Monday, March 14, 2011

On Snooze Alarms

A clever and well worn trick to resist change and protect the status quo by funding and regulating organizations is the use of demonstration or pilot projects. When faced with a constituency pressing for change, the official response is often to thank the group making the request and suggest that a demonstration project be established along with an evaluation of the outcomes. The decision whether to move forward is then postponed until after the final evaluation is completed. Such ideas may provide important resources for academic centers and researchers but are also commonly used to put off a decision.

All too often, the result of such studies are that more research is needed.

For ten years I was a proud government employee here in Washington, DC, and one of my favorite humorists at the time was the late James Boren, founder of the International Association of Professional Bureaucrats (INATAPROBU). The purpose of this tongue-in-cheek organization, according to Boren, was to "optimize the status quo by fostering adjustive adherence to procedural abstractions and rhetorical clearances.” It also promoted “feasibility studies, reviews, surveys of plans, surveys of feasibility studies and surveys of reviews.” The advice he gave us working in government was: “When in danger ponder. When in trouble delegate. And when in doubt mumble.”

It was funny because, for many of us, it used to hit so close to home.

Such “snooze alarm policies” have been effectively used for fifteen years as a way of resisting the use of telemedicine. Decisions on full reimbursement for almost every form of telemedicine have not occurred because “we just need more data” or that the research was not adequately designed or didn’t have a large enough sample size and a proper control group. Listening to such talk, one could come away wondering if telemedicine is just another far-out experimental idea.

Interesting. Especially when a search on Google Scholar for the terms “telemedicine” OR “telehealth” results in 98,000 references. Adding the term “outcome,” results in 28,500 references. Even PubMed lists almost 13,000 studies on the subject. Some of these date back over two decades.

No one in telemedicine is asking for blanket endorsement of each and every telemedicine application. Undoubtedly there are valid and important questions that need to be asked and answered about certain applications. However, there are also many areas in telemedicine that have been well researched, studied and proven to be useful for expanding access, improving care AND reducing costs.

Drastic health reform and innovations are needed in almost every country and by every insurer and employer. Donald Berwick, Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Management said “There has never been a better time to be an innovator in health care.”

We don’t need another snooze alarm; we need to wake-up and embrace the opportunities now before us.

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