Even though I’m a relative insider, I read HIStalk regularly so I can keep up. The recent Monday Morning Update contained a couple of reader comments that really got me thinking. The first was a mention of healthcare costs and the technologies that promise to lower them. Mr. H noted that “healthcare savings rarely trickle down to the actual patients – they just swell the profits and executive payroll of billion-dollar health systems, insurers, and employers…” Based on my experiences over the last few years, I have to say I agree.
Payers and patients alike are drawn in by the convenience and relative cost savings of certain care venues, such as urgent care centers. The marketing around this usually involves the fact that they are “cheaper than the emergency room,” which although true, doesn’t necessarily make them the most economical venue. My soon-to-be-former urgent care employer posts charges that are typically one-sixth that of what you would see for similar services delivered in a hospital emergency department. That seems like a good deal until you realize that the services are still significantly more expensive than they would be if they were delivered by a primary care physician.
Due to the care setting and the need to practice more defensive medicine than that practiced by primary physicians, patients are likely to receive more services than they would in a lower-acuity environment. As an independent facility, we don’t have access to patients’ recent labs or tests unless they want to hand us their phones so we can access the patient-side MyChart accounts. We also don’t know the patients as well as their primary physicians, so we don’t know how likely they are to follow up as we recommend, so we might recommend subspecialty follow up as a backup plan when there might be more cost-effective options. Patients certainly have higher up-front costs with co-pays when they visit urgent care rather than a primary physician, and although it’s cheaper than the emergency department, it costs more than it needs to.
Although we hoped price transparency would help drive patients to more economical care settings, we failed to fully understand how patients value convenience. There are certain conditions that need to be managed immediately, such as lacerations or serious injuries, but the vast majority of patients seen in our urgent care could be managed within a day or two by a primary physician with no difference in outcome for the patients. However, patients typically don’t want to wait. Patients are also concerned about access issues and even getting in to see their primary physician since there’s not only a shortage of appointments, but of providers in general. Our culture is one of instant gratification and patients want their problems addressed right away. Sometimes it seems strange, though, because they often haven’t even tried over-the-counter remedies that might have helped them before making the decision to seek care.
That ties nicely to the second reader comment, about the US Food and Drug Administration requiring prescriptions for many items despite the fact that they’re fairly straightforward or even available without a prescription in other countries. I agree with Mr. H that the need for prescriptions has driven growth in telehealth and online pharmacies, who end up becoming de facto prescription mills because they rarely deny the patient’s request. Even as a face-to-face physician, taking a solid history and performing a thorough physical exam doesn’t typically change the outcome when a patient with sporadic bladder infections and early minimal symptoms comes in asking for antibiotics or when a parent brings in a symptom-free child with a COVID-19 exposure. Now that we’re more than a year into the pandemic, we are just getting to the point where patients can buy testing kits over the counter without a prescription. It remains to be seen whether that will make any difference in how the pandemic rolls forward.
Especially at the beginning of the pandemic, and through the first couple of peaks, in the absence of over-the-counter testing, it made sense to have large-scale clinics that would test patients based on a standing order rather than having patients see their own physicians. Now that most of those clinics are closed, at least in my area, patients are forced into the urgent care system due to lack of options. A friend shared her husband’s Explanation of Benefits with me for a recent COVID-19 test. The charge was $1,900, which is absurd. This included the physician visit, the facility fee tacked on by the hospital since it owns the urgent care, and the cost of testing for not only COVID-19, but also influenza. Due to having a fever in the office and not having taken any medications for it, the patient was also charged an exorbitant amount for a couple of ibuprofen tablets. To add insult to injury, her husband went to the “wrong” urgent care and it was out of network, so they’re on the hook for the full amount of the charges without any payer-negotiated discount.
It certainly would be a lot cheaper if we had a viable public health infrastructure and could channel these patients appropriately, not only to reduce their costs, but the overall cost to the nation. Or in the absence of that, if we could start to manage people using less-costly resources, such as over-the-counter testing. But as long as the big healthcare systems and for-profit organizations stand to lose out on what they perceive as their piece of the pie, it will be difficult to truly drive change no matter what technologies we create. Even though many of us think disruptive technologies are cool, they scare the living daylights out of good portions of the healthcare industry.
Still, I’ll keep plying the clinical informatics trade in the patient engagement sector and in the telehealth trenches. Even if we’re making incremental change, it’s still movement in the right direction. I’ll also keep lobbying to address some of the fundamental issues, such as the shortage of primary care physicians and lack of support for their efforts. I’ll also continue to advocate for increased funding for public health infrastructure and the technology needed to support population-based health.
What are your thoughts on healthcare savings being pushed to the patients, or on increased availability of over the counter products? Leave a comment or email me.
Email Dr. Jayne.