Towards Equity-Centered Care

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A “Health in All Policies” framework has been touted in the past few years as a strategy to illuminate the intersections between public health and other areas of civic life. It’s one way to incorporate health metrics into existing and proposed public policy – from education to transportation. But the question is, will it work?

It seems fairly obvious that health-centric framing may obstruct interdisciplinary collaboration. But at a more fundamental level, will replacing multivariate, silo’d interests with the singularity of health effectively capture the complexity necessary to create shared agendas across public sectors?

The short answer is no. Here’s why and how we got here.

The former structure of medical education and training was rooted in the idea that the greatest knowledge in medicine was best revealed through individual patient inquiry and the greatest challenges in the field were best understood and addressed through individual clinician excellence. So clinicians were evaluated based on their individual aptitude, patients were assessed based on their isolated symptoms, and each sector of the health and human service network operated in silos, training and treating pieces of the problem, without ever quite appreciating the inter-connected whole.

This paradigm of education and practice placed clinicians at the center of care and patients and allied partners at the periphery. Allied learners were taught separately and systems communicated poorly, both of which resulted in fragmentation – in how problems were evaluated and in how care was delivered.

A more recent iteration of this care ecosystem, like the “Health in All Policies” approach, now places patients and health at the center of delivery models and public policy strategies to treat disease and advance wellness. These patient-driven, health-specific metrics ensure that systems are oriented to serve and public policies are structured to mitigate health impacts.

However increased focus on individual patient outcomes may obscure population-level drivers of health disparities and unilateral dependence on health as the primary outcome, may ostracize allied disciplines, institutions, and learners whose work or study contributes to advanced understanding of human behavior and the complex relationships between structural environments and the pathophysiology of disease.

The bottom line is: the intricate problems that threaten child and community health will not be solved by the individual capacity of excellent clinicians or public servants, but rather by the ability of leaders to organize interdisciplinary teams that learn, work, communicate ideas, translate interventions, and are evaluated across shared infrastructures, in the service of shared outcomes.

If identifying health as the primary outcome of interest or individual patients as the primary drivers of systemic priorities, alienate important partners and dilute the input of minority populations, it is time for a new centering principle. In my mind, that principle should be equity.

Placing equity at the center of the care ecosystem ensures each sector of the health and human service network and each provider and recipient of care has a role and contributes to the shared societal realization of public safety, economic security, and wellness.

Shared values, like equity, are important foundations for building integrated public systems. And integrated public systems are important to create parity in resource dissemination and improve productivity through partnership with allied disciplines and institutions. Although the process of integration may generate new financial costs, it will hopefully save money on the back end by aligning incentives and improving efficiency.

In the end, equity will be the framework for the future of care and policy that aims to improve health. So as we move towards the future, let equity be our guide.

* In appreciation for their wisdom: I want to acknowledge Dr Rajiv Bhatia who’s novel work on The Civic Engine, and Dr. Damon Francis whose generously shared expertise, informed the ideas presented in this piece.*

Freeing the “Doc in a Box”

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The American healthcare system is set up to care for a certain subset of the population – sick people – people with chronic disease, acute illness, acute injury, and complex disorders like cancer or metabolic issues.

The problem is, this set up doesn’t create market incentives to care for the well effectively, or to identify those at risk for disease and efficiently and reliably intervene, at scale.

To reconcile this cognitive dissonance between sick-care and health-care, government agencies like CMS, are now funding population-based care strategies. The idea is, the healthcare system should anticipate patient needs at the population level, stratify those needs by risk, and disseminate preventative interventions locally, based on traditional indices like blood tests and screening protocols and emerging metrics like ICD-10 z-codes to identify social determinants of health.

Now that the federal government is redefining the relationship between communities and health systems, it seems logical to anticipate future opportunities to redesign one of the most outdated physician roles – the “doc in the box.”

But the baffling thing is, that is not what is happening.

Despite CMS’ new Accountable Health Communities Model and the NIH’s recent Precision Medicine Initiative, it seems the latest innovations in healthcare delivery are aiming to do what we are already doing – better – to map the genome, decipher codes in our blood, and screen with increasing precision to identify disease earlier and decrease associated health complications and systems costs.

But the building-based, physician-centric, model of medicine America has relied on for decades, maybe even centuries, isn’t serving us well anymore. The hands-on, face-to-face, one-on-one, physician-patient relationship is changing and the bedside, fee-for-service paradigm doesn’t fit how patients access information and more importantly, doesn’t pay for keeping patients well.

Thinking outside the “doc in a box”

In the future, instead of caring for thousands of people in a primary care panel, I think physicians will “care” for hundreds of thousands of people across a grid. And they will provide that care, in teams.

The grid will be color-coded by risk factors. Incorporating data from smartphone usage, credit card spending behaviors, typographical maps of cities that chart access points for public transit, healthy food, parks and recreation, public learning, and other staples of public life. Those access points will be rated by the degree of mobility they generate – socially, economically, and physically. High-rated areas will become models for low-rated areas, and low-rated areas will be first in-line for public resources to re-engineer the environment people live and grow in. This model places mobility, equity, and the capacity to maximize human potential at the center of innovations that create and sustain health.

It also positions physicians among a team of professionals who operate integrated public systems. Those systems will be powered by data algorithms that understand the connections between human physiology and the lived experiences that nurture or threaten that physiology, to ultimately predict risk rather than simply identify existing disease, early.

If future systems can predict risk at scale and are oriented to respond those risks with mitigating resources or information that informs and supports patient decisions, then in the future, physicians will also be expected to be architects of resource distribution, partners in city planning, advocates for social justice, and champions of equity.

There will likely always be a need for physical care of patients with ailments that require  treatments best administered at the bedside. But the advent of technology to provide remote care, analyze multi-variant data that predicts human behavior, and supports patient and provider decision-making with rapid access to information and resources, shifts the future of medical practice outside of buildings.

With a new legion of ancillary providers, it is time to free the “doc in the box” and expand the vision of medical care to include the future of physician practice.

Is Scalability Overrated?

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Scalability is the end goal of nearly every tech start-up, systems innovation, and teenager you-tubing their cat – it’s going viral, business-style. And traditionally, it’s been seen as a marker of relevance and success. Growth is good, right?

But in healthcare systems transformation, do we lose something meaningful when we measure the value of our work by its national impact?

Take Iora Health, a new healthcare venture out of Massachusetts that contracts with large companies and insurance plans to provide care for employees or insured patients. Iora clinics have a for-profit model and are seeking to capitalize on saving money. They charge companies and insurance plans monthly fees and in turn endeavor to keep their patients out of hospitals and emergency rooms, the most expensive places to receive care. If they successfully prevent costly services, and save their company or insurance plan money, they take a percentage of those savings as profit.

The Iora model is essentially beefed up the primary care services offered in the comfort of a patient’s community, sometimes even as convenient as a local shopping center. They argue that by providing health coaches, lower doctor-to-patient ratios, around-the-clock availability, excellent customer service, and unlimited visits per patients, they can effectively manage most chronic illness before it progresses and requires hospitalization or emergency services. Now, nothing they are offering is particularly new, as primary care practices across the country are considering or implementing similar strategies. But what is intriguing, is their plan for growth.

As The New York Times recently wrote, Iora’s “ultimate goal is hundreds of practices across the country, a kind of Starbucks for healthcare.” And as their CEO Dr. Rushika Fernandopulle stated, “Building one good practice is mildly interesting, because a few people have done that. But how do you scale that across the country? That’s much harder.”

Hard, yes. But meaningful, I’m not so sure.

See, Iora’s foundation is venture capital and their business model aims to create a revenue stream providing services most clinics cannot afford; because most financial incentives in healthcare favor hospital and emergency visits. On the surface, it’s a win for doctors because many physicians want to provide comprehensive care, and it’s a win for patients, because Iora is paying to provide a care experience consumers want. But what about low-income populations? They lose here.

To maintain the for-profit status that supports their model, Iora Health purposefully doesn’t take patients off the street, the uninsured, or the unemployed for that matter, I guess unless some unemployed individuals are buying insurance with a plan they contract with. And yet, Iora says their model is going to “transform healthcare” and scale across the US.

When 5.5% of the population is unemployed and more than 1 in 7 live below the poverty line, how is this model “transforming” the system for everyone? The truth is, it’s not.

So I return to my initial question, do we lose something meaningful when we measure the value of our work by its national impact?

In Iora’s case, as with many clever and highly specialized health systems innovations, I think we do. Iora’s business model is what drives their innovation, but it is also what makes their services irrelevant in populations that don’t qualify or need their comprehensive care. It doesn’t make what they are doing any less valuable, but it does mean they may not find significance with every population. In addition, since their model excludes populations already under-served by the healthcare system, their national dissemination may actually threaten access to care for low-income families.

Healthcare is a complicated enterprise where the needs of the consumer are variable and evolve overtime. That diversity of need and resource distribution defines the challenge in our current system. And in the end, that variability may be too complex for a one-size-fits-all, Starbucks model.

Perhaps healthcare doesn’t need cookie cutter solutions imposed on populations with distinct assets and needs. Perhaps just like politics, all healthcare transformation is local and finds meaning in its local application, not its national prominence.

We all know ideas with traction and those that find their way to a national stage are exciting. But I think there is something to be said for offering a unique service to a distinct population, and doing that well for the long-term. So instead of looking for the next big thing, the actual big thing is made up of small things that are changing the way each of us experience our healthcare.