Whac-a-Mole Regulation

Let’s be honest. How many times in the past (insert any timeline here; month, week, day, minute) have you heard a disparaging comment about a hospital regulatory agency? They usually sound something like, “Well, I’ll be darned if I am going to let CMS tell me how to practice medicine” or “So is this another Joint Commission thing?”

I understand the frustration. The healthcare industry is incredibly regulated. So much so that I, and countless others in hospital administration offices around the country, relinquish an inordinate amount of time figuring out what it is we are supposed to be complying with, then figuring how we are actually going to do it. It often has been equated to Whac-a-Mole, a game that requires more eyeballs and arm strength than an extraterrestrial possesses. There are many reasons that underlie the frustration and lead to the disparaging comments:

  • Some requirements are not perfectly evidence-based. Not all process measures actually correlate with any outcomes; just because someone checks an oxygen saturation on every pneumonia patient doesn’t mean anything else improves for the patient.
  • Some requirements are poorly implemented. I think we can all agree that counseling patients to stop smoking is a laudable goal. However, “smoking cessation counseling” is often relegated to uttering a short phrase (“you know you should really quit smoking”) while holding the exit-door handle, then checking the box for documentation. This “counseling session” is probably as effective as declaring every day a Great American Smokeout.
  • Some regulations result in unintended consequences when implemented into large, complicated organizations. An obvious example is the time to first antibiotic in pneumonia patients, which resulted in frequent and unnecessary antibiotic utilization in patients who did not have pneumonia.
  • Some are just extremely difficult to accomplish with high reliability. An example here is time to PCI for heart attacks. It’s clearly the right thing to do, and clearly very difficult to get it completed, on time, on every single patient. And 99% compliance is just not good enough, because the 1% matters.

And as a result of these imperfections, “noncompliance” leads to lots of emails, rework, restructuring, and at times downright bickering—hence, the disparaging comments.

Many local, state, and federal agencies have enhanced the scrutiny of healthcare over time because, quite frankly, the healthcare industry did not regulate itself very well. We insisted for decades that patients were each too unique to be “cook-booked,” that medicine was an art as much as it was a science, and that “it’s just complicated.”

Regulatory Origins and Missions

But let’s back up for a minute and think about why healthcare regulations exist: Many local, state, and federal agencies have enhanced the scrutiny of healthcare over time because, quite frankly, the healthcare industry did not regulate itself very well. We insisted for decades that patients were each too unique to be “cook-booked,” that medicine was an art as much as it was a science, and that “it’s just complicated.”

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