Archive for July, 2006

Keeping Employees Hardworking but Healthy

July 24th, 2006 by Melanie Matthews

America's consistently working harder; from 1970 to 2002, hours worked per capita rose 20 percent, due largely to American workers retiring at a later age. Added time in the office means more time under conditions of stress, inactivity and unhealthy eating habits. And after a 50-hour workweek, employees want to spend time with their families, not at the gym.

It is encouraging that employers are now taking some responsibility and repaying workers by investing in their health. Driven by a desire to reduce healthcare spending and to increase employees' productive longevity—at this rate I'll be retiring at 80—health plans and employers are increasingly offering a variety of ways to keep focused on health in the workplace.

In fact, all but 15 percent of employers in a recent HIN survey said that they either already offer wellness programs to their employees or will be doing so within the coming year. Employers and health plans are utilizing programs that run the gamut from communal to personal initiatives. In addition to on-site fitness centers and workgroup Weight Watchers programs, there are "life coaches" for diabetics and psychologists who help employees quit smoking.

But what programs are working? Are organizations' time, effort and money being spent wisely? Not always. The survey found that while health fairs are a common offering, they are rarely assessed as being effective. Conversely, few employers reimburse employees for local gym memberships, but those that do are experiencing great success with the programs.

While it may have taken a big hit to the pocketbook to get them going, improving employee health is a noble endeavor. But employers and health plans need to know what programs will both get employees involved and get them healthy.

Penny-Wise, Pound Foolish

July 14th, 2006 by Melanie Matthews

“Penny-wise, pound foolish” – how many times have you heard stories about our healthcare system and thought how apropos.

I heard a doozy last weekend. A friend who has long suffered from Crohn's Disease and colitis with countless hospitalizations and complications, has been taking an anti-coagulant and visits her physician's office every week for a blood level test.

She has been pushing her insurance company to cover the cost of a home-monitoring device, but has not been successful, with the insurance company citing the high cost of home monitoring.

So instead, each week, the insurance company pays for a lab test and most recently, paid for a five-day hospital stay when her serum level became dangerously high combined with a bleeding ulcer.

An article in the February 4th issue of The Lancet quoted a study about the improvements in outcomes from home monitoring of anticoagulant medications. This particular study found that home monitors can reduce their risk of death from all causes by one-third, and cut the risk of a thromboembolic event in half.

This article also referenced the price of a box of 48 test strips for one such home-monitoring device, Roche's CoaguChek®, which costs about $300 from a discount online distributor. The meter itself sells for $1,295.

So, yes “penny-wise, pound foolish” — instead of providing my friend with a year's supply of the monitoring device quoted in the Lancet to the tune of $2,280, this particular insurance company paid for a five-day hospital stay, along with the other lab visits she had already encountered.

Baby Boomer’s Impact on the Healthcare Industry

July 10th, 2006 by Melanie Matthews

A news headline search yesterday on "baby boomers" yielded over 1,600 stories across a broad media spectrum [probably more stories than normal since President George W. Bush turned 60 yesterday]. Nonetheless, no one can deny the impact that the aging baby boomer generation – about 78 million people – will have on the United States, including the healthcare system.

This month, healthcare professionals are sharing their thoughts on how this aging generation will impact the healthcare industry and how their organization is responding to this generation's healthcare needs in the the Healthcare Intelligence Network Survey of the Month.

Despite continued health advances, the life expectancy of baby boomers could be lower than previous generations because of their high prevalence of heart disease and other cardiovascular ailments, a National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) report said.

This year, the life expectancy rate rose to 77.6 years in 2003, up from 77.3 in 2002. But health officials are concerned with the large proportion of baby boomers who have chronic health problems. Roughly half of the demographic has been diagnosed with high blood pressure, and two out of every five baby boomers are obese.

Share your thoughts and your organization's approach to serving the healthcare needs of the Boomers.

Taking Healthcare Quality Ratings to New Heights

July 5th, 2006 by Melanie Matthews

HIN is lucky enough to be located at the New Jersey shore. We tolerate the seasonal influx of tourists and traffic in exchange for the luxury of spending summer weekends on the beach. Last summer while doing just that I noticed that some traditional “fly-by” advertisements were not just promoting local restaurants and happy hours but also healthy summer behaviors. While I can't recall the exact wording, a state health insurer sponsored airborne messages like “Friends don't let friends get dehydrated” and “The next time I come by I want to see more sunscreen.” I'm sure these banners prevented at least one bad sunburn.

So this July 4 weekend, I wasn't all that surprised to see a local medical center using this beachfront marketing method to tout its inclusion in Solucient's top 100 hospitals. Monmouth Medical Center, a 527-bed community teaching hospital in Long Branch, N.J., flew a pink banner alerting beachgoers that it had received Solucient's Performance Improvement Leader Award for 2005. (Solucient, a developer of information products for the healthcare industry, recognizes hospital CEOs and senior management teams that have led their organizations to achieve the fastest rate of consistent annual organizational improvement.) Congratulations to our neighbor for this achievement. The medical center no doubt hopes that the sun worshippers will remember this fact when making future healthcare decisions.

Coincidentally, the reading material in my beach bag provided some food for thought for healthcare consumers in that position today. An article by Gina Kolata in July 2nd's New York Times titled "Looking for Answers When Choosing Care" asked this question: When faced with serious illness, should a consumer make care decisions based on the reputation of the hospital or the physician? Even as the healthcare industry shifts to a more consumer-driven model, there is still little hard data to guide consumers, Kolata says. According to the experts she interviewed, patient emotions and the limited availability of physician and hospital quality data can sometimes get in the way of these decisions.

Here's some emerging research cited in her article:

ï‚· For patients preferring the comfort of their community hospital, the good news is that researchers from the Tufts University of Medicine have found that for most common illnesses---pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, for example---there are minimal differences in outcomes between community hospitals and academic medical centers.

ï‚· When faced with major cardiac surgery, patients would be better off choosing a busy, high-volume surgeon with plenty of practice with the procedure than a renowned medical center, says a University of Michigan professor of surgery who has studied mortality rates among Medicare patients.

ï‚· On the other hand, for cancer care and surgery, focus on the facility, advises this same Michigan professor of surgery. Kolata also cites a soon-to-be-published study from the Annals of Medicine that found that a patient's chance of dying during or just after cancer surgery was more related to the number of operations the hospitals did and less to the number performed by the surgeon.

It's an interesting read, both for consumers grappling with healthcare choices and hospitals and providers attempting to meet consumer demand for quality-of-care ratings. It also points to a need for more readily accessible statistical data for prospective patients in this situation.