How top-performing ACOs use data insights to drive success

Published: September 30, 2019 by Mclain Causey

I attended the Fall 2019 Conference of the National Association of Accountable Care Organizations (NAACOS) in Washington D.C. and wanted to share some insights on how top-performing Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) are using data to drive improved quality and cost of care.

Over the last decade, we’ve seen the number of ACOs surge. Propelled by the shift from volume- to value-based care, over a thousand ACOs operate across the U.S., bringing together groups of physicians, hospitals and other providers with a collective ambition to enhance quality of care, reduce healthcare costs and improve patient outcomes.

While some ACOs participating in the Medicare Shared Savings Program have succeeded in improving quality and realizing some savings for the program, the value-based model is still evolving, and results can be mixed. More dramatic and holistic moves will have to be made to convert today’s annual incremental savings of 1 to 2% to make a dent in the estimated annual waste of nearly $389 billion in administrative complexity and another $45 billion due to lack of coordinated care.

So what separates the top performers from the rest?

At NAACOS last week, speakers confirmed that the most successful ACOs are those that effectively shift care towards primary care physicians (PCPs) and away from acute settings and skilled nursing facilities, implement a process for continuous improvement and adopt a performance-first culture.

This is easier said than done.

Here’s my top recommendations to help ACOs leverage data-driven insights to lower costs while improving patient outcomes.

  1. Offering insights into member utilization of healthcare resources in real-time

I recently worked with a client that needed real-time alerts of member activity including admissions, discharges, and Emergency Room (ER) visits. These insights enabled this client to proactively manage active member episodes of care, optimizing the setting and deliver of care for the member’s specific needs.

For example, a member was frequently visiting the ER with complications from his Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) condition that the client’s care team was managing. This was a needlessly costly way to treat the symptoms. To help get their members the right care at the right time, this client started leveraging automated alerts for their members as they presented within the healthcare continuum.

The next time this patient sought treatment in an out-of-network ER for their COPD, their primary care physician (PCP) received an alert about her patient as soon as they registered, before a doctor had even seen him, and certainly before an ER workup converted to an admission. The PCP called the attending ER doctor to share the patient’s history and ensured the ER physician that this patient would receive next-day follow-up care in the PCP’s office. Knowing that follow-up was in place and the patient wasn’t in immediate need of care, the ER physician discharged the patient home.

Given that the average cost of an admission can run $22,000, and an outpatient visit less than $500, the savings delivered by this kind of care coordination becomes significant. More importantly, the member experience is much improved in that they get to go home instead of an unnecessary overnight stay in the hospital.

And this is just one example—multiply this kind of episode management across all member encounters and consider the improved member quality of life across all attributed lives and the savings for the health plan or ACO in the aggregate. Real-time alerts provide a win-win for both patient and ACO by affording care teams the opportunity to optimize the setting of care for quality and cost.

  1. Care coordination for episode management

To improve episode outcomes and reduce readmissions, visibility into the compliance of a patient’s post-discharge care plan through the duration of the entire episode is critical, so well-coordinated care requires that clinical context be shared between providers. A frequent barrier to this flow of useful data is that clinicians’ electronic health records (EHRs) aren’t always interoperable.

To solve for this, some ACOs are attempting to move all their providers to a single EHR and care management module. However, for some this may not be an option. In these cases, ACOs can opt for Care Coordination Manager: a rules-driven, closed-loop messaging and distributed workflow orchestration platform that enables health plans, ACOs, allied health, and community partners to share and assign care plan requests across a diverse provider community.

Care Coordination Manager is vendor-agnostic and able to populate EHRs and care management modules at the point of care with key clinical context. This flow of tasks and content supports high-quality coordination of care and management through transitions of care.

  1. Proactively address non-clinical barriers to health for improved patient engagement and health

Another characteristic of top-performing ACOs is that they utilize a 360-degree view of their members to address potential barriers that prevent members from engaging in their own healthcare. These SDOH factors can include things like housing or financial instability, food insecurity, limited access to transportation or healthy food options, and other non-clinical factors.

Only about 20% of costly health episodes are due to medical factors, so it’s vital for ACOs to incorporate a more comprehensive and actionable understanding of the social needs of the populations they serve. For example, medication adherence is a bigger challenge for a patient who may have difficulty getting to a pharmacy or understanding medication instructions. Identifying and mitigating these risks up front gives the patient a better chance of adhering to their prescribed regimen, which in turn gives them a better chance to stay healthy, ultimately lessening the disease burden and thus the cost of the ACO’s membership while improving the patient’s quality of life.

ACOs can take a proactive, preventative approach to addressing these challenges by collecting and analyzing member data and using these insights to tailor interventions. Patient-supplied information through surveys, like PRAPARE, is a good starting point, but surveys can be limited by access to the patient as well as the patient’s ability or willingness to answer honestly. Additionally, unless mapped to structured data such as ICD-10 Z codes, survey data is challenging to scale for broader insights into the ACO’s membership.

Instead, consider healthcare consumer data that’s sourced directly from a reliable vendor. Analysis of this demographic, psychographic and behavioral data allows you to flag patients based on need, so you can identify the best way to communicate with members to help them own their healthcare journey. For example, in a recent report by the Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG), one ACO described how asking patients with chronic conditions to make a daily call to a care coordinator led to 43% fewer emergency room visits and 47% fewer readmissions.

As ACOs grow amidst pressures to take on downside risk and manage costs while improving quality—timely data collection, sharing, analysis and action will continue to provide the foundation of high-quality episode and population health management; along with engaging members and community partners in the healthcare journey.

What’s clear from discussions at the NAACOS conference last week is that the opportunity exists to work smarter across many emerging payment models. Could data be the key to unlocking that opportunity?

McLain Causey is Director of Product Management at Experian Health.

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