You Get What You Ask For

This post was originally featured on EMRandHIPAA.

I recently had a chance to meet Dr. Dave Levin, the first CMIO from Cleveland Clinic, at the Texas HIMSS conference, where I spoke about Google Glass in healthcare. During his keynote, he gave a quick overview of his book – mHealth: Global Opportunities and Challenges – that I’m reading now.

The most important thing I took away from his presentation is that people will do exactly what you tell them to do, not what you’d like them to do. More specifically, people will optimize against what they’re measured against. This is a classic business truism, but one worth repeating.

In order to receive Meaningful Use cash for adopting EMRs, providers are jumping through an excruciatingly difficult series of hoops. Among those hoops is the primary theme of MU Stage 2: patient engagement.

But patient engagement is not an end. Patient engagement is a means to an end. Although there are certainly disagreements on what the end should be (depending on one’s political alignment), the federal government is clearly pushing value-based care delivered through PCMH and ACO models.

So why are we measuring arbitrary metrics such as “5% of patients engaging with their providers” through some sort of patient engagement product? By incentivizing arbitrary usage metrics, we will see little healthcare delivery transformation, despite all the intent in the world. Instead of flipping the clinic by utilizing patient engagement tools as part of a broader healthcare delivery strategy, providers are just going to optimize to barely get by getting 5% of their patients to send them a message through their patient portal.

Consider instead these potential alternative metrics, that better reflect the spirit of the MU regulations:

1) Percentage of patient population cared for under a value-based rather than volume-based model.

2) Percentage of simple visits – script refills, ear infections, etc. – conducted remotely via telemedicine instead of in person.

3) Percentage of visits avoided simply by answering questions via asynchronous secure messaging/pictures.

4) Percentage of complex visits handled by an MD (in which the intention is to hand off simpler visits/procedures to non-physician practitioners to lower costs)

There are certainly problems with some of these proposed metrics. They don’t solve all incentive problems; the system can always be gamed. But compared with existing measures, the above metrics do much more to force providers to rethink care delivery models and flip the clinic.

Some people will interpret these metrics as a way for the federal government to institute socialist control over healthcare delivery. These fears, though, are disproportionate. While a slippery slope argument can be made in this case, the US government has only on a few occasions actually nationalized private functions. In most of those cases, the nationalization was short-lived (such as General Motors 2009).

Given the clout of the AMA and other players, the probability of sliding down this slope seems exceedingly low. History has shown that there is too much friction in the status quo in the US healthcare system for the system to change on its own. At any rate, some change is better than none!

So, Uncle Sam, hear this: you get what you measure. So please measure what you actually want.