Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Accountable Care Sprints Ahead

A recent report from the Oliver Wyman consulting firm - "The ACO Surprise" - argues that ACOs are on the verge of triggering a major transformation of the US health system. I hope their prediction comes true!

For all the complexity of federal ACO regulations, I see ACOs as making four core basic commitments:
  1. Take responsibility for helping a population be as healthy as possible
  2. Connect specialties, disciplines, and sites (hospitals, rehabilitation, nursing homes) in a coordinated manner
  3. Engage patients as active partners - ideally leaders - in promoting their own health and guiding their treatment
  4. Accept payment for producing valuable results for the population, not for the individual units of service rendered
Here's the Oliver Wyman view of the near term ACO landscape:
  • 2.4 million current Medicare ACO patients
  • 15 million non-Medicare patients of the Medicare ACOs. The report predicts that the Medicare ACOs will move towards caring for all of their patients in the "ACO manner"
  • 8 - 14 million patients to be cared for in non-Medicare ACOs
If Oliver Wyman is correct, it won't be many years before 10 percent of the US population receives its care in accord with the ACO philosophy. Insofar as ACOs are successful in creating more value for patients per dollar of investment, they'll come to dominate the marketplace.

In my physician hat I see the ACO vision as embodying the fundamental values that motivate most clinicians. The reason I joined the not-for-profit Harvard Community Health Plan practice in 1975 was because it was organized around those values.

In my patient hat, I've chosen to have my own medical care from one of the "Pioneer ACOs". I want my doctors, nurses and hospitalists (if I come under their wing in the future) to collaborate in what they do with, for and to me.

Some years ago a patient of mine was in a severe state of psychiatric crisis. The long term problem was a major psychiatric ailment, but the immediate challenge was getting control of acute alcohol abuse. I made what felt like a zillion telephone calls (this was before all parties used a shared electronic medical record) to alert all those likely to be involved with my patient to the clinical situation and what I was recommending. A week or so later my patient reported - with appreciation - "I spoke with nine different people last week and they all said the same thing..." The crisis subsided.

From the perspective of clinicians and patients, care delivered in accord with the first three ACO commitments listed above feels right. The three commitments meet patient wishes and reflect the underlying ideals of the health professions. The fourth commitment is what matters to us from the economic perspective. I share CMS's belief that doing the right thing in health care will end up saving money. But that will be a happy result of ACOs, not the reason for going down that path.

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