Public Policy & News

Lean Thinking and Health Care Reform

Today’s Op-Ed section in the Washington Post has a piece by Philip K. Howard called “Health Reform’s Taboo Topic”. The problem?

Health-care reform is bogged down because none of the bills before Congress deals with the staggering waste of the current system, estimated to be $700 billion to $1 trillion annually. The waste flows from a culture of health care in which every incentive is to do more — that’s how doctors make money and that’s how they protect themselves from lawsuits.

The article goes on to talk about “defensive medicine,” the practice of ordering tons of diagnostic tests to refine a diagnosis or a treatment plan for the purpose of avoiding malpractice suits. Howard suggests that physicians are cultured into this way of doing business as a defense against potential risks and potential malpractice cases – he even mentions one case where a doctor reacted to a lawsuit by changing his behavior in favor of defensive medicine. A solution, however, is possible:

Containing costs, as Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) noted on “Face the Nation” recently, requires overhauling the culture of health-care delivery. Incentives need to be realigned. That requires a legal framework that, instead of encouraging waste, encourages doctors to focus on what’s really needed. One pillar in a new legal framework is a system of justice that is trusted to reliably distinguish between good care and bad care. Reliable justice would protect doctors against unreasonable claims and would expeditiously compensate injured patients. The key is reliability.

The culture of a system – in this case the U.S. health care system – influences the behavior of individuals within the system. This behavior can be waste-producing. When it is, we need to look towards the cultural influences or the structure of the incentives that drive that behavior, and examine ways to address the root cause(s).

It reminds me of the requirements gathering phase of a software development project. Stakeholders spend hours trying to hash out what functions and behavior they expect from their software, and how reliable they want it to be. It is always a challenge to avoid designing the system (that is, how it will look or act) when the essence of what you need to know is what the system needs to do.

I see evidence in the growing national healthcare debate that many people have opinions on the design of the system (e.g. who gets coverage, how pre-existing conditions are handled, how much it costs, who pays), whereas most citizens and Congressmen aren’t even touching the requirements for a successful system (e.g. what scenarios it should support, what behaviors it should provide incentives for, or its reliability/requirements for how much waste the system can and should generate).

In my opinion, one requirement for a successful health care system is that it provides incentives for you to remain healthy and stay out of doctors’ offices and hospitals. A tax credit for a health Body Mass Index (BMI), or maybe lower interest rates? I’d go for that… it would even stimulate me to boost the economy a little more by buying rollerblades or something.

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