Editor’s note: Doximity Advisory Board member Peter Alperin, MD, is a
board certified internist currently practicing at the San Francisco VA Medical
Center
. He previously led informatics at Brown and Toland Medical Group,
and has also worked at Epocrates.

In 2010, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study conducted
by the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research showing that since 2000, heart
attacks among a group of over 46,000 of its Northern California patients had
declined by 24%. To be sure, some of this could be attributed to possible broad
public health trends in that area, but the researchers also noted that the
decline coincided with improved control of cardiovascular risk factors at
Kaiser.

This alone might not be quite so remarkable, but for the fact that
consistently, Kaiser scores at the top of almost every single quality care
measure it’s in. Just recently, it was one of nine health plans awarded
five stars by Medicare Advantage. Time and again I’ve seen the organization
take a rigorous approach toward analyzing what it’s doing well and what it’s
not doing well in the interest of improving processes of care. In other words,
the NEJM story reflects something of Kaiser’s DNA.

There are many factors at play here but one of the clear incentives is
financial—Kaiser realizes that it makes good financial sense to invest in
prevention and the systems needed to provide preventive care in a
cost-effective manner. Last year, Kaiser reported a combined net income of
$2 billion, and $44.2 billion in operating revenues. With over 8.7 million
health plan members and 167,178 employees, Kaiser is the biggest managed care
organization in the country. Large technological and programmatic investments
make more sense in an integrated system such as this, one that simultaneously
controls insurance, hospitals, and doctors–effectively, all three legs of the
healthcare stool.

Thirty years ago, Kaiser was cynically viewed as a place for doctors who
couldn’t make the cut of private practice. How misguided that view was. I’ve
found it interesting to see how far the pendulum has now swung: Not long ago, I
was asked to talk at a residency event at UCSF. Among the seven of us on
our panel, the vast majority of the questions went to the person from Kaiser.
To me, this spoke volumes of the changing face of medicine. The residents in
our audience (a large number of whom were women) were asking about quality of
life and flexibility of day care.

Much of this has, of course, been enabled by the fact that private practice
simply isn’t as lucrative as it once was. And I would argue that growing pains
notwithstanding, there are notable advantages to this new landscape. Physicians
tend to go to medical school because they like medicine, not because they want
to be business people. One big advantage of an integrated system like Kasier is
that doctors don’t have to think about making payroll, renting office space, or
finding a call service. Furthermore–and this is the secret sauce—working in a
group environment forces collaboration, something at which doctors have perhaps
not historically thrived, but from which ideas and progress can spring.

Is Kaiser perfect? Of course not. It isn’t the most nimble. By dividing itself
into regions, Kaiser works hard at mitigating the inevitable bureaucratic
slowdowns that come with size, but even so, each individual Permanente group
remains much larger than an average medical group. It can take a long time to
implement best practices across an organization of such size and complexity.

I do worry that Kasier is so dominant in some markets that without the promise
of growth or the threat of competition, there’s the risk that progress will
slow, and that the goal becomes more about making the cut than breaking new
ground, be it in patient care or keeping costs affordable. However, Kaiser has
to date consistently performed and it remains, in my opinion, the gold standard
for healthcare delivery in the US. In fact, if we broaden our view to
incorporate other health systems that are on the vanguard of change, like the
Mayo Clinic, Geisinger, or Intermountain Healthcare to name a
few, what is apparent is that a great deal of overall innovation action is
currently in integrated delivery systems, what’s apparent is that a great
deal of innovation action is currently in integrated delivery, suggesting a
real relevance for these systems as healthcare continues to change.

Come November, we’ll revisit this issue–from the opposing perspective.