That's why an effort at New York University Langone Medical Center to institute both of these changes is so important. If it succeeds, it will help point the way to the health care system of the future.
First, weekends. It's never good to be hospitalized, but you really don't want to be hospitalized on a weekend. There are fewer doctors around, and people admitted on Saturdays and Sundays fare relatively poorly.
One study in 2007 found, for example, that for every 1,000 patients suffering heart attacks who were admitted to a hospital on a weekend, there were 9 to 10 more deaths than in a comparable group of patients admitted on a weekday. The weekend patients were less likely to quickly receive the invasive procedures they needed — like coronary artery bypass grafts or cardiac catheterization.
It's not just a safety issue but, for less life-threatening medical problems, also a matter of convenience. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to schedule your elective surgery on a Saturday if you wanted? Most hospitals don't offer that option.
And then there are the economics of a $750 billion-a-year industry letting its capacity sit idle a quarter or more of the time. If hospitals were in constant use, costs would fall as expensive assets like operating rooms and imaging equipment were used more fully. And if the workflow at existing hospitals was spread more evenly over the entire week, patients could more often enjoy the privacy of single-bed rooms.
N.Y.U.'s first step toward seven-day service has been to keep certain functions going all weekend, like radiology study interpretation, magnetic resonance imaging and elective cardiac surgery. The cancer center also now provides some treatments on weekends. And some procedures, like elective Caesarean sections, are offered on Saturdays. So far, the doctors involved are on board.
A second innovation is quality assessment and management. As the saying goes, if you can't measure it, you can't manage it — or improve it. That's why the federal government is now making key investments to encourage hospitals, clinics and doctors to adopt health information technology and report statistics on quality of care.
Robert Grossman, the dean and chief executive of N.Y.U. Langone, has gathered data from around the medical center into a "management dashboard." This allows him to monitor not only financial information like operating margins and cash balances but also detailed quality data on individual doctors like 30-day hospital readmission rates and the number of infections associated with invasive procedures.
The patterns he has been able to discern this way have been eye-opening. The dashboard data revealed, for instance, that on any given day a disproportionately small number of eligible patients were discharged before noon, so that many people were kept in the hospital longer than necessary. Further analysis revealed a key reason: several routine procedures that some patients need before leaving, like the insertion of central catheters, were not performed in the morning. The medical center has since begun to offer the procedures earlier, and the percentage of discharges before noon has increased significantly.
So far, so good. But will these initiatives become a permanent part of the culture? And if the strategies do survive, how much difference can they make in the cost and quality of care?
N.Y.U. has historically not stacked up that well in cost comparisons with other hospitals. The Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care, which tracks data on regional variations in Medicare costs, suggested that from 2001 to 2005 a Medicare beneficiary's care at N.Y.U. during the final two years of his life cost taxpayers more than $100,000 — roughly twice the cost at America's most efficient hospitals.
The Dartmouth data also indicate that the N.Y.U. patients received no clear benefit for the higher cost. They saw, on average, more than 14 different doctors, compared with fewer than 10 for patients at the most efficient hospitals. But the extra visits did not seem to produce better outcomes. In fact, seeing more doctors may have caused harm, as patients ran the risk of side effects and complications from additional tests, treatments and medicines.
N.Y.U. will know that its innovations in weekend operations and doctor assessment are working if, in time, they help improve the cost-effectiveness of care. If they do, it's important that any practices found effective be adopted widely. Better ways of spreading such innovations will be the focus of my next column. In health care, experimentation is the mother of improvement.