Bigger is… More Dangerous?

All of the “players” in health care are getting bigger. Consolidation is the name of the game as hospital systems hire more physicians, multi-hospital systems merge, insurers develop their own “captive” provider networks and new hybrid organizations, like CVS/Aetna (and maybe Walmart/Humana) are coming with dizzying frequency. Some of this feels to me like an arms race, with size (and its attendant market power) itself the goal, rather than growth as a means to assemble the right combination of resources at the right scale to improve care.

Even so, I believe scale can improve care. Given where I sit, I don’t suppose that is much of a surprise, but I would go further to say that organizational heft is now necessary to provide high quality care through enhanced and better coordinated access to the right technology, the right providers and the right services, when and where patients need them.

It is in that context that I found a recent opinion piece in JAMA an important read. In it, the authors present a thoughtful theoretical framework for considering the potential downside of the growth of provider organizations. Titled The Risks to Patient Safety from Health System Expansions it includes new threats to patient safety and suggests potential strategies for mitigating them, summarized in this table:

(Click image to enlarge)

It is important to note that the authors do not advocate limiting the size of provider organizations or retreating from the prevalent plans for growth to avoid these risks. Rather, they conclude: “Institutions must actively plan for, monitor, and manage the resulting risks as part of a comprehensive strategy, including sharing data on quality and safety, and sharing oversight of care for the joint patient population.”

Makes sense to me. What do you think?

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