Medical Care and Control Theory

sweatshopPiecework maximizes human productivity.  Make more things, get more money.  Garment workers and physicians both have been paid under this system — it’s great if the payment per piece is high but miserable if the price is low.  Because piecework itself is no guarantee of quality inspectors were invented to reject low quality products.  Thus, the little piece of paper in your new shirt pocket “Inspector 23”.

What if you went to a doctor’s office and had to be inspected before the doctor was paid?  You had to have that little piece of paper “Inspector 23” to submit an insurance claim. That’s never going to happen but you get the idea.   The doctor is paid by the number of services but the service should meet a quality standard.

This example is just the tip of the iceberg.  Medicine is discovering process control without much input from the well established engineering field of process control.  It’s sad, and perhaps a little arrogant on the part of medical administrators and law makers, to ignore the extensive work on process control.  People do not like to be considered as little boxes in a system diagram — understandable — but a failure to think in this way is wasting trillions of dollars.  The time for change has arrived.

PieceworkThe black box of medical care is what happens with the doctor-patient interaction.  1) A patient enters the office, operating room or x-ray office then health care happens then 2) the patient leaves.  As it stands now the physician is paid by the number of services performed so the possible process control at points 1 and 2 are wide open.  Nothing is measured, nothing is controlled, and quality is not guaranteed.

Control Theory

Now, consider modern process control with 5 control points, a measurement point and feedback to control the input to the black box of health care.  What is in the black box?  Perhaps just one health care provider.  Or perhaps many health care providers. Instead of a black box it might be a grey box with lots of individual elements.

Parallel SystemPerhaps the box contains whole specialties or perhaps many hospitals within an accountable care organization across many states.

At the highest level of abstraction the feedback loop is intended to minimize cost but at the lowest level the feedback loop is intended to maximize quality.  To make sure throughput is maintained the providers need to be paid by the number of services performed but the flow of patients is choked off if quality is not adequate.

This is rocket science.  But, as Einstein says, a system “should only be as complex as needed”.  Health care is very complicated and at the present the garment industry is not the model the world should be using.  Simplistic ideas of supply and demand are not adequate to make a rocket fly nor to control cost in a health care system.

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