Thursday, April 7, 2011

How Trade Can Transform US Health Care

 [This post is part of my ongoing collaboration with Prof. Jagdish Bhagwati.]

Imagine that lawmakers come together to solve the health care (and budget) crisis by taking all the steps outlined in my last post.  Intrinsic to their plan is the critical role of trade in health services to achieve quick results.

There are four ways in which such trade occurs. "Arm's length" services are typically found online: The provider and the patient can be physically far apart. In medical travel patients go to doctors elsewhere. A third way is by foreign entities creating and staffing hospitals in the US. Finally, foreign doctors and other medical personnel can be brought to the US to tend to patients here.

A narrative below illustrates how wisely implementing a comprehensive trade policy in health services can transform our health care experience and costs.

Jane isn’t feeling well and goes to a facility staffed by two nurses.  This has some typical medical examination rooms which also include a couple of large LCD screens and a video cam that allow for Skype like videoconferencing.  A nurse asks Jane for the reason for her visit then ushers her into one of these rooms.  The screens lights up and Jane is instantly in video conference with Dr. Gupta, an experienced and highly qualified primary care physician based in India.  Dr. Gupta has cleared the rigorous medical board exams set by the US state Jane resides in, and is licensed to practice telemedicine here. 

It feels as if Dr. Gupta is in the same room as Jane, except that the nurse does all the examining under his directions and reports her findings.  Dr. Gupta then prescribes medication, treatment and follow-up visits if needed.  Also, if Jane needs a specialist like a cardiologist, Dr. Gupta instantly connects her to one.  Cardiologist Dr. Sharma appears on the second screen.  Dr. Gupta briefs Dr. Sharma about Jane and either stays on or hands off to Dr. Sharma who then “examines” Jane with the nurse’s help before prescribing treatment.  Any imaging tests ordered (MRI, PET, CAT, X-Ray) are digitally transmitted and reported on by a certified India based radiologist.

Jane’s insurer pays $10 - $15 for each doctor.  This is twice their domestic rate, and enough incentive for them to have obtained US certification and practice telemedicine.  The insurer also pays $15-$20 to cover the US nurse’s and the facility maintenance charges.  The cost of a typical visit ranges from $25 for a PCP to $45 for a PCP-specialist combo, which is just a third to a sixth of normal US payments. 

Since it is all digitally captured, Jane has the option of saving and retaining her consultation, or having it deleted for privacy reasons.  If she likes these doctors she can ask to see them specifically and schedule future visits accordingly.  She can also anonymously rate them, for the benefit of health authorities and other patients.

If Jane needs a major surgery like hip or knee replacement or a heart bypass, she and a companion can go on an all expenses paid trip to India.  She is treated at a top Indian hospital with a safety record at par or better than US hospitals, and recuperates in a five star hotel before returning home.  Her insurer pays a third in all of what it costs for the procedure in the US.  The incentive for Jane to go is high quality (and even pampered) care with lower chances of complications, and a waiver of all deductibles and co-pays.

Of course, in a majority of situations medical travel is not feasible.  Jane then goes to a new local hospital that is run by a foreign chain that has combined high quality with low cost in hospitals in its home country.  It incorporated its efficiency and superior practices into its US holdings, and is profitable even on reduced Medicare and Medicaid payments. 

When Jane needs to see local doctors she goes to highly experienced and qualified foreign doctors who have been certified to practice after clearing all US board exams.  They are no longer required to undergo US medical residency which was the main impediment to augmenting doctor supply.  Even after Medicaid rate cuts these doctors seeing such patients make many times what they earned back home, and happily accept all patients.

Then there’s Jane’s friend Mary who is very distrustful of foreign health care providers and insists on “all-American” care.  Even Mary is now much better off.  Thanks to the increased supply of providers she no longer has to wait to see her US doctors.  They’re also more attentive now and no longer spurn Medicare or Medicaid patients even after the reduction of rates.  The same holds for her local US hospital that seems to be improving its quality and cost efficiency by learning from the foreign transplants.  Having less market power it too now accepts lower insurer rates.

 So benefits of the trade in health services flow not just to those who directly avail of them, but also to the rest that don’t.  Moreover, the gains come quickly, as early as in 2012, with almost full effects in place in 3-5 years.  As compared to this, purely domestic solutions, for example, of increasing the supply of doctors will take a decade to even begin showing some effect. 

Also, although federal orchestration and coordination is clearly preferable, a lot of the benefits can be availed at the states level by their own legislative and executive action.  That is because many of the impediments to trade in health services originate in, or are at least addressable through state enactments.  These include licensing requirements of qualified foreign doctors, permission to set up hospitals, who can prescribe drugs, and limits of legal exposure.

What will be the impact of such trade on American jobs?  Thanks to the ongoing and projected scarcities among health care providers their loss of jobs will be minimal.  Some like the doctors are likely to see their outsize earning premiums over their European counterparts decrease significantly but will still earn handsomely.  Other medical personnel in short supply may also lose a chunk of their overtime earnings, but are very unlikely to lose their jobs.  In contrast the jobs outside of the health industry should increase since reduced health care overhead makes US labor more attractive to employers.  This should vastly outweigh any decrease in health jobs.

Apart from service improvements and expanded coverage, what are the potential savings?  A lot depends on how this trade is allowed and which modes are emphasized.  But broadly speaking, the “US premium” on the price of health services can easily be brought from the present over 100% to about 30% over the prices in Europe.

Chastened medical providers who presently sneer at Medicaid rates and threaten to turn away Medicare patients if the rates are reduced may instead vie for this business.  In addition to lower domestic prices due to competition, there will be direct savings from off-shored services.  All told, the total US health expenditure can drop from a NHE projected $3.3 trillion in 2014 by over $1 trillion annually, with more than half of this being public funds of CME and the states.  Even in 2012 if action is taken right away to qualify foreign providers, telemedicine and medical travel can kick in to yield relatively painless savings of about $50 billion.

Dec. 21, 2012 update: Telemedicine within the US is now maturing - see The Atlantic Dec. 11, 2012 article. The same thing can be done with foreign based doctors.

1 comment:

Sulakhe's said...

It's truly excellent to read the narration like this. While reading it only I felt like I am there in a room in the place of jane where this will impact as a real presence of the doctor in the room. Healthcare Video Conferencing is the best solution these days and the above narration has proved it's effort. Good to read such post that's happening in real.