What Does It Mean to Be a Just Institution?

[Cross-posted from the Public Health Post Blog, where it originally appeared on March 17, 2017.] 

By Lauren Taylor  

The Trump administration is prompting many of us in health services to ask new questions about if, and how, to draw lines between our personal and professional endeavors. Do we sign that petition with our institutional affiliation? Do we retweet that tweet? Do we share news of that protest on the established mailing list? As someone who studies organizational ethics, these individual-level questions soon give way to a larger set of questions about the roles and responsibilities of the institutions within which we spend so much of our professional lives. In a moment in which the role of institutions appears critically important, what does it mean to be a just institution?

Recently, local leaders have shone light on this question. Over a weekend of protests in January, Harvard Business School faculty member Ariel Dora Stern (an expert in management of innovation in health care) imagined aloud about how to prioritize her academic responsibility to a journal and her social responsibilities to her community. The tweet accrued nearly two thousand retweets and replies from fellow faculty including “Isn’t that the truth?” and “I’m in the same boat.” One response asked whether the journal had issued a formal statement against an executive order, suggesting that if it had not, Professor Stern should no longer be willing to review. Continue reading

Please, Boston Nonprofit Hospitals, Can’t You Join Forces Instead Of Competing?

[Crosspost that originally appeared on WBUR’s CommonHealth]

By Michael Anne Kyle and Lauren Taylor

Here in Boston, cooperation between health care providers is a fraught issue.

Competition is fierce among local, not-for-profit teaching hospitals, and the idea of collaboration brings to mind collusion, mergers and monopolies.

Unfortunately, these concerns may be keeping Boston hospitals from pursuing cost-effective strategies to meet federal tax-exemption requirements and improve community health. Over the next year, each of Boston’s 12 hospitals will have to conduct a community health needs assessment (CHNA) to retain their tax-free status. New requirements in the Affordable Care Act specifically encourage collaboration between hospitals and with other health care agencies, such as public health departments.

We argue that doing one, citywide CHNA presents a rare opportunity for high-value, low-commitment coordination among Boston hospitals. Continue reading

Who needs to be involved in creating community health?

A slew of organizations, including most notably the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, are talking about creating a “culture of health” as a new way forward in US health policy. The underlying thinking assumes that legislative fixes, including the Affordable Care Act, will continue to be vehemently fought if attitudes towards health do not in some ways fundamentally change. Inherent in the idea of building a culture is incorporating unconventional actors and voices into discussions about how to improve outcomes at a local level. This has led public health strategists to ask new questions about who to involve in community health building efforts with an eye towards employers, small businesses, social service organizations and community institutions.

With this in mind, I recently spoke with Peter Doliber, Executive Director of the Alliance of Massachusetts YMCA about how he sees the Ys fitting into a plan to create health. His background is in public health and hospital administration, having worked in a range of communities to develop programs that increase access to health care, improve health outcomes and create a return on investment. Here’s an abbreviated version of our conversation.

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Mainstreaming Medical Legal Partnerships (MLPs)

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak at the 10th Annual Summit of the National Center for Medical Legal Partnership in McLean, Virginia. The summit brought together more than 400 people working to “mainstream” medical legal partnerships (MLPs). The theory of change is that through these partnerships, the health care sector can begin to more systematically address social, behavioral and environmental determinants of health. Particularly on behalf of patients who are low-income, legal professionals address root causes of illness by working with utilities companies, landlords, social service agencies and the court system.

Concretely, MLPs are programs in which civil legal aid agencies, health care organizations and public health departments cooperate to train their staffs, treat individuals and identify population level problems. Most often, it is civil legal aid agencies that provide expertise in the laws around housing and public benefits, and spend their resources to ensure access to housing subsidies, food benefits, health insurance and employment. Some law firms also contribute pro bono time to the cause, as do some law schools in the form of clinics.

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Is concussion protection in Florida too much, too soon?

Today’s New York Times featured a long exploration of “Headgear Rule for Girls’ Lacrosse Ignites Outcry.” As a former lacrosse player and health policy researcher, I read the piece with interest.

Essentially what’s happened is that Florida has instituted a headgear rule ahead of the sport’s national governing body. Florida made this decision in advance of this season based on statistics that show that female lacrosse players experience the fifth-highest rate of concussions of any high school athlete. If you’ve ever held a lacrosse ball, this won’t surprise you.

Still, it is not immediately clear what the actual rate of concussions is in Florida. Identifying girls lacrosse as coming in 5th place doesn’t help the reader judge how pervasive the risk really is if we consider that there could be large gaps between the ordinal rankings. Florida officials have suggested that if even one injury is prevented by the introduction of headgear, the rule would be worth it. I’m not sure I’m so risk-averse. Continue reading

Going for gold: behavioral science reveals new biases in ACA exchange shopping

A new New England Journal of Medicine commentary by Peter A. Ubel, M.D., David A. Comerford, Ph.D., and Eric Johnson, Ph.D. highlights significant flaws in the way information is presented to insurance shoppers on state and federal exchange websites. The authors present original survey data to support the argument that subtle aspects of current website designs inappropriately bias decision making. The authors make their case most strongly in an analysis of the well-known gold, silver and bronze labels:

Consider the decision to lump health plans into categories with names such as bronze (for low monthly premiums and high out-of-pocket costs) and gold (for higher monthly premiums and lower out-of-pocket costs). These labels could have unintended effects on people’s attitudes toward which plans are best. After all, gold, silver, and bronze convey best, second best, and third best through association with sporting events, but the best plan for one enrollee will be different from the best plan for another.

To test whether such associations might influence people’s perceptions of insurance plans, two of us recruited a convenience sample of participants from public buses in Durham, North Carolina, and asked them which category of plans they would look at first if they were shopping for health insurance. To half the people, we described the gold plans as having higher monthly premiums and lower out-of-pocket costs — the language used by many exchanges. For the other half, we switched the gold and bronze plans, describing the gold plans as having lower monthly premiums and higher out-of-pocket costs.

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Gates Annual Letter: Where’s the policy?

In recognition of how little we talk about global health, I am turning my attention back to my roots for today’s post.

On Jan 22nd, Bill and Melinda Gates launched their annual letter. For those readers who live fully under a domestic health policy rock, Bill and Melinda Gates are co-chairs of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which donated more than $1 billion in 2013 to global health activities. Aside from that enormous sum, the foundation is commonly looked upon as an example of what strategic philanthropy can do.

The 2015 Annual Letter, launched on January 22nd, resembles previous letters insomuch as it strikes an optimistic tone about the progress made to date and makes bold claims about the future impact of the foundation. Specifically, the Gates’ tell us that they are aiming to have impact in four areas in the next 15 years – health, farming, banking and education. In the area of health, the letter specifies a focus on several specific projects, including cutting the number of children who die before 5, reducing the number of women who die in childbirth, wiping polio and three other diseases out entirely, finding the secret to the destruction of malaria and forcing HIV to a tipping point.

For our purposes, what’s most interesting about the letter is what it doesn’t say. It makes no mention of law or policy and makes only passing reference to regulation and governance. What is this about?

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A Chief Privacy Officer’s Take on the Chanko Case

Earlier this month, Charles Ornstein explored a New York City family’s charge that their privacy was violated by a local hospital and a reality television show in ProPublica. More specifically, he details how the death of one Mr. Mark Chanko was filmed at NY Presbyterian Hospital without the family’s consent, and then nationally aired on ABC’s NY MED over a year later. Mr. Chanko’s face was blurred for viewers but he remained recognizable to family and friends who watched the show. Since the broadcast, the family has pursued legal action through several New York courts with little success thus far.

The piece has already been commented upon by several smart people, most recently Kay Lazar of the Boston Globe. Just one day after Ornstein’s piece went to press, the Dean of Harvard Medical School Jeffrey Flier (@jflier) tweeted “How could this be allowed to happen?” only to be informed by the Chair of Surgery at Boston Medical Center, Gerard Doherty, (@GerardDoherty4) that three Harvard-affiliated hospitals are in fact currently hosting camera crews for a similar series. The ensuing conversation reminded me just how limited a platform Twitter is for tricky conversations about health care law and ethics. So I did what any self-respecting millennial would do – I went home for the holidays and asked my mom to help me understand what the internet couldn’t.

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A Physician Fights Surgery

Physician and bioethicist Carla C. Keirns described the potentially dangerous impact of medicalization on her own childbirth in the Narrative Matters section of Health Affairs this month. A segment of that writing was reproduced in the Washington Post yesterday.

In each piece, Keirns outlines the challenges she faced in vaginally delivering her son in a hospital environment that seemed committed to performing a caesarian section. Particularly given Keirns’ expertise in and familiarity with health care, the lack of patient-centered care in the story is striking. Several staff suggested that surgery was a foregone conclusion while others appeared unprepared for her son’s long-awaited arrival.

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Do hospitals have a role in population health?

Population health advocates have identified health care providers, and hospitals in particular, as key allies in the effort to create better health and longer lives for Americans nationwide. Despite a growing interest in “community-based’ models of care, hospitals remain the most visible component of the US health care system. What’s more, hospitals are where the money, not to mention many of leading brains and cultural authority, reside. Of the 17.4% of GDP that the United States invests in health care, roughly 30% goes to hospitals – more than any other spending category. Hence why people interested in population health wish to have hospitals on board as they aim to address the always-challenging social, behavior and environmental determinants of health.

But the question remains open: do hospitals really have a role in the pursuit of population health?  Continue reading

Bioethics on the Ballot

In addition to the closely-watched senate and gubernatorial candidates, 146 ballot questions were up for vote yesterday in 42 states across the nation. Below is a review of the some of the most pressing bioethics issues on the docket and the latest information on what passed according to Politico’s Ballot TrackerContinue reading

The Response to Brittany Maynard

By Lauren Taylor

29-year old Brittany Maynard has captured national headlines this week by publicly announcing her intention to end her own life on November 1st. She did so in an effort to raise funds for and awareness of the non-profit Compassion and Choices.

Maynard was diagnosed earlier this year with an aggressive brain cancer and has moved to Oregon for access to its death with dignity laws. Those laws have allowed her to be prescribed a fatal dose of medication by a physician to be taken at the time and place of her choosing. Maynard sees the prescription as a means of avoiding a potentially long, painful and de-humanizing decline in her health.

In light of Maynard’s case, virtually every major media outlet has featured a bit of medical ethics this week. Maynard’s own voice first appeared in People Magazine, announcing her intention to end her own life.  Therein, Maynard is clear that she does not consider herself to be planning for suicide.  Continue reading

How much promise do safety-net ACOs really hold?

The Health Affairs blog recently published an important write-up of the status of safety net ACOs. Therein, authors James Maxwell, Michael Bailit, Rachel Toby and Christine Barron offer five “key observations regarding emerging safety-net ACOs and suggest broad policy implications” which are drawn from what appears to be a fairly extensive research project including “site visits and telephone interviews with 66 safety-net ACO leaders and state officials conducted over the last two years in 14 states.” Generally, they leave the reader with an optimistic impression of safety-net ACOs efforts to achieve population health – which contrasts with my previous post on Bill of Health.

In short, the authors offer the following observations:

  1. State policy is a key factor in the formation of safety-net ACOs.
  2. Both health policy experts and those involved in forming ACOs consider health homes, high-cost case management, and integrated behavioral health to be priority delivery system transformations for ACOs in the safety-net.
  3. It takes money to save money: upfront capital and financial flexibility are required for investment in delivery system transformations.
  4. Safety-net ACOs are adopting payment and delivery system transformations incrementally.
  5. Building on a long-standing recognition of how non-medical factors impact health outcomes and utilization, safety-net ACOs are addressing social determinants of health through community partnerships.

The entirety of the post is well-written and I encourage folks to check it out for themselves. My concerns about the ACO model do still largely hold, however. While the authors of this blog highlight four states (MA, OR, AL and MN) with policies on the books to encourage creativity in safety-net ACO design, that leaves 46 others without such supportive legislation. In short, I think we are still working at the margins here. Moreover, I worry that the authors have chosen a definition of ACO that goes well beyond what CMS considers to be an ACO and in so doing have spotlighted “bright lights” of the health care delivery landscape that may not have the metrics and results to support their claims at innovation. The authors offer us little information about what kind of improvements either in quality of care or health outcomes these safety-net ACOs have been able to achieve. (Meanwhile, CMS recently released the latest quality metrics on the Pioneer and Shared Savings ACOs they sanction and monitor.)

The bottom line is this: safety-net ACOs, like all ACOs, certainly hold promise. The question is whether we will translate this promise into systems-level change.

What’s to become of population health?

When the accountable care organization (ACO) model was initially conceptualized, many in the health policy world hoped it could provide a platform for real transformation of US health care.

Among the ACO model’s most promising innovations was its explicit orientation towards achieving “the Triple Aim.” First articulated by Don Berwick and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), the Triple Aim is a strategy for optimizing the health care delivery system and achieving the best of all worlds. It outlines three goals: high quality health care, lower costs, and population health. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services adopted this goal and still describes a version of the Triple Aim on its webpage titled “Innovation.”

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Introducing the 2014-2015 Petrie-Flom Student Fellows

The Petrie-Flom Center is pleased to welcome our new 2014-2015 Student Fellows. In the coming year, each fellow will pursue independent scholarly projects related to health law policy, biotechnology, and bioethics under the mentorship of Center faculty and fellows. They will also be regular contributors here at Bill of Health on issues related to their research.

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