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Culling our collective wisdom to improve Alaska health care

  • Author: Dr. Anne Zink
    | Opinion
  • Updated: March 19, 2019
  • Published March 19, 2019


Our health (and, therefore, our health care) is an intensely personal and individual experience. But as the adoption of health care technology grows, so does the cost and complexity of transforming health care into systems of care – at the expense of the more personalized traditional physician-patient relationship. And with this change, doctors and patients alike are becoming increasingly distrustful, resentful and desperate for change. We’re saddened and struggling to reconnect while the cost of health care is like a lead weight on our economy.

But what do we do? How do we create change and get back to what we value?

I believe we can still find hope and bring back personalized medicine by coming together and tapping into the wisdom of our collective experience for the purposes of sharing insights and collaborating more effectively.

I look at our experience in the Mat-Su Regional Hospital around opioid addiction as a source of hope of how partnerships can lead us together. As physicians, we reviewed the evidence, worked with others around the state and created opioid guidelines, held meetings during which we discussed ways to relieve suffering without causing more harm by starting or continuing an addiction. These tactics contributed to a nearly 80 percent reduction in opioids out of the emergency department over the past three years. At the same time, those suffering and recovering from addiction created the opioid task forces, generating outpatient solutions for treatment and addiction and partnering with health care providers. Business that rallied around community organizations like MyHouse and Mat-Su Regional Hospital sought expansion to treat mental health and addiction needs. The Mat-Su Health Foundation helped save the state’s Medicaid program millions of dollars, by recreating the relationships in health care for the highest users via the High Utilizer Mat-Su (HUMS) project. This resulted in meaningful treatment, not wasteful spending.

We are still a long way from a perfect answer, but it’s good to be on a road to progress. What I’ve learned from this example of collective wisdom is a few important truths:

Most health care is made of good people doing their best in a broken system. We need to seek solutions, not blame each other. Efforts like the Alaska Health Transformation Project prove we’re better off together than when we’re working in silos or separately from one another.

We need to utilize better communication tools. Health care providers don’t have time to fish for patient vitals or medication records. Having information easily available at the point of care enables them to make the best decisions for each patient. Case in point: Most Alaska hospitals are linked into a real-time care collaboration network, which pushes data to the point of care. By using this kind of technology, we open the door for better information sharing.

Relationships matter. For patients with complex medical needs, health care relationships may come in the form of care coordination groups or peer support, which are low-cost, high-yield ways to navigate complex systems and must be encouraged to grow. For all patients and physicians, we must do what we can to simplify the soul-crushing world of complex regulation, pre-authorization and other mandated tasks that have destroyed the patient-physician relationship.

We have to invest in our health. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The first wealth is health.” This investment comes in the form of eating healthy food, exercising and doing what we can to prevent disease. It also comes from dollars and cents carefully spent on evidence-based treatments aligned with our personal values.

We have challenges, but we have hope. Alaska has the ability to look at what has worked and jump to a newer and brighter future.

Dr. Anne Zink, M.D., is the medical director for emergency medicine at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center in Palmer, Alaska, the immediate past president of the Alaska chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians and an unpaid member of the clinical advisory board for Collective Medical.

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