ACO-Affiliated Hospitals May Be Ahead On Strategic Health IT Use

Over the past several years I’ve been struck by how seldom ACOs seem to achieve the objectives they’re built to meet – particularly cost savings and quality improvement goals – even when the organizations involved are pretty sophisticated.

For example, the results generated the Medicare Shared Savings Program and  Pioneer ACO Model have been inconsistent at best, with just 31% of participants getting a savings bonus for 2015, despite the fact that the “Pioneers” were chosen for their savvy and willingness to take on risk.

Some observers suggested this would change as hospitals and ACOs found better health IT solutions, but I’ve always been somewhat skeptical about this. I’m not a fan of the results we got when capitation was the rage, and to me current models have always looked like tarted-up capitation, the fundamental flaws of which can’t be fixed by technology.

All that being said, a new journal article suggests that I may be wrong about the hopelessness of trying to engineer a workable value-based solution with health IT. The study, which was published in the American Journal of Managed Care, has concluded that if nothing else, ACO incentives are pushing hospitals to make more strategic HIT investments than they may have before.

To conduct the study, which compared health IT adoption in hospitals participating in ACOs with hospitals that weren’t ACO-affiliated, the authors gathered data from 2013 and 2014 surveys by the American Hospital Association. They focused on hospitals’ adherence to Stage 1 and Stage 2 Meaningful Use criteria, patient engagement-oriented health IT use and HIE participation.

When they compared 393 ACO hospitals and 810 non-ACO hospitals, the researchers found that a larger percentage of ACO hospitals were capable of meeting MU Stage 1 and Stage 2. They also noted that nearly 40% of ACO hospitals had patient engagement tech in place, as compared with 15.2% of non-ACO hospitals. Meanwhile, 49% of ACO hospitals were involved with HIEs, compared with 30.1% of non-ACO hospitals.

Bottom line, the authors concluded that ACO-based incentives are proving to be more effective than Meaningful Use at getting hospitals adopt new and arguably more effective technologies. Fancy that! (Finding and implementing those solutions is still a huge challenge for ACOs, but that’s a story for another day.)

Of course, the authors seem to take it as a given that patient engagement tech and HIEs are strategic for more or less any hospital, an assumption they don’t do much to justify. Also, they don’t address how hospitals in and out of ACOs are pursuing population health or big data strategies, which seems like a big omission. This weakens their argument somewhat in my view. But the data is worth a look nonetheless.

I’m quite happy to see some evidence that ACO models can push hospitals to make good health IT investment decisions. After all, it’d be a bummer if hospitals had spent all of that time and money building them out for nothing.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.