The world of U.S. healthcare is undergoing massive change these days; indeed, the entire landscape around the healthcare system is shifting now, with new entrants, some of them disruptors, changing the realities on the ground for the leaders of patient care organizations. Meanwhile, the implications are legion, for physician-led organizations, including large and not-so-large multispecialty physician groups. Those subjects were topics of analysis in two of the Healthcare Informatics Top Ten Tech Trends, which appeared in the third-quarter 2018 issue of Healthcare Informatics.
For both the Trend article on the new disruptors entering the healthcare system, and the Trend article on the challenges and opportunities physician groups in the emerging landscape, Healthcare Informatics Editor-in-Chief Mark Hagland interviewed Don Crane, president and CEO of the Los Angeles-based America’s Physician Groups (APG), a nationwide association of physician groups involved in risk-based contracting. Crane, whose association represents more than 300 physician groups operating in 45 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, is helping to lead a revolution in the medical group world, facilitating the collaboration around innovation among physician groups across the country.
Don Crane will be delivering a keynote presentation on November 9, during the Health IT Summit in Beverly Hills, sponsored by Healthcare Informatics. He will be speaking on the subject of value-based care and clinical transformation, sharing his perspectives as one of the leaders in the physician group world. Below are excerpts from his interview this summer with Hagland.
Looking at all these new business combinations and alliances—the Aetna-CVS deal, the Amazon/Berkshire Hathaway/JP Morgan Chase alliance, the inroads into healthcare being made by Microsoft, Google, and others—what do all of these business and technological incursions mean?
To me, they signal a very restive employer world, a restive and dissatisfied employer world, certainly, when you talk about Google and Amazon, and so, too, with the carrier-PBM combination. There, it’s more about the players looking for a new model, implying that there’s a dissatisfaction to the point of abandonment of faith in the existing model. So, has the inefficiency of our current healthcare delivery system now produced pain at such a high level that it’s no longer about academic conversations, but time for a variety of different actions? That’s what it’s telling me, that we’re about to hit a pain point. Healthcare is using up more and more of our GPD, and really is hitting our global competitiveness now. So yes, this is very significant.
With regard to the planned Aetna-CVS merger—should physicians feel unsettled?
I have an upcoming board retreat, where we’ll be speaking to the Walmart-Humana, CVS-Aetna, and Cigna-ExpressScripts arrangements; I don’t think that the architects of these various transactions see them all in the same way. They have slightly different strategies, and are facing different challenges. These are smart-darn people, and it’s different from the sort of minute-clinic concept we’ve seen in the past. That concept didn’t really take off. Someone said there’s a Walgreens or CVS within 3 minutes of every American, or something. But the minute-clinic concept didn’t exactly work. But what’s different about these diagonal mergers? I think some of it lies in the data—you’ll be combining the data of a health plan with a pharmacy with a PBM [pharmacy benefit management company]. And we’re moving into an era of artificial intelligence and machine learning and the ability to stack up algorithms to the nth degree and know things we didn’t know before.
There’s also the factor of the idea of the transformation of primary care. I think they envision a world where you don’t have to call your doctor six weeks in advance, drive through traffic, wait for hours, wait for days to get your results—and that just doesn’t seem cool in the second decade of the 21st century. It’s a model begging for revolution.
And how will all this impact physician groups? The short answer is, I don’t fully know. The longer answer is, we’re actively thinking about it. The one thing I have a massive amount of faith in is that when it comes to professional care by doctors, nurses, etc., the Pentium chip is organized physician groups; it’s not Dr. Marcus Welby all alone; nor is it health plans that sit on high in penthouse buildings; nor is it hospitals. It’s aggregations of doctors supported by data and analytics, and supported by a constellation of people—psychologists, social workers, even bus drivers, in terms of transportation. And there, you get quality, and you marry within an organization the desire to improve quality and the health of individuals and the population, and at the same time, be stewards of resources. And that’s important, because healthcare’s single biggest problem is unaffordability. So we need stewardship of resources married to expertise in care delivery. I think the new models to come will float to the top.
And, in terms of the disruptors, they envision a world where you don’t have to call your doctor six weeks in advance, drive through traffic, wait for hours, wait for days to get your results—and that just doesn’t seem cool in the second decade of the 21st century. It’s a model begging for revolution.
With regard to the pace of physician groups moving into risk, is it about at the level you’d expect?
As best as I can tell, the pace is going moderately well. Has it accelerated? No. Has it slowed? Probably not. It doesn’t feel like there’s a white-hot fire underneath it at the moment. There is a generalized belief that we need that movement to occur and succeed. At the same time, there are entrenched interests.
Our efforts rise and fall based on what’s going on around the country. And we continue to get new members out of interest in this, but they’re not pounding the doors down yet. They’re reading the signals from the government and commercial payers carefully, and they’re content to sit in the status quo and make a pretty good living, and don’t want to incur enormous cost and effort unless they have to. So the level of push is not as hard as we’d like. But some changes coming out of various rules sets coming out of a very bold and laudable administration, as far as I’m concerned.
When it comes to managing two-sided risk, everyone has spoken of the criticality of data. What’s being learned in that area?
Upside risk makes sense for a while; it’s baby steps. But it’s weak tea in terms of driving real change. If you get lucky with the right benchmarks, you can do well. But it doesn’t induce real structural change. But when an organization faces downside risk, also known as bankruptcy—that really forces change. When you take that higher risk, you’ve got to have the data. You’ve got to risk-stratify your population, and treble down on the resources you’re using on the patients at highest risk. All of a sudden, you move into the big leagues.
Are physician groups beginning to use artificial intelligence and machine learning, in earnest?
The answer is yes. I’m surveying my board next week. But the pioneers are starting to use AI and machine learning, yes.
Do you know yet what they’re learning in terms of process?
Well, of course they’re learning better what the ailments are in a population, etc. They’re just able to do a better job of diagnosis and then care management care planning—being able to treat people more intelligently than ever before.
What percentage of your organizations have unlocked the key around multidisciplinary care teams?
That percentage is very high. Some started a couple of decades ago with this. This is not rocket science, it’s fundamental blocking and tackling. So within my organization, you’ll see a high percentage of organizations making good use of multidisciplinary care teams. Outside my organization, not so much. It’s no secret that you should be using mid-levels to support physicians; but you kind of need the payment model to make it work. Otherwise, you still have doctors working per click, like hamsters on a wheel. As you get into risk-based capitation, that’s where the model changes, and voila—all of a sudden, you have big panels, risk management, and multidisciplinary care teams. You almost can’t separate the organizational model from the payment model.
In terms of physician groups working with social determinants of health data, what are you hearing?
Well, we’re in the early stages of physicians and physician groups moving into working with social determinants of health data. If you talk to a doctor who is still in fee-for-service about the social determinants of health, he’ll say, nice idea, but are you kidding? I didn’t go into healthcare to be a social worker! If you talk to APG members, you’ll see that they totally understand it. You so often need to get into the home, and into transportation, and nutritional support. If a patient can’t get to the doctor’s office, and isn’t eating and is living in a high-crime area, no amount of good diagnosis and prescription will produce a good outcome. In Medicare Advantage, given the latest rate note and the bipartisan Balanced Budget Act, Medicare is basically beginning to cover social determinants of health stuff; that’s in a nascent stage, but people are gearing up for it. I think I saw that Humana and Ascension Health had created a new venture around social determinants.
Meanwhile, we’ve entered into a partnership with Partners in Care, a foundation headquartered in Los Angeles, and they’re available for hire to do home visits and other similar sorts of social work items. And my members are hiring them to do that kind of outreach into patient’s homes. It’s really helpful with the frail elderly and such. So seeing where the puck is headed there, we entered into a partnership with Partners in Care. And that’s a whole new frontier. Now for physicians to be responsible for home visits, well, that’s new. So there’s a transformation underway there as well.
What do you see in the next couple of years around that?
I think it’s just another data set. And if you’re going to start to do home visits to the frail elderly, you’ll need their addresses, of course. And when you do your chops and cuts and sorts, you’ll need to be looking not only at their a1c, but their neighborhood, and their nutritional status, etc., and you’ll now have additional data to help you guide your care plan. It might involve home visits, or Lyft or Uber; so there needs to be data to support that.
How will the data analytics component evolve in the next few years for the leaders of physician groups?
Well, it starts with a recognition of the need for data. Those physicians just wondering what to do about MIPS, etc. They’ll realize they’re utterly unequipped to set up a data analytics shop themselves, so you’ll see movement into groups. And the next step is to get to the facility to do it, and that means joining a group or an IPA. That’s the dynamic we’re going to see. And then we’ll start seeing better results.
And, how do you see the future more broadly?
There’s no future around fee for service; it’s eroding out from under doctors. You look at the Medicare fee schedule and increases slated for the future. What are they? The anticipated increases to physician payment under Medicare are going to be 0.5 percent, 0.25 percent, from here out to as far as the eye can see, they’ll be nearly flat; and the increases in costs of running practices will be increasing 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 percent. So you’re quickly on the way to the poorhouse if you’re trying to stay in a fee-for-service world. So how will we make a living? To make a living doing what you want to do, you’re going to need to find a different way to make a profit under flat revenue. How do you do that? You keep the population healthier. You stare into the data and figure out who will get sick next, by using predictive analytics.