Managing Your Practice

Whac-a-Mole Regulation


Danielle Scheurer, MD, MSCR, SFHM

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.”

It took a few (too many) high-profile deaths and a few common-sense publications to incense the public, our payors, and our regulators. Who is not familiar with the 98,000-preventable-deaths-a-year statistic? Not only is that figure sobering, but it also is quite difficult to untether from our reputation. Henceforth, over the course of decades, a multitude of moles have emerged, littering the landscape and sparing no area of the healthcare industry.

So let’s back up another minute and think about what these agencies are trying to do: Could it be that most regulatory agencies really do want to leverage large-scale improvements in patient outcomes, at the best value?

Take this vision statement, as an example: “All people always experience the safest, highest-quality, best-value healthcare across all settings.”

Sounds like the kind of healthcare I want for my kids and my mom. That is the vision statement of the Joint Commission.

How about this vision statement: “CMS is a major force and a trustworthy partner for the continual improvement of health and healthcare for all Americans.”

Not too shabby.

So why do we view regulators like moles? Why do we arm ourselves with big, black mallets ready to strike when we see them emerge from the corner of our eye?

HM-Mole Alliance

Whac-a-Mole is an unwinnable game. No player has ever whacked all the moles. If you have not been to your local arcade lately, the game starts out slow, such that most players can keep pace; it then accelerates, such that several moles are outside the holes simultaneously, and their time above ground becomes consecutively shorter. You can add mallets, even add players, but generally they end up getting in each other’s way, communication breaks down, and one mole gets whacked twice, while another exits unscathed, only to break the soil elsewhere.

Whac-a-mole Danielle Scheurer, MD, MSCR, SFHM


Maybe a better strategy is to have a strategy—to work with our “trustworthy partners” to align our vision statements, anticipate the vermin’s approach, and fill the holes (or chasms) before anything has a chance to squeeze through. Maybe we should tell them where the moles are, because we actually already know what they look like and where they dwell. Why don’t we tell them which moles are the most dangerous, the most annoying, or are the most likely to tear up the topsoil into an irreparable state?

What about all the issues that no one is telling us we have to comply with—for example, a universal allergy list across the spectrum of care, or a perfectly reliable system to ensure that a patient with an epidural catheter cannot be anticoagulated? Such a list is endless, and no one is telling us we have to address the majority of the items on the list.

It comes down to this: What kind of healthcare do you want for yourself, your family, and the patients who trust you? I’d rather not have a reactive, frantic race to obliterate the next torrid creature that has arisen. I suggest a proactive, strategic pathway of tilling the soil.

In anticipation of a universal vote for the latter, join me in congratulating the healthcare industry in holding ourselves accountable, embracing a new era of transparency and collaboration, and routinely going beyond the expectations of our regulators. And leaving the mallet in the arcade.

Dr. Scheurer is a hospitalist and chief quality officer at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. She is physician editor of The Hospitalist. Email her at [email protected].

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