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Sunday, June 4, 2017

Assessing outcomes in healthcare: Do we need the equivalent of double entry bookkeeping?

We tend not to understand how what is now viewed as mundane was once revolutionary. The simple act of balancing our checkbook is a legacy of a revolutionary and transformational process which was first propagated not much more than 500 years ago. That process is double entry bookkeeping (DEBK). There is some contention as to where DEBK was first used or at least widely used, but there is little contention that is the big picture, it is a relatively newly adopted human practice. Humans have been accumulating and trading for thousands of years. We have been formally accounting using DEBK for only a few hundred years.

What is the big deal about DEBK? It allowed individuals and more importantly larger organizations to organize large amounts of information into relatively compact journals with visual displays which allowed people to accurately assess whether their activities where leaving themselves and their organizations better off after transactions. DEBK is one of the foundations of the modern trading economy and served as a foundation for the growth of wealth and the unprecedented  improvement of the human condition which has happened in the past few hundred years.

Let's move from commerce to healthcare. In the healthcare economy, at the most fundamental level the ultimate goal is to leave patients with more health assets after encounters than they started with. While appearing very simple when boiled down to this principle, setting up the ledgers is not so straight forward. What exactly do the entries look like? What are health assets and what units can they be measured in? What specifically do people value in terms of health?

There is the absence of undesirable symptoms whether pain, anxiety, or fatigue. There is also the presence of particular functionality. Can you walk, run, climb stairs, think clearly, solve problems, or function sufficiently to work and earn a living. This sounds complicated to measure but there are already various patient reported outcomes tools which measure many of these elements.

There are also financial tools which can be used. For any given intervention, financial assets are needed to deploy. There is always a financial and time costs to devoting resources to address health issues. If we are able to measure health assets over time, theoretically we can begin to assess whether a financial commitment to a person results in a good investment.

The barriers to deploying such a project are not insurmountable. One issue we will need to anticipate is how we will execute the conversion of financial resources into health assets. There will be huge variation in terms of the preferences of specific individuals. Some people will want to invest large amounts of money to improve their health asset picture while others will want to invest those resources elsewhere.

Furthermore, improvement of health assets may be best done via investment directed toward activities and services not commonly viewed as health care services. There are currently biases skewed to certain directions of investment driven by health insurance which probably drive inefficient allocation of resources that leave people and populations worse off than if the resources were invested via some alternative approach. However, without the equivalent of DEBK for health assets, the pernicious effects and the asset losses created by these suboptimal investments are hidden and opaque.

For those who repeat the mantra that health care is different, DEBK application into the world of health assets will be a wake up call. Improvement of the human condition requires human activity driven by incentives and systems that allow us to measure whether investments of time, effort, and money actually provide on return on that investment. Do we leave people better than we found them and are the investments we make best applied to where they can best accomplish this goal?

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