George Isham was visiting last year at one of the ophthalmology practices that contracts with HealthPartners, the Minnesota integrated health system where he is the chief health officer and plan medical director. Isham was gratified, though perhaps not astonished, to hear that the ophthalmologists could tell which of their diabetic patients were covered by HealthPartners just by examining their retinas, because so few of them suffered from the retinopathy that afflicts so many with diabetes.
Healthier eyes in its diabetic patients is one result of an effort to measure and manage diabetes care that started at HealthPartners in 1994. Our goal back then was to decrease complications by 30%, says Isham, a physician whose specialty is internal medicine. People said we were crazy.
HealthPartners, based in Bloomington, first set up data collection systems to find out how diabetics were being treated throughout its network, which included both physicians employed in its own clinics, and independent practices that contracted with HealthPartners HMO and other insurance plans. It established a standard examination and treatment protocol, based on nationally accepted practice guidelines that included measurements and observations to be made at each office visit: an eye exam, a test to measure blood glucose over the previous several weeks, a screening for low-density lipoproteins and monitoring of kidney function. Equally important, the protocol called for immediate action on any abnormal results. In 1997, HealthPartners put in place a series of financial incentives to encourage physicians to adhere to the protocol.
It all worked better than anticipated. HealthPartners has cut its incidence of diabetes complicationsheart attacks, amputations, blindnessby more than 30% since 1994.
And yet, theres still plenty of room for improvement. Rather than looking at quality indicators one at a time and congratulating itself for success rates of 70% or 80% on each one, HealthPartners prefers to go further, by clustering half a dozen indicators and seeing how well it does on all of them simultaneouslyan innovative all or none technique that Isham thinks is the logical next step in quality measurement. Like juggling six balls at a time instead of one, such an approach is a lot harder. As a result, the proportion of diabetic patients receiving what HealthPartners considers optimal care was around 13% last year, instead of the 75% that its aiming to attain by 2010.
HealthPartners has ambitious programs in place for cardiovascular disease and depression, and for improving the underlying health status of its patients in areas such as tobacco use and obesity. Our 2010 goals are pretty aspirational, and I don t think I could in honesty say well hit all of them, but well see quarter-over-quarter improvement that we didnt see two or three years ago, says HealthPartners President and Chief Executive Officer Mary Brainerd. We have an engine for improved performance thats beginning to hit on all cylinders.
For its achievements in improving quality of care, HealthPartners is the 14th winner of the National Quality Healthcare Award, presented by the National Quality Forum. The award is conducted in partnership with Modern Healthcare and underwritten by the Cardinal Health Foundation. Prior awards were presented by the National Committee for Quality Health Care, which merged with the NQF last year. The criteria were revamped, and this years award puts more emphasis on use of standardized quality measures and public reporting of performance data.
HealthPartners demonstrated a systemwide commitment to implementation of safety and quality efforts through data collection, analysis, strategic planning, feedback and participation by staff at all levels, says Gary Gottlieb, chairman of the award jury and president of Brigham and Womens Hospital, Boston, which won the award last year. These activities have resulted in significant improvements in key measures, and in their meeting or exceeding national benchmarks in performance.
HealthPartners celebrates its 50th birthday this year, having grown out of the credit union movement in the 1950s. When Minnesota credit union leaders looked at their members debt problems, they discovered that healthcare costs topped the list. Their strategy was to create a not-for-profit, consumer-governed prepaid health plan with its own delivery system. Today HealthPartners insures one out of four people in the Twin Cities, and is a major insurer in the upper Midwest. Its also a major provider, with a teaching hospital in St. Paul and thousands of physicians on its payroll.
As an integrated delivery system, HealthPartners escapes some of the conflicts of interest that can plague quality-improvement programs in more fragmented environments.
We have challenges when things that benefit the hospital might not benefit the medical group and vice versa, Brainerd says. But we have the advantage that every opportunity and challenge in healthcare, we have under our own roof. We have all the moving parts, and theres nowhere to hide, no external enemy to blame. Theres no solution that depends on whether they pay us more, because they is us.
Brainerd says a turning point in HealthPartners quality effort came in 2001 with its participation as one of 13 healthcare providers in the Pursuing Perfection program of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, Cambridge, Mass., which allows the organization to focus on treating chronic illnesses such as diabetes, congestive heart failure and depression. We began to work with a different definition and understanding of quality, and to understand the potential for using our medical group, hospital and health plan in an aligned way, she says. That project also showed we shouldnt do disease-by-disease projects, but redesign the whole engine.
Ishams eventual goal is to create personalized quality indicators and standards of care for each patient, based not only on the diseases and conditions they have but also on their underlying characteristics, such as age, sex and heredity. All these things drive what preventive care we ought to be getting or the behaviors we should follow, and healthcare should facilitate that on our behalf, he says.