With all the talk this week about Obamacare and whether or not the Supreme Court will declare the law constitutional, partially unconstitutional, or take no stand, the law will not have a measurable impact on the cost of health care delivery to patients until significant changes take place in the way the delivery system works.
There are several reasons why the cost of care has risen so radically, and there are measures that can be taken to reduce some of these costs, simply by changing patient and provider behaviors in areas such as medication adherence, fast access to care and preventive care.
One-third to one-half of patients in the U.S. do not take their medications as instructed. This leads directly to poorer health, more frequent hospitalizations, a higher risk of death and as much as $290 billion annually in increased medical costs. Non-compliance includes not taking medication on time, not sticking to the proper doses, or simply ignoring the medication by not filling the prescription, or filling it and not taking it. Reasons patients give for their non-compliance include: unpleasant side effects, confusion, forgetfulness, language barriers and feeling “too good” to need medicine.
It is a known fact that patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure are among the group less likely to follow their medication regimen. Perhaps if more providers were reimbursed based on outcome rather than on their fees for service, they would invest in the time, resources, counselling services, and necessary technology to educate patients and foster better adherence.
A study by researchers at NYU School of Medicine confirms that positive affirmation, when coupled with patient education, seems to help patients more effectively follow their prescribed medication regimen. How does that reduce costs? We know that with adherence comes better management of health issues. With better management of health issues comes fewer visits to the ER. With fewer visits to the ER comes lower cost of care because the patient who gets better by following the treatment prescribed does not need further intervention.
Access and Information
One of the most significant obstacles to improved patient care, at a reasonable cost, is access. The relative lack of real-time access to care and the absence of comprehensive patient information at the point of care are essential to improving outcome. Better access to care will lower the cost of care because patients do not have to wait to see their doctors and avoid having their health issues precipitate from an issue to a crisis. An example of that is an elderly woman who called her doctor’s office to request an immediate appointment for a rash that was painful and itchy and would not go away with topical medications. The doctor was on vacation and when the patient was finally seen several days later she was diagnosed with Shingles. Instead of a few days on an oral dose of an anti-viral medication, she ended up hospitalized for several days on IV medications, with a very severe case of shingles that had spread to several locations in her body.
The new patient-centered medical home model of care resolves some of these issues, by extending access to patients using the services of nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and other well- trained professionals to deliver many basic health care services. With digital health records as a part of the medical home model, all of the patient’s information is available to all of these providers when the patient needs to be seen. This allows the physicians in the practice to focus on diagnosis and deal with the tough issues, while other competent, well trained healthcare professionals handle routine exams, coordinate follow up appointments, deliver counseling, and make sure that screen tests, vaccinations and other milestones for the patient are achieved.
Prevention is clearly one of the touchstones of health care. To prevent deadly or disabling disease from occurring, or to stop it at an early stage, seems like an obvious way to cut health care costs and improve population health. Early intervention health and wellness programs are available but patients have to be willing receptors of these efforts, and providers have to spend time and energy to make these programs work. It is not an easy task. Some suggestions for carving out programs where preventive care is the focus include: