Michael Milleson is well known in the health policy and health quality for his articulate commentary, sharp wit, and undeviating focus on improving our health care system. His 1996 Book, Demanding Medical Excellence, is a tome that still rings true today.
Can you share with us your background?
I was one of the first journalists to cover health economics and policy for a general interest newspaper, beginning the feat as a financial reporter for the Chicago Tribune in 1982. In 1986, I received an Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellowship, whereby you go into the field for a year and write on a topic. (Newsweek economics writer Robert Samuelson and Passages author Gail Sheehy were Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellows.) My topic, in the post-DRG era was “The Deregulation of the American Health Care System,” which is what Republicans called their regulations. By being out in the field, I learned the difference between in-the-trenches reality and meeting room reality.
My series, “Managing Medicine” in 1987 looked at competition, the dangers and advantages of managed care, measuring and managing quality and “upstairs/downstairs” care of the uninsured. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, one of three for which I was nominated while at the Trib. But the reporting also started moving me into a level of knowledge of health care (and appreciation of areas of gray) beyond journalism. I started covering the meetings of health services researchers, for example. By 1993, after writing a series on quality of care, which had become my main interest, I was ready for something more.
I was given a Robert Wood Johnson Investigator Award in Health Policy Research, the only non-MD or PhD to win this competitive award that first year and for many years after. I became a visiting scholar at Northwestern University and wrote Demanding Medical Excellence: Doctors and Accountability in the Information Age, a peer-reviewed, footnoted book written in plain English. I meant to do a journalist’s book; instead, I did a PhD thesis translated back into English about medical errors, medical informatics and informed decision-making, managed care, patient empowerment and value purchasing. It came out in 1997 and was much, much farther ahead of its time than I would have guessed or wished. I was still naïve about the pace of change in health care.
I finished the book while working as a principal in the benefits consulting practice of Mercer, because I believed in the power of employers to change the system to work more effectively. I left Mercer in 2001 and have headed my own firm, Health Quality Advisors LLC, while retaining an academic appointment as the Mervin Shalowitz, MD Visiting Scholar at the Kellogg School of Management. I’d describe myself as a consultant, academic and quality of care evangelical.
How has health care changed since you wrote your book in 1997?
Evidence-based medicine, once a curious important from England, has become so mainstream an idea that it’s inspired its own backlash — even though the actual practice of evidence-based medicine is very far from prevalent. The idea of value purchasing has come back into fashion and managed care has gone completely out of fashion (at least until a new name is invented). But the biggest changes are the end of silence about medical errors and the acceptance of the need for computer technology. The latter, of course, is a little like giving the military credit for accepting the need to replace cavalry horses with tanks by 1941, but at least it’s progress. One more technological change: the Internet was new in 1997. Today, it is giving patients the power to partner with their physicians, generate content and go “off the grid” of the medical establishment in ways that could not have been anticipated then. This grassroots change may end up being the most powerful of all.
What’s your diagnosis of the current health care crisis?
Well this is a “crisis” that was 40 years in the making. It’s funny because Medicare was created in 1965, took effect in 1966, and the first conference on health care costs being out of control was held in 1967. To be candid, I really don’t see much that has changed since the very beginning of this “system” being implemented.
My diagnosis tends to home in on the underlying drivers of behavior - which are mostly economic. Why do physicians behave the way they do? Why do hospitals behave the way they do? What incentives are driving the behaviors that we see that are placing us into this “crisis”? Immediately, we have to point to the payment mechanisms which incent an increased production of health care widgets as a means of increase payment. The infamous “supply induced demand” highlighted by the recent Atul Gawande article in The New Yorker.
Therefore, the question is how do we align the financial incentives to enable leadership to get true culture change? We certainly see great regional examples of this in Kaiser Permanente, Intermountain Health Care the Mayo Clinic and the Geisinger Clinic, but these appear to be the exception to an otherswise pervasive lack of these qualities in the general health care industry.
What are the specific reform efforts that you believe will yield the greatest results?
First and foremost, the physician is at the center of the system. Any doctor can prescribe any drug or perform any surgery. Compared to anyone else, physicians are given enormous autonomy.
The way we change health care is aligning financial incentives and changing social norms to encourage the with patient and doctor to eliminate waste. At heart, this means a chance in the doctor-patient social contract. The opportunity with the X PRIZE is to do the simple things and complicated things to achieve this kind of new social contract.
So, for example, the problem of unnecessary antibiotic use for children’s ear infections often ran up against the issue of anxious parents demanding a prescription. The solution turned out to be a combination of doctor education and a clever wrinkle in the doctor-patient relationship. Parents were given the prescription, but it was postdated; in other words, they were told that if the infection didn’t go away in a few days, then they should fill the prescription. Result: doctors feel as if they’re providing caring, patients feel cared for and unnecessary drug use — and unnecessary cost — are taken out of the system.
Those kinds of ideas, that blend cost reduction and quality improvement with a true patient-physician partnership, are where we need to focus. Having said that, we also need to ensure that doctors are not penalized financially for this paradigm shift. In my book, I wrote about a four-man family practice that reduced unnecessary tests, stopped having patients come to the office when a prescription could be written over the phone and, in a fee-for-service world, gradually went bankrupt.
It’s also important to spread the word about successful system-improvement efforts in an attempt to make sure they diffuse far more quickly. Under the leadership of its CEO and its senior medical staff, the Ascension Health hospital group has documented that falls, infections and other preventable causes of medical harm can be slashed to a fraction of their previous levels in just a few years. In the process of systematically doing just that, Ascension has saved more than 2,000 patients’ lives at its hospitals. That kind of achievement needs to receive the same kind of publicity as FDA approval of the latest statin.
That won’t be easy. After all, one man’s waste is another man’s profit center, and a pill or device to prevent or cure infections will always be a lot sexier than simply ensuring that everyone who gets close to the patient washes their hands.
How does universal access solve or not solve the issues you raise above?
Access is a fundamentally different issue that efficiency. Other nations that have universal access to care are no better than we are at consistently providing high-value, evidence-based treatments once someone walks inside the doctor’s office or enters the hospital.
Having said that, I don’t think that the question of access to care is a technical problem. As I wrote in an article in the Washington Post Outlook section in June, 2008, to get universal care you first have to care. We’ve had the same stories about the uninsured for decades. The problem is that the American public doesn’t really seem to care that much, perhaps because the uninsured are disproportionately black, Hispanic and poor. And so, we spend hundreds of billions of dollars adding a drug benefit to Medicare, but starting looking into our national pocketbook for spare change when it comes to the cost of covering the uninsured.
Texas, for example, has had the highest rate of uninsurance in the nation for years, reaching as high as 33 percent at a few points, and yet that fact did not hurt George W. Bush one bit either in the Republican primary or when running for president in the general election.
What are the top areas where you believe innovation can be applied to solve for market failures?
There’s a difference between health and healthcare. Health has a lot of environmental, socioeconomic components that are not present in healthcare. Take a look, for example, at the Obamas. Here’s a black family from Chicago’s South Side, where there’s what’s described as an epidemic of obesity. Yet they’re not fat. Why is that? Obviously, it’s not some physical antibody but a combination of education, willpower, genetics and socioeconomics that makes them different.
The question for innovative solutions to market failures is hot to properly incent physicians, employers and others to attack problems like obesity in the kind of comprehensive, holistic manner that is far more likely to succeed than a narrow, medicalized approach. Too often today, a doctor says that a patient’s compliance is not his problem because it’s not in his control. However, with markets, we can pay someone enough to make it their problem. We’re going to incent you to get things done rather than give up in advance.
At a certain pricepoint you’d stop talking about how unfair it would be to get people to come in and say, how do I sign up? We need to focus, as well, on the financial and social incentives that will enable the innovations that we already know work to diffuse more quickly. We know that giving those who adopt an innovation a very tangible, personal advantage is the key. As the current health care reform debate certainly proves, abstract words like fairness, accessibility, long-term fiscal stability and the like don’t have a great deal of impact on human behavior.
Your thoughts on how the PRIZE model can assist in catalyzing these efforts?
I like to say that we need to build a system based on “Do the right thing (do what’s appropriate) and then do the right thing right (do what’s needed in the most effective and efficient way)”. I really believe you have to build off the current technical and social platform for health. I realize that it is currently a difficult and unstable foundation from which to build, but I don’t think we have the luxury of completely excavating a new system of care. I see that the X PRIZE model can create a framework from which teams can work to use the current system as a jumping off point for radical change. That’s pretty exciting.
Your thoughts on how we can actually pilot the five winning solutions in five markets around the country?
There are markets that are used to innovation and those that are not. An incubator for the X PRIZE should be typical of America in terms of demographic, geographic and other challenges but atypical in terms of cooperativeness and openness to change.
Who else should we be speaking to?
Two people, whom you might not have considered, but who have informed my thinking include Ian Morrison (a futurist) and Emily Friedman (who focuses on access and public health issues). Both of these individuals have unique insights that might prove valuable to the X PRIZE efforts.