True or false:
- The best way to reduce health care costs is to prevent costly admissions for the sickest patients.
- Diet and exercise will help accomplish this goal for patients with diabetes.
Have you guessed?
Two studies out this week, which have flown under the radar of many news stations, suggests the answer may not be what we intuitively thought.
Almost 90% of Hospitalization Costs are Unavoidable
A new study from Dr. Karen E. Joynt and colleagues, published concurrently with their presentation of the results at the Academy Health conference, suggests that only about 12% of total acute care costs are actually “preventable”. They looked at 2009-2010 spending data for over 1 million Medicare beneficiaries and categorized their ED and hospitalization costs as “preventable” and “non-preventable” based on validated algorithms. This is what they found:
- The top 10% most costly patients (“high-cost”) were responsible for 73.0% of total acute care costs. No surprise there, for anyone who’s read Atul Gawande’s “The Hot Spotters“, or heard of the 80-20 rule.
- For both high-cost and non-high-cost patients, slightly more than 40% of ED visits and costs were deemed preventable. Sounds promising…
- However, total ED costs (~$124 million) paled in comparison to total hospitalization costs (~$3.0 billion). For these costs, “preventable” costs constituted only 9.6% of costs for high-cost patients and 16.8% for everyone else.
I’ve thrown together a graphic to illustrate this. Preventable costs are shaded darker:
This means that even if a health system succeeds in preventing 100% of its unnecessary ED visits, and in preventing all hospitalizations related to congestive heart failure, bacterial penumonia, COPD, urinary tract infections, etc. (diseases deemed to be “preventable” given effective outpatient management), total costs would only drop by 12.5%. That’s not very enticing, especially considering the formidable investment required to develop such care management capacity.
The main issue appears to be that the most costly hospitalizations, such as orthopedic conditions and cancer, can’t be prevented simply with better outpatient care management. You can do as much health coaching as possible, but short of confining granny to solitary confinement, she might eventually need that hip replacement.
The authors offer some cautious takeaways:
“These findings suggest that strategies focused on enhanced outpatient management of chronic disease, while critically important, may not be focused on the biggest and most expensive problems plaguing Medicare’s high-cost patients. Indeed, while a proportion of these very expensive inpatient episodes may be potentially preventable (such as acute myocardial infarction or degenerative joint disease leading to orthopedic procedures), their prevention would likely require a long time horizon and substantial investments in population wellness.” (emphasis mine)
Of course, hit those expensive diseases early with the one-two punch of diet and exercise! But just how long of a time horizon is needed? If you’re trying to prevent heart attacks in diabetics, it appears the answer is: longer than 9.6 years.
Diet and Exercise Failed to Reduce Heart Attack/Stroke Among Diabetics
It was not a heartening day for proponents of care management and prevention. Another study, from the Look AHEAD (Action for Health in Diabetes) Research Group, implemented a randomized intervention of diet and exercise for overweight diabetic patients and set out to track them for 13.5 years, hoping to prove some health benefits. They stopped it at a median of 9.6 years based on a futility analysis; it didn’t work.
Most strikingly, the diet and exercise intervention seemed to work just fine. When the study ended, intervention patients had achieved significantly greater weight loss (-6.0% vs -3.5%), reduction in waist circumference (-1.8% vs -0.9%), and improvement in fitness score (+3.7% vs -2.0%). Not only that, they had significantly greater improvements in almost all measured cardiovascular risk factors (including glycated hemoglobin, blood pressure, and triglycerides).
So it’s puzzling that the incidence of cardiovascular-related hospitalizations or death was statistically indistinguishable between the two groups (P=0.51).
Don’t Put All Your Eggs in the Care Management/Prevention Basket
Despite these sobering findings, I’m still of the opinion that care management and prevention are worthy efforts, as Drs. Carroll and Frakt point out in an accompanying editorial. After all, 12.5% of a very large number is still a very large number. And the diabetes study did show many indicators between the intervention and control groups converging after the first year; if we could figure out a way to sustain the benefits of exercise and diet, perhaps the longitudinal effects on outcomes would be more pronounced.
That said, maybe we should focus on two additional sources of cost savings:
- Streamline care processes and avoid costly errors during (non-preventable) hospitalizations. In fact, one of the study authors wrote the book on how a 5-step checklist prevented 43 central line infections and saved ~$2 million over 2 years. He’s now bringing the approach to birth and end-of-life care. And he’s not the only one achieving breakthrough results with simple solutions.
- Take a closer look at post-acute care. A provocative article last month pointed the finger at post-acute care for variations in Medicare spending. Since post-acute care made up 13.4% of national health expenditures in 2012 (compared to hospital care’s 31.5%), there could definitely be substantial opportunity to reduce costs there.
But perhaps the most important takeaway is: Never assume a strategy will work, even if it sounds logical, until you’ve looked at the data.