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Do Medical Family Therapists Bring Value to Health Care?

Posted By Joseph Scherger, Tuesday, September 17, 2013


This is a post in a series of "blasts from the past". These classic posts will highlight issues that are just too important to collect dust in the archives. The series will be off and on for the next several weeks. Enjoy!

(This piece was originally posted on October 10th, 2012)

I suspect any family therapist reading this question would quickly say, "Yes, of course we add value to health care”. From a health care policy perspective value is not a simple intuitive concept. Value is quality divided by cost, and today every health care system is focused on becoming value driven.

That the U.S. spends way too much money on health care is well known. Our health outcomes place us low in the world even though we spend twice as much or more on health care as other industrialized countries. Our spending is not sustainable, especially in Medicare with the influx of the Baby Boomer generation. We have to figure out how to spend less money.


A new IOM report indicates that we spend 700 billion dollars in health care every year that is of no benefit to patient care. These include unnecessary tests and procedures, overly expensive drugs when generics would do fine, and excessive treatment, especially at the end of life. Rather than just squeeze this money out of the system, the potential is here for transforming the system to provide value – actually improve the quality of care while we reduce costs."The most important work
of family therapists today
is to make the case for
being vital members of
PCMH practice teams."

Information technology makes much of value driven care possible. For the first time we can look at populations of patients in detail and make proactive strategic decisions to improve their health efficiently. Diabetic patients who are well controlled are much less expensive than ones who are out of control and develop complications. Through internet applications, we can communicate and care for patients at minimal costs compared with face-to-face visits.

So what role do family therapists play in this? We know that psychosocial problems are frequent in health care and usually are masked by physical complaints. Addressing the psychosocial problems early creates great efficiency rather than waiting until every physical evaluation has been done, only to show the patient is "simply” anxious or depressed. Yet this obvious situation remains hidden from the strategic planning to too many health systems.

Regional health systems committed to becoming value-driven are joining the Accountable Care Organization (ACO) movement. Developed by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), an ACO is committed to the Triple Aim:

1. Improving the individual experience of care

2. Improving the health of populations

3. Reducing the per capita costs of care for populations

Health systems know the future of health care financing will be directly tied to achieving these aims with their care, and information systems are able to measure it. At the patient care level, teams will operate in ACOs using the principles of the Patient Centered Medical Home (PCMH). PCMH practices have advanced information and communication technologies and are able to provide continuous access to strategic, proactive care rather than the tradition of simply reacting to patient appointments. Patients become activated to play an active role in the own care, ordering desired tests and treatments, according to accepted guidelines.

The most important work of family therapists today is to make the case for being vital members of PCMH practice teams. Working alongside physicians, nurse practitioners, pharmacists and others, family therapists will ensure that patients receive true biopsychosocial care from the beginning. Independent private practice is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Organized and integrated health systems are the future. Family therapists are not automatically included in this discussion in most settings, so becoming knowledgeable about ACOs and PCMHs is critical today. Assertive inclusion of family therapists in demonstration projects around the country is needed to ensure the proper composition of team practice in the future.

Reference for more detail on ACOs, PCMHs and the Triple Aim:

Edwards TM, Patterson J, Vakili S, Scherger JE. Healthcare Policy in the United States: A Primer for Medical Family Therapists. Comtemp Fam Ther (2012) 34:217-227. 


Joseph E. Scherger, M.D., M.P.H., is Vice President for Primary Care & Academic Affairs at Eisenhower Medicine Center in Rancho Mirage, California. Dr. Scherger is Clinical Professor of Family Medicine at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine (UCSD), and at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California (USC). Dr. Scherger’s main focus is on the redesign of office practice using the tools of information technology and quality improvement.

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