What would happen if hospitalists began to incorporate health policy into morbidity and mortality (M&M) conferences? That was a question Chris Moriates, MD, explored in an entry for SHM’s The Hospital Leader blog1 and an idea that caused a minor stir on Twitter when he proposed it last summer.
In late July 2017, the U.S. Senate was debating a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, without a clear vision for replacing it. In response, physicians around the country took to Twitter to share their sentiments about repeal under the hashtag #DoctorsSpeakOut. In one such tweet, Dr. Moriates, assistant dean for health care value and an associate professor of internal medicine at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas, Austin, said this, in 140 characters: “We recently had idea: health policy M&M for residents to discuss adverse outcomes we see as result of lack of access.”
Would this lead to more informed physicians? Improved patient advocacy? Increased understanding of the socioeconomic determinants of health? Better hospital performance? So far, the idea remains untested, but Dr. Moriates and some of his colleagues seem optimistic it could work.
The idea began with a conversation Dr. Moriates had with Beth Miller, MD, program director for the Dell Medical School Internal Medicine Residency Program. “We were meeting and talking about revamping the [resident] M&M conference to have more learning objectives and put in place best practices,” Dr. Moriates said. “Dr. Miller suggested it could be a good forum [for health policy] because it’s an area where we all come together and there’s a natural hook to it, since it is case-based, thus we can use it to recognize the drivers within the system that lead to bad outcomes.”
In his SHM blog post, Dr. Moriates said he has increasingly observed adverse events that result from issues related to health policy. He provided an example: “A patient I admitted for ‘expedited work-up’ for rectal bleeding after he told me he had been trying to get a recommended colonoscopy for many months but could not get it scheduled due to his lack of insurance. He had colon cancer that had spread.”
In another example, he conjured a hypothetical (though not impractical) case where a patient prescribed blood thinners upon hospital discharge returns to the hospital soon after with a blood clot. Unable to afford the medication, or seek primary care follow-up, this kind of patient is readmitted through no direct fault of his physicians. Yet, the patient is worse off and the hospital takes the hit on readmissions penalties.
Dr. Moriates believes that viewing a case like this through a health policy lens is not only moving, but critical to better understanding health care delivery, particularly in an environment where physician performance is measured, in part, by outcomes. He now believes health policy M&Ms would be valuable to all hospital-based physicians, not just residents.
“Hospitalists are being asked to hit these value-based performance metrics, like readmissions and length of stay, and while we deal with the consequences, we are not always the best informed” with respect to policy, he said. “We could use this forum to teach health policy topics and continually update people and contribute, in real time, to all these different discussions and understand how things are changing or could change and impact our patients.”
Keeping up with rapidly changing health policy is a full-time job and few physicians have time to do it, said Nadereh Pourat, PhD, director of research at the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Health Policy Research. “Doctors get almost all of their training on clinical practice with little on policy and its impact of their practice,” she said. Health policy M&Ms could provide a way for more policy-engaged physicians to educate and inform their less-engaged colleagues and trainees.
“It’s important for physicians to know the policies that are aligned with, and the policies that may undermine, what they’re doing in their practice to improve their patients’ health,” Pourat said.
This knowledge can benefit physicians, too, Pourat added, because health policy M&Ms could help providers understand the goals of particular policies and in turn adjust their own behaviors and expectations.
“Physicians could discuss, what are the underlying issues or root causes, like the decision not to expand Medicaid here in Texas,” Dr. Moriates said. “Not all of these things you can fix, but you’re exposing those stories and perhaps we can come up with some actionable steps. How do we ensure in the future that our patients are able to fulfill their prescription so we’re not just sending someone out assuming they will but not knowing they’re unable to afford it?”
Similar to other domains in which physician leaders become champions, such as antibiotic stewardship, Dr. Pourat suggested that hospitalists could champion policy awareness through the kind of M&Ms Dr. Moriates proposed.
While journal clubs and lectures are great ways for hospitalists to learn more about health policy, the emotionally gripping nature of M&Ms could inspire more physicians to act in favor of policies that benefit their patients and themselves, Dr. Moriates said.
For example, physicians may write to or visit legislative offices, or author op-eds in their local newspapers. This collective action carries the potential to effect change. And it need not be partisan.
“I believe that if health policy issues were more explicitly integrated into M&Ms then clinicians would be more inclined and prepared to effectively advocate for specific policy changes,” he wrote in his blog post. “Perhaps entire groups would be moved to engage in the political process.”
On Twitter, even before Dr. Moriates’ first tweet about health policy M&Ms, New Jersey–based Jennifer Chuang, MD, an adolescent medicine physician, wrote: “M&M is heart-wrenching in academic hospitals. I dare @SenateGOP to present their role in M&M’s to come if ACA is repealed.”
While Dr. Moriates believes the chances are quite small that legislators and policymakers would attend health policy M&Ms, he called the notion “provocative and intriguing.”
In his blog post, Dr. Moriates invites state legislators and local members of Congress to join him in reviewing M&M cases where patients have been negatively affected by policy. He also emphasized that, like most modern M&Ms, the point should not be derision or finger-pointing, but an opportunity to learn how policy translates into practice.
Physicians may learn from legislators, too, he said in his blog post. “Just as policymakers could see legislation through the eyes of practitioners and their patients, this is where we as physicians could possibly learn from our legislators,” he wrote. “We may recognize the potential trade-offs, downsides, and barriers to proposals that to us may have seemed like no-brainers.”
What’s clear, said Dr. Pourat, who is also a professor in the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and the School of Dentistry, is that Dr. Moriates’ blog post and tweet are “touching an important point for a lot of physicians during this whole debate over health reform.”
President Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to fully repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act but Republican efforts have thus far been stymied. In the meantime, some physicians are watching closely, knowing that whatever comes next will continue to affect them and their patients.
1. Moriates C. Is it time for health policy M&Ms? The Hospital Leader. Aug 16, 2017. http://thehospitalleader.org/is-it-time-for-health-policy-mms/. Accessed 2017 Sep 14.