Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Minimum Volume Thresholds - Do They Apply to Late-Life Care?

The Volume-Outcome Relationship

Over the past 30 years, there has been considerable research on the relationship between surgical volume and outcomes for a variety of complex procedures. The proposed cause of the relationship is intuitively simple: practice makes perfect. Surgeons who perform high volumes of, for example, coronary artery bypass surgeries (CABG) per year are expected to have improved outcomes over surgeons who perform low volumes.

The finding that higher procedure volumes by facility and by surgeon are associated with improved outcomes has led to the development of minimum procedure requirements. These initiatives promote patient care by surgeons and facilities who meet certain volume thresholds. Guidelines published by the American Heart Association/American College of Cardiology specify the minimum number of procedures performed annually by cardiac surgeons.

Perhaps the most influential initiative has been the selective purchasing strategy of the Leapfrog Group (www.leapfroggroup.org), a large coalition of public and private purchasers of about $60 billion of health insurance annually. Members include many Fortune 500 companies such as Chrysler, Cisco Systems, Inc., IBM and Verizon. The Leapfrog Group’s mission is to trigger giant leaps forward in the safety, quality, and affordability of health care by "supporting informed healthcare decisions by those who use and pay for health care and promoting high-value health care through incentives and rewards."

As part of its “Evidence-Based Hospital Referral” guidelines, the Leapfrog Group recommends that its members contract for selected surgeries, including CABG, only with hospitals that meet minimum volume thresholds.

In line with Leapfrog’s initiatives are state regulatory policies towards the regionalization of healthcare. These projects aim to concentrate certain medical services in facilities throughout the state. The most widely adopted approach towards regionalization is state-based certificate-of need-programs. Think Florida and hospice. The goal is to distribute certain specialized procedures and services rationally and efficiently across the state.

Initially devised to restrain increasing healthcare costs, these programs have led towards concentration of specific procedures to high volume facilities. New York State is considered by many students of this issue to be a model for the successful regionalization of healthcare. One study by Hannan et al. titled “Improving outcomes of coronary artery bypass surgery in New York” showed that increasing the number of CABG procedures performed at high volume hospitals decreased the risk-adjusted mortality rates by 41 percent. Another study demonstrated the positive effect of certificate-of-need programs on percutaneous coronary intervention outcomes across a number of states. The authors showed that in states with certificate-of-need programs, Medicare patients with acute myocardial infarction were less likely to undergo revascularization procedures than patients in states without certificate-of-need programs.

So, do minimum volume thresholds have a role in improving late-life care, or put another way, is the spread of a health service innovation, like palliative care , accelerated or slowed as a result of organizational concentration? The NHPCO FY2008 National Summary of Hospice Care shows that 40% of hospices care for fewer than 25 patients per day, and that 80% of hospices care for fewer than 100 patients per day. Perhaps more to the point, almost half of this nation's hospices ADMIT less than 150 patients per YEAR (or fewer than three every week). The obvious question is, are Florida's hospices delivering better late-life care because of their volume of patients. Hard to say, because there are few agreed-upon measures of the quality of late-life care. Yet, what is widely acknowledged is that Florida's hospices make more expansive use of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (HPM) physicians. That must count for something in spreading the influence of hospice and palliative care, don't you think?

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