Zeke Emanuel provides an excellent piece of public education about the potential for improved quality of care and cost savings in a recent New York Times blog post. The piece will be especially informative for folks who don't understand how fragmented the U.S. care system has become and how fee-for-service reimbursement promotes the fragmentation. Emanuel concludes, correctly, that there's substantial potential for improving care for patients with chronic illness, and that these improvements can achieve savings for the health system.
But I think Emanuel makes two mistakes in the piece. Both come from misinterpreting the psychological underpinnings of health reform.
First, after describing very lucidly how bundled payments provide financial support for coordination among caretakers, he explains that "the idea is to force all of a patient's care providers to work together." But "force" is the wrong verb here, and it reflects a mistake medical managers make all too often.
Collaborating with colleagues actually makes practice more enjoyable as well as more effective. Working together in ways that help our patients is intrinsically satisfying. When those in charge assume we clinicians have to be "forced" to do something, we buck them. When they facilitate what good clinicians want to do, we do it with pleasure. The idea of global payments is to "allow" and "support" collaboration, not to "force" it!
Second, Emanuel correctly notes that improved care coordination can produce much more savings than malpractice reform. But apart from the question of how much savings a reduction in defensive medicine might produce, the climate of litigation has a corrosive impact on the psychology of medical care and the doctor-patient relationship. In ethics discussions with medical students, residents, and practicing physicians, the first question is typically - "what does the law say - what happens if I'm sued?"
The spectre of malpractice litigation creates a sense that patients and society are potential enemies. Health reform requires collaboration between doctors, patients, and the wider public. Malpractice reform is crucial not just for whatever money it might save for the health system, but for the potential that reform will reduce the degree to which physicians feel under attack.