The Veterans Administration hospital system has engineered an amazing turnaround, according to TIME.com: How VA Hospitals Became The Best:
Until the early 1990s, care at VA hospitals was so substandard that Congress considered shutting down the entire system and giving ex-G.I.s vouchers for treatment at private facilities. Today it’s a very different story. The VA runs the largest integrated health-care system in the country, with more than 1,400 hospitals, clinics and nursing homes employing 14,800 doctors and 61,000 nurses. And by a number of measures, this government-managed health-care program–socialized medicine on a small scale–is beating the marketplace. For the sixth year in a row, VA hospitals last year scored higher than private facilities on the University of Michigan’s American Customer Satisfaction Index, based on patient surveys on the quality of care received. The VA scored 83 out of 100; private institutions, 71. Males 65 years and older receiving VA care had about a 40% lower risk of death than those enrolled in Medicare Advantage, whose care is provided through private health plans or HMOs, according to a study published in the April edition of Medical Care. Harvard University just gave the VA its Innovations in American Government Award for the agency’s work in computerizing patient records.
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The roots of the VA’s reformation go back to 1994, when Bill Clinton appointed Kenneth Kizer, a hard-charging doctor and former Navy diver, as the VA’s under secretary for health. Kizer decentralized the VA’s cumbersome health bureaucracy and held regional managers more accountable. Patient records were transferred to a system-wide computer network, which has made its way into only 3% of private hospitals. When a veteran is treated, the doctor has the vet’s complete medical history on a laptop. In the private sector, 20% of all lab tests are needlessly repeated because the doctor doesn’t have handy the results of the same test performed earlier, according to a 2004 report by the President’s information technology advisory committee.
Another innovation at the VA was a bar-code system, as in the supermarket, for prescriptions–a system used in fewer than 5% of private hospitals. With a hand-held laser reader, a nurse scans the bar code on a patient’s wristband, then the one on the bottle of pills. If the pills don’t match the prescription the doctor typed into the computer, the laptop alerts the nurse. The Institute of Medicine estimates that 1.5 million patients are harmed each year by medication errors, but computer records and bar-code scanners have virtually eliminated those problems in VA hospitals.
Private hospitals, which make their money treating people who come to them sick, don’t profit from heavy investments in preventive care, which keeps patients healthy. But the VA, which is funded by tax dollars, “has its patients for life,” notes Kizer, who served in his post until 1999. So to keep government spending down, “it makes economic sense to keep them healthy and out of the hospital.” Kizer eliminated more than half the system’s 52,000 hospital beds and plowed the money saved into opening 300 new community clinics so vets could have easier access to family-practice-style doctors. He set strict performance standards that graded physicians on health promotion.
Technological innovation (IT) – organizational innovation (performance standards) – innovation in the business model (shift from treatment to prevention). A winning combination.
I guess some times even dinosaurs can dance.