Delivering Higher Value Care Means Spending More Time with Patients
“I would have written a shorter letter but did not have the time,” Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French mathematician and philosopher, once apologized. Unfortunately, the same problem often arises when physicians manage the care of patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart failure, and kidney disease. If they had more time (and in some cases, motivational skills), they could better persuade patients to make the sacrifices and hard choices to change their lifestyles and to follow the recommended treatment plan.
Pressuring physicians to maximize the number of patients they see and minimizing the time they spend with each is one of five counterproductive mistakes that health care providers often make in trying to reduce costs — the subject of a recent article in the Harvard Business Review.
Overworked physicians rarely have the time for these difficult conversations, especially when they are restricted to 20- to 30-minute appointments, with much of the front end spent updating a patient’s medical record. When physicians spend an inadequate amount of time with their patients, the patients may not fully understand the importance of complying with all aspects of their recommended treatments, which eventually leads to deteriorating health and higher treatment costs. Approximately 50% of patients with chronic conditions do not take their medications as prescribed.
To illustrate the problem, consider our research on the cost of treating patients when their kidneys begin to lose their ability to filter blood. Should the kidneys of a patient with such a chronic disease completely fail when a transplant is not immediately available, the person needs dialysis several times a week to filter and clean the blood. How the patient starts on dialysis has enormous health and cost implications.
The vast majority of patients should do peritoneal dialysis at home or start with hemodialysis at a dialysis center. Both approaches require a vascular surgeon to create a fistula or a graft to connect an artery and a vein in the forearm. The surgery must be performed well before dialysis starts since a fistula can take about three months and a graft several weeks to “mature,” or be ready to be used for dialysis. (The alternatives are having either a preemptive kidney transplant or a peritoneal dialysis catheter placed, which also require advance planning.) If dialysis is required and a matured graft or fistula is not available, the patient must start with a catheter inserted into a vein in the neck or chest, a process that leads to a much higher risk of infection, blood clotting, and death.
Despite the large health benefits from an optimal dialysis start, more than 50% of patients nationwide begin dialysis via a catheter. Some of these occur because primary care physicians wait too long to refer their patients to nephrologists. Once referred, many patients are in denial that they will need dialysis or that they will need it as soon as actually occurs. Such patients may not adequately prepare for this eventuality despite a timely recommendation by their nephrologist.
To understand these issues better, we formed a project team to study patients that started on dialysis in 2011 and 2012. It analyzed historical data of 167 patients insured by Kaiser Permanente in the Georgia Region, and used time-driven activity-based costing to assess the costs of care received one year prior to the start of dialysis and also the charges incurred for one year after starting dialysis. We learned that health complications in the year following a sub-optimal start of dialysis led to nearly $20,000 in extra treatment costs per patient.
Interestingly, the patients in our study who started on dialysis with a fistula or graft largely had the same breadth of nephrology care — number of nurse visits, nephrologist phone calls, care manager coordination, classes, and initial consults — during the one year prior to the commencement of dialysis as those who started sub-optimally with a catheter. Even including the extra cost of the vascular surgery, the costs of treating the two sets of patients before dialysis began were about the same.
A few differences did exist between the two sets of patients, likely reflecting the better compliance of patients that started dialysis optimally. Patients with an optimal start received, on average, one more follow-up visit (5 vs. 4) with the nephrologist. Patients who started optimally were also somewhat more likely to have attended a class to learn about the options for starting on dialysis and were more likely to have attended the class farther ahead of the start of dialysis.
Dr. Nirvan Mukerji, a nephrologist and a coauthor of this article, believes that he could significantly increase the percentage starting optimally if he could spend an additional 30 minutes with each patient, counseling them on how to best prepare for dialysis as their kidney disease progresses. While his full schedule had previously prevented him from spending that additional time, he is now testing the use of extended office visits for patients with advanced chronic kidney disease as well as alternative options, such as having patients already on dialysis make presentations with him at the education class. We estimated that the incremental cost for the extended meeting or the educational class presentation would be under $200, a small price to pay to avoid the health risks and $20,000 in higher treatment costs that typically occur in the first year after a patient starts dialysis sub-optimally.
There are many other examples of how primary care doctors treating chronic diseases, such as diabetes and congestive heart failure, could offer better advice and achieve better treatment compliance if they had more time to spend with their patients. The costs of such extra time would be repaid many times over, often by orders of magnitude, through fewer future complications. Attempting to improve a physician’s productivity by placing arbitrary limits on length of appointments or setting high targets for the numbers of patients that he or she should see each day lowers costs at the front end of a care cycle. But they incur much higher costs later in the cycle when preventable complications are treated in emergency rooms and intensive care units.