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Thursday, September 7th 2006

Good Time To Be A Sick Veteran

How the Veteran Affairs hospital system became the best.

The roots of the VA’s reformation go back to 1994, when Bill Clinton appointed Kenneth Kizer, a hard-charging doctor and former Navy diver, as the VA’s under secretary for health. Kizer decentralized the VA’s cumbersome health bureaucracy and held regional managers more accountable. Patient records were transferred to a system-wide computer network, which has made its way into only 3% of private hospitals. When a veteran is treated, the doctor has the vet’s complete medical history on a laptop. In the private sector, 20% of all lab tests are needlessly repeated because the doctor doesn’t have handy the results of the same test performed earlier, according to a 2004 report by the President’s information technology advisory committee.

Another innovation at the VA was a bar-code system, as in the supermarket, for prescriptions–a system used in fewer than 5% of private hospitals. With a hand-held laser reader, a nurse scans the bar code on a patient’s wristband, then the one on the bottle of pills. If the pills don’t match the prescription the doctor typed into the computer, the laptop alerts the nurse. The Institute of Medicine estimates that 1.5 million patients are harmed each year by medication errors, but computer records and bar-code scanners have virtually eliminated those problems in VA hospitals.

Private hospitals, which make their money treating people who come to them sick, don’t profit from heavy investments in preventive care, which keeps patients healthy. But the VA, which is funded by tax dollars, “has its patients for life,” notes Kizer, who served in his post until 1999. So to keep government spending down, “it makes economic sense to keep them healthy and out of the hospital.” Kizer eliminated more than half the system’s 52,000 hospital beds and plowed the money saved into opening 300 new community clinics so vets could have easier access to family-practice-style doctors. He set strict performance standards that graded physicians on health promotion.

I paused on posting this because I wanted to provide lengthy commentary. But now this Time article is over a week old, and I still haven’t gotten around to the post. I’ll be back to edit with comments, be sure of that.

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