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US health care: It's officially a mess, institute says

If banking were like health care, it would take days to get money out of an ATM because the records would be lost. If airlines were like health care, pilots would decide on their own which safety checks to make, if any. If shopping were like health care -- well, you get the picture.

It’s a mess, the Institute of Medicine says in a report released on Thursday. The U.S. health care system wasted $750 billion in 2009, about 30 percent of all health spending, on unnecessary services, excessive administrative costs, fraud, and other problems. As many as 75,000 people who died in 2005 would have lived if they got the kind of care provided in the states with the best medical systems, the Institute found.

The report, issued just as candidates for Congress and for president make health care reform a central part of the national debate, doesn’t pull any punches. The panel of experts assembled by the Institute, an independent body that is supposed to provide a non-partisan last word on important issues, leaves no doubt that U.S. health care now is anything but the best in the world.

"The threats to Americans' health and economic security are clear and compelling, and it's time to get all hands on deck," says Mark Smith, president and CEO of the California HealthCare Foundation in Oakland and chairman of the panel.

"Our health care system lags in its ability to adapt, affordably meet patients' needs, and consistently achieve better outcomes."

But there's hope. "We have the know-how and technology to make substantial improvement on costs and quality. Our report offers the vision and road map to create a learning health care system that will provide higher quality and greater value," Smith says.

“What I am seeing around the country is that people are absolutely committed to reform,” says James Conway of the Harvard School of Public Health and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in Massachusetts, who served on the panel.

“Whether you look at the Republican platform or the Democratic platform, you find in pretty strong language the importance of developing a high quality health care system.”

One of the biggest problems is that health insurers, hospitals and health systems don’t learn from their mistakes, the report says. Half of all health care professionals still neglect to wash their hands properly before seeing patients, even though it’s one of the main causes of infections that kill tens of thousands of patients every year.

An organized system that finds out what went wrong and where, and then provides for the health system to correct those mistakes right away would save money and lives. It’s possible in a computerized world, but it’s not happening on a systematic basis. Hospitals that report every single infection and ruthlessly track down where it came from have found they can cut infection rates to zero, for instance.

Yet just this week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that a third of Americans have high blood pressure and only half of them have it under control. There are dozens of drugs to treat it, not to mention diet and exercise methods. It took 13 years for one of those drug types, the beta-blockers, to become the standard of care even after they had been clearly demonstrated to work, the report says.

What’s missing, the report says, is coordination. “What I see is people doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Everyone has their little initiative. And back at the ranch, the doctor, the individual provider, is drowning in the sea of initiatives,” Conway says. “What is missing is a much more systemic and collective response.”

The report points to two main problems. “One is the increasingly unmanageable complexity of the science of health care. During the past half-century, there has been an explosion of biomedical and clinical knowledge, with even more dazzling clinical capabilities just over the horizon,” the report says. But the current system doesn’t help providers learn this material and it doesn’t give them any incentive to apply it.

“Second is the ever-escalating cost of care, which is widely acknowledged to be wasteful and unsustainable. Unless ways are found to provide more efficient, lower-cost health care, more and more Americans will lose coverage of and access to care.”

Conway praises the Massachusetts health care system, which he says is organized with the patient in mind. The report also says government initiatives, such as the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) and the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services Innovation Center are good ways to test and apply proven treatments and methods for paying for health care.

“Until we organize the health care system around the people we are privileged to serve, we aren’t going to figure it out,” Conway said.  “I don’t think we have done that before -- we haven’t organized it around the person with cancer. That would be a remarkable change.”

Some ways to get there? Let people see what various treatments cost up front. Employers, who cover the health care costs of 55 percent of Americans, can help, too, the report says. They can use their buying power to demand high-quality, high-value health care, and get their employees involved in wellness programs.

So what would happen if shopping were like U.S. health care? "Product prices would not be posted, and the price charged would vary widely within the same store, depending on the source of payment,” the report says.

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