Health care

New public database shows hospital billing charges all over the map

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former 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.

Few plan for long-term care though most will need it

Mary Pickett, M.D., Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Two of every three Americans who reach age 65 will at some point need long-term care for up to three years. Yet the majority of those age 40 and older have done “little or no planning” for how they might pay for long-term care when they get older. That’s a key finding from a new survey of 1,019 Americans over age 40 on the topic of long-term care. The survey was done by the Associated Press and NORC at the University of Chicago. Most people underestimate the cost of nursing home care (it averages $6,700 a month) and overestimate what Medicare will cover. And few people are setting aside money for long-term care even as most worry about key issues of aging such as memory loss or being a burden to family members. Without a crystal ball, it’s tricky to plan for the future. It’s easy to convince yourself that you or a partner won’t need long-term care. But the statistics suggest you should start planning now, even if your plan isn’t perfect.

Panel cites top 10 strategies for improving patient safety

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

The toll taken by medical mistakes burst into public attention with a 1999 report called To Err Is Human from the U.S. Institute of Medicine. The report estimated that between 44,000 and 98,000 people die each year as a result of preventable medical errors. Such errors can be headline grabbers, like the death of Boston Globe columnist Betsy Lehman from an overdose during chemotherapy. The safety of hospital stays and encounters with health-care providers got a boost today with the publication of 22 evidence-based “patient safety strategies.” Although most focus on care that takes place in hospitals, they extend to almost all interactions between individuals and their doctors, nurses, and other care providers. Very few of the safety practices are expensive, high-tech interventions. Instead, they are almost old-fashioned efforts that aim to improve communication between health-care providers and their patients, and to improve the practice of medicine rather than the art of medicine. The theme of all of these interventions is to create systems that help caregivers follow every step that is known to improve patient care, and to avoid relying on fallible human memory. To err may be human, but it is also often preventable.

Generic drugs: don’t ask, just tell

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Greater use of generic drugs could save the healthcare system—and American consumers—billions of dollars that would be better spent elsewhere. What’s holding us back? Some consumers are reluctant to use generic medications, thinking they are inferior to “the real thing.” Doctors are also a big part of the problem. Up to half of physicians hold negative perceptions about generic drugs. And a new study to be published in tomorrow’s JAMA Internal Medicine shows that about 4 in 10 doctors sometimes or often prescribe a brand-name drug just because their patients ask for it. Prescribing a brand-name drug when a generic is available is a huge source of wasteful spending that could easily be prevented. People ask for brand-name drugs because they have heard of them through advertising or word of mouth, while their generic alternatives generally aren’t advertised. Doctors could help save billions of dollars by just saying “no.”

The Affordable Care Act—moving forward

Nancy Keating, M.D., Associate Professor of Medicine and Health Care Policy

Last week, Americans reelected President Obama and returned a Democratic majority to the Senate. How that will affect the economy, foreign policy, and other aspects of government remain to be seen. One thing we can say for certain—it pulls the Affordable Care Act (ACA) out of limbo. The President’s re-election means we can expect to see the ACA implemented. Some popular elements of the law are already in place: allowing children to stay on their parent’s health coverage until age 26, and allowing for cost-free preventive services. Other more complicated aspects of the ACA remain to be realized. These include the establishment of state-run exchanges through which the millions of uninsured Americans covered by the ACE can buy health insurance; extension of eligibility for Medicaid to Americans who earn less than 133% of the poverty level; and innovations to improve the how health care is paid for and delivered while improving care and lowering costs.

The Cheesecake Factory: a model for health care?

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

In a new essay entitled “Big Med,” physician-author Atul Gawande muses in The New Yorker if The Cheesecake Factory and other successful chain restaurants could serve as a model for improving health care. He wondered how a large restaurant could deliver “a range of services to millions of people at a reasonable cost and with a consistent level of quality,” while hospitals and other parts of the U.S. health care system can’t. The experience prompted Dr. Gawande to meet with managers, cooks, and other workers at a Boston-area Cheesecake Factory to see how it delivers good food and a good dining experience time after time. He then goes on to compare the restaurant’s procedures with what goes on in hospitals.

Anthony Komaroff, M.D.

The Supreme Court’s health care decision: What it does—and does not—mean

Anthony Komaroff, M.D., Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court that largely upholds the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act should be viewed as a landmark event—whether one agrees with it or not. The Supreme Court’s ruling means that many more people will have health insurance; that health care will continue to be provided largely by the private sector; and that insurance companies won’t be able to deny an individual coverage because he or she has a chronic medical condition, drop coverage if an individual becomes sick, or put limits on the amount of lifetime coverage a person can get. It also means that individuals without health insurance will have to pay for it, and that many employers who do not currently offer health insurance as a benefit will be required to do so, or pay a stiff penalty.