ social networks.  To support such social-network-oriented clinical programs, we need information systems that capture information about those social networks and that are designed to interact with them.   But, when we examine the fundamental data model and features of the market-leading electronic health record (EHR) systems, such capabilities are nowhere to be found.  Those vendors, blessed with a large installed base, may be unable to make such fundamental changes to their systems.  Like Google and Facebook, the leading  EHR vendors may not be agile enough to address our emerging understanding of the importance of social networks that exist among our patients.

Second, the relationships between patients and care providers are types of social network relationships.  I call these care relationships.  When we talk about “accountable care,” we mean that some provider organization is taking responsibility for the quality and cost of care for a population of patients. When we talk about a “patient-centered medical home,” we mean a team of primary care physicians, nurses and other care providers proactively taking care of a group of patients. But, who exactly are those patients? We have developed some very crude primary care “attribution” logic that tries to derive care relationships from claims data.  But, we do a very poor job of validating such derived care relationships or proactively declaring new care relationships.  And we don’t keep track of changes in care relationships.  We don’t have established processes to inform the participants in those relationships when one of the parties determines that they don’t intend for the relationship to exist.  We don’t distinguish between different types of care relationships.  If a patient has heart failure and sees both a primary care physician and a cardiologist, we don’t explicitly declare which physician has the care responsibility for that patient problem.

Furthermore, the referral relationships among providers are also types of social network relationships.  As with Adams’ real-world social networks, these relationships among patients, primary care doctors, specialists, hospitals, home health care nurses, pharmacists, and others are complex and dynamic.   Yet, when you examine the systems we use to keep track of these relationships, they are primitive or non-existent.  Just as over-simplification of social network relationships has reeked havoc for social media users, so has over-simplification of care relationships, care responsibilities and referral relationships harmed clinical communications and accountabilities.  This deficiency ultimately reduces the effectiveness of care. As a result, patients are harmed.

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Klar 2: The great attribution debates: Include specialists or not? Plurality or majority? Retrospective or prospective? Derived or declared?

Ron Klar, MD, MPH

Ron Klar, MD, MPH is a health care consultant with a long history of involvement in federal health care policy and health plan innovation.  He published a recent series of three posts (post 1, post 2, and post 3) regarding the draft rules of the Medicare Shared Savings Program (MSSP) in the Health Affairs Blog, an influential forum for debating health policy issues. In a recent post of my own, I described where I agree with Dr. Klar.  In this post, I’ll describe some areas of disagreement related to the methods of defining the population for which the ACO is to be held accountable.  In two future posts, I’ll cover some additional areas of disagreement.

First, let’s define some terms.

I use the term “care relationship” to describe the data linking patients to providers.  Care relationship information can be “derived” based on other data such as encounter claims records.  Care relationships can be “declared” explicitly when the participants in the relationship – patients and providers – indicate that they intend for the relationship to exist or when they explicitly validate care relationship data that has previously been derived.  Or, care relationship data can be created and maintained through a mixture of derivation and declaration.  Others typically use the terms “attribution,” “assignment,” or “alignment” to describe care relationships, revealing their tendency to think only in terms of derived care relationships.   Derived care relationships can be determined “prospectively,” in advance of an accountability period.  Or, they can be determined “retrospectively,” at the end of an accountability period.

The draft rules for the MSSP proposes to define the population using derived care relationships.  The rules call for accomplishing this derivation by selecting the primary care physician that provided a plurality of the evaluation and management (E&M) encounter claims for a beneficiary, using an assignment process that is partly prospective and partly retrospective.

Dr. Klar proposed to change many aspects of the rules regarding care relationship derivation:

  1. Include specialists, rather than just primary care physicians
  2. The selection should be based on providing a majority (more than half) of the E&M services for a beneficiary, rather than just a plurality (more than anyone else)
  3. The derivation should be purely retrospective

Include specialists or not?

Klar’s proposal to include specialists is based partly on the fact that it will increase the proportion of beneficiaries assigned to an ACO.  Some beneficiaries have visits to specialists, but not visits to PCPs.  Such beneficiaries will only be assigned to an ACO if the assignment includes specialists.  Klar also asserts that including specialists in the assignment will stimulate organizations to “tie” specialists into the ACO.

For both of these same reasons, we originally included specialists in the “attribution” algorithms in the Physician Group Incentive Program (PGIP) at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM).  But, we determined it was necessary to switch to what we called a “pure PCP” algorithm due to unanticipated consequences of including specialists in the attribution. When attribution includes specialists, beneficiaries with expensive conditions requiring specialist care are relatively more likely to be assigned to a physician organization (PO) or ACOs that include specialists, while PO/ACOs that don’t include specialists will tend to have a lower risk population.  Within the PO/ACO, a primary care physician that manages more of the heart failure in her panel of patients will have those patients assigned to her.  Another primary care physician who chooses instead to refer his heart failure cases to higher cost cardiologists will end up with those patients being assigned to the cardiologist.  As a result, the PCP that refers out heart failure management will have a more favorable utilization and cost profile.  These biases make it difficult to interpret performance comparisons when specialists are included in attribution.  I strongly prefer the “pure PCP” attribution approach.

Use plurality or majority?

In the PGIP program, as in the draft rule for the MSSP, we derived care relationships based on a plurality of E&M services, not a majority.  Whether the topic is managed care, patient-centered medical home, organized systems of care, or accountable care organizations, the idea is for providers to take responsibility for the care of a defined population.  Patients that flutter among many PCPs and don’t see any one PCP the majority of the time are still part of the population.  In fact, convincing such patients to have a more stable, exclusive relationship with one physician, or at least one primary care practice unit, should be a key objective of an ACO.  A majority standard would leave more members of the population without a derived care relationship with a PCP.  Therefore, a plurality standard is better than a majority standard.

Prospective or retrospective?

The draft rule for the MSSP proposes an assignment process that is partly prospective and partly retrospective. Many critics of the draft rule have called for a purely prospective derivation, arguing that ACO providers should only be held responsible for the cost and quality of care for patients that they knew about in advance.  But, Dr. Klar went against the crowd, calling for a purely retrospective derivation. He argued that the delay in claims data used for the derivation is too long, resulting in too much inaccuracy in care relationship data due to people switching their actual care relationships during the year.  Based on 25-33% annual turnover in care relationships, 44-55% of beneficiaries assigned before the start of a performance year would not still be assigned after the end of that performance year.  On that point, I agree with Dr. Klar.

But then Dr. Klar went on to provide another argument against any prospective assignment.  He asserted that prospective assignment would create an “undesirable distinction” among Medicare beneficiaries, causing prospectively assigned beneficiaries to be “treated differently” by providers.  He considered such distinctions to be inconsistent with expectations for the traditional Medicare fee-for-service program.  On this point, Dr. Klar has a lot of company.  Many advocates for Medicare beneficiaries are strongly defensive of the unlimited choice of providers currently intrinsic to the traditional Medicare program.  In that spirit, the health reform legislation prohibits restrictions limiting beneficiaries’ ability to  seek care from any participating Medicare provider. This prohibition could be interpreted as implicitly forbidding providers from having care relationship declaration processes where patients document their intention to have a primary care physician relationship, since that would possibly give the impression of “lock-in.”

The underlying debate about the role of the PCP

When I step back from the technical details and look at the bigger picture, it seems to me that Dr. Klar, like many others engaged in discussions about ACOs, seems to have a different conceptualization of the role of PCPs in ACOs than I do.  In proposing the inclusion of specialists in care relationship derivation, and by expressing concern about even giving the impression of fettering beneficiaries’ choice of providers, Klar reveals a conceptualization of an ACO that emphasizes the value of the organization, but does not necessarily emphasize the central role of PCPs.

I feel that a powerful, influential care relationship between a patient and her primary care physician is the main active ingredient in achieving ACO cost savings. In this context, the process of having patients declare or validate their care relationships is an important tool to creating the type of care relationship consistent with the vision of the patient-centered medical home (PCMH). In a PCMH care relationship, the patient understands the roles and responsibilities of the members of the team, and conceptualizes the patient and family as engaged members of that team.  In a strong PCMH-style primary care relationship, the primary care team can influence the patient’s behavior, encouraging adherence to the care plan, and promote effective self-management, involvement in informed medical decision-making, and healthy lifestyle behaviors.  Moreover, in a strong PCMH primary care relationship, the PCP can influence referrals for specialty and facility care, steering the patient toward specialists and facilities that are efficient and prudent. Such a role, when enforced through HMO-style mandatory referral authorization, can seem undesirable from the patient’s perspective, earning the pejorative title “gatekeeper.”  But, in a PCMH and ACO context, the primary care physician is challenged to effectively fulfill the gatekeeper function with one hand tied behind his back.  In an ACO, the patient is not required to seek a mandatory referral authorization from the PCP.  Therefore, to have influence over referral patterns, the PCP is challenged to earn the trust of patients and their families by demonstrating clinical competence and offering excellent service.  They are challenged to exert referral influence in softer ways designed to be satisfying or at least acceptable to the patient.  This influence causes more specialty and facility care to be delivered by more efficient providers.  And, it incentivizes all specialists and facilities to be more efficient.  In my estimation, this form of influence is the strongest active ingredient driving savings in ACOs – stronger than care coordination, stronger than patient-self management support, stronger than avoiding gaps in care through clinical decision support, and stronger than the avoidance of duplication of services through health information exchange.

Of course, there needs to be clear communication to beneficiaries of the voluntary nature of care relationships.  It must be clear that any declared care relationship information maintained by ACOs will not be used to determine shared savings or for any other CMS program administration purposes. But, the worry that ACO providers might implicitly influence patients to have an exclusive primary care relationship with them is not a risk.  In fact, the success of the ACO concept depends on it.

In summary, I’m willing to join Dr. Klar in his contrarian idea of using a purely retrospective care relationship derivation to determine MSSP reward payments.  But, I feel that the care relationship should be “pure PCP,” and the derivation algorithm should cast a wide net with a plurality criteria.  And, MSSP rules should make it clear that ACOs are permitted to create their own processes to track current care relationships, including processes that involve physician and patient declarations of care relationships.

 

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