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Ezekiel Emanuel just published an important book with a great title, "Reinventing American Health Care: How the Affordable Care Act Will Improve Our Terribly Complex, Blatantly Unjust, Outrageously Expensive, Grossly Inefficient, Error Prone System." In it, he describes the history of health care reform in the US, gives an overview of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and speculates about future trends in American health care.
The concluding chapter of Emanuel's book is entitled, "Six Megatrends in Health Care: The Long-Term Impact of the ACA." I will devote this review to discussing his six "megatrends."
Megatrend 1) The End of Insurance Companies as We Know Them
Emanuel argues that health insurance companies will "shift their business to focus on offering services they have expertise in, particularly analytics, actuarial modeling, risk management, and other management services...." or "transform themselves into integrated delivery systems," or they will go out of business. This seems quite plausible. However, I think it will depend on how the ACA implementation goes over the next several years. If insurance companies raise their rates, there could be major political fallout.
Megatrend 2) VIP Care for the Chronically and Mentally Ill
Emanuel argues that "tertiary prevention" for chronically ill people with diabetes, heart disease, cancer, etc, and mental health care for people with depression/anxiety, will become an increasing focus of our health care system. I agree. I've taken care of many patients with chronic diseases and mental illness who cycle in and out of the hospital. The question is if our fragmented health system can provide coordinated, community-based care for these vulnerable people. Doctors and nurses must learn to use a biosocial approach when taking care of marginalized patients with chronic disease and mental illness.
Megatrend 3) The Emergence of Digital Medicine and the Closing of Hospitals
Emanuel writes: "Digital medicine will allow physicians to monitor patients remotely anywhere they are, get labs and many imaging tests done, and perform interventions once done exclusively in the hospital." I agree - sort of. We are rapidly headed into a digital era. More health care will be provided in the community, and digital devices will continue to proliferate. But will these digital devices provide value for money? Or will the hype outpace their effectiveness? Unfortunately, so far, the hype is winning.
Megatrend 4) The End of Employer-Sponsored Insurance
This controversial megatrend was analyzed in yesterday's front-page New York Times article. I think this megatrend is very difficult to predict. It depends on a number of political and economic factors. Will America's health insurance system remain constant, or will it move 1) towards a Republican system based on tax credits, or 2) towards a single payer system based on universal health coverage, or 3) a Kaiser-like group model? The latter is the most likely.
Megatrend 5) The End of Health Care Inflation
I'm definitely not an economist, but I'm not sure I agree with Emmanuel that the ACA will succeed at controlling the growth in health care costs. In his book, Emanuel admits that the ACA didn't go far enough on payment reform, and that there remains "a serious misalignment between what we want physicians and hospitals to do in terms of improving value, efficiency, and reducing unnecessary care and how insurance companies, Medicare, Medicaid, and others pay them." As long as our fee-for-service system is around, and Medicare payments and RVUs are biased towards specialists, the growth of health care costs won't be controlled.
Megatrend 6) The Transformation of Medical Schools
I agree with Emanuel. Medical schools must change, and become much more team-oriented, community health oriented, and digital medicine oriented. The problem is that medical school curricula are very difficult to change. Can they begin to change rapidly? I'm not sure. If they can, it will require a major awakening of medical students and faculty.
With the enormous amount of material for physicians to learn, does reducing the length of medical school from 4 years to 3 years really make sense? I don't think so. I think it would be preferable to keep medical school at 4 years and subsidize medical school tuition, or provide 100% debt forgiveness for medical students who enter primary care careers. The National Health Service Corps is a good program, but it doesn't go nearly far enough. If medical school is reduced to 3 years, will the training physicians receive really be sufficient?