In attempting to get at the source of remaining cost disparities, however, the IOM has been charged with considering such factors as a local population’s relative health and socioeconomic status (race, ethnicity, gender, age, income, and education). The study will scrutinize healthcare providers’ organizational models, practice patterns, healthcare outcomes, quality benchmarks, and doctors’ discretion in making treatment decisions, among other criteria.
Differences of Opinion
Dylan Roby, an assistant professor at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, says the general expectation among healthcare analysts is that significant differences will remain even with additional sophisticated modeling techniques. “The main hypothesis by most people in the field is that it’s differences in practice patterns that are really driving this, not differences in need or differences in disease burden,” he says.
But what about outcomes? A recent study of heart failure patients at six California hospitals seemed to throw cold water on the notion that higher resource use doesn’t equate with better results with patients.1 The study found more treatment did lead to higher odds of survival.
Roby thinks the study’s results lay the framework for looking at hospital-to-hospital differences in how providers deliver care and allocate resources, but he cautions that they shouldn’t be overanalyzed. All six of the California hospitals in the study are linked to universities and have ample access to resources, he points out.
HM at the Forefront
As for hospitalists, Roby hopes they will be increasingly called upon as focal points for improving efficiencies within provider networks. He concedes that plenty of challenges remain: An institution’s internal politics, for instance, could stymie even the most efficient and proactive physician. Even so, Roby is hopeful that an independent study could at least spur a dialogue about best practices. “I think what the study could potentially do, rather than just act as a way to penalize hospitals that might not be efficient with care, is really offer the ability for us to look at the characteristics of hospitals, in terms of how the care is delivered,” he says.
Ideally, the ability to learn would be followed by the impetus to change. But as analysts have noted, a panel’s recommendations on how to improve healthcare delivery don’t always neatly translate into federal policy.
Consider November’s uproar over mammogram recommendations. When the 16-member U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended that women wait until age 50 for routine mammograms instead of starting the screening process at 40, in large part to prevent overtreatment, the fallout was fast and furious. Sebelius quickly signaled in a strongly worded statement that federal policy wasn’t about to change, despite the evidence-based conclusions of a panel convened by her department’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. A group of Republican legislators decried the recommendation as evidence of bureaucrats intruding on healthcare decisions, and even Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schulz (D-Florida), herself a breast-cancer survivor, called the panel’s recommendations “disturbing” and considered Congressional hearings.
The take-home message is readily transferrable to hospitalists: The perception that patients might receive less care can spark public upheaval and force policy makers to beat a hasty retreat away from evidence-based medicine.