Starting last March, retail giant Walmart now requires that its employees use a select network of 800 diagnostic imaging providers, or face additional out-of-pocket costs, according to an article this week from Kaiser Health News. Lisa Woods, Walmart’s senior director of benefits design, said high error rates in imaging studies were the driver for establishing the program, with the perspective that “a quality MRI or CT scan can improve the accuracy of diagnoses early in the care journey.”
The network was created in partnership with New York-based Covera Health, a technology company that has amassed information on thousands of imaging facilities nationwide, and uses independent radiologists to evaluate a sample of studies to determine facility and radiologist error rates. According to the article, while many employers have steered employees to lower-cost imaging networks, Walmart is the first to do so based on quality of the studies.
Whether this network will be effective in achieving its stated goal—reducing misdiagnoses that lead to unnecessary care and surgery—remains an open question. Poor-quality imaging undoubtedly leads to repeat studies, which carry significant costs. But many other factors (clinical judgement, incentives, patient preferences) contribute to the decision to perform surgery. Defining imaging “quality” beyond the blunt measures of repeat rates, technical adequacy and radiologist sub-specialization is highly complex, and requires correlation with pathology and clinical outcomes data—a high bar for an outsourced analytics provider.
Despite Walmart’s goals, it will be difficult for imaging providers to differentiate their services solely on quality. The high variability in imaging prices is well-documented, and choice of provider is largely made by consumers, for whom imaging is a commodity service.
Without an activist employer or payer to steer them, consumers will likely continue to choose their imaging providers based on their doctor’s recommendation and out-of-pocket costs.
Life sciences and diagnostic equipment maker Aspect Imaging, a division of Singapore-based Aspect International, and design and strategy firm frog, have collaborated to produce a new category of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines.
The Embrace Neonatal MRI System preps and scans newborn babies in under one hour within a hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Unlike most MRIs, the system doesn’t require other medical equipment, cooling systems or a dedicated, shielded MRI facility.
Frog Creative Director James Luther said the design firm employed human-centered design process to perform field-work in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) throughout the United States and Europe. The goal was to understand “the context, roles, work flow and pain points” in NICUs, eliciting the advice of NICU physicians and nurses and replicating a NICU that included incubators and mock silicone newborns.
Cross-national comparisons allow us to track the performance of the U.S. health care system, highlight areas of strength and weakness, and identify factors that may impede or accelerate improvement. This analysis is the latest in a series of Commonwealth Fund cross-national comparisons that use health data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as well as from other sources, to assess U.S. health care system spending, supply, utilization, and prices relative to other countries, as well as a limited set of health outcomes.1,2 Thirteen high-income countries are included: Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. On measures where data are widely available, the value for the median OECD country is also shown. Almost all data are for years prior to the major insurance provisions of the Affordable Care Act; most are for 2013.
Health care spending in the U.S. far exceeds that of other high-income countries, though spending growth has slowed in the U.S. and in most other countries in recent years.3 Even though the U.S. is the only country without a publicly financed universal health system, it still spends more public dollars on health care than all but two of the other countries. Americans have relatively few hospital admissions and physician visits, but are greater users of expensive technologies like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines. Available cross-national pricing data suggest that prices for health care are notably higher in the U.S., potentially explaining a large part of the higher health spending. In contrast, the U.S. devotes a relatively small share of its economy to social services, such as housing assistance, employment programs, disability benefits, and food security.4 Finally, despite its heavy investment in health care, the U.S. sees poorer results on several key health outcome measures such as life expectancy and the prevalence of chronic conditions. Mortality rates from cancer are low and have fallen more quickly in the U.S. than in other countries, but the reverse is true for mortality from ischemic heart disease.