Our Missed Health Care Opportunity

Austin American-Statesman, December 1, 2011

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For the past 17 months I've watched through my fingers as Congress has slowly eviscerated a gentle, brilliant, apolitical pediatrician and Harvard professor — Don Berwick.

For the past 17 months I’ve watched through my fingers as Congress has slowly eviscerated a gentle, brilliant, apolitical pediatrician and Harvard professor — Don Berwick. It’s been painful, gut-wrenching and depressing. Congress will finish him off today, when his resignation as administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services takes effect.

The words “missed opportunity” understate.

The visionary Berwick, champion for patients, was picked for the job because his “triple aim” (his words) at health care was the same as President Barack Obama’s reform goals: improving the patient experience, improving population health and reducing costs — and because Berwick had decades of experience successfully achieving those goals in this country and worldwide.

Through the organization he founded in the early 1990s, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, care has been redesigned and hospitals trained to prevent thousands of injuries and deaths.

How has Berwick achieved these changes? Intractable problems in health care are identified, and IHI, often in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, take aim at them.

In the hospital system where I work, we know about Berwick, and we’ve worked with people from the IHI and the RWJ foundation. In 2003, we were chosen as one of 13 pilot sites to transform care at the bedside in medical-surgical units.

Direct-care, front-line nurses were challenged and given full license and encouragement to develop and test methods to improve care. And that we did. Many of the innovations Seton nurses designed are practiced in thousands of hospitals worldwide.

In the eight years since the project began, physicians, patients and families have become engaged in care; bedsores, patient falls, infection and birth trauma have been drastically reduced; communication during shift report has improved; multidisciplinary rounds are made to enhance discharge planning, teamwork and safety; patients are checked on hourly; response teams rush to a patient in crisis before it’s too late; and patient and nurse/doctor satisfaction and retention have dramatically improved. Hospital readmissions have fallen.

Through the transforming care project, in the perinatal area, birth trauma has effectively been eliminated. Clinicians developed a bundle of best practices for obstetricians.

This safety initiative has saved the government a bundle of money. In 2003, Seton billed Medicaid $500,000 for birth trauma; in 2009, zero.

Berwick has promoted understanding of this concept as a way to curb government spending on health care. As part of the Affordable Care Act, Berwick implemented financial incentives for doctors and hospitals to coordinate care and improve patient outcomes.

Stunningly, Congress refused to confirm the nomination of this proven, accomplished and promising leader. Eager to demonstrate contempt for the Affordable Care Act, Republican demagogues seized on Berwick as an irresistible target.

They dubbed him Dr. Death Panel. Why? Because he — and the Affordable Care Act — encourage end-of-life discussions between doctor and patient/family when medicine can do no more.

In addition, they exploited his remarks as an academic praising Britain’s health care system for covering all its people and reining in costs while improving outcomes.

Taking his remarks out of context, Republicans portrayed him as an advocate of rationed care and socialized medicine. This, despite Berwick’s insistence all along that the British system cannot be copied here and that America’s system, having evolved around insurance, needs its own solution.

If you repeat “Dr. Death Panel” and “rationing care” enough times, you begin to brand and unfairly define Berwick and the health care reform law.

Marilyn Tavenner, a nurse and his top deputy, will succeed him. Let’s hope that she will be able to execute his goals. Congress will be more comfortable with her, as she is more manager than visionary.

Back to his triple aim. Has his work improved the patient experience? Yes. Has it improved population health? Yes. Has it reduced costs? Yes.

Have we missed an opportunity? Oh, and how.

Toni Inglis, MSN, RN CNS (retired), FAAN, a lifelong Austin resident and retired neonatal intensive care nurse and editor of NursingNews, writes a monthly opinion column for the Austin American-Statesman editorial page.