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The Extraordinary Pandemic Efforts You Didn’t See

March 19, 2021
7:57 am

America is well aware of the heroic work performed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic by physicians, nurses and other front line healthcare professionals, tirelessly handling a rapidly escalating number of cases as the virus spread and hospitals were stretched to capacity and beyond.

But what we didn’t see was the vital work taking place behind the scenes to reconfigure healthcare data systems so that COVID-19 treatment guidelines could be rapidly disseminated, patient data could be made readily available, in-person exchanges could be shifted to telehealth, and more healthcare professionals could have access to critical data as they, too, were forced to work from home as America quarantined.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Mayo Clinic Chief Information Officer Cris Ross described having to make decisions in days and weeks that would normally require months on how to make changes to the Clinic’s information technology systems in order to meet an unprecedented challenge.

He said, “We had to make close to 3,000 changes in our electronic health-records system to recognize rapidly evolving hospital-facility changes and protocols. Clinical guidelines for Covid treatment were developed and made available from within the records system. So, for example, if someone arrives at the emergency department who may have Covid, what are the steps? If that patient is admitted, what’s the next step? And if they’re sent to an ICU, what’s the next step?”

The rapid changes required of Mayo and other health systems when the pandemic struck underscores the importance of better preparing the nation for future health crises. Last year and into early 2021, the Healthcare Leadership Council worked with 100 different healthcare, employer and patient advocacy organizations to develop a comprehensive set of recommendations on how to strengthen private-public collaborations on disaster readiness and response. They include the creation of a 21st century public health data infrastructure that will enable real time access to critical information necessary to get ahead of a rapidly evolving crisis like COVID-19.

Many of the recommendations in this report were included in the recently-passed American Rescue Act, but much more work remains to be done before the next catastrophe strikes.

On the Precipice of a Major Stride in Healthcare Progress

August 13, 2020
4:49 pm

It actually seems elementary when you think about it.  To deliver the best possible and most cost-efficient care to patients, particularly those with complex chronic conditions, it is essential for all aspects of the healthcare system – primary care physicians, specialists, hospitals, pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers, pharmacies, and others – to work together to coordinate patient care and deliver comprehensive treatment.

Currently, however, our federal laws and regulations prevent that type of patient-centered collaboration.  Measures known as the Stark Law and the Anti-Kickback Statute were created in the era of fee-for-service medicine to prevent bad actors from acting in ways adverse to a patient’s interests in order to gain some sort of financial benefit.  In our current transition to holistic value-based care, though, these fraud and abuse safeguards are serving as daunting legal barriers to the kind of working relationships that deliver optimal health outcomes.

We are hopeful this is on the verge of changing.  The Department of Health and Human Services has developed, with extensive public input, new rules to modernize these outdated laws and regulations and create opportunities for healthcare professionals and organizations to collaborate without fear of legal reprisal.  There will still be more than adequate protections against fraud and abuse, but the obstacles to patient-centered, value-based care will be significantly alleviated.

These new rules were submitted by HHS to the Office of Management and Budget for final review and approval last month. The Healthcare Leadership Council is one of more than 120 healthcare companies, associations, and patient advocacy groups that has asked President Trump to intervene and bring this critical work across the regulatory finish line.

As the letter to the president puts it, with the finalization of these rules “victory can be claimed in the name of helping get better coordinated care and reducing overall healthcare costs.”  We don’t see any reason to wait to begin reaping these benefits.

The Systemic Flaw that is Health Inequity

April 15, 2020
5:51 pm

During times of crisis, a point of structural weakness becomes glaringly visible and vulnerable.  The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a spotlight on the inequities that exist in this country when it comes to health and well-being.  The importance of the social determinants of health is more apparent than ever.

As concerns grew about the virus spreading, the predominant proportion of white collar workers could storm the grocery stores and then settle in for the long haul in front of their laptops.  Meanwhile, blue collar workers began losing jobs and health protection, or were forced to work in hazardous conditions, constantly at risk of exposure to the virus.  Available data is making clear the socioeconomic divide that COVID-19 has laid bare.  In New York City, the bottom income quadrant accounts for 36 percent of all coronavirus cases in the city while the top quadrant accounts for just 10 percent.

Those who have no choice but to risk exposure in order to receive a paycheck, or conduct daily life activities like visit a laundromat or make frequent trips to the grocery store because they don’t have the money to stock up the pantry, are the ones who have the least access to quality healthcare to protect their lives.  People in low-income jobs, or who have lost their job during the pandemic, face hospitalizations with high out-of-pocket costs if they become sick.  They also frequently don’t have the support systems to help them in the event of serious illness.

As this virus has a greater impact on those who are less able to achieve social distancing, it’s creating a greater awareness of the work that needs to be done on social determinants.  The World Health Organization has provided examples of the factors that, besides clinical care, play a role in population health.  Safe and affordable housing, access to education, public safety, availability of healthy foods, local health services, toxic-free environments – all have a tremendous effect on our health and longevity and too many Americans are lacking some or all of these determinants.

The good news is that the healthcare industry is devoting considerable resources and attention to addressing health disparities and the social determinants of health.  The Healthcare Leadership Council has held a national summit on the issue and issued a report with specific recommendations.  And, on the ground, we’re seeing multiple initiatives that are demonstrating how community health programs, telehealth services, and expanding the definition of health benefits to include commodities like housing and transportation are making a difference in the lives of vulnerable populations.

The COVID-19 crisis is making it clear that we need to accelerate these efforts.

The Necessary Next Step in the Battle Against Substance Addiction

January 28, 2020
3:42 pm

One area in which we have seen a great deal of bipartisanship in Washington is in the effort to prevent and treat substance use disorder.  In 2018, Congress passed groundbreaking legislation by overwhelming margins in both houses that gave states the resources they need to combat what was then commonly known as the opioid crisis.

But as U.S. Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO) pointed out at a recent congressional hearing, the battle is far from over.  As she said, this addiction crisis has come in waves – the first being prescription pain medicines, the second heroin, the third synthetic opioids like fentanyl, and now, “it looks like a ‘fourth wave’ of the crisis may have already arrived.  The opioid epidemic has fueled a huge increase in methamphetamine use.  In 2018, there were more than twice as many deaths involving meth as 2015, and meth is increasingly turning up in overdose deaths and drug busts across the country.”

Given this continued high level of addiction and overdose cases, it is imperative that we give healthcare providers the tools they need to effectively treat substance use disorder patients.  So, an essential next step in combating this drug crisis must involve addressing regulatory barriers that are standing between medical professionals and the information they need to provide effective diagnosis and treatment.

A law that is more than 40 years old, known as 42 CFR Part 2, places information sharing in substance use disorder cases on a different plane that that applied to all other patients under HIPAA laws.  42 CFR Part 2 places strict limitations on confidential data sharing among front-line caregivers and, in so doing, makes care coordination extraordinarily difficult.  This outdated law worsens the odds of substance use disorder patients surviving and recovering.

There are two bills that have been introduced in Congress to address this problem.  The Overdose Prevention and Patient Safety Act in the House and the Protecting Jessica Grubb’s Legacy Act in the Senate would remove these regulatory stumbling blocks and enable caregivers to have the information they need to do their jobs.

The necessity of these measures was underscored by an official with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, who told Congress,  “We have invested a lot of resources through peer support and other tools to try to support that coordination, care management, etc. but there is still a huge limitation.  Even doctors within the same system can’t easily talk to each other to coordinate care around their patients.  North Carolina is fully supportive of modernizing 42 CFR in an attempt to maintain privacy but also move us to integrated care.”

National Obesity Care Week: Behind the Scenes of Obesity

September 19, 2019
4:19 pm

September 16-20 is National Obesity Care Week (NOCW).  NOCW is a source for science-based information on obesity.  More than 93 million Americans are affected by obesity, with an estimated cost of $480 billion to the healthcare system.  The Healthcare Leadership Council (HLC) has joined as a partner of NOCW, advancing our conviction that people who struggle with obesity deserve access to quality care and must be treated with dignity and respect.

Recently, HLC has been focused on how the healthcare system can utilize research on social determinants of health so that essential socioeconomic and environmental factors can be considered and addressed in addition to one’s clinical care.  At the beginning of this week, HLC hosted a Hill briefing that had an expert panel present on reducing disparities in health.  While this particular briefing looked at the whole patient from a pediatric and senior perspective rather than zeroing in on obesity, there is a strong relationship between obesity and low socioeconomic status that cannot be ignored.

Many HLC members have recognized the need to reach out and invest in the well-being of surrounding communities:

  • BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee has taken many avenues to encourage healthy lifestyles of Tennesseans, such as revitalizing neighborhoods with parks, and repaving the roads with bike lanes.
  • The Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation provided resources to establish one of New Jersey’s largest and most comprehensive children’s hospitals which includes a clinical center of excellence dedicated to the study and treat childhood obesity.
  • Fairview Health System launched a new 24-week Healthy Lifestyle Plan that combines evidence-based weight loss strategies with one-on-one lifestyle coaching.  This approach can address medical issues that make it hard for someone to lose weight on their own, such as hormone levels, the side effects of prescription drugs, or chronic conditions like sleep apnea.
  • Teladoc Health has invested in a personalized virtual care platform for physical and behavioral health, addressing the root of the problem for chronic disease with digital therapeutic interventions and sustainable behavioral change.

It is promising that across the healthcare spectrum there have been a variety of solutions offered to address obesity, but much progress must still be achieved to make a lasting impact on the health of millions of Americans.  Many people do not know that obesity is a disease, and education is the just the first step to achieving NOCW’s goal of access to comprehensive obesity care.  More voices are needed to enact change.  Additional information about ways to take action is available on ObesityCareWeek.org/ACTION.