How to Make the Cost of Care Cheaper

I’ve been leading up to this for a long time. Lowering the cost of the actual provision of care is one of the most important things all countries with unsustainable health spending growth need. And, at the outset, I’ll say I don’t have all the answers. But here’s what I’ve got, explained in maybe a roundabout way, but hopefully it makes sense by the end.

Think about providers’ incentive to innovate. Do they have one? Hopefully your initial response is “yes,” because you’d be right (partially). Assuming this is a provider that operates as most in the country do, its prices are determined based on market power, not costs. So, with the assurance that prices will stay the same regardless of costs, providers have a great incentive to lower costs! Any cost decrease will go straight to their bottom line.

At this point, I picture in my head a little map of the United States with a vertical pin sticking out of it for each hospital, with the height of the pin representing that hospital’s costs of delivering care. The taller the pin, the higher the costs. So, the incentive for each hospital is to lower their costs as much as possible in order to maximize profits, and different hospitals succeed to varying degrees. The pins get pushed down with each successful cost-cutting initiative, some more than others.

Now let’s say there is a hospital that finds a really innovative way to deliver care, and their costs are way lower than everyone else’s. They want to get more customers in an effort to continue generating more wealth, but they’re stuck! Why are they stuck? Because even though their costs are so much lower, they don’t really get to set the prices the patients actually pay when choosing which hospital to go to for care. High-value providers can’t expand to new cities because they’d have to set their prices lower than existing providers’ prices, steal a whole bunch of the market share, and most likely force some of the lower-value incumbents out of business. But if they could, do you see what would happen to the pins? The one really low pin would start spreading, making the tallest pins get taken off the map completely with each market that it spreads to. It would be beautiful! Different kinds of cost-saving innovations would be spreading all over the country.

So, to repeat David Cutler’s question, Where are all the healthcare innovators? They’re out there, all over the country, but they’re stuck in their current markets; thus, we don’t see or even hear about most of them.

In summary, think of the two ways a company can make more money:

  1. Sell items at a higher margin
  2. Sell more items

Providers in our healthcare system can only do the first one. The second one is mostly not functioning, and thus we don’t have the harsh (and absolutely crucial) evolutionary force of putting lower-value providers out of business and lowering the cost of healthcare.

I’ll admit, the proliferation of high-deductible plans and new kinds of deals between providers and insurers are starting to overcome this. But there are probably other ways to increase the pace of the elimination of these barriers, and I would think the government should be focused on figuring out what they are if they want to solve this country’s budget problems. Or they could continue to argue over how to how to reduce volume and price while largely ignoring costs.

How to Think About a Healthcare Reform’s Impact on Total Spending

I know I left off my last post with a cliff-hanger about how to lower the cost of delivering care, but I realized I’m explaining this in an out-of-order way, so I’m going to back up a bit and lay the foundation.

I’ve posted before that there are actually three ways to lower health spending. Again, here’s the equation:

Total Spending = Volume x Price

To lower total spending, we could lower volume or lower price. And, again, we can only lower price so much without actually lowering costs of delivering care.

But what about the third way? A more complete equation would look like this:

Total Spending = Volumea x Pricea + Volumeb x Priceb + Volumec x Pricec + . . .

Get it? Our total spending is the total amount we’ve spent on hip replacements and on metformin and on office visits. . . .

So, the third way for us to lower total spending would be to adjust our mix of services so we’re choosing low-cost treatments instead of high-cost ones. Instead of buying brand-name drugs, we’d buy generics. Instead of full knee replacements, we’d opt for physical therapy.

Okay, good. Now, whenever you hear anything about a reform that’s aimed at lowering total health spending, you should be able to easily place it into one of those three categories.

So what about the Affordable Care Act? There are a zillion different provisions, all with different effects on total spending. Increasing insurance coverage = increased volume. Requiring preventive care coverage = changing services mix (more preventive services, fewer preventable complications we have to fix). Insurance exchanges = lower price through increased price competition among insurers. . . . To mention just a few.

(The Framing of) How to Solve the Healthcare Cost Problem

“The cost problem” in healthcare is referring to the fact that our country is making itself go bankrupt based on overspending on healthcare, and we’re not even getting amazing outcomes that justify that spending. I’ve blogged before about how this overspending problem can really be broken down into two separate problems:

Spending = Volume x Price

To really get a good solution, we need to both (1) lower the volume of care delivered and (2) lower the prices we’re paying for everything. Lowering the volume, I’ve already argued, would substantially be achieved by giving providers an incentive to profit from long-term wellness. People at Dartmouth say 30% of all care is unnecessary, so, if true, that would mean big savings. But I’ve never said much about how to lower price, so let’s talk about price now:

Price = Cost + Profit

If we want to substantially lower prices, we need to actually lower costs, and then make sure prices follow them down. What I’m saying is that any price-lowering reform needs two components:

  1. Costs to go down
  2. Prices to follow

We’ve actually seen people try to only lower costs (think: tort reform) and other people try to only lower prices (think: all-payer rate setting).

I’ve also explained before that we should expect providers to be the main drivers of cost-lowering innovations. But provider-driven, cost-lowering innovations don’t seem to be happening much in our (or anyone’s!) healthcare system, so why not? The answer to this question is what every health system in the world needs. So I’ll tell you. Next time.

Why Is Innovation the Main Driver of Healthcare Spending Increases?

I have this demand: Every weekday, I want to get from home to school and back again with as little travel time as possible. I could fulfill this desire in various ways: drive a car, ride a bike, walk, fly a helicopter. Let’s pretend my demand is currently being fulfilled by a helicopter because that’s the fastest way available. So, you could say that my demand to get to school as quickly as possible is being fulfilled to some extent, but it’s not being completely fulfilled, which would entail getting to school and back with zero total travel time. Technology is limiting my demand from being completely fulfilled.

I will call my fulfilled demand active, because I’m actively spending money to fulfill it, and my unfulfilled demand latent, because it exists but is not currently being fulfilled.

What does this have to do with innovation? Well, not much, except that it lays the background for understanding my next sentence. Innovation (which I will define as finding a new way to fulfill demand) comes in two varieties: (1) the variety that creates cheaper ways to fulfill active demand and (2) innovation that activates latent demand.

Let’s make this concrete. If a new helicopter company comes up with a cheaper way to sell a similar-quality helicopter as the one I have, then I could have gotten that one instead. This would be an example of fulfilling active demand in a cheaper way. And if a teleportation company comes along, then I could get one of those and all of my latent demand would be activated.

All of this assumes money is no object, which, when we’re talking about healthcare, it often isn’t. But this post isn’t about that.

So now you should understand that when innovation has the net effect of increasing total spending in an industry (like healthcare), it’s probably because a lot of latent demand is getting activated (i.e., we’re spending money to fulfill demands that weren’t previously being fulfilled). This is great! . . . Except when it bankrupts us. So we probably need to somehow ration (especially the high-cost-yet-marginally-better-outcome stuff) and encourage innovation of the cost-lowering kind.

Ignoring (for now) the rationing suggestion, here are my thoughts about who we can expect/encourage to provide the cost-lowering innovation.

Providers (doctors and hospitals). I don’t see providers as activating much latent demand in healthcare. They kind of have to just use what treatment techniques they’re provided and find the most cost-effective way to administer them to the right patients. So, provider innovation should be a major source of the cost-lowering variety (think about IHC or Mayo Clinic).

Suppliers (device manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies). When thinking about supplier innovation, they do both kinds. Often they are coming up with miracle drugs and devices that activate latent demand (think about insulin, which prolonged the life expectancy for diabetics from months to decades), and sometimes they are also coming up with devices that make it cheaper to fulfill already active demand (think about at-home dialysis machines).

How to Fix Bad Incentives in Healthcare

When talking health policy, I hear the word “incentive” a lot. “Incentives are perverse.” “We need to realign incentives.” “Let’s provide an incentive for quality through payment reform.” Bla bla bla.

Let’s drop the ambiguities and actually talk specifics for a second. I promise you’ll learn more about healthcare incentives in the next 1 minute than you’ve ever learned in your life.

I can only think of two different kinds of incentives in healthcare: cultural and financial.

Our culture has expectations of healthcare organizations to put the patient first, to find ways to reduce errors, etc. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of getting the cultural incentives right in healthcare, but they can only take us so far without . . .

Financial incentives! A financial incentive works like this: If you do ____, you’ll make more money (i.e., profit). How are we doing on financial incentives? Well, we pay providers more for doing more (especially if it’s invasive); we pay providers more for making mistakes and then fixing them; we pay providers more if they band together to increase bargaining power; we pay providers the same amount even if their quality is poor. So . . . we haven’t done so well with the financial incentives.

But here’s how to think about what financial incentives are needed in any situation:

  1. Decide what job you want the organization/industry/whatever to perform
  2. Make it profit from doing that job

I, personally, think a healthcare system’s job is to get/keep us healthy (weird, I know). So that means healthcare organizations need to profit from getting/keeping us healthy; in other words, “profit from wellness” (that’s how they say it in The Innovator’s Prescription).

If we can find ways to get healthcare organizations to profit from wellness, it would solve all kinds of problems! They would be going nuts trying to provide preventive care. They would be spending lots more time with us training us how to manage chronic diseases so we don’t have ED visits and complications. They would be counseling us on weight loss and smoking cessation. And they would be working like crazy to reduce costly errors! (Quality problem: solved.)

So the government can either (1) try to fix bad underlying financial incentives through regulating the healthcare system to death or (2) focus on finding ways to help healthcare organizations’ underlying profit motive be patients’ wellness. One is the bariatric surgery approach, the other is a real solution.

UPDATE: I’ve been thinking more about this, and I should probably mention a few caveats. First, profit from wellness doesn’t work for end-of-life care, for obvious reasons, so a different incentive is needed then. Second, profit from wellness doesn’t work if the payer has a short time horizon because it won’t reap the savings from providing preventive care now to avoid more costly care later. Third, quality problems might not be completely solved just from profiting from wellness because I don’t know if better quality is always cheaper in the long run. Honestly, why do you people let me get away with this stuff by not posting scathing comments?

UPDATE 2: I think the definition of the healthcare industry’s job to “get/keep us healthy” isn’t quite specific enough. The job should really be defined as to get/keep us healthy over the long term, since I’d like to be healthy now and in the future. Thus, profit from long-term wellness. This time horizon issue is a key piece to the foundation on which we will build our future health system.

Bariatric Surgery on the Health System

Today I learned about a doctor group in Ohio that is advocating for a law to eliminate insurance companies’ wanton (and almost unrestricted) refusal to deny reimbursement for various health services. I applaud these efforts; but, I think their focus would lead me to categorize them as bariatric surgeons of the health system.

Bariatric surgery, A.K.A. weight-loss surgery, is criticized as (to reference Thoreau) hacking at the branches of evil rather than striking at the root. The root cause of obesity (in most cases) is a suboptimal diet and insufficient exercise. But, instead of going through painful lifestyle changes to solve the root of their obesity problem, people can now get bariatric surgery instead. (I should say here and now that I don’t think bariatric surgery is all bad–it has its uses, many of which are wonderful and important, as do advocacy groups such as the one spoken of above.)

How does this relate to the work being done by that noble doctor group in Ohio? They’re trying to contain the ill effects of an underlying incentive in the health system rather than change that underlying incentive that is causing insurance companies to seek every way possible to limit medical loss. (“Medical loss” is the term health insurance companies use to refer to their money they spent on paying healthcare providers for services rendered.)

What is this underlying incentive that insurance companies are rationally (yet probably unethically) responding to? They get paid more for spending as little as possible on health care. Instead, they need to get paid more for keeping patients healthy. If that incentive were to be changed, the whole issue of reimbursement denials would be solved.

Even “pay for performance” is another, more sophisticated form of health-system bariatric surgery–providers would naturally invest much more time and effort (e.g., investing in EMRs, crafting policies to help physicians more closely adhere to clinical guidelines, perform research in ways to reduce complication rates and hospital re-admissions, etc.) to find every possible way to keep patients healthy if it meant they would be more profitable as a result of it.

So, how can a payer get paid more to keep patients healthy? Integrated systems. Capitation. There are ways, but this post isn’t about the solutions so much as it is about understanding the causes of the problems. Sorry.

UPDATE: Another way to look at this would be using the carrots and sticks metaphor. Right now, our main way to negate the ill effects of bad underlying incentives in healthcare is by using sticks to punish the natural responses to the incentives the system provides. Using sticks is prone to getting “gamed” (i.e., people find ways to avoid the punishment without actually doing the desired action). Carrots, on the other hand, provide good underlying incentives (assuming the carrot is well-aligned with what we really want health-care providers to be doing for us), and they stimulate creativity to find more effective ways to get them.

One Way New Medical Knowledge and Technology Will Make Healthcare Cheaper

Here’s my way of explaining one cool way that healthcare will get cheaper. Picture a stack of papers. It’s maybe a few feet tall, and each paper represents some kind of healthcare-related service that could be delivered. For example, one of those sheets represents a triple bypass. Another represents a consultation about asthma. Another represents an MRI imaging. There are tons of them! Now picture that they are arranged in order of simplest procedure (at the bottom of the stack) to the most complex procedure (at the top of the stack). So we’ve got administering someone with a vaccine and stuff like that at the bottom of the stack, all the way up to, say, some crazy brain surgery at the very top of the stack.

Obviously only the most super-specialized physicians can do brain surgeries and other similarly complex services, while probably a technician or medical assistant could administer vaccines. Thus, we could draw lines on that stack of papers that look like this:

A physician could do anything in his section of papers, and he could probably also do (maybe with a little practice) anything that a nurse or technician could do. But he isn’t trained to do anything above his line–only specialists can do those things.

Now on to how healthcare will become cheaper. As our medical knowledge and technology increase, things that used to require great training become simpler. For example, hip replacements used to be so complex that only the most highly trained specialists could do them. Now, thanks to better man-made sockets and such, they are much simpler to perform, and probably any orthopedic surgeon could perform one and get outcomes that are better than in 1980. In short, the lines move up as technology and knowledge progresses.

This saves money mostly because a technician’s time is less costly than a nurse’s time, a nurse’s time is less costly than a physician’s time, and so forth.

And, I should probably mention two other things. First, there is another, lower cost, caregiver emerging: the patient himself. These days, who do you think primarily takes care of diabetic patients? The diabetic himself! Second, I don’t know if specialists will become extinct any time soon, since there are always papers being added to the stack as we find out we can do more and more things to heal people.

And one last thing: I said all this will make healthcare cheaper–meaning the actual cost of the provision of care will decrease for a lot of diseases–I didn’t say this will reduce our total spending on healthcare. Why not? Because as we learn how to do new, crazy surgeries and stuff, we’ll probably start spending lots of money on those, and that will likely more than outweigh the spending reductions we’ll get as a result of what I described above.