A Guide to the Patient-Centered Medical Home

By Jordan T. Cohen
In Health Care Economics
October 5, 2010
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White House at Night, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)

White House at Night, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)

As the United States continues on its path towards reforming its health care system, it will be governed primarily by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). One of the means by which the legislation attempts to institute reforms is through the use of pilot programs. In a previous post, I examined the pilot program known as the “accountable care organization” (ACO) which effectively formalizes and leverages existing  networks of physicians and providers in an effort to increase cooperation across the continuum of care; the hypothesis being that an organization that is accountable for a broader range of care can more effectively coordinate and efficiently deliver that care.

PPACA does not limit itself to ACOs. Another pilot program contained in the legislation is the medical home, commonly referred to as the “Patient-Centered Medical Home” (PCMH). The PCMH concept is not new. The American Academy of Pediatrics coined the term medical home back in 1967. Through the following decades, the concept of a medical home has, however, been refined. Throughout the 1970’s, the American Academy of Pediatrics continued to discuss the important role of a medical home in pediatric care, releasing a number of reports focusing on the proper role of a medical home for pediatric care.

That medical homes were spawned in the context of pediatrics is not  surprising: children are particularly unable to coordinate their own care, or, in many cases, even effectively communicate the narrative of the care which has transpired.  As such, it becomes the role of  parents, physicians, and others in the health care delivery system to communicate and coordinate the care of  the child. Parents are not always available or able. Logically, there must be some locus of coordination. In some ways, the primary care physician within the Patient- Centered Medical Home stands figuratively, as regards the coordination of medical care, in loco parentis.

Recognizing the importance of the medical home, the AAP created a task force to define the medical home.  In 1996, the influential Institute of Medicine embraced the concept of medical homes. They did not, however, limit their discussion of the medical home to children, but instead stressed the importance of care coordination for many, if not all, patients. (Click here to read IOM’s discussion on the matter). IOM’s belief in the general importance of medical homes has proven prescient in light of the ever-increasing complexity of clinical diagnosis and treatment that operates in an increasingly fragmented health care system. It has become increasingly difficult, even for adult patients, to communicate and coordinate care.

Principles of Patient Centered Medical Homes

In 2007, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Physicians, and the American Osteopathic Association released “Joint Principles of the Patient-Centered Medical Home.” In it they distilled the following seven principles of the medical home. They are, in part:

1.       Personal physician – each patient has an ongoing relationship with a personal physician trained to provide first contact, continuous and comprehensive care.

2.      Physician directed medical practice – the personal physician leads a team of individuals at the practice level who collectively take responsibility for the ongoing care of patients.

3.      Whole person orientation – the personal physician is responsible for providing for all the patient’s health care needs or taking responsibility for appropriately arranging care with other qualified professionals. This includes care for all stages of life; acute care; chronic care; preventive services; and end of life care.

4.      Care is coordinated and/or integrated across all elements of the complex health care system (e.g., subspecialty care, hospitals, home health agencies, nursing homes) and the patient’s community (e.g., family, public and private community-based services). Care is facilitated by registries, information technology, health information exchange and other means to assure that patients get the indicated care when and where they need and want it in a culturally and linguistically appropriate manner.

5.      Quality and safety are hallmarks of the medical home.

6.      Enhanced access to care is available through systems such as open scheduling, expanded hours and new options for communication between patients, their personal physician, and practice staff.

7.      Payment appropriately recognizes the added value provided to patients who have a patient-centered medical home.

The Cornerstones of Patient Centered Medical Homes

Diane Rittenhouse and Steven Shortell have distilled four cornerstones for PCMHs from the above principles:

The four cornerstones of PCMHs, as represented in a talk given by Dianne Rittenhouse
The four cornerstones of PCMHs, as represented in a talk given by Dianne Rittenhouse

Recently, Rittenhouse gave a talk to UCSF where she did an excellent job of explaining the four cornerstones in the context of the U.S. health care system. The link below jumps straight to the discussion of the cornerstones or you can watch the presentation in its entirety below.

A Discussion by Dianne Rittenhouse on the Cornerstones of the PCMH

As is clear from the joint principles and cornerstones, primary care is the distinguishing factor of the PCMH, as opposed to other models such as the ACO. As Rittenhouse and her colleagues have noted: “The PCMH model emphasizes the creation of a strong primary care foundation for the health care system, and the ACO model emphasizes the alignment of incentives and accountability for providers across the continuum of care.”

Patient Centered Medical Homes in Practice

Are PCMHs a pipe dream? Do we have any experience with them? The answer to the second question is yes, a substantial number of PCMH demonstrations are occurring throughout the country. A recent study by Bitton and colleagues at Harvard Medical School looked at 26 currently active PCMH pilots that incorporated 14,494 physicians, 4,707 practices, and served nearly 5 million patients. The researchers found that there were two ways of using PCMHs to transform health care delivery: a “consultive model” and a “chronic care model.” (For more information see Bitton et al., “Patient Centered Medical Home Demonstration Projects,” Journal of General Internal Medicine, available here.)

The chronic care model focuses on using quality improvement coaching to identify characteristics of care systems that must be changed to improve the treatment of chronic diseases.  The consultive model typically features proscriptive change in practice management most often carried out by external facilitators hired to organize assessment and transformation. (See Bitton page 590). As Bitton notes, the majority of pilot programs surveyed used the chronic care model, with those groups focusing specifically on asthma and diabetes. These initiatives were often the product of state activities, including Regional Health Information Organizations (RHIOs), Quality Improvement Organizations, and other state programs.

In order to become a PCMH, most practices have needed to apply to be recognized as such. The application process often requires the use of an assessment tool created by the National Committee for Quality Assurance — a group comprised of the same organizations who released the Joint Statement mentioned earlier. To accomplish this process the NCQA created the Physician Practice Connections – Patient-Centered Medical Home (PPC-PCMH) program to create a framework for medical home recognition. As stated on the NCQA website: “There are nine PPC® standards, including 10 must pass elements, which can result in one of three levels of recognition. Practices seeking PPC®-PCMHTM complete a Web-based data collection tool and provide documentation that validates responses.” These standards are used to gauge the “medical homeness” of the applicant.

Payment Reform as the Rate-Limiting Step

As noted by Rittenhouse and others, payment reform is one of the cornerstones of the PCMH model. In the demonstrations currently underway, payment reform has been typically realized by a “three part” model adopted by the Patient-Centered Primary Care Collaborative (PCPCC) — a coalition of major employers, consumer groups, patient quality organizations, labor unions, and others, that have come together to facilitate the creation of PCMHs. The payment model is comprised of:

1.      Ongoing fee-for-service payments

2.      A fixed (typically monthly) case management fee; and

3.      Pay for Performance potential bonus payments

As the PCPCC states: “Payment reform should correct existing imbalances and distortions in physician payment and take into account value created by primary care, especially in the areas of cost, quality, care coordination, access, and patient centeredness.” However, the Bitton study had some unfortunate conclusions with respect to payment reform in extant PCMHs. The study found that many of the PCMH demonstrations currently retain the fee-for-service model as the core method of reimbursement and, despite the efforts at creating a common framework, “substantial variability” in the form, payment methods, and means of practice transformation. Such variation does not seem to favor smaller practices.

Though the PCPCC has attracted a broad range of industry groups to sign on to their PCMH model, it is unclear how a model that retains the traditional fee-for-service framework will work. Even if the FFS model could work, Bitton’s study found that only some of the demonstrations included up-front payments that could be put towards the required investments for transformation.  For the ACO model, upfront costs and uncertainties can be more easily absorbed because of the larger organizational structure of the ACO. However, many primary care physicians practice in small groups. The IT investments and other transformations will require time and resources that many primary care physicians may find difficult to swallow. Moreover, as Rittenhouse notes, the PCMH model does not provide incentives to those outside of primary care to work with the primary care physicians collaboratively. This will only compound the difficultly of  implementing PCMHs. Rittenhouse does, however, offer a glimmer of hope: the synergizing role of ACOs. As ACOs will benefit from the primary care focus of PCMHs, Rittenhouse believes that PCMHs can leverage the ACOs delivery system infrastructure to make the implementation of PCMHs more realistic.

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One Response to “A Guide to the Patient-Centered Medical Home”

  1. Anita says:

    Hello
    I had an assigment for college. This article was very clear and informative. I appreciate it when people explain things in a way that everyone can understand. Thank you

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