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At Steward Health, All Eyes are on the Population Health Prize

September 7, 2014
by Mark Hagland
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Dominique Morgan-Solomon and her colleagues at Steward Health Care System are aggressively pursuing population health and analytics strategies

As the accountable care revolution evolves forward across the U.S. healthcare industry, some of the most innovative organizations in the country have committed themselves very firmly to its success. In the Boston metro area, the Steward Health Care System—which encompasses 11 hospitals and 2,700 physicians (600 of whom are employed)— is participating in the Pioneer ACO [accountable care organization] program as Steward Health Care Network. The Pioneer ACOs are the tip of the spear in terms of working with the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to improve clinical outcomes and reduce costs, in the context of downside risk.

Steward Health Care Network joined the program along with the other Pioneers, on January 1, 2012. Dominique Morgan-Solomon, the ACO’s vice president of population health, spoke earlier this summer with HCI Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland, for the magazine’s July-August cover story.  Below are excerpts from Ms. Morgan-Solomon’s  interview with Hagland earlier this summer.

When did you begin developing the infrastructure for the ACO?

A certain component of the infrastructure existed prior to 2012. Steward in general is very familiar with managing risk populations, which is one of the reasons leadership decided to participate in the program, because it aligns well with our Steward Community Care Model, which focuses on local care management and leveraging our PCP [primary care physician] network; and we had experience with managing populations with a budget and risk in mind. So a lot of that structure was there; some of the infrastructure needed to manage this population was being developed in the first quarter of 2012 anyway, as we were developing more robust care management and population health infrastructure, as well as data analytics.

Dominique Morgan-Solomon

And how big a team do you have?

We have over 60 people doing population health work on our team.

Has anything been really surprising, in terms of participation in the Pioneer ACO program?

I think we anticipated the run-of-the-mill pieces in terms of focusing on beneficiary engagement, and having to engage our providers in a very different way so that they’d understand the value proposition in participating in the program. I think some of the surprises have been around how quickly a year ends. One of the challenges of the Pioneer program is that the population turns over for us annually, so that by the time you’ve identified individuals, run the analytics on the population based on the claims that CMS has provided, which comes in February, you’re into June and July. So that quick turnaround was a bit surprising, because usually you have a bit of lead time to get engagement and look forward to a good 12 months to get it worked out.

Is there that significant of a population that’s changing every year?

Yes, it’s about 30-40 percent; and all the Pioneer ACOs have been having that experience. And so you really have to then think about how you impact someone right away. And typically with care management and population health, you’re trying to institute interventions upstream, and that’s challenging. And because the ACO population is a Medicare population, the majority of whom are 65 (though there are some under 65)—and you’d think there are a lot of differences between the Medicare and commercial populations, but there really haven’t been.

So getting things in place has been the biggest challenge?

That’s been one. And the first year, there obviously were a lot of upfront pieces. The most difficult piece, though, has been beneficiary engagement. So one of the challenges we’ve had, because we’ve been trying to do population health for all groups covered; the challenge has been, that’s great on this side, but it requires beneficiaries’ knowledge and engagement with us as a provider. And they’re not always sure they belong to us. So you’ll potentially have a beneficiary who has seen one of our providers a few years ago, maybe via a specialist in our network, but their primary care provider is with a different system. So one of the challenges has been, how do you get these beneficiaries engaged, because in some cases, they haven’t realized they’re attributed to us. And they have to opt in, and they get letters from CMS, but you can imagine, of course, that there are populations that may not have caregivers who explain everything to them; so we’ve had to get creative there.

Do you have care managers and case managers who are doing that kind of work?

Care managers are doing many things; they’re nurses, so they’re engaging people, of course, around their care. But there’s got to be upfront work as well. We have a member services team; and marketing is involved as well. But it’s a challenge that we’ve all faced.

Are all the hospitals on the same EHR?

We probably are one of the most heterogeneous networks in the country, per electronic health records. Every hospital has its own EHR, and physicians have their own EHRs. And often, with affiliate physicians, they’re on different EHRs. So we have upwards of several hundred different databases, even with the same EHRs in some cases. In that regard, data integration is obviously a huge focus for us, especially this year.

How are you tackling that?