Should Hospitals Be More Like Chain Restaurants? —New Yorker Reviewed by Momizat on . Restaurant Chains Have Managed to Combine Quality Control, Cost Control, and Innovation. Can Health Care?   Physician and writer Atul Gawande publishes an essay Restaurant Chains Have Managed to Combine Quality Control, Cost Control, and Innovation. Can Health Care?   Physician and writer Atul Gawande publishes an essay Rating:
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Should Hospitals Be More Like Chain Restaurants? —New Yorker

Restaurant Chains Have Managed to Combine Quality Control, Cost Control, and Innovation. Can Health Care?  

Physician and writer Atul Gawande publishes an essay in the New Yorker today that discusses how the Cheesecake Factory delivers good food at reasonable prices while meeting rigorous metrics (it throws away only 2.5% of all its groceries, for instance), and explores whether and how the lessons of Cheesecake Factory efficiency can be effectively applied to today’s hospitals. 

Only a quarter of physicians are self-employed today, Gawande notes, which is a remarkable turnaround from only a decade ago when the majority were self-employed.  Most are abandoning individual practices to work at hospitals, and the essay analyzes the market dynamics, regulation, and other forces driving that move. Gawande asserts: “We’ve let health-care systems provide us with the equivalent of greasy-spoon fare at four-star prices, and the results have been ruinous. The Cheesecake Factory model represents our best prospect for change.”

Essentially, Gawande writes, we’re moving from a Jeffersonian ideal of small guilds and independent craftsmen to a Hamiltonian recognition of the advantages that size and centralized control can bring.  

But there may be a downside:  “Our new models come from industries that have learned to increase the capabilities and efficiency of the human beings who work for them. Yet the same industries have also tended to devalue those employees. The frontline worker, whether he is making cars, solar panels, or wasabi-crusted ahi tuna, now generates unprecedented value but receives little of the wealth he is creating. Can we avoid this as we revolutionize health care?”    

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Big chains thrive because they provide goods and services of greater variety, better quality, and lower cost than would otherwise be available. Size is the key. It gives them buying power, lets them centralize common functions, and allows them to adopt and diffuse innovations faster than they could if they were a bunch of small, independent operations. Such advantages have made Walmart the most successful retailer on earth. Pizza Hut alone runs one in eight pizza restaurants in the country. The Cheesecake Factory’s major competitor, Darden, owns Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Red Lobster, and the Capital Grille; it has more than two thousand restaurants across the country and employs more than a hundred and eighty thousand people. We can bristle at the idea of chains and mass production, with their homogeneity, predictability, and constant genuflection to the value-for-money god. Then you spend a bad night in a “quaint” “one of a kind” bed-and-breakfast that turns out to have a manic, halitoxic innkeeper who can’t keep the hot water running, and it’s right back to the Hyatt.

Medicine, though, had held out against the trend. Physicians were always predominantly self-employed, working alone or in small private-practice groups. American hospitals tended to be community-based. But that’s changing. Hospitals and clinics have been forming into large conglomerates. And physicians—facing escalating demands to lower costs, adopt expensive information technology, and account for performance—have been flocking to join them. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only a quarter of doctors are self-employed—an extraordinary turnabout from a decade ago, when a majority were independent. They’ve decided to become employees, and health systems have become chains.

I’m no exception. I am an employee of an academic, nonprofit health system called Partners HealthCare, which owns the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Massachusetts General Hospital, along with seven other hospitals, and is affiliated with dozens of clinics around eastern Massachusetts. Partners has sixty thousand employees, including six thousand doctors. Our competitors include CareGroup, a system of five regional hospitals, and a new for-profit chain called the Steward Health Care System.

I’m no exception. I am an employee of an academic, nonprofit health system called Partners HealthCare, which owns the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Massachusetts General Hospital, along with seven other hospitals, and is affiliated with dozens of clinics around eastern Massachusetts. Partners has sixty thousand employees, including six thousand doctors. Our competitors include CareGroup, a system of five regional hospitals, and a new for-profit chain called the Steward Health Care System.

Steward was launched in late 2010, when Cerberus—the multibillion-dollar private-investment firm—bought a group of six failing Catholic hospitals in the Boston area for nine hundred million dollars. Many people were shocked that the Catholic Church would allow a corporate takeover of its charity hospitals. But the hospitals, some of which were more than a century old, had been losing money and patients, and Cerberus is one of those firms which specialize in turning around distressed businesses.

Cerberus has owned controlling stakes in Chrysler and GMAC Financing and currently has stakes in Albertsons grocery stories, one of Austria’s largest retail bank chains, and the Freedom Group, which it built into one of the biggest gun-and-ammunition manufacturers in the world. When it looked at the Catholic hospitals, it saw another opportunity to create profit through size and efficiency. In the past year, Steward bought four more Massachusetts hospitals and made an offer to buy six financially troubled hospitals in south Florida. It’s trying to create what some have called the Southwest Airlines of health care—a network of high-quality hospitals that would appeal to a more cost-conscious public.

Steward’s aggressive growth has made local doctors like me nervous. But many health systems, for-profit and not-for-profit, share its goal: large-scale, production-line medicine. The way medical care is organized is changing—because the way we pay for it is changing.

Historically, doctors have been paid for services, not results. In the eighteenth century B.C., Hammurabi’s code instructed that a surgeon be paid ten shekels of silver every time he performed a procedure for a patrician—opening an abscess or treating a cataract with his bronze lancet. It also instructed that if the patient should die or lose an eye, the surgeon’s hands be cut off. Apparently, the Mesopotamian surgeons’ lobby got this results clause dropped. Since then, we’ve generally been paid for what we do, whatever happens. The consequence is the system we have, with plenty of individual transactions—procedures, tests, specialist consultations—and uncertain attention to how the patient ultimately fares.

Health-care reforms—public and private—have sought to reshape that system. This year, my employer’s new contracts with Medicare, BlueCross BlueShield, and others link financial reward to clinical performance. The more the hospital exceeds its cost-reduction and quality-improvement targets, the more money it can keep. If it misses the targets, it will lose tens of millions of dollars. This is a radical shift. Until now, hospitals and medical groups have mainly had a landlord-tenant relationship with doctors. They offered us space and facilities, but what we tenants did behind closed doors was our business. Now it’s their business, too.

The theory the country is about to test is that chains will make us better and more efficient. The question is how. To most of us who work in health care, throwing a bunch of administrators and accountants into the mix seems unlikely to help. Good medicine can’t be reduced to a recipe.

Then again neither can good food: every dish involves attention to detail and individual adjustments that require human judgment. Yet, some chains manage to achieve good, consistent results thousands of times a day across the entire country. I decided to get inside one and find out how they did it.

Read the entire piece here

Will Hospitals’ Changing Organizational Structures Bring Quality Healthcare at Reasonable Prices?

see also:

The Hot Spotters
Can we lower medical costs by giving the neediest patients better care?
by Atul Gawande
In Camden, New Jersey, one per cent of patients account for a third of the city’s medical costs.  (1/24/11)

The Cost Conundrum
What a Texas town can teach us about health care.
by Atul Gawande  (6/1/09)

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