I recently had an interesting encounter with a long time friend and colleague who left his private practice of family medicine and started work for the Veterans Health Administration in one of their new community primary care centers. "How's it going", I asked. "Are you happy in your new position?" I believe that his answer to me is something that everyone needs to hear.
My friend explained that the uncompensated hours he used to spend in his private practice dealing with administrative issues, multiple insurance requests, and conflicting drug formularies are now a thing of the past. "Unlike my life in private practice, my time is now completely devoted to the care of my patients, and collaboration within the practice on how to make our care better. I have scheduled time throughout the day to catch up on needed paper work and administrative duties, and we also have planned collaboration sessions with other VA health care professionals to learn and plan our team work for patient care".
The VA, once maligned in previous generations, has been quietly at work, transforming itself into what many now believe is the the highest-quality healthcare provider in the United States. They have done this by emphasizing access to primary care, creating health care teams that learn how to coordinate their care, and paying attention to the scientific evidence of what does and does not work for patient benefit. As a result, our United States Veterans Health Administration has become the only fully functioning, evidence-based healthcare system in the entire country.
Unfortunately the transformative changes in the VA are impossible to duplicate in our current private system, because of the way our current system is set up. As a doctor who works on healthcare improvement issues everyday in the real world, I have learned that the biggest barriers I face are insurance companies and the lack of planning and coordination among those who work in healthcare.
So, what are the lessons for us who struggle outside of the VA system as we plan for healthcare reform? For me, the answer seems clear:
Personal medical home - use this full service , primary care model as the template to deliver and organize our care
Payment reform - value the doctor's time and reward quality instead of volume
Use information technology - in a systematic and intelligent way to track care, identify outcomes and interact with our patients
Plan intelligently - so that needed access to care is available
Allow doctors time - for the planning and care coordination that is so necessary to improve their care and so undervalued today.
A great book to learn more about the change in the United States Veterans Health Administration and how it compares to our overall health care system is Best Care Anywhere: Why VA Health Care is Better Than Yours, by Phillip Longman.