By Joanne Lynn
In late January, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell announced that Medicare would purchase most services on the basis of value rather than volume, aiming for 90% of fee-for-service payments by 2018 [http://www.hhs.gov/blog/2015/01/26/progress-towards-better-care-smarter-spending-healthier-people.html]. Of course, paying on the basis of value is much better than paying on the basis of volume. But a moment’s reflection shows that this strategy requires figuring out what people value. For a child with a broken arm or a middle-aged woman with a gall-bladder attack, desirable outcomes are obvious, widely agreed upon, and readily measured. But this is just not the case for frail elders.
Consider a new heart attack affecting a 94-year-old living with multiple chronic conditions, self-care disability, and a lifetime of experiences and relationships. Different 94-year-olds will value very different things when it comes to treatment characteristics and quality-of-life goals; for example, some will desperately want not to go to the hospital, even if doing so would likely extend their lives, and others will welcome hospitalization with intensive care and every opportunity to get back to the way things were.
Even well-established quality metrics that are important to elder care, including avoiding delirium or the degree to which the person’s symptoms are addressed, are not yet used by Medicare, and the program has done little to develop ways to identify excellent care for frail elders. Rates of certain calamities and medical errors are currently measured, but elderly persons and their families expect that more will be monitored than mere safety. When we are old and frail and facing death, we need the quality of our care to be measured by whether it offers an opportunity to attend to important relationships, live comfortably, and pursue what matters most to each of us. Generic measures that reflect what someone else values won’t suffice.
Consider first what Medicare has set up as measures for this population. A starkly disturbing insight arises in the list of measures under consideration for implementing the Improving Medicare Post‐Acute Care Transformation (IMPACT) Act that are meant to measure outcomes and quality in after-hospital care. [List of Ad Hoc Measures under Consideration for the Improving Medicare Post‐Acute Care Transformation (IMPACT) Act of 2014, http://www.qualityforum.org/WorkArea/linkit.aspx?LinkIdentifier=id&ItemID=78784.] Given the short timeline, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has proposed measures that have already been approved or that are in the process of approval. CMS proposes four measures, each applied in four care settings: the rate of pressure ulcers, the rate of falls with injury, the existence of functional assessment and whether there is a care plan with a goal that involves function, and readmissions.
But in setting out to talk with frail, elderly people leaving the hospital for a short-term stay in a nursing home before they go home, what do we imagine are their highest priorities? The four that Medicare proposes might make the list, except that the way we measure readmissions is seriously deficient, even with risk adjustment [ https://medicaring.org/2014/12/16/protecting-hospitals/; https://medicaring.org/2014/12/08/lynn-evidence/ ]. But most people have other priorities that are equally or more important, such as whether there is a workable plan to get the daily care and support needed (e.g., housing modifications, food, transportation, and personal care). Another question elders often ask is what the effects of their disabilities on the family will be, especially if family members have to provide more care. Elders may also want to be sure that they will have the symptom (pain) control, spiritual support, and reliable supportive care that they will need as their conditions get worse, whether they are in a care system that will maximally preserve their financial assets so that they have a lower risk of running out, and whether they will have to move to a nursing home. Medicare’s metrics don’t yet even try to address these concerns.
Even more troubling is the fact that Medicare does not yet have any methods to judge the match between the services given and the patient’s perspective as to what matters. Current metrics are all grounded in professional standards, and professionals have been slow to build standards that truly take into account the very different things that individuals want in late life. A high-quality service delivery system must try to match the priority needs and preferences of each elder.
As Medicare moves toward paying its providers on the basis of value, it is important to keep in mind what you value is often not what I value, and this difference becomes more pronounced as we have to live with physical and financial limitations and the increasing proximity of death. Here are some steps that we can take:
- We should demand that Medicare invest in developing measures that matter for the frail phase of life before distorting the delivery system with incentives applying to everyone (e.g., to avoid pressure ulcers, falls, and readmissions) and to have and achieve goals concerning function.
- CMS should be willing to be the “measures steward” or should fund another entity to do so, since the money available for frail elder care does not spin off strong organizations that can do the developmental work and then maintain updated measures.
- Our health information systems (e.g., in Meaningful Use Stage 3) should at least start making room in medical records to document each patient’s priorities and the care plan that is supposed to reflect those priorities.
Buying on value is the right idea, but buying value for each elder requires knowing what each one values.