Nearly 1,500 of Britain’s care homes will close by 2020 because of the financial crisis facing the sector, a new report predicts. The National Health Service (NHS) will be left with an annual bill of £3 billion (US$4.55 billion) after 37,000 care home beds disappear over the next five years, according to think tank ResPublica.
“Yes, I think inevitably we will have to sell homes, some of which will stay as nursing homes, but some of which will end up closed and changing their use. It’s not something we want to do,” the founder of private equity firm Terra Firma, Guy Hands, told the Guardian.
One such study, by the Harvard University economists David Cutler and Nikhil Sahni, estimates that “structural changes” in our health-care system account for more than half of the slowdown.
In a sense, Brad Stuart is one of those changes. He is a leader in a growing movement advocating home-based primary care, which represents a fundamental change in the way we care for people who are chronically very ill. The idea is simple: rather than wait until people get sick and need hospitalization, you build a multidisciplinary team that visits them at home, coordinates health-related services, and tries to nip problems in the bud. For the past 15 years, at Sutter Health, a giant network of hospitals and doctors in Northern California, Stuart has devoted himself to developing home-based care for frail, elderly patients.
(i.e. the Uk version of this plan is really simple – you build a multidisciplinary team that visits the elderly at home, coordinates health-related services, then robs from their estate to pay for their care at death).
For years, many people in medicine have understood that late-life care for the chronically sick is not only expensive but also, much too often, ineffective and inhumane. For years, the system seemed impervious to change. Recently, however, health-care providers have begun to realize that the status quo is what Stuart calls a “burning platform”: a system that is too expensive and inefficient to hold. As a result, new home-based programs are finally reaching the market, such as one launched about five years ago at Sutter, called Advanced Illness Management. “It’s much more feasible now to make a program like this work than it was a few years ago,” Stuart told me. “There are a lot of new payment schemes in the pipeline that are going to make this kind of program much easier to support.”
This is good news. Generalizing from a small sample is always perilous, but if what is happening at Sutter is any indication, a more humane, effective, and affordable health-care system is closer than we think.
The problem that home-based primary care addresses has been well understood for years. Thanks to modern treatment, people commonly live into their 70s and 80s and even 90s, many of them with multiple chronic ailments. A single person might be diagnosed with, say, heart failure, arthritis, edema, obesity, diabetes, hearing or vision loss, dementia, and more. These people aren’t on death’s doorstep, but neither will they recover. Physically (and sometimes cognitively), they are frail. Joanne Lynn, the director of the Altarum Institute’s Center for Elder Care and Advanced Illness, says that this “frailty course,” a gradual and medically complicated downslide, was once exceptional but is now the likely path for half of today’s elders.
Seniors with five or more chronic conditions account for less than a fourth of Medicare’s beneficiaries but more than two-thirds of its spending—and they are the fastest-growing segment of the Medicare population. What to do with this burgeoning population of the frail elderly? Right now, when something goes wrong, the standard response is to call 911 or go to the emergency room. That leads to a revolving door of hospitalizations, each of them alarmingly expensive. More than a quarter of Medicare’s budget is spent on people in their last year of life, and much of that spending is attributable to hospitalization. “The dramatic increase in costs in the last month of life is largely driven by inpatient hospital stays,” Helen Adamopoulos recently reported on MedicareNewsGroup.com. “On average, Medicare spends $20,870 per beneficiary who dies while in the hospital.”
Hospitals are fine for people who need acute treatments like heart surgery. But they are very often a terrible place for the frail elderly. “Hospitals are hugely dangerous and inappropriately used,” says George Taler, a professor of geriatric medicine at Georgetown University and the director of long-term care at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. “They are a great place to be if you have no choice but to risk your life to get better.” For many, the worst place of all is the intensive-care unit, that alien planet where, according to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 29 percent of Medicare beneficiaries wind up in their last month of life. “The focus appears to be on providing curative care in the acute hospital,” an accompanying editorial said, “regardless of the likelihood of benefit or preferences of patients.”
Taler can attest to one of the more peculiar elements of this situation, which is that a better model—namely, providing care and support at home—has been known and used for decades. Taler himself pioneered an interdisciplinary house-call model in Baltimore in 1980, and in 1999 he co-founded a home-based primary-care program at Washington Hospital Center that has served almost 3,000 people. In the 1970s, the Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs) began building a home-based primary-care program, which now operates out of nearly every VA medical center and serves more than 31,000 patients a day. This is not newfangled, untested stuff
The “frailty course,” a gradual and medically complicated downslide, was once exceptional but is now the likely path for half of today’s elders. Home-based primary care comes in many varieties, but they share a treatment model and a business model. The treatment model begins from the counterintuitive premise that health care should not always be medical care. “It’s not medical treatment, it’s helping meet personal goals,” Brad Stuart said. “It’s about ‘Who is this person, and what do they want in their life?
In Sutter’s Advanced Illness Management program, known as AIM, each patient is assigned to a team of nurses, social workers, physical and occupational therapists, and others. The group works under the direction of a primary-care physician, and meets weekly to discuss patient and family problems—anything from a stroke or depression to an unexplained turn for the worse or an unsafe home.
(This is not a freebie, and it is coming to the UK in a carbon copy form).
I sat in on some of these team meetings. A social worker and a nurse talked over a case and decided they needed to make a home visit together; a doctor suggested a medication change; the various members of the group compared notes on one patient’s hospitalization while discussing whether another’s 911 call might have been averted. Strikingly, patients were presented not as bundles of syndromes—as medical charts—but as having personal goals, such as making a trip or getting back on their feet. The team tries to think about meeting patients’ goals rather than performing procedures. An advantage of the multidisciplinary approach is that over time, as clients’ conditions change, the group can recalibrate the mix of services and providers, to avoid jarring transitions. “Once in AIM, always in AIM,” one coordinator told a patient’s family. Over several years, a person might move from independence and occasional social-worker visits to hospice care and finally death, all within AIM, and mostly at home.
One recent morning, while I was waiting at Sutter to accompany a nurse and a social worker on a home visit, the phone rang. It was a panicked caregiver whose charge had rectal bleeding. A case manager alerted the patient’s regular nurse so that she could make a visit right away, almost certainly averting a 911 call, and possibly an ambulance/ER/hospitalization ordeal. Later, in Washington, D.C., accompanying George Taler on house calls, I met a 92-year-old man afflicted with hypertension, blindness, gout, and diabetes, who had been in and out of the hospital before entering Washington Hospital Center’s home-care program in 2007, and who has not been back since.
Sutter figures that the program, by keeping patients out of the hospital whenever possible, saves Medicare upwards of $2,000 a month on each patient, maybe more. The VA, for its part, says its program reduces hospital days for its patients by more than a third and reduces combined costs to the VA and Medicare by about 13 percent.
But now we come to the business model, which has been problematic. For doctors, nurses, health systems, and insurers, providing in-home service costs money. Medicare pays for hospitalization, but it does not pay for much by way of in-home care, or for social workers, or for time spent coordinating complex cases and traveling to homes and talking with caregivers. Where in-home primary care has existed, it has tended to be a foundation-funded experiment, or a charitable project, or part of a vertically integrated system like the VA, which can capture any savings. The home-care program at Washington Hospital Center runs at a 30 percent loss. Meanwhile, hospitals lose “heads in beds,” and therefore revenue. Medicare—which is to say, taxpayers—may save money, but it has no mechanism either to track savings or to pay providers and insurers for hospitalizations that do not happen.
This is why Brad Stuart was frustrated for so many years. He could see the path forward, and others could see it, but it was blocked. Today, though, he’s feeling optimistic. The path is clearing.
(The path in the UK is extremely clear – sign over your house to us!).
lenin nightingale 2016