New payment models make it more important than ever for hospitals to collaborate with physicians. From readmission penalties to bundled payments to Accountable Care Organizations ("ACOs"), providers have a growing economic incentive to pool resources, share information, coordinate care and services, and cooperate on quality improvement.
But while the incentives are strong, the obstacles to clinical integration are daunting. Hospital-physician collaboration is operationally complex. Although physician employment can smooth out some of the bumps, practice acquisition is expensive. While a handful of large health systems have devoted extensive resources to launching clinical integration initiatives, most smaller organizations are still sorting out their options.
How can hospitals integrate with physicians without creating political and financial problems? The solution is to focus on building mutually beneficial relationships and use existing resources wisely.
The following practical approach will help healthcare leaders achieve clinical integration by engaging physicians, strategizing collaborative programs and making targeted investments.
1. Understand Physician Motivation
Convincing physicians to collaborate more closely with a hospital can be challenging. Physicians are trained as autonomous decision makers. Perfectionism and the need for control can make it difficult to weave physicians into an integrated organization. But there is a positive side to the medical personality: No doctor wants to be an outlier.
Engage physicians by presenting data on their patient outcomes. Most physicians will discover at least a few areas in which their performance falls short of their peers.
Talk to doctors about their patients’ flu vaccination rates, medication reconciliation rates, performance on diabetes control measures, etc. This is easiest for hospitals that have access to physician claims data through a physician-hospital organization ("PHO") or that offer physicians a subsidized electronic medical record ("EMR") with built-in Clinical Quality Measure ("CQM") templates that facilitate reporting.
Most physicians do not track and evaluate their own performance, let alone measure their performance against peers. Relevant patient statistics will earn physicians’ attention and generate interest in working more closely with hospital staff to improve outcomes.
It is also important to educate physicians on the evolving healthcare market. Explain how payers are creating incentives for clinical integration though bundled or global payments and per patient/per month care coordination fees. As physicians become more aware of these payment trends, many will embrace the opportunity to increase their salary by partnering with the hospital.
2. Create True Physician Governance
To gain the most under new payment models, physicians and hospitals have to play nice in the sandbox. The key is establishing a governance body that allows physicians to guide the development of care strategies and clinical protocols. Physician-led governance will create physician awareness and support for clinical integration initiatives and make a positive impact on the overall success of the program. Make sure the clinical integration governance committee includes physicians from solo practices and small partnerships as well as large groups. Include representatives from a range of specialties.
Most important, the governance body should include physicians who are critical or even negative about the clinical integration initiative. Often these “difficult” physicians simply want to be heard and provide their input. Making these physicians feel included will go a long way toward smoothing the transition to integration.
3. Focus on Quality, Not Finances
Physicians are concerned about productivity and payment, but concentrating exclusively on financial metrics will disenchant many providers. Focus instead on clinical quality and performance improvement. After all, this is the main reason physicians entered medicine — to provide quality care to the patients they serve.
The clinical integration committee should establish quality benchmarks and treatment protocols that define performance standards. Benchmarks can be based on evidence-based standards and care plans developed by national quality organizations and disease associations. Micromanaging clinical decisions will be unpopular, so care protocols should be broad guidelines that allow room for individual judgment.
To choose initial improvement goals, review admission and inpatient reports to identify areas of low quality and high cost. For which conditions does the hospital see the greatest number of admissions? Which conditions have the longest length of stay? Physicians using an EMR may be able to report on certain quality measures. For example, what is the percentage of hypertensive patients with adequate blood pressure control? How many heart disease patients have an up-to-date lipid profile?
Begin the clinical integration outreach with physicians in specialties linked to poorer outcomes and higher costs. Another logical starting point is primary care. Family practice physicians and internists often have the greatest impact on chronic disease management.
4. Concentrate on Care Coordination
One of the biggest opportunities in clinical integration is better coordination of care. Focus on high- and medium-risk patients who are responsible for the highest costs or who will likely increase costs in the near future. Target care transitions between the hospital and admitting specialists or primary care physicians. Involve physical therapy, home health providers and long-term care facilities in clinical coordination planning.
Physicians need to ensure that discharged patients complete follow-up visits. The hospital can assist by sponsoring a care coordination team for the entire organization to help manage follow-up appointments, referrals and home health services. To help guide care coordination, stratify hospital discharges by risk of readmission, complication or care plan non-compliance.
5. Use Technology to Get Providers Talking
Clinical integration is nearly impossible without an EMR system, but many medical practices are not far along in EMR adoption. Most practices cite expense as the main obstacle.
To overcome the cost hurdle, consider subsidizing EMR systems for practices that agree to join the integrated organization. Relaxation of the Stark laws allows hospitals to subsidize as much as 85 percent of the purchase and support costs of an EMR system. Subsidy agreements can require physicians to report quality measures and meet quality performance thresholds.
However, do not expect physicians to acquire the same EMR system as the hospital. Many small practices can do very well with free and low-cost alternative systems. The hospital should build interfaces for exchanging information with the EMR systems used by the majority of integrated physicians.
Many physicians who have implemented EMRs have participated in the Medicare and Medicaid EHR Incentive Program. As part of demonstrating Meaningful Use under the program, these physicians have already begun tracking clinical quality measures. Clinically integrated organizations should use the EMR to create aggregated quality reports and share them with physicians. Weekly or monthly reports can track disease management data such as HbA1c levels, cholesterol, blood pressure and preventive screenings. Giving physicians the chance to view quality performance metrics will engage both their competitive personalities and their collaborative spirit.
6. Build Financial Incentives
Clinical integration will require physicians to invest time and money into patient education, technology and additional staff. The problem is that methods of compensating providers for care coordination are still being developed and tested by payers. Given the costs being shouldered by physicians, financial incentives are critical.
Regardless of how incentives are distributed, hospital leaders should reward physicians either for controlling costs, achieving quality benchmarks or both. Focus on achieving care management quality metrics early on, since reduced costs tend to follow well-managed patients. Establish and re-assess these performance targets annually.
One important note: Make sure primary care physicians get a piece of the pie. Although surgical specialists might be responsible for most of the hospital’s costs and revenue, primary care doctors have the most frequent patient contact and are also responsible for most of the work of chronic disease management.
7. Invest Early for Healthy Returns
Even hospitals without the resources of a large medical system can achieve clinical integration by focusing on strategic investment and engaging community physicians through quality improvement. Hospital leaders need to allow physicians to establish the quality benchmarks and evidence-based protocols for the organization’s costliest conditions. Leaders can then concentrate on linking doctors through technology, assisting with care coordination, and negotiating with payers on bundled payments or pay-for-performance incentives.