The Lunacy of Our Mental Health Policy

MEDICAID1-master675An institution for mental diseases (or, “IMD”) is defined as, “a hospital, nursing facility, or other institution that is primarily engaged in providing diagnosis, treatment, or care of persons with mental illness, including medical attention, nursing care, and related services” (42 U.S.C. §1396d(i)).

Last week the New York Times ran an article addressing the infamous Medicaid IMD exclusion: the culmination of state and federal policies dating back to the 19th century up to and including the Medicare Catastrophic Act of 1988, in which an IMD was infamously defined as a facility with more than 16 beds.

The apparent intent at that time was to promote small, community-based group living arrangements as an alternative to large institutions. But what has resulted is that Medicaid covers mental health treatment for a large percentage of people with Medicaid, but that coverage is excluded for inpatient treatment of adults aged 21 to 64 in any acute or long-term care institutions with 17 or more beds that are primarily engaged in providing treatment for mental illnesses. This is what is known as the Medicaid IMD exclusion.

Another indirect consequential reality of the IMD exclusion is what’s known as psychiatric boarding. The 1986 Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) requires hospitals participating in the Medicare program to provide a medical screening examination of any person presenting to its emergency department regardless of the ability to pay.  For psychiatric emergencies, an individual expressing suicidal or homicidal thoughts or gestures, if determined to be dangerous to themselves or others, the hospital must either provide treatment until their condition is stabilized – or transfer that person to an inpatient facility where the person can be treated until the condition is stabilized.

But there’s the rub: since so many individuals with mental illness (and addiction is considered a mental illness) are Medicaid patients there are very often limited alternatives for transfer.  Thus those patients tend to stay in emergency departments longer than necessary – an expensive consequence because of the cost intensive nature of ED’s. Communities work hard to develop informal diversion relationships to try and address the issues and challenges this creates: but their time could be better spent – like on improving patient care.

Section 2707 of the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid Emergency Psychiatric Demonstration, is a three-year pilot program that permits non-government psychiatric hospitals with more than 16 beds to receive Medicaid payment for providing EMTALA-related emergency services to Medicaid recipients aged 21 to 64 who have expressed suicidal or homicidal thoughts or gestures, and who are determined to be dangerous to themselves or others.

But this only addresses specifically-defined crises and will take a long time to be tested, evaluated and debated. It does not address the epidemical crisis we face as a nation with heroin addiction. So even though 26 states have willingly or unwillingly embraced Medicaid expansion under the ACA, many of the individuals needing inpatient treatment for addiction will be unable to receive that treatment.

A recent study published by researchers at the Boston Medical Center in the JAMA Internal Medicine Journal  reaffirmed the importance of combining inpatient and outpatient treat of heroin addiction. From the NYT article: for many suffering with heroin addiction, “there is an undeniable and essential need for residential treatment,” said Allen Sandusky, the South Suburban Council’s chief executive in Chicago.

Study after study has demonstrated that substance abuse treatment and rehabilitation is less expensive than incarceration as an alternative to addressing individual addiction and alcoholism. At the same time, economies of scale driving greater efficiency and lower program costs in facilities that allocate overhead over a larger number of beds is just economically intuitive.

When all these considerations are taken together with the skyrocketing costs associated with increasing crime and the burden being placed on community first responders as a direct result of the heroin epidemic it would seem like the biggest no-brainer in the history of earth is to legislatively repeal the IMD exclusion. Thus be to the ignominious wasteland that is Washington, DC.

At a time when communities across the country are scrambling to address a heroin epidemic that is literally destroying those communities and the families living there Congress is focused on a lawsuit against the president (the House) and an irrationally urgent need to reverse the Supreme Court’s innocuous Hobby Lobby decision (Senate). Shameful, truly shameful. Even more so than usual.


Photo credit: Armando L. Sanchez for The New York Times

WARNING: Paradigm Shift Ahead

If you are responsible for leading a post-acute/long-term care organization, I believe you should take note of two recent regulatory and legislative initiatives that provide a rather clear vision of where the post-acute/long-term care industry is headed – and it’s going to be disruptive to traditional thinking (if you want to survive).

ITEM 1: VBP in Home Healthcare
Earlier this week, CMS issued propose rule,
CMS-1611-P, which proposed to update Medicare’s Home Health Prospective Payment System resulting in an over all 2.5% reduction in rates when consideration is given to rebasing adjustments and sequestration. Importantly, included with that rule was a solicitation of comments regarding a home healthcare value-based purchasing (HHVBP) model.

Section 3006(b)(1) of the Affordable Care Act directed the HHS Secretary to develop a plan for implementation of a HHVPB program for home health agencies and to issue an associated report to Congress. Key concepts of that report included building upon existing measurement tools and processes, the alignment with other Medicare programs and tying payment to performance.

As currently contemplated, beginning with CY 2016 in five to eight states participating in an initial demonstration, average Medicare payments would be increased or decreased in a rage of 5% to 8% based on quality performance as measured by both achievement and improvement across multiple quality measures. The belief is these incentives/disincentives would encourage better quality via improved planning, coordination, and management of care.


ITEM 2: Broad Spectrum Reform Targeted
Last week, leaders of the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees introduced bipartisan legislation (H.R. 4994, S. 2553) that would have the type of disruptive influence that Clayton Christiansen has researched and explained leads to
disruptive innovation. Being referred to as The Improving Medicare Post-Acute Care Transformation Act of 2014 (or, IMPACT Act of 2014), it would require data gathering and reporting standardization across different types of PA/LTC settings to facilitate better comparisons of quality and resource utilization among those settings and to improve hospital and post-acute care discharge planning.

The data collected and analyses completed would then be used to develop new payment system(s) that could be site-neutral and reflect various forms of bundling and/or at-risk capitation. Anticipated quality measures include functional status, skin integrity, medication reconciliation, major falls and patient preference. If enacted, SNFs, IRFs and LTACs would begin reporting some of these measures as early as October of 2016, with confidential feedback sent the following year and public reporting of the measures occurring in 2018.

Taken together, these two initiatives – even if neither is ultimately implemented – reflect the long anticipated but now swiftly emerging paradigm shift away from fee for service in the PA/LTC industry. They also reflect the migration toward a view of PA/LTC that encompasses the patient’s overall and entire experience after an acute care stay. Owning only a piece of the puzzle, without being able to seamlessly and economically integrate with healthcare providers holding the other pieces, will not represent a sustainable business model.

To reinforce this, simply look at the strategy of Kindred Healthcare. Writing in Forbes Magazine recently, colleague Howard Gleckman noted that,

“as recently as 2010, half of Kindred’s business was generated by its skilled nursing facilities. This year, only one-fifth of its revenues will come from its nursing and rehab centers. In a major strategic shift, Kindred is betting the company on in-home care, hospice, care management, and fully integrated care services.” [my emphasis added]

Ironically, PACE models – whose genesis dates back to the early 70s – are well ahead of the curve in successfully providing comprehensive, integrated services and care, though their positioning platform has primarily been a means of serving low income seniors. That road hasn’t been easy, as development and execution is fraught with financial, operational, clinical and regulatory challenges. But the overall long-term programmatic success demonstrates the value created from integrated care delivery under a fully capitated payment model (as in, see above).

So if you’re one of those individuals I referenced at the top of this post, what I would do if I were you is spend some time understanding the PACE model – and a crash course in organizational change management might not hurt either.

Cheers – and Happy Independence Day!!
  ~ Sparky



Changing Our Perspective on Mental Health

On Thursday I shared the post, Don’t Make Mental Health Policy About Stigma. Jessica Dawson, the brave woman who was one of several individuals featured in the USA Today article I reacted to in my post commented that she was, “discontented [her] photo is being used on [my blog] to discredit the impact which stigma has on government policies.”

I took that personally pretty hard as I had a sense I was betraying someone because of my ignorance on a subject that I am very passionate about and for which I have advocated here in the Pub. But I have to stick with what I wrote: not because I am sure I’m right – but because it’s what I wrote. In my response to Ms. Dawson I noted that I didn’t believe we had different goals but rather different beliefs in how to most effectively achieve those goals.

And then this morning I came across an article from earlier this week by Judith Solomon for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities that is thematically consistent for what I was advocating: the pragmatic role that research and evidentiary support should play in advancing policies supportive of mental and behavioral health access and affordability – relative to (i.e., not exclusive of) the role fighting stigmatism can play in our current economic and political environment.

The article, The Truth About Health Reform’s Medicaid Expansion and People Leaving Jail, presents evidence that facilitating Medicaid enrollment in states participating in expansion under the Affordable Care Act, “can enable more of them to avoid returning to jail or prison by connecting them to needed mental health, substance abuse, or other treatment.  This is why many state corrections agencies and county governments are collaborating with state Medicaid agencies on projects designed to enroll low-income people being released from jails or prisons.”

On average, approximately 75% of the US prison population consists of nonviolent offenders, many of whom have a myriad of mental and behavioral health challenges and/or are fighting addiction. According to Solomon, “alcohol plays a role in over half of all incarcerations, and illicit drugs are involved in over 75 percent of jail stays.” But only 11 percent of inmates receive any type of treatment, while comorbid conditions are prevalent.

I haven’t taken the time to explore the cites and research that Solomon provides, so I want to be careful not to be advocating for something that obviously needs to be carefully considered, debated and vetted. My point is simply this: we should be investing more to determine – and evidence – whether and how this type of policy intervention can help achieve a stronger, more accessible, more effective mental health system.

We need to change our perspective on mental health. Fighting stigmatism – yes, important. I get that. But I believe we should be investing more heavily to educate the country about how intervention and treatment works – and how it can lower costs to families, communities and the country in the long run. There is a much better chance of redirecting funding from other sources than securing funding for new initiatives. That’s the political reality – like it or not.


Don’t Make Mental Health Policy About the Stigma


Cost of not caring: Stigma set in stone by Liz Szabo, USA TODAY.

This second article of a USA Today series, Mentally Ill Suffer in Sick System, this morning began exploring, "the human and financial costs that the country pays for not caring more about the nearly 10 million Americans with serious mental illness." But the article didn’t address any of the aggregate human costs nor any of the financial costs the country pays due to serious mental illness. Maybe future articles will, and that’s what I would like to encourage with this post.

Now, admittedly, USA Today isn’t in the top 10% of resources I normally rely upon for keen insights and emerging trends and drivers in healthcare, but nonetheless I think they deserve enormous credit for using their national reach to bring greater awareness to a critically important issue.

From a public policy perspective, however, this first contribution is wide of the mark in advancing the type of dialogue that could actually lead to meaningful public policy initiatives impacting mental and behavioral health services. So though I very much doubt their editors will ever see this post, I would like to provide some input that might be useful in developing content for future articles in the series.

Today’s article focused on two themes: the latent impact that stereotypes associated with mental illness still have, often creating self-absorbed obstacles to seeking and receiving much-needed diagnosis, treatment, support services and ongoing care; and the dramatic lack of sufficient resources committed to helping those who are brave enough to seek assistance and support.

Of course, stigmatism is still very real, yet very difficult to understand: it isn’t just a case of stereotyping and ignorance. Mental illness is difficult for many of us to comprehend because the mechanism responsible for its existence is the same mechanism we use to understand it. Most of us can use our brains to understand heart disease, diabetes and lung cancer. But somehow using our brains to explore and reason through a disease process that in others (or, to be sure, often ourselves) impacts our thinking can be uncomfortably counterintuitive.

The inherent stigmatization isn’t just in the fact that someone with mental illness is, "different." It’s the added frustration of having difficulty understanding why they are different. An individual receiving chemotherapy for cancer may look different than their appearance prior to disease. Someone who has had an amputation resulting from diabetes has a noticeable difference in appearance. But mental illness very often doesn’t carry with it the externalities of these changes in appearance (the manifestation of behavioral health consequences resulting from mental illness may lead to dramatic changes in appearance, but those are usually self-chosen much the same way one would choose a different hair color or style).

So while it may be said that ignorance is a lack of understanding acted upon, I agree we should continue to concentrate efforts on building understanding and awareness through continued education, rather than trying to coach away ignorance through reprimand and humiliation that too often characterize so many public awareness campaigns.

Such efforts have had beneficial impact: as a society we are generally much more accepting today than 20 years ago that mental illness is not a self-chosen condition bearing the shame of poor choices and moral subservience. And they have concurrently raised awareness about the urgent need to develop more effective public policy to address accelerating mental and behavioral health needs.

And so, as related in the USA Today article, the most emotionally convenient and expedient approach to lobbying for additional funding in support of MH/BHS is to continue making the case that mental illness should be viewed just as any other disease of a human organ – since the brain is, after all, a human organ. This reflects the inherent strategy that fighting the stigmatization of mental illness will hold sway over those able to increase funding of MH/BHS policy initiatives. But I don’t think it will because every dollar allocated to healthcare is becoming increasingly precious.

From a policy perspective, I believe it is both folly and a wasted effort to spend valuable resources on lobbying for more funding without being able to provide realistic and achievable budgetary offsets. To do this, advocates of MH/BHS programs need to focus their time and energy on generating evidentiary support for where and how funding of existing programs that address the consequences of mental illness can be more effectively invested in programs that diagnose and treat mental illness – i.e., before that illness results in consequences which place resource strain on other areas of social health and welfare (e.g., utilization of hospital emergency departments and the criminal justice system, the economic impact on families and the cascading effect that has on the rest of society). This is, I assume, what USA Today claims the series intends to do via relaying the “human and financial costs” of mental illness. We will see.

In healthcare, we are now living in an era where the expectation that research and evidence support clinical decision-making has steadfastly made its way into organizational administrative and financial decision-making. Quite obviously, we cannot hope that will ever be the same in Congress, but through the Affordable Care Act and various programmatic changes impacting state Medicaid budgets legislators are by default forcing healthcare providers to much more carefully analyze alternative investments – and to use return on investment as a tool for that analysis. Mental health advocates need to recognize this reality if they want their efforts to ultimately result in constructive public policy consistent with their overarching goals and objectives.

I really hope this understanding is reflected in future articles in the USA Today series. I understand anecdotal human-interest stories that tug at the heartstrings help sell newspapers, but they contribute very little to the knowledgebase of understanding needed to assess where and how limited resources can best be reallocated to address this tremendously difficult challenge that we all face as a society.


Picture Credit ~ Jim C. Jeong for USA Today

Much Ado About Value

I was recently honored when Greg Scandlen took time to consider and write about some of the work I shared with him that has been produced by Michael Porter on value-based healthcare delivery. Mr. Scandlen is a regular contributor for the National Center for Policy Analysis’s Health Policy Blog, and in his article,  Value Based Payments, he argues that attempting to use the concept of value to drive systemic improvements in the US healthcare delivery system is misguided because of the inherently subjective and multidimensional nature of patient outcomes (Porter has used the equation of Value = Outcomes/Cost as the basis of arguing for industry transformation).

Michael Porter, “is generally recognized as the father of the modern strategy field, and has been identified in rankings and surveys as the world’s most influential thinker on management and competitiveness.” He has extensively researched and written on healthcare, establishing a comprehensive body of work that supports the need for reorganization of our healthcare system framed around value-based delivery.

After collaborating with Elizabeth Teisberg on their seminal work, Redefining Healthcare, in 2006 Porter wrote an article in 2010 for the New England Journal of Medicine: What is Value in Health Care? This is the article Mr. Scandlen references in his article. There are several additional contributions from Porter that add meaning and understanding to the value paradigm discussion, and these include:

Measuring Health Outcomes: The Outcome Hierarchy, a supplementary appendix to the above-referenced NEJM article;
How to Solve the Cost Crisis in Health Care (with Robert Kaplan) in the September 2011 edition of Harvard Business Review; and
The Strategy That Will Fix Health Care (with Thomas Lee) in the October 2013 edition of Harvard Business Review

There are a couple of areas where my perception of value as a catalyst for delivery transformation differs from Scandlen’s.

First, while I agree it’s true individual value is a subjective reality, my understanding of Porter’s work does not advocate for creating objective measures of value on behalf of the patient. In the October 2013 article referenced above Porter writes, “in healthcare, the overarching goal for providers, as well as for every other stakeholder, must be improving value for patients, where value is defined as the health outcomes achieved that matter to patients relative to the cost of achieving those outcomes.”

Second, Scandlen takes issue with Porter’s claim that, “in any field, improving performance and accountability depends on having a shared goal that unites the interests and activities of all stakeholders,” arguing that is counterintuitive to how competitive markets function – which Porter himself advocates for and has written about extensively. But I think Scandlen has too narrowly applied this axiom. Using his own example of how difficult it would be to imagine IBM, Apple and Microsoft having a shared goal, I would argue the goal they shared was to develop and provide lower-cost personal computing capacity and technology to individual consumers.

This wasn’t a coordinated or collusive effort to limit competition or share profits – it was a market-driven opportunity that each corporation recognized independently to bring value to consumers and be rewarded accordingly. Porter recognizes that in healthcare, in order for providers and organizations to transform delivery models based on value they must all recognize – and act upon –  the perceived economic benefits of creating value for the patient.

The graphic accompanying this post provides the six steps outlined in the October 2013 HBR article that Porter argues healthcare organizational leadership, patients and health plans/employers must pursue to achieve a high-value care delivery system. The key concepts embodied include integrated care delivery, transparency, outcome-measurement, accountability and geographic expansion of specialized capabilities (e.g., what the Cleveland Clinic has been doing through affiliations such as their recent minority interest in Akron General Hospital).

Finally, I do not believe measuring outcomes (the ubiquitous challenge facing Porter’s value equation) is a long-term effort in futility. Porter’s outcome hierarchy was an attempt to recognize and address the multidimensional nature of outcomes that Scandlen identifies. Many other such similar efforts are ongoing across the world. With the continual advancement of Big Data, the ability to monitor, analyze and report on patient-related data and information across the full spectrum of an outcome will continue to become more and more useful: to providers, insurers – and most importantly, patients.

Where the concept of outcome measurement runs into its biggest theoretical challenge is when payment models such as ACOs and episodic payment bundling seek to use such data to objectify achievement of patient value as a measurable statistic (i.e, benchmarking) used as an incentive to influence provider behavior. But the old adage of not being able to manage what you cannot measure is a critical element of value-driven performance improvement that I believe Porter effectively argues is at the heart of transforming our delivery system.

Value-driven payment models are in their genesis. Any type of industry transformation at this juncture is going to endure understandable resistance and criticism.  The train has left the station. Industry transformation based upon value-driven performance is already well entrenched as represented by organizations such as St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital (Pontiac, MI), Adirondack Medical Home Pilot (NY) and Dignity Health, Hill Physicians and CalPERS.

There is legitimate concern that data and analysis on outcomes will be used to supplant patient choice. I don’t believe that is what Porter and colleagues had in mind when writing about value-driven healthcare delivery. Of course that doesn’t mean their intentions won’t be bastardized in the interest of bureaucratic ignorance and expediency. This risk must be carefully guarded against, but it does not in and of itself change the important role value must play in transforming our healthcare delivery system.


The Human Spirit as an Organ

Brain-Lightbulb1-214x300May 23rd, 2014 – Santa Barbara, California: another day, another shooting rampage, a few more souls lost to mental illness. More calls for gun control. More calls for funding of public health programs. More wringing of our hands and gnashing of our teeth where as a society we wrestle with what we can do to prevent disturbed individuals like Elliot Rodger from senselessly taking the lives of others.

I’d like to take a pragmatic approach to what we might do, starting with gun control.

As we saw recently, opponents of gun control are very effective politically at making impassioned arguments that owning a gun is the manifestation of a God-given right to defend personal self and property against threats from others – and most particularly in the minds of some political activists  (i.e., the Tea Party), the government. And they have huge lobbying strength.

Now I feel I have to share, that even for those most zealous gun enthusiasts with huge caches of automatic weapons I truly don’t understand how they would expect to defend their neighborhood against an AH-64 Apache helicopter should there ever be a military-supported government coup. Can’t you see it? A long row of sixty-something Harley riders with ammo strips strapped over their shoulders, long grey hair flowing from under their skull n bones bandanas. Waving their AK-40’s wildly as they fall like dominoes. Sort of like us fifty-something’s having to get under our desks in grade school during the 60s to rehearse protecting ourselves against a nuclear attack. But I digress.

Humor aside,  I think it’s important in this discussion to understand that gun ownership is a culturally ingrained part of wide swaths of our society. Unless that changes gun control legislation and regulations will have about as much success in the 21st century that Prohibition had against controlling alcohol production and consumption in the early 20th century. And perhaps there is a measure of truth in recognizing that in both instances the policy focus is misplaced by not recognizing the ultimate responsibility of acts committed under the influence or with a weapon (or both) lies with the individual, not the bottle or the gun.

So ruling out much hope for gun control as a viable approach to prevent these types of tragedies we next turn to doubling down on promoting policies that will expand access to mental health services.  But what if rather than spending more money to treat mental illness and its symptoms as distinct and separate from physiological well being we instead doubled down on efforts to understand how critically important it is to treat mind and body together.

I realize there are earnest efforts all across the country to integrate physical and mental health and move toward holistic well being. But from what I have seen those efforts are mostly incremental in nature and not going to create the transformational shift in health practitioners’ approach that can ultimately have the type of impact on mental illness we seek.

I think what is required is a paradigm shift in thinking about where and how mental health integrates with the overall health and wellness of the individual. We need to begin recognizing that mental well-being is a spiritual reality that, while ultimately the manifestation of physiological attributes, exists independent of those attributes.

And in this way it is just as much a vital organ as is the heart, the brain and so on. And that leads me to believe we should be thinking of human mentality as an organ. Just as our physical organs are necessary to provide human cells with basic needs to sustain life, we are learning more every day how important our human mentality is to cellular health.

I believe if we can broadly achieve this vantage it would change the way we approach research, the way health practitioners integrate awareness of mental health into diagnoses and treatments, the way we approach and treat symptoms of mental illness – and it would change the way we view mental health policy.

Your thoughts?


Mental Health in Crisis

The cost of not caring: Nowhere to go ~ The financial and human toll for neglecting the mentally ill is the first in a new series of articles being produced by USA Today tackling this hugely critical issue (by Liz Szabo). Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa. (a child psychologist) declares that, "we have replaced the hospital bed with the jail cell, the homeless shelter and the coffin. How is that compassionate?"

Mental health services and programming has taken it on the financial chin as an unfortunate lesser of evils political choice among state programs that have traditionally provided funding. According to Robert Glover, executive director of the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, $5 billion was cut from 2009 to 2012, while 4,500 public psychiatric hospital beds were eliminated (a 10% reduction).

Mental illness is still not broadly well understood in a way that even starts to approximate its impact on society. The USA Today article estimates that approximately 10 million Americans with serious mental illness are not receiving care. While at the same time, individuals with serious mental illness have a probability of dying 23 years younger compared to others.

The costs to society are dramatic: in excess of $440 billion a year. And only about one-third of that total goes to medical care. Much of it reflects disability payments and lost productivity. And that amount does not include lost earnings or tax revenue spent on prisons.

The timing is not good. State budgets are already being stretched and the national focus is on how to take costs out of the system – not add more. Medicaid expansion is likely to help identify greater need for mental health services without any commensurate plan in place to address those needs.

Yet we simply cannot afford to continue down the care delivery path we have forged. Mental illness is often a root cause for various physical illness and chronic conditions. Tragic events like Sandy Hook Elementary, Virginia Tech and Fort Hood remind us of the potential incident costs of untreated mental illness – but a fitting analogy of those events to the broader problem might be comparing the tragedy of an airplane crash to the number of traffic fatalities across the country each year.

Recently in true Washington partisan fashion Republicans and Democrats illustrated their shared compassion for those suffering from mental illness by drafting legislation designed to promote political distinctiveness rather than policy progress (though it should be noted that in this instance the Democratic initiative has to be viewed as politically reactive). Here’s hoping maybe someday that will change and this country can start having the very serious and much needed conversation on how to address this terrible crisis.


Why Can’t Healthcare Innovate?

Whether viewed as paradox or conundrum, the healthcare industry’s relative inability to innovate has long been a source of both fascination and frustration. In the May 8, 2014 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine,  David A. Asch, M.D., M.B.A., Christian Terwiesch, Ph.D., Kevin B. Mahoney, B.A., and Roy Rosin, M.B.A. write about this phenomenon in Insourcing Healthcare Innovation.

Describing the understandable resistance of healthcare professionals to embrace problem-solving techniques from unrelated industries because the complexity of healthcare delivery is most often not well understood, those professionals are by definition usually most interested in exploring new ideas, new approaches and the pursuit of new knowledge. This apparent irony, the authors believe, might be effectively synchronized if a different approach could be taken to reconciling innovation with contextual understanding.

The approach they share is a four-stage design process they believe can achieve this reconciliation. The four stages include: contextual inquiry (understanding the processes currently in place); problem definition (ensuring the right problem has been understood and defined); divergence (exploring alternative approaches) and rapid validation (ability to move from theory to implementation).

If these sound familiar, it is because the general direction of proceeding from understanding where you are to achieving where you would like to be in an orderly fashion is the foundation of many approaches to strategic planning. So from that vantage there isn’t anything particularly revolutionary about the process described.

But understanding the core resistance to such processes – that the way in which healthcare practitioners are educated, trained and practice is frequently counterintuitive to innovation techniques successfully utilized in other industries – is an important distinction. What this translates into is making the requisite investment to understand the unique attributes and complexity of healthcare delivery – its distinctive product offerings, its highly dependent reliance upon personal relationships, its unbelievably complicated regulatory environment – as a necessary component of any planning effort.

It takes time and effort to build the needed understanding of the unique challenges that healthcare practitioners face. You have to ask probing questions and not hesitate to admit your lack of understanding: a fair balance of humility and curiosity can go a long way to building key relationships and creating the requisite knowledgebase necessary to innovate.

In other words, individual egos often create barriers to innovation processes that are attempted to be imported from other industries. More so than representing a different way of approaching innovation in healthcare, what this article does is reinforce a tried and true means of any planning effort: listen and learn before you lead.



“A Very, Very Slippery Slope”

The New York Times is reporting this afternoon that Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, has been barred from the NBA for life and fined $2.5 million in lieu of the secret taping of what he thought was a private conversation during which he expressed remarks that were both ignorant and extremely offensive.

The NBA understandably wants to protect its brand. And if in its collective discretion it believes that Mr. Sterling’s remarks damage that brand, everyone else who has a vested financial interest in the brand has the right to entirely and completely disassociate from Sterling in any legally manner permissible. I totally get that.  It’s the means to the end that I find disturbing in this situation.

According to a statement issued by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver under the NBA Constitution – whatever that is – it is apparently permissible to ban someone from attending future NBA games (and practices). I would like to understand how that squares with the other Constitution that I assume is still considered higher authority.

And speaking of that Constitution, there is the very first amendment, which as part of the Bill or Rights guarantees citizens living under it the right of free speech. What this incident will – or at least should – do is start a robust debate in this country about where publicly contrived penalties and sanctions stemming from offensive and/or hurtful speech cross the line into becoming de facto limiting of free speech.

Free Speech Means Tolerating Ignorance & Persecution

Now, nobody has told Mr. Sterling that he has to stop talking. But I question whether the penalties levied by the NBA border on the incredulous. They serve notice that offensive speech (even when said in private) is not only intolerable – but will be penalized in such a fashion as to act as a restriction of that speech. And there is also the issue of whether Sterling’s fifth amendment right to due process has been violated by being forced into forfeiting his personal ownership of the Clippers.

I’m sure someone like Sterling has many legal eagles at his disposal, and he doesn’t need me playing the role of constitutional counsel. And frankly, it makes me uncomfortable thinking that someone may interpret this post as being in any way supportive of Sterling’s remarks. I am not. But I am being supportive of his right to say whatever he wants within the historic understanding of what constitutes free speech.

We are losing that historical perspective. Free speech in this country is, always has been – and hopefully always will be – a double-edged sword. The video clip I inserted above does a fine job of expressing that. And if that doesn’t do it, then I think what Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks said hits the nail on the head:

“What Donald said was wrong. It was abhorrent. There’s no place for racism in the N.B.A., any business I’m associated with, and I don’t want to be associated with people who have that position. But at the same time that’s a decision I make. I think you’ve got to be very, very careful when you start making blanket statements about what people say and think, as opposed to what they do. It’s a very, very slippery slope.”

A slippery slope indeed. The media (as in what used to be the press) has historically been thought of as the fourth branch of government because one of its fundamental roles was to investigate and report factual evidence that stood apart from political discourse. We know that reality has been obfuscated nearly beyond recognition today, and we have sat back and enjoyed being entertained while it happened.

Those who have read my blog should know where I generally stand politically. So if this event alarms me, maybe it should you too. Maybe not – I’d love to hear your thoughts. I think it’s time we start rethinking what we’ve allowed to happen in this country before you or I are the next people whose liberties are threatened because we say the wrong thing.


The Business of Medicine

The primary reason I love what I do is that gaining competitive advantage (as in being able to stay in business and provide for a family) requires a commitment to continuous learning. If I could change one thing about myself after all these years it would be to increase my reading speed without sacrificing comprehension. I often get frustrated by not having enough time to learn everything I would like.

Sometimes learning isn’t so much about discovery as it is connecting the dots you’ve discovered previously. You are engendered to reconsider what once were disparate pieces of knowledge and see how they can be formed into new thinking. This was the case for me recently when I read a blog post of A Country Doctor MD contributing to the KevinMD.Com blog site.

The article, If a doctor isn’t face to face with a patient, is he still a doctor? explores the fundamentals of a physician’s business model in lieu of regulated fee for service payment methodology. It explores the often paradoxical relationship between between time and money in the practice of medicine. I found that the issues and challenges described resonated with me because I have to deal with the same business issues and challenges.

There are parallels between the practice of medicine and consulting. Both businesses’ core value proposition is individual knowledge, reasoning and the ability to collaborate with others to solve problems. The risks and consequences of getting the right solution in medicine are decidedly much greater – and this should be reflected in higher comparative compensation. But I don’t think that is universally true by a stretch, and here’s why.

As the leader of a small boutique consulting firm determining how to price and sell engagements is a constant challenge. You are always building on your knowledge, so that the next client gets the benefit of what you learned working with the client before (I don’t know this to be true, but I would imagine it’s a similar situation with physicians: it’s a practice). We are always wrestling with how to price services when the value proposition is a desired outcome while the measurement of cost is in units of time.

And you get more efficient as you practice, so that the relative work effort to produce solutions decreases as experience increases. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into higher income because you have to remain market competitive. Of course, ideally over time your hourly rate increases to reflect the increase in value provided: getting the right solutions faster. That is, in consulting at least.

I don’t want to belabor the nuances of professional services business models. I share these observations simply to make a point. In consulting, we have the luxury of pricing our work based upon what we think is in the best long-term financial interests of ourselves and our consulting practice. The physician who is forced to accept a payment schedule – whether from governmental agencies or private insurers – does not have that luxury.

With the recent release by CMS of the Provider Utilization and Payment data there have been reverberations in the media about physician income and the relative contribution of cost to our healthcare system. I am not advocating for less transparency even if, as I wrote last week, the data as it was released is quite misleading. All I am saying is that given the comparative amount of education required (time and cost), the stress level involved and the regulatory handcuffs applied, I wouldn’t want to trade. I think this is something that policymakers had better consider and understand very soon – because I can’t stand the site of blood, nor read fast enough.


Photograph: from

Policy Prescriptions ®

The Evidence-Based Health Policy™ Experts

By Dr. Bill Thomas


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