22 December 2009

Great Article From Testing, Testing The health-care bill has no master plan for curbing costs. Is that a bad thing? by Atul Gawande

At the start of the twentieth century, another indispensable but unmanageably costly sector was strangling the country: agriculture. In 1900, more than forty per cent of a family’s income went to paying for food. At the same time, farming was hugely labor-intensive, tying up almost half the American workforce. We were, partly as a result, still a poor nation. Only by improving the productivity of farming could we raise our standard of living and emerge as an industrial power. We had to reduce food costs, so that families could spend money on other goods, and resources could flow to other economic sectors. And we had to make farming less labor-dependent, so that more of the population could enter non-farming occupations and support economic growth and development.

America’s agricultural crisis gave rise to deep national frustration. The inefficiency of farms meant low crop yields, high prices, limited choice, and uneven quality. The agricultural system was fragmented and disorganized, and ignored evidence showing how things could be done better. Shallow plowing, no crop rotation, inadequate seedbeds, and other habits sustained by lore and tradition resulted in poor production and soil exhaustion. And lack of coördination led to local shortages of many crops and overproduction of others.

You might think that the invisible hand of market competition would have solved these problems, that the prospect of higher income from improved practices would have encouraged change. But laissez-faire had not worked. Farmers relied so much on human muscle because it was cheap and didn’t require the long-term investment that animal power and machinery did. The fact that land, too, was cheap encouraged extensive, almost careless cultivation. When the soil became exhausted, farmers simply moved; most tracts of farmland were occupied for five years or less. Those who didn’t move tended to be tenant farmers, who paid rent to their landlords in either cash or crops, which also discouraged long-term investment. And there was a deep-seated fear of risk and the uncertainties of change; many farmers dismissed new ideas as “book farming.”

Things were no better elsewhere in the world. For industrializing nations in the first half of the twentieth century, food was the fundamental problem. The desire for a once-and-for-all fix led Communist governments to take over and run vast “scientific” farms and collectives. We know what that led to: widespread famines and tens of millions of deaths.

The United States did not seek a grand solution. Private farms remained, along with the considerable advantages of individual initiative. Still, government was enlisted to help millions of farmers change the way they worked. The approach succeeded almost shockingly well. The resulting abundance of goods in our grocery stores and the leaps in our standard of living became the greatest argument for America around the world. And, as the agricultural historian Roy V. Scott recounted, four decades ago, in his remarkable study “The Reluctant Farmer,” it all started with a pilot program. …

Knapp had discovered a simple but critical rule for gaining coöperation: “What a man hears he may doubt, what he sees he may possibly doubt, but what he does himself he cannot doubt.”

… The program had no shortage of critics. _Southern Farm Magazine _denounced it as government control of agriculture. … As Daniel Carpenter, a professor of government at Harvard, points out, the demonstration-farm program was just one of a hodgepodge of successful U.S.D.A. initiatives that began as pilots…. The U.S.D.A.’s scientific capabilities grew into the world’s greatest biological-discovery machine of the time. … (In 1927, Republicans, prompted by aggrieved New York speculators, managed to prohibit the U.S.D.A. from releasing the forecasts; the program was reinstituted three years later, following an outcry from farmers.) … What seemed like a hodgepodge eventually cohered into a whole. The government never took over agriculture, but the government didn’t leave it alone, either. It shaped a feedback loop of experiment and learning and encouragement for farmers across the country. The results were beyond what anyone could have imagined. Productivity went way up, outpacing that of other Western countries. Prices fell by half.

…. Much like farming, medicine involves hundreds of thousands of local entities across the country—hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, home-health agencies, drug and device suppliers. They provide complex services for the thousands of diseases, conditions, and injuries that afflict us. They want to provide good care, but they also measure their success by the amount of revenue they take in, and, as each pursues its individual interests, the net result has been disastrous. Our fee-for-service system, doling out separate payments for everything and everyone involved in a patient’s care, has all the wrong incentives: it rewards doing more over doing right, it increases paperwork and the duplication of efforts, and it discourages clinicians from working together for the best possible results.

The history of American agriculture suggests that you can have transformation without a master plan, without knowing all the answers up front. Government has a crucial role to play here—not running the system but guiding it….

….To figure out how to transform medical communities, with all their diversity and complexity, is going to involve trial and error. And this will require pilot programs—a lot of them.

Pick up the Senate health-care bill—yes, all 2,074 pages—and leaf through it. Almost half of it is devoted to programs that would test various ways to curb costs and increase quality. The bill is a hodgepodge. And it should be.


There are hundreds of pages of these programs, almost all of which appear in the House bill as well. But the Senate reform package goes a few U.S.D.A.-like steps further….

Which of these programs will work? We can’t know. That’s why the Congressional Budget Office doesn’t credit any of them with substantial savings….

Cynicism about government can seem ingrained in the American character. It was, ironically, in a speech to the Future Farmers of America that President Ronald Reagan said, “The ten most dangerous words in the English language are ‘Hi, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’ ” Well, Lewandowski is from the government, and he’s here to help. And small farms in Athens County are surviving because of him. What he does involves continual improvisation and education; problems keep changing, and better methods of managing them keep emerging—as in medicine.

My parents recently retired from medical practice in Athens. My mother was a pediatrician and my father was a urologist. I tried to imagine what it would be like for them if they were still practicing. They would be asked to switch from paper to electronic medical records, to organize with other doctors to reduce medical complications and unnecessary costs, to try to arrive at a package price for a child with asthma or a man with kidney stones. These are the kinds of changes that everyone in medicine has to start making. And I have no idea how my parents would do it.

We’ll also need data, if we’re going to know what is succeeding. Among the most important, and least noticed, provisions in the reform legislation is one in the House bill to expand our ability to collect national health statistics…


…At this point, we can’t afford any illusions: the system won’t fix itself, and there’s no piece of legislation that will have all the answers, either. The task will require dedicated and talented people in government agencies and in communities who recognize that the country’s future depends on their sidestepping the ideological battles, encouraging local change, and following the results. …

blog comments powered by Disqus