Reshaping the healthcare workforce: Two case studies

Healthcare is calling for all hands on deck.  Most pundits are anticipating a primary care shortage thanks to greater usage of primary care under the Affordable Care Act.  And with the rise in demand comes increased costs from an already bloated system.

What’s the remedy?  Among suggested strategies on how to add workers, like making it easier and less expensive to train doctors, are innovative initiatives that address the problem from inside out:  Making better use of the staff already in place – like allowing nurse practitioners to practice independently – or adding help at the clinician or community level.

Following are two case studies of care systems that have overhauled delivery with significant results.

Union Health Center: Modeling the A-ICU

Audrey Lum, Chief Clinical Officer of Union Health Center (UHC) in New York City, began reforming Union’s health care team along with Union administrators following a 2005 white paper from the California Health Care Foundation talking about how to serve the highest-cost patients – those with chronic health conditions – who were also under- or uninsured, low-income and not eligible for Medicare or Medicaid. Could these patients be better served, while reducing overall health costs at the same time?

The paper offered a solution: the Ambulatory Intensive Care Unit (A-ICU), which uses nurses, medical assistants, health coaches, community health workers, pharmacists, dietitians and others working at the very top of their capabilities and licensure as the front line of patient assistance and coaching, to allow physician and nurse practitioners to do more of what they’re best at: diagnosing, prescribing and managing care of complex cases.

Audrey Lum and Troy Trygstad discussed their patient home models on a recent Great Challenges Hangout about rethinking the healthcare work force.  Watch a recap:

UHC was the perfect petri dish for its experiment, a health center with diverse patient base and unique history. Established in 1914 by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, its patients are mainly still union members – laundry workers; porters; doormen – and unions subsidize their care, including operations costs. Around 30 percent of their patients are privately insured.

The center created health care teams staffed by physicians, patient care assistants, two health coaches, assistants and support staff. Teams work off of patient education templates created by clinicians, with input from all.

“It’s about educating patients and helping them learn how to take care of themselves.  If you have a chronic disease, you live with it 365 days a year; you only go to the doctor when you’re very sick. How could we incorporate the preventative part of that in our care model?” Lum says.

Hiring culturally proficient health coaches and assistants helped make patients feel comfortable; the staff seem to be de facto community health workers. Staffers speak Spanish, Chinese and Creole, among other languages.

“They’re in the same neighborhoods and they shop in the stores, so there’s that separate connection. It speak to the relationship model of,  ‘We’re in this together. Let’s get better as a team,’ “ she says.

Results are good. A 2014 case study review found that the total per member, per month costs for UHC as of 2013 were 17 percent lower than non-UHC patients, and that emergency room costs were 50 percent less. Patient time in the office decreased from 2 hours to an average of 48 minutes.

Training workers was an investment, Lum allows. It takes up to nine months for assistants to complete, with time dedicated specifically for staff to train with nurses and nutritionists. Union had the help of a grant from The Hitachi Foundation to set its change in motion. Still, the results beg the question: Why aren’t more practices doing this?

“It takes a lot of effort, and it takes a lot of time. People don’t realize that when you give a lot upfront, you get it back at the end.  But when you’re trying to see as many patients as possible and get your fees-for-service, you want instant gratification,” Lum says.

Community Care Workers Calling

In the Community Care of North Carolina (CCNC) model, the patient home extends to the front door. In 2008, the state initiated a population-based transitional care initiative to prevent recurrent hospitalizations among high-risk Medicaid recipients with complex chronic medical conditions. Today, the community-based program establishes a medical home for more than 1.4 million patients.

Under the program, care managers follow patients, including home visits, with a special eye to medication adherence, reporting back to a primary care medical home; 90 percent of primary care providers in the state – and every hospital – participate, as do local health and social services departments. Physicians oversee care and share data on a dedicated network.

“We need health workforce reorganization to move from ‘when a patient who has a problem, they come to me’ to ‘a patient has a problem and we’re going to manage it no matter what.’ It becomes more about what happens outside of an encounter with a physician,” Trygstad says.

CCNC patient admission rates are consistently 40-50% lower than non-CCNC Medicaid patients. In a study of patients hospitalized during 2010–11, CCNC found that those who received transitional care were 20 percent less likely to have a readmission the following year compared to clinically similar patients who received usual care.  As measured in 2011, resulting four-year savings to the state for hospital costs and other services were estimated at nearly $1 billion.  In fact, North Carolina is the only state with consistent declining growth rates in medical spending over a decade.

Oregon, Colorado and Oklahoma have similar programs, but Troy Trygstad, Vice President of Pharmacy Programs for CCNC, says:

There were three key ingredients in the primordial goo in North Carolina that resulted in this DNA. There’s a strong historical culture of primary care and public health and population management by virtue of a strong emphases on rural health, supported by medical centers and big universities.

The second thing is that it happened early enough that a lot of the traditional barriers of entry weren’t established. There are certain stakeholders in health system that want to do care coordination and control infomatics, and they’re not going to be interested in an organic provider model that can take on risk.

The third thing is true championship. If you didn’t have strong personalities going to battle over time you wouldn’t be able to maintain [a program like this].