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Understanding Patient Centered Medical Homes and Accountable Care Organizations: Part 1 of 2

Posted Aug 30 2011 9:14am
I’ve been blogging about patient centered medical homes (PCMHs) for the past five years and accountable care organizations (ACOs) for the past two years. In this post, I discuss how these healthcare delivery models are similar and where there are significant differences. In a follow-up post, I will explain why we need both.

According to the American College of Physicians, a PCMH is:
...a model of care that puts the needs of the patient first. The medical home is the base from which health care services are coordinated to provide the most effective and efficient care to the patient. This includes the use of health information technology, the coordination of specialty and inpatient care, providing preventive services through health promotion, disease management and prevention, health maintenance, behavioral health services, patient education, and diagnosis and treatment of acute and chronic illnesses...Each patient has an ongoing relationship with a personal physician trained to provide first contact, continuous and comprehensive care. The medical home is responsible for providing for all the patient's health care needs or taking responsibility for appropriately arranging care with other qualified professionals. The personal physician leads a team of individuals who collectively take responsibility for the ongoing care of patients...Quality and safety are the hallmarks of the medical home. Evidence based medicine, health information technology, and clinical decision support tools guide decision making to support patient care, performance measurement, patient education, [whole person orientation] and enhanced communication. Ensuring the coordination and comprehensive approach of the medical home model over time will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the health care system and ultimately improve health outcomes ( Reference ).
The ACO model, on the other hand, is loosely define and has different sub-models. According to a recent article in ModernHealth titled “Forging the way: ACOs taking hold despite loose definitions,” an ACO is:
...a fashionable name for a loosely defined fix for U.S. healthcare, are the center of debate, gossip and conjecture among policymakers and the healthcare leaders. But the murky state of the model and poorly received draft regulations intended to clarify the sketch included in the healthcare reform law have not deterred plans among some hospitals, medical groups and payers to…reduce medical errors and waste with financial incentives for quality and lower costs…[by] more closely coordinat[ing] medical care. Markets with competitive or highly independent providers would likely need more time and options to develop accountable care than large health systems with an existing network of employed physicians…Providers who agree to join these endeavors are vulnerable to costly missteps that could put finances and patients at risk…Success will depend on several factors…including hefty financial incentives tied to quality measures and freedom for patients to choose providers ( Reference ).
ACOs can also be described as:
…vertically integrated organizations of care, which are at minimum composed of primary care physicians [PCPs], a hospital, and specialists…The intent is to coordinate care under the auspices of one organization…[and] providers are held directly responsible for the health of their patients and are evaluated based on their effectiveness, efficiency and quality of care in treating patients. [P]rovider members of ACOs work together across all of the specialties to develop care delivery programs which focus on outcomes and coordinating care…ACOs encourage physicians and hospitals to integrate care by holding them responsible for quality and cost ( Reference).
Similarities between a PCMH and ACO

Based on these definitions, PCMH and ACO models both attempt to increase healthcare quality and reduce costs (i.e., deliver high value products and services) by (a) coordinating care, (b) being accountable for the care’s quality and efficient delivery, (c) having a strong primary care core, and (d) consolidating multiple levels of patient care.

According to a recent NY Times Op-Ed piece titled “Cut Medicare, Help Patients,” professors Emanuel and Liebman explain how PCMHs and ACOs provide “seeds of a solution” to controlling Medicare spending by enabling the country to take “a path to smart cuts” by focusing on the:
…need to stop paying for wasteful procedures…and empower doctors, nurses and hospitals to provide higher-quality and more efficient care… these reforms allow [bundled] payments…based primarily on the number of patients cared for and the quality of that care rather than on the volume of services provided [and can] eliminate spending on medical tests, treatments and procedures that don’t work — or that cost significantly more than other treatments while delivering no better health outcomes. And they can be made without shortchanging patients…Smart cuts can also be achieved through better coordination of patient care.
These smart cuts would be an antidote to the “…ill-conceived cuts that…got serious consideration in the recent debt limit negotiations.” These ill-conceived cuts include: (a) Meat-cleaver cuts hack spending indiscriminately…across-the-board”; (b) “Cost-shifting cuts don’t actually reduce health care spending; they just shift costs from the government to the private sector;” and (c) “Penny-wise, pound-foolish cuts reduce current spending by a little but raise future costs by a lot. Raising co-payments for office visits and medications is a good example. Both PCMHs and ACOs would receive financial incentives for controlling care costs and improving quality:
  • "The incentives of the ACO are clearly different from the current fee-for-service reimbursement system. The focus of the ACO is to streamline its processes and care while exceeding the norm on quality and outcomes. If the organization spends less than projected, all members of the ACO share in the bonus payments thereby incentivizing effectiveness and efficiency. If, on the other hand, an ACO underestimates the cost of operation, the providers will earn less, thereby institutionalizing ‘accountability.’” ( Reference ).
  • Different financial incentive models for PCMHs are just beginning to emerge. There are a few pilot projects of financial incentives for PCMHs. For example, (a) Health Plan of Michigan has announced an incentive program that encourages providers to become PCMHs by providing financial assistance during the practice certification phase ( Reference ; (b) six health plans in New York are paying $1.5M in incentives to create medical homes ( Reference ); and (c) the multi-state Safety Net Medical Home Initiative ( Reference ).
 PCMH and ACO Differences

While PCPs are core to the care delivery process in both models, a single independent PCP practice heads a PCMH; this is unlike an ACO in which many coordinated PCP practices working together headed a single organization that is typically a hospital or health plan. That means a PCMH is accountable for care cost and quality rendered by one PCP and the specialists treating a particular patient. In contrast, an ACO is accountable for care delivered across multiple PCPs, specialists and hospitals.

Other differences include the following ...

In an ACO, providers form a “tightly-coupled” network in which everyone operates under the same “global standards” by using the same preferred practice guidelines, health IT and centralized communications. This can:
  • Streamline central management and control of patient information
  • Promote “top-down” (hierarchical) decision making in which “weak voices” (i.e., people not high in the hierarchy) do not have much influence in how things are to be done
  • Reduce clinician autonomy and empowerment.
In contrast, each PCMH is a “loosely-coupled” network of PCPs and specialists with its own “local standards” for clinical processes, health IT and point-to-point (decentralized) communications. This can:
  • Provide personal management and control of patient information “owned” by each clinician
  • Promote collaborative “bottom-up” decision making in which all involved clinicians have a meaningful say in how things are to be done
  • Increase clinician autonomy and empowerment.
In my next post, I’ll discuss why both PCMHs and ACOs have an important role to play, as well as how they can operate within a health information exchange (HIE) to emerge clinical knowledge that is useful to everyone.


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