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August 5, 2013 Readers Write No Comments

Building an Accountable Care Organization? Consider Starting in Your Own Back Yard
By Claudia Blackburn

8-5-2013 12-56-10 PM

Explaining my healthcare IT profession to my parents and children has never been straightforward. Yet sometimes they are the ones who can boil it down to the essence of what we do, perhaps even better than we can.  Before I became a consultant, my mom once told a family friend that I, "paid people to be healthy so that the hospital I worked for didn’t have to pay as much for health insurance." The friend responded,"Where can I sign up?" They both clearly understood the value of population health management (PHM) programs.

With the CMS news released this month about those Pioneer Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) that have demonstrated success and shared in the savings — and of those Pioneer ACOs that are not continuing the program — there’s healthy debate about the model and the key success factors.

For those organizations considering starting an ACO, consider test-driving the concept in your own back yard with your health plan member population.

The Opportunity: An Integrated Wellness Model

Several self-insured employers – both healthcare organizations and companies from other industries – have proven that an ROI is achievable through population health and wellness programs. A few shared their program experiences showing impressive return for their wellness dollars:

  • In 2011, Mercy Clinics, Inc. reported a four-to-one return on investment of wellness dollars spent. Mercy uses coaches within its practices to assist with coordination of care.
  • Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System decreased health plan expenses 13 percent, with a 21 percent decrease in medical claims alone in 2011. A four-to-one return over five years projected a savings of $37.3 million.
  • John Hancock’s Healthy Returns program increased savings per participant from $111 in 2009 to $261 in 2010, and preventative care increased 1 percent to 4 percent per year with an overall 2.5 to one ROI.

Just as any other employer, hospitals face increasing healthcare costs for their employee and member population. However, hospitals can use their healthcare expertise to develop practice protocols that change habits and ultimately improve the health of their self-insured member population and decrease employee benefit costs.

Strategic Elements of a Successful Population Health Management Program

Screening, prevention, and care management are all involved in population health improvement, but by far, changing the habits of individuals is the most challenging. Smart phone applications and portals, in addition to payers and providers pushing information, have not engaged members.

To engage members for best outcomes with accountability and oversight, the health management program must be a combination of people, new processes, new technology, and much better use of the collective data. There are several essential elements of an integrated PHM model:

  • Claims data. Claims data define healthcare services received across the continuum of care and risk in order to target program benefits and measure improvements in utilization and cost.
  • Health risk assessment (HRA). A HRA captures basic information to determine the consumer population health status and risk stratification, especially important for those with no claims.
  • Electronic medical record (EMR) / biometric screening. It’s important not to allow the member to self-report on weight, cholesterol, blood pressure, and glucose. Instead, a coach or nurse should measure other biometrics charted in the EMR. Patient data from a personal health record (PHR) can be useful and selectively imported into the EMR.
  • Aligned incentives. Incentives are important to move members towards participation and keep them active and accountable. Incentives such as reduced premiums, door prizes, or gift cards are helpful to encourage enrollment. Once enrolled, outcomes-based incentives can be used to keep the member working towards health goals.
  • Coaching. Successful PHM programs have coaches armed with full information from claims, HRA, and EMR to motivate members to change behaviors.
  • Consumer portal. The portal allows for better engagement between provider and consumer and monitoring of healthy habits, such as exercise.
  • Data warehouse /analytics. Armed with holistic information about the consumer, high-risk root causes can be identified, targeted with strategic program initiatives, and measured for success or rework as part of a feedback loop to assure data-driven increased quality and decreased cost.

From the above list, clearly the “glue”for connecting the PHM program elements is a solid technology foundation. It provides a concise picture of population and individual holistic health. When combined with coaching, health systems are able to not only monitor but also influence change. Additionally, the closed-loop feedback mechanism enables measurement of the success of strategies at an enterprise level and a member level to allow for continuous improvement.

Just as my mom and her friend understood, the value of population health and wellness programs can be substantial. Keeping members accountable through incentives increases healthy behaviors and reduces the self-insured health insurance cost of the employer.

Hospitals can take a leadership position in the move toward the IHI’s Triple Aim both as an employer and a healthcare provider via PHM programs for its own self-insured member population. The individual wins, the employer wins, the hospital wins, and the community wins.


Claudia Blackburn is a consultant with
Aspen Advisors of Pittsburgh, PA.

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