From the outset, HM has been about efficiency. And there was nothing wrong with that, for value is quality divided by cost. But in our story, we found that mere efficiency was not enough: The lowering of the denominator (cost) had to be met with an escalation of the numerator (quality) to ensure value.
And see us as being born in the right place at the right time. For with the national focus turning to the need for quality and patient safety, hospital medicine was in the right place and the right time to heed the call to action: appropriately stepping up to enact efforts to make the slope of the line (on a chart of quality vs. cost) “STEEEPER” … finding systems innovations to make care Safe, Timely, Efficient, Effective, Equitable, and Patient-centered.
Of course, the story continued with the Affordable Care Act and healthcare reform, greatly accelerating our evolution as change agents. And now we find ourselves fully invested in a “change the system” mentality, perfectly positioned to meaningfully change healthcare for millions of people. But threats loom—specifically, the “R” in the STEEEPER mnemonic: the risks to quality in the face of healthcare reform.
So in the next chapter of our story, I present to you our challenge: how to overcome the threats to quality in the context of healthcare reform. The first three are presented here; in subsequent articles, I will address the remainder. Overcoming all threats will hinge on mastering the four truisms of cultural change:
- Systems drive function;
- Every system is perfectly designed to produce the outcomes that it does;
- This is not an issue of people needing to try harder; and
- The “no blame” culture begins with a paradigm shift from the “person at fault” to the “system at fault.”
Threat 1: Failure to Fund Quality
SHM elected to merge its annual State of Hospital Medicine survey with the MGMA. Though not without risk, this has resulted in the anticipated benefits. The MGMA collaboration brings greater leverage in working with the C-suite, which is pre-programmed to react to MGMA surveys. From the most recent MGMA survey comes good news: The financial compensation for hospitalists has increased. A sobering insight, however, is that this increase in compensation has been met with a corresponding increase in work intensity—RVUs. Further, the link between RVUs and compensation appears to be tightening, quantifying what has long been of concern: The time devoted to the nonclinical “value added” duties of the hospitalist is shrinking.
The threat to the culture of quality is captured in the single question: How many RVUs is a quality-improvement (QI) project worth? I’m not sure we have that answer. But without an answer, it is difficult to believe that meaningful QI can be expected without time to do so. And again, as the gap between compensation and RVUs narrows, one is left wondering if there will soon be a day where there is no value-added time remaining to perform QI at all.
Fortunately, the Affordable Care Act might provide some movement in the right direction via value-based purchasing. Linking quality outcomes to financial reimbursement is a big step forward in the hospitalist’s quest to leverage the C-suite in trading RVUs for devoted QI time. Although we still are left asking the question of how many RVUs a QI project is worth, value-based purchasing at least sets the stage for the conversation. But in the interim, it is still upon hospitalists to design these QI projects, and to learn the skills necessary to see the design to its fruition.