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Saturday, August 1, 2009

Veterans Health Administration: "Highest-Quality Medical Care in America"

When I call for single-payer health coverage or just the measly public option in HR 3200, I'm not calling for the government to directly hire the doctors and run the hospitals. But my conservative commenters like to conflate government-run insurance with government-run health care. Time and time again, I hear the weary old canard that government can't manage health care. "Look at Medicare, look at the VA hospitals," conservatives cry.

Look at the VA? Why yes, let's:

VistA [an open-source electronic medical records system] was born in the 1970s out of an underground movement within the Veterans Health Administration known as the "Hard Hats." The group was made up of VA doctors, nurses, and administrators around the country who had become frustrated with the combination of heavy caseloads and poor record keeping at the institution. Some of them figured that then-new personal and mini computers could be the solution. The VA doctors pioneered the nation’s first functioning electronic medical record system, and began collaborating with computer programmers to develop other health IT applications, such as systems that gave doctors online advice in making diagnoses and settling on treatments.

The key advantages of this collaborative approach were both technical and personal. For one, it allowed medical professionals to innovate and learn from each other in tailoring programs to meet their own needs. And by involving medical professionals in the development and application of information technology, it achieved widespread buy-in of digitized medicine at the VA, which has often proven to be a big problem when propriety systems are imposed on doctors elsewhere.

This open approach allowed almost anyone with a good idea at the VA to innovate. In 1992, Sue Kinnick, a nurse at the Topeka, Kansas, VA hospital, was returning a rental car and saw the use of a bar-code scanner for the first time. An agent used a wand to scan her car and her rental agreement, and then quickly sent her on her way. A light went off in Kinnick’s head. "If they can do this with cars, we can do this with medicine," she later told an interviewer. With the help of other tech-savvy VA employees, Kinnick wrote software, using the Hard Hats' public domain code, that put the new scanner technology to a new and vital use: preventing errors in dispensing medicine. Under Kinnick’s direction, patients and nurses were each given bar-coded wristbands, and all medications were bar-coded as well. Then nurses were given wands, which they used to scan themselves, the patient, and the medication bottle before dispensing drugs. This helped prevent four of the most common dispensing errors: wrong med, wrong dose, wrong time, and wrong patient. The system, which has been adopted by all veterans hospitals and clinics and continuously improved by users, has cut the number of dispensing errors in half at some facilities and saved thousands of lives.

At first, the efforts of enterprising open-source innovators like Kinnick brought specific benefits to the VA system, such as fewer medical errors and reduced patient wait times through better scheduling. It also allowed doctors to see more patients, since they were spending less time chasing down paper records. But eventually, the open-source technology changed the way VA doctors practiced medicine in bigger ways. By mining the VA’s huge resource of digitized medical records, researchers could look back at which drugs, devices, and procedures were working and which were not. This was a huge leap forward in a profession where there is still a stunning lack of research data about the effectiveness of even the most common medical procedures. Using VistA to examine 12,000 medical records, VA researchers were able to see how diabetics were treated by different VA doctors, and by different VA hospitals and clinics, and how they fared under the different circumstances. Those findings could in turn be communicated back to doctors in clinical guidelines delivered by the VistA system. In the 1990s, the VA began using the same information technology to see which surgical teams or hospital managers were underperforming, and which deserved rewards for exceeding benchmarks of quality and safety.

Thanks to all this effective use of information technology, the VA emerged in this decade as the bright star of the American health system in the eyes of most health-quality experts. True, one still reads stories in the papers about breakdowns in care at some VA hospitals. That is evidence that the VA is far from perfect—but also that its information system is good at spotting problems. Whatever its weaknesses, the VA has been shown in study after study to be providing the highest-quality medical care in America by such metrics as patient safety, patient satisfaction, and the observance of proven clinical protocols, even while reducing the cost per patient.

[Phillip Longman, "Code Red: How Software Companies Could Screw up Obama's Health Care Reform," Washington Monthly, July/August, 2009]

O.K., socialism-criers, what part of"highest-quality medical care in America" don't you understand?

HR 3200 doesn't come anywhere close to creating a national government-owned and -operated system of hospitals and clinics. But if it did, I'd still support it.

Welcome to reality, conservatives. Government-run health care works, and works better than the private system.

p.s.: Medicare is pretty good, too.

Further reading:
  • Catherine Arnst, "The Best Medical Care in the U.S.,"BusinessWeek, 2006.07.16:
    According to a Rand Corp. study, the VA system provides two-thirds of the care recommended by such standards bodies as the Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality. Far from perfect, granted -- but the nation's private-sector hospitals provide only 50%. And while studies show that 3% to 8% of the nation's prescriptions are filled erroneously, the VA's prescription accuracy rate is greater than 99.997%, a level most hospitals only dream about. That's largely because the VA has by far the most advanced computerized medical-records system in the U.S. And for the past six years the VA has outranked private-sector hospitals on patient satisfaction in an annual consumer survey conducted by the National Quality Research Center at the University of Michigan. This keeps happening despite the fact that the VA spends an average of $5,000 per patient, vs. the national average of $6,300.

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