The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is working hard to transition physicians’ payments from volume to value of services. The current Acting Administrator at CMS is a former top executive at United Healthcare, a commercial health insurance corporation. The previous Administrator at CMS is currently the president and CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), which is the dominant health insurance lobbying group. It may therefore behoove us to rephrase the opening sentence: The corporate-government health care conglomerate is working hard to transition physicians’ payments from volume to value of services.
In response, health care delivery corporations, which are employing large numbers of physicians, are joining their forces through mergers, acquisitions and other arrangements to better manage the transition of physician payments from volume based to value based models. When you ask the architects of this supposedly tectonic shift from volume to value to explain their enterprise, you get back lengthy dissertations about better service at lower cost due to computerization, analytics and standardization of an industry long overdue for modernization. The basic argument is that health care in the U.S. sucks on many levels, and proper management that employs the latest technologies and business methodologies will fix everything that needs fixing.
But what does it mean to pay doctors for value instead of volume? Does it mean that we don’t pay physicians unless we get better? Does it mean we don’t pay for health care unless we are “kept” healthy by our doctors? Does it mean that we don’t pay a red cent for advice or procedures that we judge worthless? How long do we have, post service, to decide if what the physician did was valuable? Thirty days? Five years or 50,000 miles whichever comes first? A lifetime? The answer emerging from opinion pieces published by members of the corporate-government conglomerate, which are intended to soften the ground before official rules and regulations are promulgated, is much simpler and should be much more familiar to any small business owner, or anyone who visited a restaurant or a hotel.
So here is how this is envisioned to work. Physicians will still get paid a base amount per service provided. If the corporate-government conglomerate judges the work of the doctor to be beneficial, they will throw in a 5% gratuity bonus. Moving forward, if physicians can reduce the overall COGS (cost of goods sold) for the corporate-government conglomerate, they will get a moderate percentage of net profit. Finally, if doctors are willing to take full P&L (profit and loss) responsibility for health care services, they can get a slightly bigger piece of the profit to offset the risk of massive loss. Essentially, if you are a physician, and if you agree to do what the corporate-government conglomerate wants you to do, and if you are really good at it, and if you are willing to put your money where your mouth is, you should expect nothing but financial prosperity in the era of value based care.
The things you would have to do to enjoy the value based financial bounty are not very difficult, particularly when compared to the practice of medicine. The goal is to keep the corporate-government conglomerate happy without distinguishing yourself from the generic woodwork of the new system. There is safety in the herd, and you should aim to be somewhere close to the middle of the herd. Stragglers, and those who venture too far out in front, are usually eaten. Below are a few strategies to help you position yourself for long and uneventful survival.
If you dabbled in the game of tennis, whether as a player or an avid spectator, you are probably familiar with the term “percentage tennis”. Playing percentage tennis means staying away from corners and lines and spectacular shots. It means playing it safe, taking little if any risk, getting the ball over the net without fanfare, and absolutely no aces on serve. Percentage tennis is how middling players, who lack exceptional talent or physique, are advised to play the game. Serena Williams is not playing percentage tennis. Great champions never do.
If you like to think that you are a great doctor, brilliant diagnostician, or anything else preceded by some sort of superlative, tone it down. This is not about excellence. It’s about percentages. Wasting your precious time on the quickly fading Miss Henrietta Wilkins, who spent the Great War welding big chunks of metal in the shipyard, and a variety of other losers, who will never bring their biometric indicators up to corporate-government conglomerate standards, is not considered good percentage medicine. Ideally, you could ship these folks to the nearest community center, but if you can’t, see if you can reassign them to your NP/PA, or some outsourced care management service, and stay away from direct contact. If you want to personally help people, you should consider volunteering in a soup kitchen on Wednesday afternoons.
Generally speaking, seeing patients one-on-one is not a good use of your time. Your initial efforts should be directed to shaping a robust patient panel that can be managed by your care team working at the top of their license. Later on you should switch to maintenance mode and work the analytic dashboards, Excel sheets, pie charts, bar charts, and all the reports and data provided to you by the corporate-government conglomerate. These things are usually marked with red-yellow-green risk indicators, so it’s not that difficult to get started. Watch your reds. If they’re amenable to change, have your staff change them. Otherwise find a way to quickly remove them from your panel. Don’t neglect the yellows either, because if you’re not careful, they have a tendency to turn red without much advance notice.
This is how percentage medicine is played. This is population management and this is also precision medicine because some of those colored risk scores are accurate to the second, or even third, decimal point which is something your over educated human brain could never calculate on its own. As long as your panel looks green, but not too green, because that may be indicative of gaming, you should be safe. If you feel a sudden urge to jump back in and play doctor, maybe with an ominously red marked patient, resist it. Go take a brisk walk around the block or listen to a motivational TED talk. Try making a nifty Power Point presentation for the next leadership meeting (Power Point art can be very relaxing) or book some travel to a health innovation conference.
Fake it ‘till you make it
When you see patients, and you will have to for a while longer, you will need to present a caring and expert, yet humble, persona that reflects well in satisfaction surveys. You will have to be persuasive, without coming across as overbearing, when you steer clients towards product lines that are most beneficial to the corporate-government conglomerate, which is either your one true customer, or your direct employer. You will have to cultivate an engaging and compassionate image to elicit the trust of your clients. You will need to be friendly, but not too familiar, to maintain a certain aura of non-threatening expertise. You will need to say please and thank you, and you will need to display properly calibrated humility when apologizing for the shortcomings of the new and improved system, without throwing your superiors under the buss.
Since value based health care is a team sport, you will need to cultivate a non-disruptive, non-elitist image to present to the team. The team of course includes representatives of the corporate-government conglomerate, some of whom you will interact with in person, and others who will be watching you through rolled up dashboards and reports. Read a couple of value based policy papers or newspaper articles (they’re about the same as far as depth and substance are concerned), and memorize a few key words and phrases, such as “transformation”, “lifestyle and behavioral modifications”, “less is more”, “consumers want to be kept healthy”, “patient activation”, “triple aim”, “quadruple aim” (there is no quintuple aim yet, but watch for it soon), “our health care system is broken”, “$3 trillion”, “medicine has always been about information processing”, “the single most important thing to have is good data”. Stuff like that. When in doubt, just prepend “patient-centered” to whatever you plan to say next.
After a while, all of this will become second nature. If you get really good at it, you may want to go for a leadership role within the corporate-government conglomerate. It pays much better, and there are decent opportunities for advancement. Another option is to drop out of whatever is left of patient care and join the entrepreneurial side of the house. You can join a startup, or make your own. You need not be a techie or understand technology in any way. Startups are hungry for MDs, so they can advertise products “built by doctors”. Investors love that type of stuff and potential customers still have some residual respect for physicians. It won’t last long, so do it now or you may miss the boat.
One thing is certain though. A passive-aggressive attitude, or its burned-out martyrdom cousin, won’t do you any good. If you really and truly can’t get on board with the destructive recreation of your profession, you’d better quit. Get out and open a boutique cash-only practice or subcontract with one of those hit and run value based telemedicine services for the healthy or just find something else to do. Write a book, buy a little farm and make organic goat cheese, dabble in politics, start a movement. Have some fun. Life is short.
Opinions expressed by HIT Consultant Contributors are their own.