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Healthcare Reformation or Transformation? That is the Question

February 9, 2011
by James L. Holly, M.D.
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Is simple improvement needed, or a true metamorphosis?

If the option in the future of healthcare is between "rationed" care and "rational" care, and, I believe that it is, and if the context in which the choice between these options must be understood is in terms of "reality," responsibility" and "rights," as discussed last week, and I believe that we must change the discussion. The national healthcare policy debate has been cast in terms of reforming of the system. I would argue that reforming is an inadequate goal, doomed to failure, and even if should succeed; reformation of the healthcare system will not produce the positive results which are legitimately desired by all participants in the debate. I would argue that if healthcare change is going to improve care, improve the quality of life, cover all Americans, and address the rising cost of care, we must have transformation of the healthcare system and not simple reformation.

Does the distinction between reformation and transformation of the system really make a difference? In order to examine this question, we must define our terms. The definition of "reformation" is "improvement (or an intended improvement) in the existing form or condition of institutions or practices etc.; intended to make a striking change for the better in social or political or religious affairs." Synonyms for "reformation" are "melioration" and "improvement." Another definition states, "The act of reforming, or the state of being reformed; change from worse to better."

On the other hand, "transformation" is defined as, "a marked change in appearance or character, especially for the better." "Metamorphosis," a synonym for "transformation," is the transliteration of a Greek word which is formed by the combination of the word "morphe" which means "form," and "meta" which means "change." "Metamorphosis" conveys the idea of a "noticeable change in character, appearance, function or condition." Metamorphosis is what happens when a caterpillar morphs into a butterfly.

In function, the distinction between these two concepts as applied to healthcare is that "reformation" comes from pressure from the outside, while "transformation" comes from an essential change of motivation and dynamic from the inside." Anything can be reformed - reshaped, made to conform to an external dimension - if enough pressure is brought to bear. Unfortunately, reshaping under pressure can fracture the object being confined to a new space. And, it can do so in such a way as to permanently alter the structural integrity of that which is being reformed. Also, once the external pressure is eliminated, redirected or lessened, the object often returns to its previous shape as nothing has fundamentally changed in its nature.

Being from within, transformation results in change which is not simply reflected in shape, structure, dimension or appearance, but transformation results in a change which is part of the nature of the organization being transformed. The process itself creates a dynamic which is generative, i.e., it not only changes that which is being transformed but it creates within the object of transformation the energy, the will and the necessity of continued and constant change and improvement. Transformation is not dependent upon external pressure but is sustained by an internal drive which is energized by the evolving nature of the organization.

While this may initially appear to be excessively abstract and unwieldy, it really begins to address the methods or tools needed for reformation or for transformation. They are significantly different. The tools of reformation, particularly in healthcare administration are rules, regulations, and restrictions. Reformation is focused upon establishing limits and boundaries rather than realizing possibilities. There is nothing generative - creative - about reformation. In fact, reformation has a "lethal gene" within its structure. That gene is the natural order of an organization, industry or system's ability and will to resist, circumvent and overcome the tools of reformation, requiring new tools, new rules, new regulations and new restrictions. This becomes a vicious cycle. While the nature of the system actually does change, where the goal was reformation, it is most often a dysfunctional change which does not produce the desired results and often makes things worse.

The tools of transformation may actually begin with the same ideals and goals as reformation, but now rather than attempting to impose the changes necessary to achieve those ideals and goals, a transformative process initiates behavioral changes which become self-sustaining, not because of rules, regulations and restrictions but because the images of the desired changes are internalized by the organization which then finds creative and novel ways of achieving those changes.

It is possible for an organization to meet rules, regulations and restrictions perfunctorily without ever experiencing the transformative power which was hoped for by those who fashioned the external pressure for change. In terms of healthcare administration, policy makers can begin reforms by restricting reimbursement for units of work, i.e., they can pay less for office visits or for procedures. While this would hopefully decrease the total cost of care, it would only do so per unit. As more people are added to the public guaranteed healthcare system, the increase in units of care will quickly outstrip any savings from the reduction of the cost of each unit.

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James Holly

CEO, managing partner of the Southeast Texas Medical Associates (SETMA) in Beaumont

James L. (Larry) Holly, M.D., After completing his medical education, James L. (Larry) Holly, M....