Reports of the Death of Disease Management Are Greatly Exaggerated

Editor’s note: The article that the author refers to appears below this one.

There have been unsavory rumors flying around the internet that disease management as practiced today may not be all that effective. I’m not going to reveal who started these rumors but her name rhymes with Archelle Georgiou. This person says disease management is “dead.” Since there are still many disease management departments operating around the country apparently oblivious to their demise (and disease management departments are people too, you know), I suspect this commentator was using the word “dead” figuratively, as in: “The second he forgot the third cabinet department, Rick Perry was dead.” (Another example of presumably figurative speech in the death category would be: “After he denounced gays while wearing the Brokeback Mountain jacket, you could stick a fork in him.”)

And if the rhymes-with-Archelle commentator intends “dead” as a synonym for “not in very good shape,” she certainly has a point. Not only does she have a point, but I would add more items to her list of reasons for the field’s current troubles:

(1) The interval between diagnosis (the point where readiness to change is usually greatest) and successful patient contact can exceed three months;

(2) Predictive modeling “risk scores” that tell you only how sick someone was, dressed up as a “risk score,” not how sick they will be, even though they aren’t already high utilizers;

(3) Some interventions are so expensive that they exceed the cost of the disease;

(4) The physicians are still not involved;

(5) Rather than using actual mathematically sound methodologies to calculate results, many vendors and consultants damage the credibility of the entire endeavor by believing in the Outcomes Fairy.

Fortunately, there are improvements afoot to address all of these issues:

(1) Electronic medical records presage faster claims adjudication, and ICD-10s will mean much more detailed patient information than is possible today. And disease management departments are already coordinating with UM/precertification/discharge planning better than even two years ago. Together, these innovations will match people with programs much faster;

(2) Predictive modeling is increasingly including the lab scores. “Increasingly” meaning that instead of 1% of models having lab data, maybe 3% do. Still, it’s a start. Lab values allow actual prediction, instead of simply drawing a line connecting last year’s high claims to this year’s high risk scores;

(3) The cost of interventions is declining quite rapidly, largely with the advent of mHealth (use of mobile communications devices in health care), which is hugely overrated by venture capitalists as a vehicle for getting rich from, but quite appropriately rated as a way to facilitate contact with members if indeed privacy regulations get rewritten to assume that the only person who answers a cellphone is the owner of that phone, and hence no “opt-in” app is needed;

(4) Some physicians are getting involved because their contractual arrangements and accreditation, such as patient-centered medical homes, are requiring it;

(5) And finally, my own forthcoming book, Why Nobody Believes the Numbers: Separating Fact from Fiction in Population Health Management, will take care of the last item. Imagine the Outcomes Fairy-meets-The Hurt Locker. Credibility will be restored for those vendors whose outcomes are modest but valid. The introduction may be downloaded gratis from (link is external) .

Is disease management dead? No. It is going through a transition period in which older models are being replaced via “creative destruction” and plain old innovation with newer models. This isn’t too much fun now but ultimately this trial-and-error process should create health-improving interventions that are truly effective in preventing, forestalling and addressing some small but significant portion of the 75% of cost attributable to people with chronic disease.

So I think perhaps these two seemingly conflicting posts are in broad agreement, the only difference being that what I believe is well-founded, evidence-based optimism that the industry can innovate its way out of the current stagnation. On this point, only time will tell. In a few years we should know, to quote the immortal words of that aforementioned great philosopher Rick Perry, whether or not who is right.

Al Lewis is Executive Director of the Disease Management Purchasing Consortium