Disruptive Changes Are Coming to the Delivery of Medical Care - The Future of Medicine

We have grown accustomed to scientific research producing major medical advances such as those I wrote about in The Future of Medicine — Megatrends in Healthcare. But there are now some very disruptive changes coming in how medical care will be delivered by your doctor or hospital. Generally we prefer calm seas but often they don’t get us anywhere. We need disruptions, transformations to make the changes necessary for real progress in medicine. Sometimes it is a new technology; sometimes a cultural change. But then a refinement may occur. The refinement may not seem like a “disruption” but indeed it can be because the refinement may create a demand for change.

Some examples:

Team-based care for chronic illness. The combination of an aging population and adverse behaviors such as obesity and smoking will create epidemics of diabetes, heart failure, and other diseases that last a lifetime and are difficult to treat. They require team-based, multi-disciplinary care. Team-based care is not the norm today, and the lack of it substantially increases the costs and diminishes the quality of care. The primary care physician must become the team coordinator, be more an orchestrator and less an intervener.

Echelons of care for acute illness. Advances in the care of as heart attacks and strokes also demand a different model of care. The role model is trauma — people with minor injuries are sent to a local ER, more severely injured to a regional trauma center, and the most severe to a Level 1 dedicated trauma center. This approach is accepted for trauma but not yet for heart attacks and stroke. Today the standard of care for a heart attack is immediate angioplasty with stent placement to stop the heart attack in progress and reduce heart muscle damage. The patient brought to a small community hospital should be referred on to a larger center equipped with trained interventional cardiologists, an expert staff, and the needed equipment — all available 24/7. This will result in higher-quality care but will disrupt the economics of many doctors and hospitals.

More high-tech hospitals. More serious illnesses means there will be a need for more hospitals, more beds (especially ICU beds), and more operating rooms with highly sophisticated technologies. This marks a departure from recent decades, when the mantra has been "too many hospitals and too many beds." Since smaller hospitals will have difficulty accessing the credit markets to finance expensive technology and facilities, we can expect to see a wave of hospital mergers and fewer stand-alone hospitals.

Patient-centric medicine. There is an emergence of consumerism in health care. ("The patient will no longer be patient.") So, our current provider-oriented culture will have to change to a patient-oriented culture. Patients will insist on prompt service, improved safety and quality, greater respect, much more convenience, and a closure of the current information gap between doctor and patient. Absent satisfaction, patients will go elsewhere. These are very disruptive changes indeed from the present provider-centric approach to care delivery.
Delegation of care. Shortages of physicians will mean more reliance on others to deliver care — e.g., nurse practioneers and physician's assistants for primary care, social workers and psychologists for mental health care, and optometrists for vision care. Physicians will need to change their attitudes toward these providers by involving them and embracing their value.

A new value proposition for technology. We think of new technologies as being of value if they improve diagnosis, treatment, or prevention while providing a decent return on investment. (See my earlier post at Harvard business Review on this topic.) But in the future, we will also expect a new technology to help health care professionals compensate for shortages of certain kinds of care providers, enhance their responsiveness to more demanding patients, control rather than exacerbate costs, and enhance safety and quality — very different from today's value proposition.

Employee physicians. Professionals' expectations are changing as much as those of patients. While most physicians in the U.S. today are in private practice, a growing number — especially younger ones — want to be employed. They want to spend less time on administrative tasks and want more time for family activities. Women are now 50% of graduates from medical school; many will want time off for child-rearing, further exacerbating the shortage of doctors..

E-health. The internet and digital medical information will have a major disruptive effect on the practice of medicine. Many physicians eschew these technologies today — often because insurers don't reimburse them for the time involved. But they will be expected by their patients to use e-mails, telemedicine and telediagnosis, ePrescriptions, and an electronic medical record. If doctors want to keep their patients, they'll have to change.

Retainer Based Practices – Primary care physicians find that their incomes have been flat or reduced, their work hours increased, their time with each patient shortened and their frustrations with insurers heightened dramatically over recent years. Some are just saying “I can’t take it any longer” and switching to a different type of practice model. Some simply will not accept Medicare, telling their older patients that they must either pay out of pocket or go elsewhere. Others are converting to “retainer-based” practices. Here the patient pays a flat fee each year, often $1500 to $2000, in return for having their PCP available by cell phone 24/7 and responsive by email. Appointments within 24 hours are guaranteed. The physician will see you in the ER, take care of you in the hospital and do home or nursing home visits as needed at no extra charge. But you still need your insurance in case you have need to see a specialist, have tests or imaging studies or are hospitalized. So the cost to you is extra. This is very disruptive of the standard approach today but I predict it will become very common in just a few years.

Smart Phones – Physicians, especially younger physicians and residents, are becoming very reliant, although not dependent, on these devices. They use them as shortcuts to knowledge, to stay well informed, and to communicate, argue, and debate with one another, which is a excellent form of learning. Smart phones keep being refined and as they are, more and more physicians want them, use them, rely on them and become more effective physicians as a result.

Greater Clarity with Imaging – Today’s CT scanners and other devices can produce remarkable images of the body’s internal organs, better than those of a medical illustrator. And the clarity of the images increases dramatically each year with engineering refinements. Virtual colonoscopy using a CT scan, for example, can now be done in a manner such that the viewer can see a high resolution magnified image of the inside of the colon, capable of visualizing small details of a polyp, a diverticula or other anomaly. It can be projected on a large TV screen where a group can review it together and jointly consider the situation and make recommendations for care of the patient.

Surgical Robotics – Today the daVinci robot is used primarily for cardiac surgery, prostate cancer surgery and some gynecologic surgery. But soon it will be used by other surgeons in diverse fields. An otolaryngologist for example, might perform surgery on the base of the tongue to remove a cancer while avoiding the critical nerves and blood vessels in the area. The visualization of the site is much better than with conventional surgical approaches, the margin of safety is improved and the patient’s outcome is bettered with more effective surgery, more salvage of critical anatomy and faster recovery. These refinements in the use of the robot will likely lead to considerable demand from both patients and physicians.

Image Guidance – We tend to think of “X-rays” as being used for diagnostics and the newer technologies have dramatically improved this ability. But think of the surgeon who “wants no surprises” once inside and operating. The greatly improved ability to visualize organs makes no surprises a near reality. But the imaging can also guide the surgeon to improve on his or her technique during the procedure. Intra-operative CT scanning can be used intermittently and at low dose to assist the surgeon to know the location of critical vessels or nerves. Ultrasound can be used to give real time direction to the placement of radioactive seeds into the prostate to treat cancer. These and similar image guidance techniques improve safety and effectiveness.

Fewer General Surgeons – It has been known for some years that there are too few general surgeons; fewer are entering the field and some areas, especially rural and urban poor areas, have all too few general surgeons today. The reasons for the reduced interest of graduating medical students is not completely clear but the trend is obvious.

Reduced Career Time as a Minimally Invasive Surgeon – Laparoscopic or minimally invasive surgery spread across the country and the world with remarkable speed after its introduction some 20 years ago. The patient has smaller incisions, faster recovery time, less time in the hospital and the costs are lessened as well. Surgeons rapidly learned the techniques and patients demanded it. But there is a price not fully expected. Surgeons are developing a variety of occupational problems from carpel tunnel syndrome, to neck disorders, to low back pain. It is all about ergonomics – “the patient is better off but the surgeon is suffering.” Indeed it may well be that their practice lifetimes may be substantially curtailed unless these ergonomics issues are addressed and quickly.

There are many changes coming in medical practice and these are but a few. The ones noted here will have significant and ultimately disruptive effects on the way medicine is practiced today and tomorrow.

Note – Some of these disruptive changes were published on the Harvard Business Review web site Friday, April 23, 2010

Last Modified: June 11, 2010.


Copyright (c) Stephen C. Schimpff, MD