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The ‘triple aim’: a reality check

27 Jan

by Jonathan Stokes, Research Associate in the Centre for Health Economics at The University of Manchester

triple-aim_jstokes-blog_jan17

In December, I completed the final exam (or ‘viva’) for my PhD, which was funded by the NIHR Greater Manchester PSTRC. In the discussion section of my thesis, I presented an argument that my examiners suggested I should explore further, so I’m using this blog post to try and record some initial thoughts, which I hope to turn into an academic paper at some point (so feel free to post any feedback you have below).

So, my argument, briefly, was this:

  • Health systems are recognised to have a so-called ‘triple aim’, aiming to improve health and satisfaction of patients, while reducing costs. With the move towards ‘integrated care’, policymakers argue that integration can improve all triple-aim outcomes simultaneously.
  • In the NHS, integrated care is defined around the patient’s feeling of joined-up care (i.e. around the outcome of satisfaction). However, policymakers, when setting out the aims of their integrated care models aim primarily to reduce costs, usually by reducing emergency hospital admissions (probably unsurprising given the ‘NHS crisis’ currently being covered in the media).
  • But the literature tells us that the ‘triple aim’ goals are quite complexly interlinked, so achieving one does not necessarily have a beneficial effect on all of the others. For example, the highest patient satisfaction (good) is associated with the highest overall healthcare expenditure (bad), and may be also those experiencing worse health outcomes, e.g. a higher mortality rate (very bad).
  • Therefore, there is a potential conflict between the patient-level (the feeling of more joined up care for the patient) and system-level (reducing costs) goals of integrated care in the NHS, and potentially a need to prioritise aims.

Basically, there is little evidence that the ideal scenario of not having to pay for improvements in care quality is plausible (note: that doesn’t mean we can’t have this improvement, it just implies that we would need to invest more in our health system to get it). And, if we design interventions that address the NHS definition of integration and increase satisfaction with care, then we won’t necessarily meet the pressing system aims of reducing costs in the current NHS funding crisis.

So, to my mind, if we want to contain costs, this would mean that the patient satisfaction aim (while still important, and should continue to be measured) should be bumped down the priority. This is partly because people who are healthier tend to be more satisfied in any case (so it is partially a secondary outcome of better health and should take care of itself if people get better health outcomes), but also because in a tax-funded system like the NHS, where the overarching values are delivering equity and social justice, sustainability of the system is more important than preferences of the individual (i.e. ‘consumer-focused’ healthcare). Especially when aiming primarily for satisfaction of the individual harms the system.

To try and explain why this might be, imagine that if we’re primarily aiming to improve satisfaction with care, implementing an intervention where we gave everyone a dram of whisky as they waited for their appointment might send satisfaction rates through the roof, but it would cost a fortune and might not do people’s health a lot of good.

Healthcare is a complicated process (which is why it takes so long to train healthcare professionals, who in fact never stop receiving training during their working lives). One of the ‘market failures’ in healthcare (i.e. why a normal economic free-market system, where the consumer decides, doesn’t work) is ‘information asymmetry’ (i.e. the expert knows more than others, so can make the more informed decisions). While this asymmetry is clearly in patients’ favour in some aspects (e.g. experience of disease/ experience of using health services/ treatment burden etc.), it favours the physician/expert in others (e.g. treatment course in many cases/ health system setup or organisation/ cost of care etc.). The patient is therefore not likely to make the most informed decision when it comes to overall health system costs.

In view of this, I think there’s an interesting debate to be had about the role of ‘patient-centred’ care more widely, and how this fits with our system goals. For example, I went to a seminar the other day where an NHS Vanguard programme talked about how they were shifting their approach in patient care to one where they ask the patients to define their goals, asking them ‘What matters to you?’. But, before that, we’d had a talk from NHS England about the national metrics that the Vanguards would be assessed on, centred on system goals (again, primarily about reducing avoidable emergency hospital admissions). This got me thinking: what if the patient’s goal is something that doesn’t affect our system goals whatsoever, or is even completely contrary to these? If it was in the USA, the patients themselves (or their health insurer) would pay for the option and it wouldn’t matter so much, but in a tax-funded system there is more need to think resourcefully at this wider system level (and try being poor and getting decent healthcare in the USA if you think that’s the way to go instead).

The role of the patient in influencing/defining research priorities could be another debate. For example, the PSTRC and wider NIHR funders are very focused on Public and Patient Involvement (PPI) in research. But, what if the researcher (while employing common sense, and not purely as a stereotypical ivory-tower-type) has access to more knowledge about where the current knowledge gaps are, and which questions are possible to answer and how? Is it a good use of resources to pay for the ‘lay perspective’ in all cases (or at all)? (But, of course, this is just one simplified question in the debate of the role of PPI in influencing and defining research priorities, the balance of which I hope to explore further in a future post).

In sum, I think some of the assumptions we make (in good faith, I’m sure), about the aims and delivery of health services, and research to support these services, are still open to debate. While we dwell on ideally achieving all outcomes, we neglect the reality of the need for trade-offs and priority setting. But, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.

Case management is not the be-all and end-all of ‘integrated care’

20 Jul

by Jonathan Stokes, PhD student in Multimorbidity theme

Jonny Stokes_July15 blog on paper

The major health burden in any rich country (and increasingly poorer countries as well) is long-term conditions, e.g. asthma, diabetes, heart disease.

As people live longer, they tend to accumulate multiple long-term conditions over their lifetime, known as multimorbidity. These patients often require care from many parts of the health and social care system, use multiple medications, and their care is generally more complex and expensive to manage. These pressures have been further exacerbated by the 2008 economic crisis and subsequent austerity measures.

Better ‘integrated care’ is a common response from policy-makers, to achieve better outcomes for patients, and in a more cost-effective manner. Integrated care is a complicated concept, and it can be delivered at multiple levels of the health system, in the ‘background’ (e.g. integrated health records, pooled funding), or at the point of ‘service delivery’ (at the point of contact with the patient).

Case management for ‘at risk’ patients in primary care is an extremely popular way of ‘integrating’ service delivery. It involves identifying patients at increased risk of emergency admissions to hospital, and assigning them a specific case manager or case management team to tailor and co-ordinate their care (with an individual assessment, care plan, and regular review).

In the NHS, case management of the top 2% of highest risk patients is part of the current GP contract. Under the ‘Unplanned admissions directed enhanced services (DES)’, practices receive extra payments for signing up to these services.

Despite probably being the main form of integrated care being implemented in the NHS and around the world (looking at the NHS specifically, we previously found a clear dominance of case management being implemented as the core aspect of ‘integrated care’ in Clinical Commissioning Groups), with the aim of cost-saving and achieving better outcomes for patients, the evidence for this intervention is unclear.

We conducted a systematic review of the evidence generated to date. We used a statistical technique, called ‘meta-analysis’, to put together the findings of all of the studies we found. This technique increases statistical power (increasing precision and our confidence in the findings), and provides an assessment of all the high quality evidence available globally. For that reason, it’s often referred to as the gold-standard form of evidence in medicine.

We looked at effectiveness across a number of outcomes: health (patients’ assessment of their health, as well as mortality), costs and cost-effectiveness (total costs of care, as well as the use of specific services such as GPs, social workers, and hospitals care), and patient satisfaction.

Exploring data across 36 studies, we found that case management of at-risk patients in primary care showed no significant effect on most of the outcomes we looked at. The exceptions were self-assessed health status (which may improve slightly in the short-term, but with few long term benefits), and patient satisfaction (which improved a small amount in both the short and longer term).

We found little evidence of effectiveness of a very popular method of delivering ‘integrated care’.

Managing those high-risk patients is also important, and while the intervention analysed showed limited benefit, there was no harm shown. Therefore, we also tried to pick out some key learning opportunities for policy-makers to try and improve the interventions delivered in the meantime (for example, we found there may be slight benefits of using a multidisciplinary team to case manage; slightly more effect in a country with low initial strength of primary care; and there may be benefits when a social worker is involved).

Policy-makers may need to broaden their thinking about methods to improve care for those with multiple conditions. As others have pointed out, targeting only the highest risk patients puts limits on what can be achieved.

As enthusiasm for integrated care grows through the Five Year Forward View and the Vanguard programme, methods of achieving service improvement at scale need urgent evaluation.

With limited effectiveness shown for the main aims of the case management intervention, particularly no effect in reducing hospital admissions and total cost of care, for policy-makers to incentivise practices to implement case management appears counter-productive to relieving system pressures.

The full article can be found on PLoS ONE, titled: ‘Effectiveness of case management for ‘at risk’ patients in primary care: A systematic review and meta-analysis’ (DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0132340).

Integrated Care: Some unexpected frustrations of research in the NHS

24 Jan

by Jonathan Stokes, PhD student in Multimorbidity theme

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I’ve recently started my PhD at the NIHR Greater Manchester Primary Care Patient Safety Translational Research Centre in the Multimorbidity theme. My project plans to look at case studies of models of integrated care being piloted in the NHS at present.

Integrated care is quite a loosely defined idea. One review found over 175 different definitions… Basically, it boils down to the better linking of various aspects of health/social care, so that the patient experiences a more coordinated, efficient and effective service.

Despite there being no consensus definition, and only limited evidence of effectiveness of any specific models of integrated care, high-level policy makers are heavily pushing for the implementation in England (and worldwide). There seems to be an inherent good seen in the idea of ‘integration’, after-all the opposite is fragmentation. Not only this, but there is a clear logic in pushing for integration when we consider the evolving case-mix health systems are facing globally.

We are seeing worldwide an ageing population with a shift in the diseases encountered towards patients with multiple (hence the term multimorbidity), long-term, chronic conditions (e.g. cancer), instead of the main burden being acute conditions (e.g. malaria infection – conditions which of course remain a huge burden in the developing world) as was historically the case. This new burden requires a different mode of treatment than our health systems have evolved to offer.

These patients with multimorbidities often require treatment from a number of different specialists, often in a variety of locations at different times. As it stands, this fragmentation in the working of the health system is an obvious safety concern. Patients need to explain their medical problems to each new health professional they see, often assuming the professional knows their general case history (which they usually don’t thanks to a lack of medical record linkage in most places…), as well as the safety issues of someone who is frail travelling to the multiple appointments in the first place.

Better coordination of services for these patients then, should of course solve obvious opportunities for harm to come to a patient as they fall through the gaps between services.

My project then, aims to provide evidence for which real-life models of integrated care, being trialled all over the country at present, work most effectively.

Unfortunately I am already facing some frustrations in doing so, from a source I really didn’t expect to find these when studying in the NHS setting (I’ve come from studying mostly international health systems): It is not easy to find out what is being commissioned by each locality in the country!

This lack of transparency really makes it difficult to look at things at a systems level, and so to effectively use the rich data source available in primary care in this country. It’s a real shame that the NHS have failed to manage this data in a usable way for researchers like myself. This frustration has in fact led me to my first piece of work which I hope will expose this lack of transparency in the system, and while doing so, will hopefully give me a better perspective of what the state of integrated care in our country actually is. Hopefully, by starting here we can begin to learn what in fact works best for those who need it.

Watch this space…