Health care

Gregory Curfman, MD

Report proposes new “vital signs” to measure the nation’s health

Gregory Curfman, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Publications

Doctors use vital signs as a relatively straightforward way to detect an illness or monitor a person’s health. Key ones include blood pressure, body temperature, breathing rate, and heart rate. A report from the newly christened National Academy of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine) proposes using 15 “vital signs” to track how health care in the United States measures up. These include life expectancy, well-being, access to care, patient safety, evidence-based care, and others. Why bother creating such a list? Health care costs in the U.S. are the highest in the world, yet people in many countries that spend less on health care are in better health overall and have better health care outcomes. In order to improve the performance of health care, we need to measure how it is doing in a logical, sustainable way. These vital signs will help us answer questions about what we are doing well and where we must improve.

Gregory Curfman, MD

Everywhere, hospitals are merging — but why should you care?

Gregory Curfman, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Publications

Hospitals across America are merging. In 2014 alone, there were 95 mergers, acquisitions, and joint ventures among U.S. hospitals, down only slightly from 98 in 2013. What is fueling this trend toward hospital consolidation — and why should you, as a consumer of health care, be concerned about it? Hospital administrators who create the mergers believe that hospital consolidation improves efficiency, access to care, and quality of care, and may lower costs. In contrast to hospital administrators, many health economists are wary about the growing number of these mergers. When individual hospitals merge into larger systems, they gain a larger share of the consumer health market. That puts them in a position to ask health insurance companies to pay more for medical care and procedures. These higher prices are not borne by the insurers, but by consumers in the form of greater premiums. Thus, some economists argue, mergers drive up health care costs and place added financial pressure on consumers.

Beverly Merz

Precision medicine is coming, but not anytime soon

Beverly Merz, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

President Obama’s announcement of a Precision Medicine Initiative was one of the few items in this year’s State of the Union address to garner bipartisan support. And for good reason. Precision medicine, also known as personalized medicine, offers the promise of health care based on your unique DNA profile and the profiles of a million other individuals. Getting to precision care will require new diagnostic tests. It will also need a new regulatory framework to make sure that technologies aren’t launched before they’ve been proven to be safe and effective, according to a Perspective article in The New England Journal of Medicine. It may take a few years to design this new vetting system and put it in place. In other words, precision medicine is on the horizon, but it isn’t around the corner.

Gregory Curfman, MD

Will the Supreme Court send Obamacare into a death spiral?

Gregory Curfman, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Publications

The Supreme Court heard arguments this morning in a case that could threaten the viability of the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature health care law. The law, also known as Obamacare, survived a previous Supreme Court challenge in 2012. But this new case, called King vs. Burwell, has many people worried, and rightfully so. At issue in the case are the financial subsidies provided to millions of Americans to buy health insurance through the insurance marketplaces, called exchanges. Without these subsidies, many people of lower income would not be able to afford coverage. Stopping these subsidies would put a big dent in the “affordable” part of the law’s name. The plaintiffs argue that the Affordable Care Act allows for subsidies to be provided when insurance is purchased on exchanges “established by the State” (there are 17 of these), but not on the exchange established by the federal government for the other states. The outcome of the case may hinge on how the justices interpret those four words in the health law.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Better use of medicines could save billions

Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor
Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

Wiser use of prescription medications by everyone—doctors and their patients—could save the U.S. health care system more than $200 billion a year. That’s the conclusion of a new report, Avoidable Costs in U.S. Healthcare, from the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. Inefficient or ineffective use of medications lead to six million hospitalizations, four million trips to the emergency room and 78 million visits to doctors and other care providers each year, according to the report. Those are huge numbers. Although $213 billion represents less than 8% of what Americans spend on health care each year, it’s still a staggering sum. It also exacts human costs that aren’t reflected in the estimates. The report identifies 6 things that can be improved to address the problem: 1) not taking medications as directed, 2) taking too many medications, 3) delayed treatment, 4) overuse of antibiotics, 5) medication errors, and 6) underuse of generic medications.

Daniel DeNoon

Cities can learn lessons about diabetes from rural areas

Daniel DeNoon, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

City dwellers often think of rural America as a throwback to past “good old days.” But when it comes to obesity and diabetes, people living outside urban areas offer a frightening glimpse of the future. While more than 8% of Americans now have diabetes, in some rural counties 20% of the residents have diabetes. Those counties also tend to have high rates of obesity. Barriers to healthy living contribute to both obesity and diabetes. So does lack of primary care physicians. One answer may be greater reliance on community health workers—lay people trained to provide diabetes education and outreach. In Birmingham, Alabama, the Cities for Life program has doctors refer people with diabetes to “patient navigators” who help them find local resources such as nearby exercise classes or mobile farmers’ markets.

Ask questions to get the most out of a health care visit

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

During visits with your doctors or other health care providers, do you speak up and ask questions? If the answer is “yes,” congratulations. You’ve taken an important step to getting the most out of your health care visits. You’re also in the minority. Most people have trouble asking their doctors questions. It can be even harder to disagree with your doctor, or make known your preferences for care and even your worries. There are many reasons for poor patient-doctor communication. One is what Timothy J. Judson and colleagues call the asymmetry of power. Medical lingo is another key barrier. The federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s “Questions to Ask Your Doctor” campaign and the Joint Commission’s “Speak Up Initiatives” offer free information to help people ask the sometimes difficult questions needed for good health care.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Base shared decision making on good information, personal preferences

Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor
Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

We are taught to share at an early age, and sharing is encouraged and praised across the life span. One area in which there has been a lack of sharing is medicine. Doctors have traditionally made decisions for their patients with little or no discussion about the preferences of the person who will ultimately have to live with the decision. That’s changing. More and more, doctors are trying to implement a model known as shared decision making or informed decision making. These terms refer to a process that includes a thoughtful, informed conversation between you and your doctor aimed at making a decision that’s right for you. Shared decision making is gaining acceptance as a medical “best practice.” Many studies suggest that it improves health outcomes, taking medications as directed and following other instructions, and satisfaction with a treatment or course of action.

Stephanie Watson

More Americans using retail health clinics

As wait times to see a doctor for simple problems like sinusitis and urinary tract infection lengthen, more and more Americans are turning to retail health clinics—walk-in medical facilities located in pharmacies, grocery stores, and retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target. The number of visits to such clinics quadrupled from 1.48 million in 2007 to 5.97 million in 2009, according to a study published in the journal Health Affairs, and topped 10 million last year. Convenience is driving this migration to retail health clinics, since you can walk into a retail health clinic without an appointment, and many are open nights and weekends. Although most retail clinics focus on immunizations and common ailments such as strep throat and sinus infections, some are beginning to manage chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, and asthma.

New public database shows hospital billing charges all over the map

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Most reputable companies that provide services tell you what you’ll get for your money. Hospitals are an exception. They haven’t traditionally made public the cost of operations and other procedures. This secrecy has let hospitals set widely different prices for the same procedure. It’s also made it impossible to do any comparison shopping. Yesterday’s release to the public of a once very private database shows just how big the differences can be from hospital to hospital. The database, released by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, details what 3,300 hospitals charged for the 100 most common treatments and procedures in 2011. It data reinforce the big differences in charges from one part of the U.S. to another. What’s new and surprising are the huge differences sometimes seen between hospitals in the same city, or even the same neighborhood.