Alarms about our nation’s health-care costs have been sounding for well over a decade. According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), spending on U.S. health care doubled between 1999 and 2011, climbing to $2.7 trillion from $1.3 trillion, and now represents 17.9% of the United States’ GDP.1
“The medical care system is bankrupting the country,” Paul B. Ginsburg, PhD, president of the Center for Studying Health System Change (HSC), based in Washington, D.C., says bluntly. A four-decade-long upward spending trend is “unsustainable,” he wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine with Chapin White, PhD, a senior health researcher at HSC.2
Recent reports suggest that rising premiums and out-of-pocket costs are rendering the price of health care untenable for the average consumer. A 2011 RAND Corp. study found that, for the average American family, the rate of increased costs for health care had outpaced growth in earnings from 1999 to 2009.3 And last year, for the first time, the cost of health care for a typical American family of four surpassed $20,000, the annual Milliman Medical Index reported.4
Should hospitalists be concerned, professionally and personally, about these trends? Absolutely, say hospitalist leaders who spoke with The Hospitalist. HM clinicians have much to contribute at both the macro level (addressing systemic causes of overutilization through quality improvement and other initiatives) and at the micro level, by understanding their personal contributions and by engaging patients and their families in shared decision-making.
But getting at and addressing the root causes of rising health-care costs, according to health-care policy analysts and veteran hospitalists, will require major shifts in thinking and processes.
Contributors to Rising Costs
It’s difficult to pinpoint the root causes of the recent surge in health-care costs. Victor Fuchs, emeritus professor of economics and health research and policy at Stanford University, points to the U.S.’ high administrative costs and complicated billing systems.5 A fragmented, nontransparent system for negotiating fees between insurers and providers also plays a role, as demonstrated in a Consumer Reports investigation into geographic variations in costs for common tests and procedures. A complete blood count might be as low as $15 or as high as $105; a colonoscopy ranges from $800 to $3,160.6
Bradley Flansbaum, DO, MPH, SFHM, an SHM Public Policy Committee member and AMA delegate, says rising costs are a provider-specific issue. He challenges colleagues to take an honest look at their own practice patterns to assess whether they’re contributing to overuse of resources (see “A Lesson in Change,”).
“The culture of practice has developed so that this is not going to change overnight,” says Dr. Flansbaum, director of hospitalist services at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. That’s because many physicians fail to view their own decisions as a problem. For example, says Dr. Flansbaum, “an oncologist may not identify a third round of chemotherapy as an embodiment of the problem, or a gastroenterologist might not embody the colonoscopy at Year Four instead of Year Five as the problem. We must come to grips with the usual mindset, look in the mirror, and admit, ‘Maybe we are part of the problem.’”
The culture of practice has developed so that this is not going to change overnight. An oncologist may not identify a third round of chemotherapy as an embodiment of the problem. We must come to grips with the usual mindset, look in the mirror, and admit, ‘Maybe we are part of the problem.’
—Bradley Flansbaum, DO, MPH, SFHM
Hospitalists, intensivists, and ED clinicians are tasked with finding a balance between being prudent stewards of resources and staying within a comfort zone that promotes patient safety. SHM supports the goals of the ABIM Foundation’s Choosing Wisely campaign, which aims to reduce waste by curtailing duplicative and unnecessary care (see “Better Choices, Better Care,” March 2013). Also included in the campaign (www.ChoosingWisely.org) are the American College of Physicians’ recommendations against low-value testing (e.g. obtaining imaging studies in patients with nonspecific low back pain).