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Healthcare Can Be Fixed

One of the most frequent complaints I get about health care today is that it’s too impersonal. Patients don’t feel like people; they feel like numbers or objects. Their physician may rush through the exam as if the patient doesn’t matter, or fail to explain things fully to the patient. Doctor appointments no longer feel personal.

The Southcentral Foundation Success Story

However, it isn’t this way for everyone, especially not if you’re native to Alaska. At the Southcentral Foundation in Anchorage, patients are virtually guaranteed a doctor’s appointment on the day they request, there are high standards of care, and “the atmosphere is so welcoming that natives routinely congregate in waiting areas to swap stories and meet old friends even when they do not need medical care,” according to the July 21, 2012 New York Times article “A Formula for Cutting Health Costs.”

The Southcentral Foundation in Anchorage provides primary outpatient care to 55,000 Alaska natives and American Indians in the Anchorage area and scattered in remote villages, most reachable only by air. It does all this on a budget of only $200 million. The Southcentral Foundation was created in 1982 and replaced the federally run Indian Health Service. The article states that since the switch, 85% of asthmatic children receive high quality care, in comparison to 35%; over 90% of infants now receive the immunization necessary by age 2; and the percentage of diabetics with blood sugar under control ranks in the top 10 percentile of a standard national benchmark.

The Southcentral Foundation received the Malcolm Baldrige award, a Commerce Department national quality award, in 2011 for high efficiency rates: emergency room use has been reduced by 50 percent, hospital admissions by 53 percent, specialty care visits by 65 percent and visits to primary care doctors by 36 percent. This has translated into money saved. The article states, “Between 2004 and 2009, Southcentral’s annual per-capita spending on hospital services grew by a tiny 7 percent and its spending on primary care, which picked up the slack, by 30 percent, still well below the 40 percent increase posted in a national index issued by the Medical Group Management Association.”

Using Southcentral’s Tactics to Help Fix Healthcare

Due to its small size and unique patients and location, the system is hardly “one size fits all.” However, the success the Southcentral Foundation proves that with innovative thinking, healthcare costs can be lowered and healthcare quality can be improved. A small Medicaid managed-care plan in Portland called CareOregon found that very idea to be true. After they adopted some of Southcentral’s tactics, they found that they had “greatly reduced the use of costly emergency departments and hospital admissions while improving health outcomes.”

The article points out some of Southcentral’s tactics that any healthcare facility can implement, including:

–  Changing from a reactive system in which a sick patient seeks medical care to a proactive system that reaches out to patients through special events, written and broadcast communications, and telephone calls to keep them healthy or at least out of the hospital and clinics.

– Focusing on the needs and convenience of the patients rather than of the institution or the providers. The facilities feature rooms where providers and families can chat as equals on comfortable chairs, in sharp contrast to examination rooms where a doctor looms over a patient. Every patient visit is carefully planned so the patient can get in and out quickly without being delayed because, say, a needed lab test result is not available.

– Building trust and long-term relationships between the patients and providers.

This is the type of healthcare change we should advocate for: putting the patient first. We are tired of being simply numbers. And as Southcentral proves, doctors take better care of patients that aren’t numbers, but people.

Thanks for reading!

Rebecca S. Busch

Healthcare Advocate

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