While Rome Burns . . .

This post was intended to be written and shared on Sunday, March 17th, while much of the rest of America will be either celebrating being (or pretending to be) Irish. Such foolishness was always strongly discouraged in my family: the reason I spell my name with one “t” is because that was my father’s way of reminding me that I am Scottish. And I’m pretty sure the only day my grandfather seriously frowned upon drinking was St. Patrick’s Day.

But the real reason I am sharing this today instead is that I watched Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare last night. I had planned on giving myself a few days to get through it, but  I stayed up much later than I wanted – or should – because I found it compelling, disheartening and yet, incredibly inspiring. The feature film’s title has an interesting foundation, and I share that at the bottom of this post.

The one-hour-and-forty-minute documentary, produced and directed by Matthew Heineman and Academy Award-nominee Susan Froemke, provides candid and balanced insights into the inherent structural and systemic elements of our country’s healthcare challenges. For those intimately involved in healthcare delivery there is nothing here that will necessarily surprise you – though I personally found coverage of healthcare delivery in the military to be both enlightening and very concerning from the perspective of national defense.

The storyline organizes and weaves together a root cause analysis from first hand perspectives of various industry stakeholders, e.g., patients, caregivers, industry executives and journalists. It features commentary from holistic health experts Dr. Andrew Weil and Dr. Dean Ornish, Safeway grocery chain CEO Steve Burd, medical journalist Shannon Brownlee, Cleveland Clinic cardiovascular chairman Dr. Steven Nissen, and former Director of CMS, Dr. Donald Berwick.

Unlike Michael Moore’s documentary, Sicko, in which balanced research and evidence were largely supplanted by rhetoric and well-positioned emotion, this film is not an effort to indict, lay blame or point fingers. As Dr. Berwick offers, “between the healthcare we have and the healthcare we could have lies not just a gap but a chasm … I don’t blame anybody – they’re just doing what makes sense – and we have to change what makes sense.” The film does a wonderful job of fairly explaining without getting technical how we got into this situation – and how if we do not make fundamental changes the system will ultimately collapse under its own weight. A lot of lives are going to be lost in the rubble of that collapse.

From a healthcare policy perspective our debate should be focusing on who gets to define what makes sense and who is responsible for making the changes necessary to create individual incentives that align with desired systemic outcomes. A consistent theme in the film is the incredibly impactful power that individual action and accountability can have in healthcare. While at the same time, the inbred allegiance between industrial and political powers in this country are culturally embedded in our social psyche and represent enormous obstacles to change.

If you are even a little concerned about the future of healthcare delivery in the United States, I strongly encourage you to watch this film. And then I encourage you to share your thoughts and insights with us in the HCPolicy Discussion Group (see the picture icon at the top of this blog).

Escape Fire can be seen this weekend on CNN @ 8pm and 11pm EDT (and again at 2am on the 17th – in case you’re already up getting ready for the parade).


On the Film’s Title
In an interview with Sundance Film Festival’s Nate von Zumwal,  Matthew Heineman explains how the movie received its title:

For over a year, we struggled to find a title for the film. How could we synthesize this complex problem and potential solutions under one label? We were stumped. Then we came across Dr. Don Berwick’s healthcare manifesto, “Escape Fire: Lessons for the Future of Healthcare,” delivered years before he became head of Medicare/Medicaid.

Dr. Berwick draws a striking parallel between our broken healthcare system and a forest fire that ignited in Mann Gulch, Montana in 1949. Just as the healthcare system lies perilously on the brink of combustion, the forest fire began to burn out of control, threatening the lives of 15 smokejumpers.

On the spot, the leader Wag Dodge came up with an ingenious solution: he lit a small fire that consumed the fuel around him. He urged his men to join him, but they ignored him, clinging to what they had been taught. The fire overtook the crew, killing 13 and burning 3,200 acres. Dodge survived, nearly unharmed. He had invented what is now called an “escape fire,” and soon after it became standard fire-fighting practice.

Dr. Berwick applies the “escape fire” analogy to healthcare, exploring how our system is “burning,” while there are solutions right in front of us. Upon reading the manifesto for the first time, we realized how perfectly it fit our subject matter. We knew we had our title, and soon after we contacted him about taking part in our film.

As Dr. Berwick says in the film, “We’re in Mann Gulch. Healthcare, it’s in really bad trouble. The answer is among us. Can we please stop and think and make sense of the situation and get our way out of it?”\

“The Doctor Will Skype You Now . . .”

healthcare-marketing2-300x199In this month’s edition of the McKinsey Quarterly is an insightful article: Six social-media skills every leader needs.  If you are either currently – or aspiring to be – in a position of managerial leadership at any level of your organization and plan to work for more than a few more years, this is an article you need to read.

And if you are working in healthcare, I think you will find the personal and organizational ramifications of the Six Dimensions of Social-Media-Literate Leadership model presented in the article to be particularly exciting – and troubling.  Because of the inherent nature of the industry’s product (i.e., human health), the potential benefits and threats presented by social media are accordingly heightened.  When messaging distribution spins out of control and goes viral at a manufacturing concern someone could lose face.  When messaging gets convoluted in a hospital someone could lose their life.

The opportunities for creating organizational value through social media are vast and still largely untapped.  For example, the ability to engage and capture a broad spectrum of individual thinking; the ability to facilitate collaboration and engagement across social and cultural barriers; the ability to build brand loyalty through direct communication; the ability to accelerate innovation.

The other side of the social media sword is just a sharp – and even more so in healthcare.  Risks of individual privacy are at the forefront.  But there are also tremendous risks associated with distribution of disinformation, as well as the misuse and/or misunderstanding of credible information.

As the article points out, “the leader’s task is to marry vertical accountability with networked horizontal collaboration in a way that is not mutually destructive.”  How is this done? I have highlighted below the key points I took out of the article.

Accept Reality
Whether appreciated or not, social-media is a transformative disruption that is changing the way organizations operate (their structure, their strategic positioning, their business models).  The article describes McKinsey’s work with General Electric’s leadership in their social-media-transformation.  It is not a fad of the entertainment-minded pre-Baby Boomer generations.  Ignore its implications on the future at your own peril.

Learn to Let Go
The days of being able to carefully plan, construct and deliver your message via traditional forms of media (i.e., whether through print, e-mail or video) are quickly waning.  Today’s distribution network has been turned upside down: the message often starts with social communication and then gets crafted, molded and morphed into new meaning as it cascades upward through organizational hierarchies.  Recognize sooner rather than later what this means for your ability to control messaging.

Embrace – and Learn – Media Technology
In social-media risk mitigation, the best offense is a good defense.  The sheer volume of information bits from e-mail distribution, networking and news aggregation is overwhelming for most of us.  Being able to use tools that help navigate and focus your attention on highest priorities is essential.  Also being able to understand when, how and in what context your messaging will be received should help guide your communication style.  There are some wonderful software applications to increase your abilities in this area.

Stay Tuned In
Part of GE’s Leadership Explorations program includes reverse mentoring, where senior leadership is able to engage with media-savvy millennials to accelerate their knowledge and understanding of emerging social-media technology and applications.  Staying on top of the social-media evolution takes precious time that has to be diverted from more meaningful endeavors.  In other words, time has to be made to stay on top of it.

Be Cognizant and Be Careful
If you are familiar with the old adage, Some things are better left unsaid, then internalize that phrase and broaden its application to any potential means of sharing a thought via social media.  I have been personally mindful of the line from Kipling’s poem, If: “If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools . . .”  Unfortunately, that
is an inherent risk that comes with raw and transparent communication. 

Healthcare organizations – and their leadership teams – that “get” the socially and culturally transformative implications of social-media will note in the model presented by McKinsey aspects that reflect their own evolution.  They will be able to recognize and identify with the opportunities and challenges presented because they have already begun to experience both firsthand.

For those who don’t get social-media, well as was written in a Western Union internal memo in 1876, “this ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.  The device is inherently of no value to us.”


Mental Health Realities

As mentioned here before, WordPress allows me to track blog visits based upon search strings that were used to refer visitors to the PolicyPub.  I have noted recently a prevalence of searches on Mental Health, likely owing to the national discussion and debate on Gun Control now taking place in lieu of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in December.

I recently wrote a post (Obama’s Opportunity Missed) explaining why I feel the President missed a golden opportunity to raise the level of social awareness and consciousness concerning the difficult and growing challenges that mental and behavioral health present to our society.  As a follow up to that, I wanted to share with Pub visitors information that was recently presented by Pamela Hyde, the Administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), at the Third Annual Public Health Law Research Meeting in New Orleans on January 18th.

According to Ms. Hyde, “people are just beginning to wake up to the knowledge that behavioral health issues are so common . . . “ yet among the eight million people worldwide in the past year who had a mental illness or substance abuse disorder, only 6.9% received treatment.  She added that, “the country has to spend as much time helping children develop their emotional skills as they do their soccer skills.” 

Links to Ms. Hyde’s slide presentation, data cites, and meeting Q&A can be found at the bottom of this post.  Provided below are a few snippets taken directly from her presentation that I found particularly impactful.

Prevalence & Incidence
Approximately one-half of all Americans will meet criteria for mental illness at some point in their lives

Mental and Substance Use Disorders rank among the top 5 diagnoses associated with 30-day readmissions, accounting for about one in five of all Medicaid readmissions (12.4 percent for Mental Disorders and 9.3 percent for Substance Use Disorders)

7% of the adult population (34 million people), have co-morbid mental and physical conditions within a given year

Co-morbid depression or anxiety increases physical and mental health care expenditures

Impact on Physical Health
24 percent of pediatric primary care office visits and ¼ of all adult stays in community hospitals involve Mental or Substance Use Disorders

Adults who had any mental illness, serious mental illness, or major depressive episodes in the past year had increased rates of hypertension, asthma, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke

Cost of Care
Average monthly expenditure for a person with a chronic disease and depression is $560 dollars more than for a person without depression

General medical costs were 40% higher for people treated with bipolar disorder than those without it

Perception of Value
Mental illnesses account for 15.4% of total burden of disease, yet mental health expenditures in the U.S. account for only 6.2%

The public is less willing to pay to avoid mental illnesses compared to paying for treatment of medical conditions

Top reasons for not receiving treatment include:
     • Inability to afford care (50.1%)
     • Problem can be handled without care (28.8%)
     • Not knowing where to go for care (16.2%)
     • Not having the time (15.1%)

The SAMHSA Web site referenced above includes a large knowledgebase of useful, understandable resources and information on mental/behavioral health and substance abuse.  If you are interested in learning more about the very difficult public policy issues surrounding Mental Health, I invite you to check it out.


Link to Slides: Click …

Link to Q&A: Click …

Big Data Assimilation

In early October, I wrote a post entitled, Big Data and Brand Management.  In observing the Pub’s recent visit tracking activity that post has been getting some attention – particularly from the Netherlands.  I wish I had the time to investigate further to possibly understand why.

I do know that the subject of Big Data and Healthcare is quickly becoming one of the most intriguing – if not controversial, and to many, threatening – side shows of the big show that is Healthcare Reform and the impending implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

In the IT world this growing attention is seen as an anticipated awareness among the less informed masses to a level of consciousness they achieved over a decade ago.  But for all that foresight, there has been precious little headway made in addressing some very critical issues of access and security.  And that is because those issues are not clearly defined, have dramatic implications regarding personal privacy and must be framed within a context of assumptions about the future that are widely debatable and lacking entirely for empirical support.

There is a lot at stake here:  a huge potential for solving some very challenging social problems – yet just as great potential for infringing upon personal liberty.  While I share the justifiable concern over protecting the privacy of individual patient data and information, I believe that concern is clouding an even greater story here; and that is the alluring diagnostic trajectory that Big Data has launched us upon.

In combining Big Data (large static storage requirements) with highly complex  analytical algorithms (large dynamic memory capacity) requiring tremendous computing capacity (processing speed) what we are essentially doing is seeking to replicate and accelerate the thinking ability of the human brain.  The historically great equalizer of human intelligence has been a life’s experience.  To be sure, there are ways to broaden exposure to circumstances and events that contribute to such experience, but there is no way to accelerate the natural course of observable events, which ultimately comprise the sum total of that experience – nor the wisdom of maturity to make good use of it.

In the book, Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, he explains the concept of rapid cognition: a fascinating treatise on how our minds instantaneously sort through and combine billions of observational data elements from our life’s experience, analyze the meaning of that data and then form a reasoned judgment about what we have just observed through our senses in a matter of a few seconds.  This is often also referred to as intuition, or a gut feel.  It’s something that has saved many lives owing to physicians’ diagnostic capabilities.

What many clinicians fear in a world of Big Data is an unproven overreliance on information technology to supplant or replace that diagnostic capability (or intuition, if you will).  While, in the aggregate, some of that concern may understandably be driven by a fear of professional obsolescence, I think the much more prevalent concern is challenging whether and when a machine will (ever) be able to truly replace the intuitive capability of the human mind.

And that really is at the heart of the longer-term Big Data dilemma, even if the focus right now is on privacy and protection.  I don’t mean to diminish such concerns, but I do believe we will ultimately be able to address those relevant concerns satisfactorily.

A much more difficult challenge, however, is assessing and understanding whether machines will eventually be able to capture the collective human knowledge and experience that clinicians currently rely upon and be able to analyze and apply that information in a way that achieves better overall patient outcomes than application of human assessment, analysis and reasoning.  And, if so, will patients be able to have access to that computing capability without needing human interface?

Then, what is the role of doctors in the future? Will there be a need for them? Will those who would have otherwise employed their talents in becoming physicians be the future engineers and programmers that work to develop, upgrade and enhance the computing capability of the new electronic caregivers?

A lot to think about.  Big Data offers a lot bigger challenges than just worrying about who owns the data.  The real concern is who is going to control the owner of the data – and how? Star Trek fans, think Borg.  Is that where we’re headed?

What do you think?


Accelerate! ~ Or Be Eaten

In the November issue of Harvard Business Review, John Kotter makes his latest contribution to an already authoritative body of work on organizational change management in the article, Accelerate!  I found the article to be very insightful and particularly well timed in lieu of my post earlier this week on the Healthcare Value Equation

In that post I wrote about the importance of healthcare organizational leadership being able to manage through transformational change as a condition of future survival in an era of Healthcare Reform.  In our practice at Artower we are already witnessing an acceleration of meaningful efforts to explore, understand and promote clinical integration by and between acute and post-acute/long-term care providers.

For me, an analogy of what this process looks like so far is two American Indian tribes from the 18th century, each living peacefully in adjoining valleys – communicating good wishes now and again for decades via smoke signals.  Then one day the leaders from the two tribes decide to meet face-to-face and find they can no longer communicate because of not sharing the same language.

Those familiar with Kotter’s work will recall his seminal article and then book, Leading Change, and the eight steps of an effective organizational change process.  Now, in Accelerate! Kotter introduces eight accelerators that form the backbone of a strategy network, which he suggests should work in parallel with an organization’s existing operations.   The accelerators differ from the eight steps in their being nonlinear, more organizationally encompassing and ideally facilitated independent of the traditional organizational hierarchy.

Kotter argues that for an organization to maintain the highest levels of operational performance and efficiency while concurrently being able to resiliently embrace and adapt to an increasingly complex environment what is required is a, “dual operating system – a management-driven hierarchy working in concert with a strategy network.”  The applicability of this model to healthcare organizations desiring to survive the burgeoning maelstrom seems rather self evident; thinking strategically isn’t sufficient – acting swiftly will also be necessary, and that typically requires a significant change effort.

So what Kotter has done in this article is tie together two concepts that I have argued for the past decade must be more effectively merged within and by organizational leadership if planning efforts are to result in tangible results: that is, the critical connection between strategy and organizational change management.  Specifically, he notes that, “strategy should be viewed as a dynamic force that constantly seeks opportunities, identifies initiatives that will capitalize on [those opportunities] and completes those initiatives swiftly and efficiently.”  I tried to make this point in my white paper earlier this year and have sought to reinforce it in presentations on strategic planning and positioning for Healthcare Reform.

The key takeaway here for healthcare providers – and particularly for providers of post-acute and long-term care – is that organizational leadership must sponsor and promote both operational efficiency AND strategic flexibility.  Achieving both requires being able to look at the same organization from unique perspectives.  One is a structural framework that aligns individual performance incentives with the organization’s top line goals of improving outcomes while reducing costs (remember: VALUE), while the other is a network framework that is able to leverage the organization’s group genius in ways that facilitate rapid strategy deployment.

The same people in your organization can be high level performers under both frameworks – and can do so concurrently, with the right leadership.  I have seen it accomplished in the organizations we have worked with – and I have observed the tangible results those leadership teams have achieved.


Chronic Care and Technology

Whenever I think about Healthcare and Technology I am reminded of a wonderfully poignant joke that Rita Rudner (think, Rodney Dangerfield’s Young Comedians Special back in the 1980s) used to share:

"They’re trying to put warning labels on liquor now. ‘Caution: Alcohol can be dangerous to pregnant women.’ Did you read that? I think that’s ironic – if it wasn’t for alcohol, most women wouldn’t even be that way."

If it wasn’t for advancements in Medical Technology – and the attendant increase in life expectancy – one has to wonder whether the much maligned Cost Curve would hold sway over our social and political anxiety as it does today.  Undoubtedly, Medical Technology has improved delivery system effectiveness from the standpoint of decreased mortality and longevity.  But it comes at a substantial cost that ultimately impacts the cost of healthcare delivery.

The cost that society bears for increased longevity gained through technology is substantial, and we know that much of this cost is centered in the world of senior housing, aging services and post-acute/long-term care.  Evidence of the costs associated with chronic disease were explored on Tuesday at the second event of a three-part series being presented by the Alliance for Health Reform in Washington, DC.  Speakers at the event, Health Care Costs: The Role of Technology and Chronic Conditions, shared with participants some very interesting data and analysis (I encourage you to view the slide presentations).

I wish I could have participated because the presentation materials, though very informative, on balance seemed to focus more on general trends in how chronic disease drives healthcare costs rather than focusing on the specific role that Medical Technology has played.  But it nonetheless affords the opportunity to offer some thoughts on technology and the costs of managing and treating chronic disease. 

As the demographic Age Wave continues to move ashore – and taking with it an increasing amount of available resources – the theoretical discussion of tradeoffs between investments in technology and direct caregiving is likely to be become more intense.  Applying the concept of value to that discussion should not be viewed as a subjective assessment of the worth of an extra year, an extra month – an extra day of longevity by virtue of technology.  Rather, it should be viewed as a means of evaluating alternative investments of available resources.  This would seem to be a prudent basis for developing future policy surrounding public investments in technology.

Policy aside, however, senior housing and care providers face a daunting reality with respect to technology: the investment requirements can be substantial – and the consequences of making poor investments difficult from which to operationally and financially recover.  Yet to play in a world of integrated care delivery where both Information and Medical Technology provide distinct competitive advantages, ignoring required investments is just as sure a path to quiet obsolescence.

And while providers wrestle with that two-headed dragon, legislators have not yet appropriately recognized the need for parity investment in PA/LTC technology infrastructure, so many organizations are having to do what they can with available resources to position their technology investments in what they believe (hope) will be in alignment with acute care providers.  The irony here is of course thick if not beyond frustrating because the train that is integrated care delivery has left the station without the cars behind that represent the ability to achieve interoperability with PA/LTC providers.

There is also, I believe, a need of both providers – and policymakers – to understand that technology will only be able to help us so much.  It is not the silver bullet that will save us from the need to become more efficient, streamline care continuums, dramatically improve provider communication and tear down delivery setting silos.  In addition, technology may help encourage but it cannot directly change individual behaviors that could go a long way to curbing chronic disease incidence.

I would really like to better understand how different organizations are addressing their technology strategy.  Is it still a wait and watch situation? Is the need to develop EHR/EMR technology enough to deal with right now? What concerns you the most about technology? Who is involved in that thought process?

Please take a moment to share your input – don’t be afraid to be first . . . somebody has to.  Hot smile

  ~ Sparky