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A Metrics Moonshot

Article · April 13, 2016

By the time I finished reading “Standardizing Patient Outcomes Measurement,” the New England Journal of Medicine article by Michael Porter, Tom Lee, and Stefan Larsson, I was cheering. The authors point out how a “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach to metrics development has resulted in a glut of process measures in health care and slowed progress toward metrics that reflect real outcomes. They decry the artisanal process by which organizations reinvent the metrics wheel over and over but with enough small differences to render broader comparisons of performance useless.

Our team at Weill Cornell Medicine recently compiled an inventory of the metrics by which we are measured by our four largest commercial payers and for our Medicare ACO. We counted 60 individual measures, with a grand total of 2 that apply across the entire group. All track processes rather than outcomes. There are similarities among the other 58 measures but also nuances that introduce a friction into our operations, to which we must devote significant resources to overcoming.

For example, 18% of the measures relate to management of patients who are diabetic. Every payer agrees on measuring the rate at which our attributed patients have an annual retinal eye exam. But while one payer simply measures whether an annual HbA1C level has been documented, another wants the level to be less than 9%. For one payer it is enough that we document prescribing a 180-day supply of a medication, where for another we need to demonstrate that the patient is taking that medication.

Is there is a business case for this complexity? Possibly, if you take the cynical viewpoint that the entities who administer payment for health care services want to set up providers to fail. I don’t believe that’s true — but the quantity of process measures is a real impediment in the quest for value in health care. Payers with a stated goal of improving quality are actively inhibiting progress toward more meaningful outcome measures.

If this patchwork quilt of process measures is the result of a focus on perfection — by specialty societies that choose measures they can control — then let me beg for imperfect uniformity instead. Variability has been linked to poorer outcomes in health care; surely we should apply the same lens to the metrics we use to measure those outcomes.

We’ve heard much recently about moonshots in medicine. This is a call for a metrics moonshot. The International Consortium for Health Outcomes Measurement, which seeks to identify and propagate well validated measures, is a great launching pad. But the planet on which health care needs to land is one where providers, payers and, most importantly, patients, define shared goals for health and measure efforts on how close we all are to achieving those goals. If all parties can devote the time and space to agree on the measures that matter, then health care’s complexity and cost will be reduced. Process measures are the pre-launch equipment checks that ensure our ship will function. Outcomes measures are what will make that giant step forward.

Meaningful outcomes measures will be out of reach as long as we expend our collective energies on reporting processes. Reducing the complexity of that reporting might just be the catalyst that practicing physicians need in order to focus on patient health.

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