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The Opioid Epidemic: It’s time to place blame where it belongs

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Press Ganey deserves a place with their emphasis on patient satisfaction. They monetized their concept, selling not only surveys but also consulting services to help hospitals improve their scores. Unfortunately, the correlation between patient satisfaction and quality is unclear, with a study from UC Davis suggesting that high satisfaction is actually dangerous, correlating it to higher expenditures, higher rates of hospitalization and a higher risk of death. But acknowledging such literature would affect Press Ganey’s lucrative survey sales, so such studies are ignored.

CMS determined that pay for volume CMS developed the value-based purchasing program to shift from pay for volume to pay for value.  Hospitals are scored based on their performance on measures of processes of care, outcomes of care, efficiency and the patient experience. The patient experience is based on scoring on HCAHPS surveys that are sent to patients, which includes patient scoring of their satisfaction with their pain control. CMS decided that a patient’s satisfaction was as important as whether a patient developed a hospital-acquired condition or even survived their hospitalization, and weighted satisfaction at 30 percent of the overall score.

Because CMS was now attaching significant reimbursement to patient satisfaction, hospital administrators developed initiatives to improve their scores and avoid a penalty. Because only 25 completed surveys a month are required, and the difference between the 50th percentile and 90th percentile can be an absolute difference of 1 to 2 percent,  a single poor survey can have devastating effects. Administrators held physicians responsible for ensuring that every patient is completely satisfied in every way. As described in the comments section of a 2013 Forbes article entitled, “Why Rating Your Doctor is Bad for Your Health,” administrators withheld pay or bonuses. Physicians felt pressured to prescribe opioids when patients demanded them, despite their reservations about the need for opioid medications. Thomas Lee, MD from Press Ganey in JAMA stated “these (drug-seeking) patients do not respond often to surveys and thus have little influence on physicians’ overall ratings” but without any proof of such; depriving a potential drug-seeking patient who threatens to “give bad satisfaction scores” is a sure route to trouble.

CMS also tried to deflect blame in a JAMA editorial, noting, “Because some hospitals have identified patient experience as a potential source of competitive advantage, these actions can create perverse and harmful incentives to elicit positive survey responses. For example, there are reports that some hospitals link individual physician or physician group financial incentives to performance on disaggregated HCAHPS responses. This is contrary to the survey’s design and policy aim.” If so, why did CMS not address this in 2013, when the Forbes article provided ample evidence that hospitals were using the surveys in such a way? A notice to hospitals forbidding the use of HCAHPS as a punitive measure would have gone a long way to empowering doctors to say “no” to patients demanding opioids.

Of course placing blame will not fix the current problem but neither will asking for the resignation of the governor of Michigan, but those responsible for this crisis need to be held accountable. I call on Congress to hold hearings and compel the top executives from Purdue Pharmaceutical, the Joint Commission, Press Ganey, and CMS and hospital administrators to appear and testify as to their role in this national epidemic. Blame must be placed; it is the American way.

Stock photo nurses vs. real nurses

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