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Hospitals should consider underused resource to cut costs and promote value-based care

There is a wealth of data that could help hospitals cut costs while still providing high-quality service for patients, if physicians were willing to join forces with administrators to truly understand how much their services cost, according to a new article by Stanford researchers.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has been pushing physicians and providers toward population-based payment, which requires that providers reduce their internal costs below payment levels.

In this effort, the beleaguered health-care payer for the elderly has been undertaking innovative payment models, such as accountable care organizations (ACOs) and bundled payment that require providers to better coordinate care and reduce reimbursements and unnecessary or redundant patient procedures.

“However, it has proven challenging for the models, which focus on costs from the payer perspective, to achieve the desired effect of reduced Medicare spending,” writes Merle Ederhof, PhD, in this Health Affairs Blog. The researcher who focuses on issues at the intersection of health-care and accounting is with Stanford’s Clinical Excellence Research Center.

Her co-authors, Alexander L. Chin, MD, MBA and Jeffrey K. Jopling, MD, MSHS, are also at the center, which is dedicated to discovering, testing and evaluating cost-saving innovations in clinical care.

Changing old patterns at hospitals and among physicians

“Highly detailed cost data generated by internal cost accounting systems already exist in a large, and growing, number of health-care organizations,” says Ederhof. 

As Ederhof wrote in this New England Journal of paper last year, the data collected by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society shows that more than 1,300 U.S. hospitals have adopted sophisticated internal cost accounting systems.

The authors argue that the cost data produced by these accounting systems can be used in hospitals internally to lower their costs of providing services to all their patients, both within and outside the Medicare system. But physicians must get on board.

“The high adoption rate of these cost-measurement systems is not surprising, considering that the systems are designed around the existing data infrastructure that providers must have in place for billing purposes,” the authors write. “However, while provider administrators have used such cost accounting systems for some time, we are only now beginning to see them being used by interdisciplinary teams involving physicians to restructure clinical processes.”

Some large health-care systems have already started using these accounting systems alongside teams of physicians.

Partners HealthCare in Boston has started to use this approach to analyze costs for a set of services, for example, in a recent project a team of spine surgeons reviewed and discussed unblinded comparisons at the episode and cost-category levels. 

“Analysis of the costs in the individual categories revealed variation in clinical processes across surgeons, which was very illuminating to the team,” the authors wrote.

Leaders at NYU Langone Health have also started to use the cost data in the organization’s “Value-Based Management” initiative. A key feature of the initiative, the authors write, is a dashboard that is accessible to all physicians. For each specific diagnosis-related group (DRG), the dashboard shows cost averages for each physician performing the procedure, at the procedure level and at the level of individual cost categories, such as the ICU, laboratory, operating room and therapies.

“Physicians have been highly engaged and interested in the dashboard since it allows them to compare their costs to their peers and external benchmarks, and to learn how they can restructure clinical processes to lower their costs,” the authors write.

This Value Based Management initiative at NYU, which incorporates cost savings targets, development-level incentives and quality components, has apparently resulted in substantial cost savings for the organization.

Stanford Health Care has also joined the movement to promote value-based care, recently launching its Cost Savings Reinvestment Program

Compare, for example, the average cost for a hip replacement surgery among five surgeons who perform the surgery in the same hospital. Then take the “positive outlier,” or the surgeon with the lowest cost for the surgery.

“Once positive outliers are identified, detailed analysis that combines physicians’ clinical expertise and administrators’ insight can uncover ways in which clinical processes can be restructured to deliver high-quality care at lower total episode cost,” the authors wrote.

Then the interdisciplinary team of physicians and administrators must try to understand why that surgeon’s costs are lower and what he or she does differently. Did she order physical therapy sooner after the hip-replacement surgery? Did he use a different anesthesia approach that resulted in a shorter recovery for the patient? 

But you still have to get those four, more expensive surgeons to adopt the less-expensive treatments. And that can go to the heart of a physician’s identity.

“Even just a few years ago concern for the cost of providing health-care services still heavily clashed with physicians’ professional identity,” Ederhof said in an interview. 

The authors believe there is no turning back.

“In my view, the shift in recent years is attributable to the fact that physicians are starting to realize that the rising costs of the U.S. health-care system are no longer sustainable and that things will have to change — with or without their collaboration,” Ederhof said.