Grant Should Spark Health Care Network

February 23, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — A $600,000 grant is the cornerstone for a network that would connect all types of health care providers in West Michigan

The system would give providers information about their patients, even if they'd been treated elsewhere in the area, and it would give patients information about the quality of care from providers.

"From the patient point of view, it improves the probability the patient is going to get the right care, at the right time, in the right place," said Metro Health Executive Vice President Bob Smedes, a member of the Alliance for Health Leadership Team that worked on landing the three-year grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"If you think about the banking industry and the bazillion transactions they handle every day … It's been decades since I got an error on my checking account statement. Health care has to do something (similar)."

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one of the nation's leading supporters of health and health care, this month awarded 14 grants across the country, including one for Alliance for Health, a health care planning agency covering a dozen West Michigan counties, including Kent. The Greater Detroit Area Health Council also received a grant.

The goals of the grant, explained Dr. Frank Marre, associate medical director for clinical programs at Priority Health, are to measure quality, share best practices, and improve communication about cost and quality performance for the entire West Michigan area. The topics seem straightforward, but Marre said much work needs to be done to bring all the facets of health to agreement on how to accomplish those goals. Technology will play a major part in the solutions, he added.

Smedes said the grant will help Alliance for Health map a blueprint for a network to link hospitals, doctors' offices, insurance companies and other health care providers. Patient information would be available through a networked device, such as a computer, so that, for example, a hospital could search a database for patient information that could affect medical decisions underway.

But the system also would track treatments in doctors' offices, hospitals and other providers, measuring those results against standards for quality of care, then making that information available to the public, said Lody Zwarensteyn, president of Alliance for Health. The project, dubbed Aligning Forces for Quality by the foundation, will focus on chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes, depression and heart disease, Zwarensteyn said. Previous Robert Wood Johnson Foundation studies have shown that people with chronic diseases get only half the recommended care.

Smedes said he expects the plan that is to be completed by the end of the grant will include such specifics as options for vendors, reviews of available systems and which health care standards should be measured. But the current grant does not cover such purchases. The committees involved will be coordinated by Alliance for Health, which is soliciting volunteers, including members of the public, Zwarensteyn said.

Creating connectivity is an expensive venture, Smedes added. But he said he thinks the return is worth it.

"If we improve patient care, particularly if we employ good, solid systems, you will get better health, and the side effect, if you will, will be lower costs. That saves money," Smedes said.

Marre said the medical literature documents the link between health care costs and quality efforts. For example, he said, Priority Health made an effort to improve the use of medication among its asthma patients and found that emergency room usage rates for asthma dropped dramatically. Priority Health is owned by Spectrum Health, the largest hospital system in West Michigan

"The name of the game nationwide has shifted from 'bang everybody over the head and try to get discounts in your favor.' Those are past games, and they haven't worked," Zwarensteyn said. "The true gains are going to come in quality; that's really the important message: the right care for the right person at the right time in the right place."    

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