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Getting to the Essence of Value in Health Care

Aug 3, 2015, 1:57 PM, Posted by Susan Dentzer

In this era of value-based payment, we need to consider how different players within health care approach the value equation.

2013 April Cost Test

How would you judge the value of your health care? A longstanding definition of treatment holds that value is the health outcomes achieved for the dollars spent. Yet behind that seemingly simple formula lies much complexity.

Think about it: Calculating outcomes and costs for treating a short-term acute condition, such as a child’s strep throat, may be easy. But it’s far harder to pinpoint value in a long-term serious illness such as advanced cancer, in which both both the outcomes and costs of treating a given individual—let alone a population with a particular cancer—may be unknown for years. And then there’s the complicating issue of our individual preferences, since one person’s definition of a good outcome—say, another few years of life—may differ from another’s, who may be seeking a total cure.

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Three Key Lessons from the Health Care Transparency Summit

Apr 16, 2015, 1:36 PM, Posted by Anne Weiss, Susan Dentzer

A magnifying glass lies on top of money. (Image via taxrebate.org.uk)

“There is no single more powerful concept” in transforming health care than transparency—that is, accurate information for everybody about the costs, quality, and other aspects of health care—according to former US Senate Majority Leader and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Board Member Bill Frist at the Second National Summit on Transparency in Health Care Costs, Prices, and Quality. Not only is shining the spotlight on costs and quality the key to making health care markets work, Frist said, but it’s also central to delivering the vaunted Triple Aim of better health, better health care, and lower costs. Here are our key takeaways reflecting how much transparency discussions have advanced since the first RWJF sponsored summit in 2013:

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The Front Line of Medicine

Dec 18, 2014, 9:00 AM

For the 25th anniversary of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF) Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP), the Human Capital Blog is publishing scholar profiles, some reprinted from the program’s website. SMDEP is a six-week academic enrichment program that has created a pathway for more than 22,000 participants, opening the doors to life-changing opportunities. Following is a profile of Juan Jose Ferreris, MD, a member of the Class of 1989.

It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.’

The words of abolitionist Frederick Douglass resonate for Juan Jose Ferreris, a pediatrician and assistant clinical adjunct professor at University of Texas Health Science Center. He sees a straight line between the public funds allocated for children’s care and their well-being as adults.

“Kids receive less than 20 cents of every health care dollar. Meanwhile, 80 percent goes to adult end-of-life care. Why aren’t we spending those funds on people when they’re young, when it could make a genuine difference?”

Ferreris contends that money also shapes health in less obvious ways. Salaries of primary care physicians are well below those of more “glamorous” specialists. Some fledgling MDs, burdened with medical school debt, reason that they can’t afford not to specialize. Consequently, he says, only 3 percent of medical students choose primary care.

For Ferreris, who is both humbled and inspired by his young patients, building a Culture of Health necessitates recalibrating priorities.

“Nobody’s concentrating on the whole; they’re only looking at one part. And they’re not paying attention to the human—the brain, the spirit, the soul.

“We overlook that aspect...but it’s where I believe the primary care doctor has irreplaceable value.”

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How Cataract Surgery Helped Me See the Future of Health Transparency

Dec 12, 2014, 1:34 PM, Posted by Risa Lavizzo-Mourey

Robotic Surgery

More and more health care costs are shifted to consumers. So why, asks RWJF President and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, can’t we easily discover and compare health care costs and quality?

Here’s how the subject came up. Recently, Lavizzo-Mourey underwent cataract surgery at an outpatient center in Philadelphia. No matter whom she talked to—and she was shunted from one person to the next—she could not learn the all-in cost of the procedure.

Lavizzo-Mourey finally did manage to find out the cost of her surgery: $2,000, including co-pays and deductible. But the whole episode, she says, is illustrative of a larger problem.

Writing in a recent blog post on the professional social networking site LinkedIn, Lavizzo-Mourey asks: “Could there be a clearer example of the lack of transparency in the U.S. health care system?”

To get the information we need, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is funding a set of studies to help us better understand how greater price transparency influences consumer and provider decisions. “And in March,” Lavizzo-Mourey adds, “we will host a summit on transparency that will attempt to come up with more answers."

Along those lines, RWJF last year issued a challenge to developers to devise consumer-friendly tools to parse the abundant hospital price data released by Medicare. The winner? Consumer Reports, for the Consumer Reports Hospital Adviser: Hip & Knee, a personalized app for health care consumers seeking the best hospital for hip or knee replacement surgery.

You can help us move the cost and quality needle forward. Do you know of any other price/quality apps or tools? Let us know.

Transparency in Health Care? Sadly, That's Not How We Roll.

Nov 7, 2014, 3:13 PM, Posted by Andrea Ducas

Patrick Toussaint Andrea’s husband, Patrick Toussaint, using his super strength to tighten a lug nut.

What do changing a flat tire and scheduling a surgical procedure have in common? Nothing. And that’s the problem.

Last month, on our way home to New Jersey from Boston, my husband and I got a flat tire. And while this is a dreaded possibility on any road trip, it happened to us at 9 p.m. on a Sunday. No shops were open, and with an early morning flight just a few hours away we didn’t have time to wait for AAA.

At this point it’s important to emphasize that neither my husband nor I know a thing about cars. We didn’t even know we had a jack or spare in the trunk until we called my uncle, who teased us (“You have a new car! Everything you need is in the back!”) and gave us the pep talk we needed. So we pulled out our owner’s manual.

I’m not sure who that manual is written for, but it clearly isn’t for us. After five minutes of thinking I’d need to call the airline and book a later flight, I realized: There is a better way. I pulled out my iPhone, Googled “how to change a flat tire,” and called up a YouTube video and a step-by-step, picture-guided Wikihow article. Within 20 minutes, the tire was changed, our spare was filled with air to 60 psi, and we were on our way.

So what does any of this have to do with health care? Unfortunately, not very much.

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Helping Physicians Do What They Got Into Medicine to Do

Sep 25, 2014, 10:02 AM, Posted by Anne Weiss

Two women are at a desk, one is counting money

“Health care was never intended to be the behemoth it's become. It was intended to be the place where people could get help for medical problems so they can return to living a healthy life.”

For me, this statement—from an internist I met last month—is a refreshing take on the value of the health care system in a Culture of Health. It’s an inspiring vision for those of us focused on the usual litany of problems: Our health care system costs too much, and delivers outcomes that lag behind other countries to such a degree that it threatens our economic health and social fabric.

Last year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) invested in five markets—Maine, Minnesota, Oregon, Colorado, and the St. Louis region—where there is the will and ability to measure health care costs and quality, and use that information to drive change. In each of these markets, we’re working with multi-stakeholder organizations who are members of the Network for Regional Health Improvement (NHRI). Each organization will produce reports that compare the cost of treating patients in each primary care practice in their market. (You can learn more about this project here.)

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Exactly How Much DOES That Appendectomy Cost?

Aug 1, 2014, 4:29 PM, Posted by Andrea Ducas


Want to know one of health care’s dirty little secrets? While we know how much the country spends on care each year, we have little understanding of what it actually costs to provide care.

Think, for example, about an appendectomy. What does it really “cost” the health care system to perform that procedure? The answer is complex, and of course it includes everyone’s time—from the surgeon to housekeeping staff—and it also includes the drugs, equipment, space, and overhead associated with your stay.

The cost of your visit will also depend on who is delivering your care. A consult with a registered nurse (RN) is less costly to the hospital than one with a physician.

Then, consider insurance. If the price your carrier pays for that RN consult is $85, but the price another carrier pays is only $65, what does it actually cost the hospital—and how do those variances affect what you pay both out-of-pocket and for insurance premiums? Moreover, health care providers are currently not trained to think about the costs of the care they provide—and often have no incentive or means to even consider those costs.

These complexities have made it difficult to reform the way we purchase and pay for health care.

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What’s Keeping the Cardiac Polypill off the Market?

Jul 3, 2014, 10:05 AM, Posted by Sheree Crute

Lisa Ranson Lisa Ranson

No matter how busy Lisa Ranson’s morning gets, somewhere between preparing breakfast and suiting up for work or play, she takes the first cluster of eight pills that protect her from a family legacy of heart disease so powerful she had bypass surgery at 34.

Even at that young age, she was no stranger to daily prescription regimens. Growing up, she watched her dad struggle. These days they compare notes. “He’s survived two heart attacks, had bypass surgery, and he has a pacemaker,” Ranson says.

An avid walker who treks three and a half miles most days near her home in the small town of Dunbar, W.Va., Ranson is now 51 and in great shape. But her healthy lifestyle is no match for her genetic inheritance—she is one of 34 million people living with hypercholesterolemia.

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Choosing Wisely: Intensifying the Spotlight On Health Care of Dubious Value

Apr 30, 2014, 8:52 AM, Posted by Susan Dentzer


“If you study the kinds of decisions that people make, and the outcomes of those decisions, you’ll find that humanity doesn’t have a particularly impressive track record,” write the brothers Chip and Dan Heath in their masterful book Decisive. Invoking research from psychology and behavioral economics, the Heath brothers demonstrate how people often make decisions by looking at what’s in the “spotlight”—the information immediately before them, sparse as it may be.

But what’s in that spotlight “will rarely be everything we need to make a good decision,” the Heaths counsel. To choose wisely, we need to broaden our focus, or “shift the light.”

That’s especially true in health care, where the consequences of any decision, poorly made or not, may be life or death.

Enter Choosing Wisely, a program that shifts the spotlight onto many of the tests and treatments that both providers and patients should question, if not abandon completely.

(Editor's note: On May 2, 2014, RWJF held a First Friday GoogleHangout to explore how Choosing Wiselysprang from critical examination of the overuse of medical care in the United States—and how it’s changing how care is delivered in communities. Watch an archived version of the Hangout, above.)

This two-year old campaign, launched in 2012 by the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation, has identified more than 250 tests and procedures that warrant scrutiny because they are ineffective, unnecessary, unsupported by evidence, or possibly harmful. Even so, physicians and other clinicians perform them regularly, and patients sometimes request them.

Fifty-four of the nation’s premier medical specialty societies have joined the Choosing Wisely effort, and most of these have contributed to their own lists of questionable care. This week, three non-physician groups will also sign on to the campaign. Among the categories of dubious care identified on various societies’ “top five” lists are these:

  • Excessive imaging: CT or MRI scans for low back pain shouldn’t be ordered within the first six weeks of treating a patient, unless there are severe neurological symptoms, while patients with minor head injuries shouldn’t routinely get a head CT unless they have a skull fracture or are bleeding. Excessive scans expose patients to radiation that increases their lifetime risk of cancer.
  • Unnecessary medications: Antibiotics are not effective against viruses and should not be prescribed for viral illnesses such as sinus infections or bronchitis, particularly in children. But doctors say they frequently feel pressured to write these prescriptions by anxious parents.
  • Superfluous screening or diagnostic tests: Patients with no symptoms of heart disease and are at low risk of developing it are still frequently subjected to electrocardiograms when they get routine physical exams, despite evidence that this routine screening doesn’t improve patient outcomes. By the same token, hospitalized patients may have their blood drawn countless times for costly diagnostic testing that often yield little useful information, and can contribute to anemia.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is supporting Choosing Wisely with a $2.5 million grant to extend the influence of these lists beyond medical specialty societies and into communities. State medical societies in Texas, Oregon, Minnesota, Tennessee, Washington, and Massachusetts have undertaken steps to promote the lists, including developing continuing medical education courses for doctors. So have ten regional health collaboratives, such as Maine Quality Counts and the Washington Health Alliance outside Seattle (both are among RWJF’s Aligning Forces For Quality communities as well).

Consumer Reports and AARP are among organizations that have taken the lead in publicizing the lists for consumers. All told, these efforts have reached an estimated 170,000 or more physicians and 16 million-plus consumers. There’s even a Wikipedia page for the campaign, with the lists of tests and procedures curated by a “Wikipedian” in residence.

Caveats: Although more than 200 articles have been written about aspects of the campaign in medical journals, there is as yet little hard evidence that is has reduced superfluous care. A recent perspective in the New England Journal of Medicine noted that the specialty societies’ lists “vary widely in terms of their potential impact on care and spending”—and suggests that some societies omitted lucrative elective procedures, such as knee replacement surgery, that also aren’t appropriate for many patients.

The bottom line: As a nation, we need to shine a spotlight on an even broader range of questionable health care in the future. But for now, the Choosing Wisely campaign is illuminating plenty of “care” that we can clearly pass up with impunity as we pursue our real objective:  better health.


How Can Health Systems Effectively Serve Minority Communities? Shift the Cost-Access-Quality Axis.

Apr 29, 2014, 10:30 AM

To mark National Minority Health Month, the Human Capital Blog asked several Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) scholars to respond to questions about improving health care for all. In this post, Italo M. Brown, MPH, a rising fourth-year medical student at Meharry Medical College, responds to the question, “What are the challenges, needs, or opportunities for health systems to effectively serve minority communities?” Brown holds a BS from Morehouse College and an MPH from Boston University, School of Public Health. He is an alumnus of the Health Policy Scholars Program at the RWJF Center for Health Policy at Meharry Medical College.


In our domestic health care system, we nurture the drive to improve patient outcomes, and apply evidence-based knowledge to solve contemporary health care challenges. Yet, studies have demonstrated that minorities are disproportionately affected by chronic conditions, and on average are less likely to receive ongoing care/management of their comorbidities. In addition, public health experts have asserted that social determinants of health (e.g., education level, family income, social capital) directly impact the minority community, and effectively convolute the pathway to care. 

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