Archive for February 2012

Surgical Quality Improvement   1 comment

A man visits a surgeon about a lipoma (usually a benign glob of fat) on his arm that has been aesthetically bothering the patient for a number of years. The surgeon assesses the lipoma and rules out any concerning other health problems. The man is booked for surgery three weeks later. The patient arrives on-time to an outpatient surgery center for the removal of the lipoma. This patient checks in at the front desk and is guided back to the preoperative assessment area. There, the surgeon and anesthesiologist consent the patient for the procedure, start an IV, and ask the patient and his personal friend to say there goodbyes. Shortly thereafter, the patient is brought to the OR and sedated for the procedure. The case goes off without a hitch, and two hours later the patient is comfortably recovering from the effects of the sedative before being taken home by his friend. His wound heals well, the tissue removed during surgery is found to be benign, and he is formally released from the surgeon’s care at a follow-up appointment two weeks later.

This vignette represents a stylized “perfect” surgical encounter. All the various processes necessary to move from diagnosis of surgical disease to remediation of the condition proceed apace without incident. What happens in real life? In more than a few cases, one of the many steps above has a seemingly minor logistical hiccup that ultimately causes far too many resources to be devoted to this individual patient’s care. Sometimes these issues pass without the patient even aware of a problem. For example, it is not uncommon that a patient is brought to an operating room and sedated but the surgical team is not yet available to start the case. Other times, the patient’s entire memory of the encounter is shaped by the issue. It is not unheard of that a patient arrives for surgery and finds that because of paperwork errors he or she was not scheduled for surgery. In the best of cases, the patient has to wait a few hours before being squeezed in. Unfortunately, sometimes the patient is asked return at a later date for the procedure which of course requires the patient finding a new window in his busy schedule that can accomodate such a visit. Regardless of whether the patient is aware of the problem or not, these logistical errors greatly increase the resources and time needed to meet the healthcare needs of a population.

In the U.S., a seminal report by the Institute of Medicine (the profession’s pantheon) in 2001 radically accelerated the industry’s adoption of product quality and operations management practices from other industries. A practical example of this was many of the “cost containment” issues that were discussed — but largely not included — in the 2010 U.S. healthcare reform legislation. For example, the original legislation included powerful politically independent panels of experts (a la the 9/11 Commission) that would provide evidence-based – rather than expert-opinion – recommendations for the highly politicized but necessary changes to align Medicare reimbursement policies with cost-effective care.

Within surgery communities, there seems to be a rather large divide between institutions and programs that “get it” and are willing to spend the administrative resources to address these operational inefficiencies and those who fail to recognize the magnitude of these problems or see no solution from them.

The part of surgery’s newfound interest in “quality improvement”  that is of greatest importance to me is exploring the incremental changes we can make to healthcare processes to prevent the small process problems noted above that ultimately weigh heavily on the costs of healthcare. I specifically am looking at using process mapping and decision analysis tools to question existing healthcare operations through a patient-centered perspective.

What we are trying to do in quality improvement is identify systems (e.g., patient management systems), products (e.g., mobile software), and services (e.g., nursing hotlines), that help us provide healthcare that is more comprehensive but also cheaper than existing practices. The burden that currently weighs on those of us working in this field is developing and testing these new methods of providing care in a way that convincingly demonstrates results with which we can act on.

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GE VScan and Handheld Ultrasound Devices   9 comments

Why an amazing product can’t find a market

The Gold Standard: GE Vivid 7 (Courtesy GE Healthcare)

Medical ultrasound is considered one of the most effective imaging modalities for cheap, reliable diagnosis of many disease states from heart disease to infected abscesses. Since the technology’s inception, device manufacturers have been steadily miniaturizing components so that what used to be a desk-sized machine (The GE Vivid7 in the picture to the left is a modern version of these behemoths) has now been succeeded by a laptop bolted to a small rolling cart with a number of ultrasound probes hanging off the side.

In late 2009, GE Healthcare released its VScan (see picture on right) handheld ultrasound device to the American market. The VScan device was most notable for its size — only slightly bulkier than a classic clam-shell mobile phone — and a price that was 80% less than traditional machines. Although VScan’s introduction was accompanied by a number of competing devices from other major industry competitors (e.g., Siemens’ ACUSON P10, Signostics’ Signos) as well as enterprising start-ups, the VScan has generally been considered to be the superior product in the pocket portable product segment because it functions near-identically to larger laptop-based portables but in a smaller form-factor. (Still not quite following? See a short introductory video by GE here.)

GE VScan

GE VScan (Courtesy GE Healthcare)

The VScan’s entry should have been heralded by doctors in a variety of clinical settings. A device exists that a clinician can carry in his or her pocket that with relatively little additional training can be used to detect traumatic injuries, major vessel disease, heart failure, and other maladies all without the need for any further appointments (in the outpatient setting) or bulky equipment often confined to a poorly accessible imaging suite. Unfortunately, the VScan and its competitors have had little adoption in the years since their introduction.

The lack of interest in the VScan illustrates how the current reimbursement system of the American healthcare system has direct effects on how patient care is provided. An example of these skewed incentives can be readily seen in one of ultrasound’s largest markets – outpatient cardiac ultrasound. Without VScan, a cardiologist orders a comprehensive ultrasound study that typically requires a second visit and an advanced cart-based ultrasound machine. Each study performed earns the cardiologist a professional and technical fees exceeding $1,500. In contrast, current reimbursement policies (typically set by Medicare and then voluntarily adopted by private insurance companies) do not cover ultrasound procedures performed with handheld devices so physicians are unable to charge for this service. Thus, the $7,000 cost of each handheld ultrasound machine is not going to be recouped through additional procedural charges.

The only revenue stream from use of the VScan product is any potential efficiency gains met by being able to rule-out serious underlying disease quickly and thereby see more patients in the same amount of time. While such a hidden benefit may be difficult to convey to a private practitioner or a standalone healthcare system, integrated healthcare systems (e.g., U.S. Veterans Affairs Hospital Systems, National Health Service) stand to benefit more from lowering the number of unnecessary comprehensive ultrasound exams. It should be no surprise then that integrated healthcare systems in Europe have been some of the few markets where handheld ultrasound devices are regularly used and clinically studied.

Personally, I’m not convinced by proponents of the VScan that such devices will soon replace the conventional stethoscope. The price and relative ease of use the latter are so superior that any real competition between the two is still a decade or more away. Such a claim is analogous to saying the typewriter would make the pencil obsolete. What is far more likely is growing demand for VScan and its competitors as the American healthcare system wakes up to cost-effective care. A greater focus on comparative cost-effectiveness will lead to reimbursement policies rewarding physicians for at least the limited use of such handheld devices versus comprehensive ultrasound studies. As GE’s marketing efforts in the ultrasound industry demonstrate, the real success of such a product can only be evaluated as a component of a greater imaging ecosystem. For a GE, the real value of such a device is that it allows the company to offer an end of the spectrum poorly matched by any of its competitors.

Conflict of Interest Disclosure: I have never received funding from and have no financial stake in GEHealthcare or its subsidaries. In 2010, GEHealthcare loaned a LOGIQ i portable ultrasound machine to a humanitarian surgical trip I led to Hinche, Haiti.