On Tuesday night President Obama laid down both a problem and a promise. He said, “we must also address the crushing cost of health care. This is a cost that now causes a bankruptcy in America every thirty seconds…and in each of these years, one million more Americans have lost their health insurance. It is one of the major reasons why small businesses close their doors and corporations ship jobs overseas.” And then he said the new budget would make “the largest investment ever in preventive care, because that is one of the best ways to keep our people healthy and our costs under control.”
Folks, keeping our costs under control and our people healthy will require a new era of collaborative medicine. What is collaborative medicine? It is a health-care system in which consumers and their physicians work together on an ongoing basis to avoid unnecessary illness and suffering. Imagine doctors who had the time to really help you or those you care about to stay healthy and well. Imagine if every person who needed help with their health had not only a dedicated online tool to help them manage their health, but also their primary care physician looking over their shoulder to help them follow their personal plan. In general, data shows that mindful and aware people manage their health better. The point of this post is that not only can we afford collaborative medicine — we can afford it with the funds already promised in the stimulus bill. Best of all, it will save us far more than it will cost us in the long run.
This is a simple proposal for how to get us there.
First I want to make a startling point. As I pointed out in my TEPR talk, out of the $2.3 trillion we spend on health care, incredibly less than 1% of it actually goes to the primary care physicians. Put differently folks, what we think of as medicine — which is seeing our doctor — leaves only about $20 billion in our doctor’s pocket (not counting specialists) out of the total of $2.3 trillion spent. Think what a small percentage of our total health care costs that means are going to our doctors. If you subtract $20 Billion from $2.3 trillion, you get $2.28 trillion. All the rest of that $2.28 trillion is going to insurance filing, insurance processing, hospitals, labs, medicines, imaging, and specialists.
If you want to think about this more personally, our national health care costs average about $7500 for each man, woman, and child and more than $15,000 for people who actually have, or are at risk of having, serious illnesses (probably only 100 million but I figured 150 million here just to be safe). Of that $15,000, less than $100 is going to the primary care physicians to treat you. Because of this, there is a shortage of primary care physicians which is why, when Massachusetts insured all of its citizens, the biggest problem became just getting an appointment. And, even if you can get an appointment, most doctors have no tools or time to really help you manage your health on an ongoing basis.
Really it seems that there are about 100 million people who need much more active management and care. These are the people who will cost us or are costing us so much money today. How can we help them? We can offer each primary care physician $100 for each at-risk or ill patient each year to provide collaborative online support to their patients and offer a monetary award to each patient who actually reduces his/her risk factors by even one risk factor. What will this cost and could it come out of the $20 Billion just approved for Health IT in DC?
At $100 per at-risk or ill patient, primary care physicians will earn $10 billion more, out of the $20 billion allocated to online innovation. That’s a tiny fraction of the $2.3 Trillion we spend today but it is a windfall for these doctors, like getting a 50% raise This will help attract some desperately needed freshly-minted doctors to primary care medicine. And because at least half of that $2.3 trillion is spent on treating preventable lifestyle diseases, it will not take much for our much-happier primary care docs to have profound impact on their patients lives: reducing just ONE one risk factor triggers enormous reductions in health care costs.
How much will it cost to deliver the required IT to support collaborative medicine between doctor and patient? As I pointed out in my talk at TEPR , you will find that those of us creating health IT online would have no problem delivering the tools to the doctors and consumers alike for collaborative medicine for a tiny fraction of $20 billion currently proposed by the legislation. I suggest that $3.6 billion is plenty to pay for systems will enable 100 million people to be helped by doctors, therapists, and coaches alike.
Data consistently shows that offering people a reward, even a modest one, for improving their health increases compliance. We have money left over for this. If $20 billion is being spent, and $10 billion goes to the doctors and $3.6 billion goes to the IT systems to support this, that leaves $6.4 billion for the 100 million Americans who have lifestyle issues that have led or are leading to disease. Figure that we’re shooting for 15% of them to remove a risk factor. That’s 15 million Americans. With $6.4 billion, we can reward each of them with several hundred dollars each. Even if, optimistically, 30% of them improve we can still provide about $200 per person as a reward. And the savings to the US of 15 million people dropping even one risk factor will be vastly greater than this. Dropping even one risk factor typically will cut someone’s expected annual health costs by $1000-$2000 – more when they’re older. Not to mention the reward to them of actually feeling better, being more mobile, and the peace of mind to those who love them. As tax payers we are going to be paying this bill anyway — we should try to cut it now.
My proposal benefits consumers and doctors alike. The doctors are getting paid more to deliver better care that is actually targeted, with the help of IT, at providing ongoing coaching and support for patients to encourage them to improve their lifestyles. Doctors are being paid more to do a better and enjoyable job. The consumers finally have tools to manage their health but with the added value of having the person they most trust in this matter, their primary care physician oversee their progress and plan. More doctors will become primary care physicians because the pay is better and the job is more fun, which will address the shortage issue we’ve seen in Massachusetts. It will mean fewer patients going to specialists and having lots of expensive treatments and stays in hospitals as they start to make the changes that help them avoid diabetes, heart disease, and the complications thereof.
We’re prepared to spend $20 billion on trying to improve Health IT anyway. Let’s spend it correctly.