Some past studies have not shown that care management lowers costs. But a study published in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine reports lower costs and fewer hospital admissions in people who received telephone-based care management that included the use of shared decision-making tools to help patients understand that they have options and to understand the tradeoffs involved in the different options.
There are many other compelling moral reasons to employ shared decision-making more commonly in health care. But money speaks, and this study may drive new attention to shared decision-making.
The NEJM paper was submitted by a team from Health Dialog Services in Boston, with Dr. David Wennberg as its lead author.
(Disclosure: The Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making, which supports my HealthNewsReview.org project, derives much of its funding from a partnership with Health Dialog. In collaboration with Health Dialog, the Foundation produces patient decision aids to support a shared decision making process. This partnership provides the Foundation with funding in the form of royalties used to fund research, support clinical demonstration sites, and advance the mission to amplify the patient’s voice in health care decisions.) David Wennberg is the son of Jack Wennberg, the Dartmouth medical school pioneer in small area variations research. Jack is also a co-founder of FIMDM, for whom I worked throughout the ’90s.
The total reduction in health care costs was 3.6% in the enhanced-support group – or about $8 less on average per person per month than in the usual-support group. The cost of the intervention was less than $2 per month.
The team defines the “enhanced support group” arm of the study as the group for whom a greater number of subjects were made eligible for health coaching through lower cutoff points for predicted future costs and through the expansion of the number of qualifying health conditions. Wennberg credits their “analytics” for helping to identify the correct population.
What seems noteworthy is that most of the lower costs were attributed to reduced inpatient and outpatient hospital spending. The hospital admission rate was 10% lower in the enhanced-support group. The team reports, “This reduction was almost entirely accounted for by a 13.3% population-based reduction in admissions for high-variation medical conditions and an 11.5% reduction in admissions for preference-sensitive conditions.”
One group of study subjects had chronic conditions such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes and asthma. These people received behavior change and motivational counseling, as did people with high-risk conditions such as heart arrythmias, angina, obesity, tobacco use, depression or anxiety, hypertension with complications, back and neck pain, osteoarthritis, hyperlipidemia, abdominal pain – or people with multiple hospital or emergency room visits. Wennberg told me people in this category had “chaotic health care utilization patterns with lots of emergency room use.”
But the preference-sensitive category included people at risk for surgical intervention with conditions such as back surgery, knee or hip replacement or repair, heart bypass, prostate surgery for BPH, hysterectomy or myomectomy for benign uterine conditions. This was the group that received shared decision-making help.
In an interview, Wennberg called the results “a fairly large effect size, and not in any specific group but consistent across all groups.”
I asked him about the net $6 savings per month – $8 in cost reductions minus intervention costs of <$2/month. He said this was undoubtedly an underestimate of actual cost reductions, since there also would have been reduced out-of-pocket and copay costs for people in the enchanced-support group. Wennberg said the cost reduction in this study was far greater than that accepted as a goal in much of the Patient Protection Act & Affordable Care Act debate. And it is the potential for such work to have an impact on health policy discussions and on health care reform that makes it so intriguing. Many have looked for greater evidence of impact from shared decision-making. This study helps make the case. But the real money quote from Wennberg came at the end of our conversation when he said: “We see so many people who are simply battered by the health care system. They’re confused and unable to get even basic information on how to navigate their way through. This isn’t age-dependent; we see it in moms and dads worried about their kids on up through the Medicare population. It is sad to see how often people simply don’t know that they have options.” And that’s what shared decision-making gives them.