An accountable care organization (ACO) is greater than the sum of its parts. The independent physicians, hospital systems and labs that come together to form an ACO generate benefits above and beyond what might otherwise be available from them individually. This is due in large measure to one of the vital factors of an ACO: its infrastructure.
In this article, our lab leaders examine key infrastructure systems essential to ACO success. They offer up an honest look at what works today and the challenges for tomorrow. They also highlight opportunities for laboratorians to step into the ACO game, leveraging lab expertise to strengthen systems and improve infrastructure.
Developing an ACO infrastructure requires significant up-front costs, which promise to pay dividends down the road. Improved patient care, better population health management, higher quality scores from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), increased revenue and superior data control are but a few of the potential boons that may result from smart infrastructure investment.
Independent physician practices that join an ACO share its infrastructure. In effect, the ACO infrastructure “sits” on top of the practice, providing physicians with access to valuable services and resources, such as:
Beyond benefits to participating physicians, an ACO provides an infrastructure of care designed to control costs and improve patient outcomes. The lynchpin of that infrastructure is the annual wellness visit, a 45-minute consultation between the patient and his or her primary care physician (PCP) paid for by Medicare.
Medicare foots the cost because annual wellness visits can improve long-term care management. During the visit, patients can discuss any concerns or considerations, along with quality of life goals and disease management issues.
Numerous benefits can result from the annual wellness visit, including:
According to our lab leaders, as few as 30-40% of ACO patients have actually had their annual wellness visit. If ACOs aspire to improve patient care, those numbers need to climb to 80% or higher.
Improving care also depends on maximizing the operational efficiency of wellness visits. Care extenders such as medical assistants or trained health care volunteers allow physicians to focus only on what is most essential during the visits. This limits their consultation time to as little as 10 minutes, significantly increasing practice efficiency.
Too often, high-risk patients end up in emergency departments (EDs) due to symptoms that could have been managed more cost-effectively. To mitigate the risk of unnecessary and costly ED visits, ACOs may hire nurses to function as care coordinators for these patients.
Care coordinating nurses field phone calls from patients and caregivers that would otherwise have been handled by untrained office staff. With their medical expertise, the nurses can assess the true nature of a patient’s distress and steer their care in the right direction—which is often away from the ED.
Another important facet of ACO infrastructure is the patient-centered medical home (PCMH). This is not literally a home or physical location. It is instead a model for the delivery of coordinated, high quality, patient-centric primary care.
The five defining features of a PCMH are1:
In an ACO, data should flow seamlessly through the network so care decisions are based on a complete picture of a patient’s medical situation. But the reality today is that disparate systems fail to communicate with one another. Individual physician practices utilize different electronic medical records (EMRs). Laboratory information systems (LIS) cannot interface with hospital billing departments. Commonly today, ACO data are a smattering of disconnected dots.
What to do about it? One solution is a health information exchange (HIE). These are companies that work with ACOs to facilitate the open flow of data between different systems. So if a patient sees her PCP one day, and then falls ill during vacation and sees another doctor, the HIE can help ensure the patient’s complete medical history is shared and she gets the best care possible.
Though it may come as a surprise to many laboratorians, insurance companies offer another potential solution. They collect buckets of data and can work with HIEs and ACOs to make vital information shareable and actionable.
Finally, but no less important, shared savings must flow as readily as data in an ACO. Everyone’s success depends on carefully controlling costs while maintaining—or exceeding—quality standards. As ACOs mature, a greater percentage should realize shared savings.
In many ACOs, the money finds its way first to the hospital that made the infrastructure investment. From there, remaining savings are distributed to individual physician practices based primarily on their patient populations and quality scores. Given the importance of both population health and quality, labs have a vital role to play in enhancing the vitality of ACO infrastructure through the flow of funds, data and care.
We have an ACO board. All of the groups in our ACO have a member on that board. And we have a Funds Flow committee. So if there are shared savings the Funds Flow committee determines how the payments are spread out.
Director of Accountable Care Solutions