Doctors must play an integral role in reducing health care costs, health policy experts say. At the annual conference of consumer group Families USA, Dr. Atul Gawande and Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel said that doctors participating in reducing costs will have a greater affect than the health care law itself.
“Washington will not be able to save the costs. They’ll provide the framework, but in your communities, that’s where you’ll do it,” said Dr. Gawande, a health policy researcher and endocrine surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Dr. Gawande said that the Affordable Care Act will provide the data for doctors to identify where to trim costs. Both Dr. Gawande and Dr. Emanuel said doctors can take a leading role in cost control by focusing on the sickest 5% of patients. According to a 2009 report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the sickest 5% of patients account for 50% of national health care expenditures.
Dr. Gawande cited the work of Dr. Jeffrey Brenner. By analyzing medical billing data from practices in Camden, N.J., Dr. Brenner, a primary care physician, was able to map out the most impoverished areas with the highest health care costs. With a focused approach that included home visits and the help of social workers, Dr. Brenner decreased one patient’s inpatient hospital time from 7 months in one year to 3 weeks. While under his care, the patient lost 200 pounds, and quit smoking, drinking, and using cocaine. At the same time, the patient’s hospital costs decreased by 60%. Dr. Gawande wrote about Dr. Brenner’s strategy in a January 2011 article in the New Yorker.
Dr. Emanuel, a recognized expert on health and chair of the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, said rising health care costs threaten many aspects of American society, particularly education, workers’ wages, and the nation’s position in the world, as well as by putting an economic squeeze on middle class. Dr. Emanuel also served as special adviser for health policy to the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget from January 2009 to January 2011, where he helped craft the Affordable Care Act.
“If you care about how our kids are going to educated in the future, you have to care about heath care costs,” Dr. Emanuel said, adding that increased health care costs directly affect tuition rates. For example, from 2001 to 2011, employer contributions to health insurance increased by 113%, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Meanwhile, tuition for public universities increased 72% over the past decade, according to the College Board. Dr. Emanuel projected that, as health care costs continue to rise, states will be forced to take the money from other programs, leaving education and health care at the greatest risk.
“We can reduce costs without sacrificing access … [doctors] have to be committed to doing that,” Dr. Emanuel said.