More Medicare patients dying at home, JAMA study finds

Dive Brief:

  • More Medicare fee-for-service and Medicare Advantage beneficiaries are dying at home or in community settings than in acute care hospitals, according to new findings published in JAMA.
  • The study showed proportions of fee-for-service beneficiary deaths occurring in an acute care hospital decreased from 32.6% in 2000 to 19.8% in 2015. Proportions of deaths occurring in the home or in a community setting (foster care home, assisted living facilities) increased from 30.7% to 40.1% in the same time span.
  • Medicare Advantage beneficiaries were less likely to be hospitalized overall than those in traditional fee-for-service plans and, in the last 30 days of life, the difference in the hospitalization rates was 9.3% — a difference study author Joan Teno called “huge.”

Dive Insight:

Although most Americans over 65 say that they’d prefer to die at home, in 2009 only 24% of them actually did. Yet, in recent years, more and more Americans are choosing to live out their last days in their home or community instead of being admitted to a hospital.

The JAMA study reveals a potential patient response to the current inadequacy of end-of-life care as, for some older Americans, ending up in a hospital can mean high-cost and aggressive treatment in their final days.

Such treatment does not always equal better care. When it comes to their elderly patients, incumbent healthcare systems increasingly specialize in expensive, often unnecessary services as opposed to a value-based approach.

The findings come on the tide of the so-called “silver tsunami” as the American population skews ever older. The number of Americans aged 65 or older is projected to more than double by 2060, when they will eventually account for 24% of the total population.

New startups have emerged looking to address the institutional inadequacy of end-of-life care, viewing the aging population as a business opportunity. The growing companies zero in on technology-driven solutions in home health, chronic illness and end-of-life care as they look to scale to combat industry issues.

Such startups are a potential wake-up call for traditional healthcare organizations.

“Innovation comes from the private sector,” Teno, a professor of medicine at the University of Washington, told Healthcare Dive.

“I think the implication of this is that hospitals are going to have to change how they’re practicing. They’re going to have to come into new population-based business models that don’t have their entire survival based on their number of admissions,” she said.

On the hospital side, Teno called for multifaceted interventions that address the issue of care overuse and fragmentation in hospitals, such as care bundling and coordination, surveys measuring patient satisfaction and public reporting of readmission rates.

Despite the challenges, Teno was optimistic about study’s implications.

“We’re on the right path,” she said. “We need to wean ourselves off of this fee-for-service world of paying for a procedure and paying for volume, to paying for value.”

“The fee-for-service world provides perverse incentives,” Teno stressed, also noting that it tends to lead to hospital disorganization and miscommunication. 

Teno cited the growth of Medicare Advantage as a program (it accounts for a third of Medicare enrollees and spending), and the 9.3% difference in hospitalization rates between MA and fee-for-service as a good sign for the future of healthcare.


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