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Evidence for the Effect of Disease Management: Is $1 Billion a Year a Good Investment?

Published Online: December 01, 2007
Soeren Mattke, MD, DSc; Michael Seid, PhD; and Sai Ma, PhD

Objective: To assess the evidence for the effect of disease management on quality of care, disease control, and cost, with a focus on populationbased programs.

Study Design: Literature review.

Methods: We conducted a literature search for and a structured review of studies on populationbased disease management programs, as well as for reviews and meta-analyses of disease management interventions. We identified 3 evaluations of large-scale population-based programs, as well as 10 meta-analyses and 16 systematic reviews, covering 317 unique studies.

Results:We found consistent evidence that disease management improves processes of care and disease control but no conclusive support for its effect on health outcomes. Overall, disease management does not seem to affect utilization except for a reduction in hospitalization rates among patients with congestive heart failure and an increase in outpatient care and prescription drug use among patients with depression. When the costs of the intervention were appropriately accounted for and subtracted from any savings, there was no conclusive evidence that disease management leads to a net reduction of direct medical costs.

Conclusions: Although disease management seems to improve quality of care, its effect on cost is uncertain. Most of the evidence to date addresses small-scale programs targeting highrisk individuals, while only 3 studies evaluate large population-based interventions, implying that little is known about their effect. Payers and policy makers should remain skeptical about vendor claims and should demand supporting evidence based on transparent and scientifically sound methods.

(Am J Manag Care. 2007;13:670-676)

In the face of double-digit healthcare inflation, evidence of systemwide poor healthcare quality, and an aging population, disease management seems an intuitively appealing way to improve the quality and reduce the cost of care, as well as to enhance health outcomes for the chronically ill. In broad terms, disease management refers to a system of coordinated healthcare interventions and communications to help patients address chronic disease and other health conditions. Commercial health plans and large employers are embracing this strategy, with 96% of the top 150 US payers offering some form of disease management service1 and with 83% of more than 500 major US employers using programs to help individuals manage their health conditions.2 Public purchasers of healthcare services are testing the waters: The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services3 has launched a large Medicare demonstration to evaluate disease management, and several states are offering disease management programs under Medicaid.

In addition, prominent politicians have voiced their optimism about the effect of disease management. On February 27, 2006, former US Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, MD (R-Tenn), in a speech to the Detroit Economic Club, called for slowing the growth in federal Medicare expenditures. He cited chronic disease management as an effective means of controlling costs, estimating that “diabetic disease management in Medicare could conservatively save as much as $30 billion a year.”4 Because his enthusiasm is shared widely, the disease management industry has grown rapidly, with estimated annual revenues increasing from about $78 million in 1997 to almost $1.2 billion in 2005 and projected to top $1.8 billion by 2008 (DM Purchasing Consortium, cited by Matheson et al1).

However, disease management has not been universally embraced. The Congressional Budget Office5 recently concluded that there is insufficient evidence that disease management reduces healthcare spending. A recent essay in the Times Argus called the economic value of disease management a “fantasy,”6 sparking a response from the executive director of the Disease Management Association of America that such a statement contradicts the  peer-reviewed literature.7

In light of the ongoing debate on disease management, we conducted a critical review of the empirical evidence regarding the effect of different types of disease management interventions on quality, cost, and health outcomes for various chronic conditions. Although several reviews and metaanalyses of disease management have been conducted in recent years, they typically focused on particular diseases or end points. To bring some clarity to the debate on the effect of disease management, we set out to integrate the available body of knowledge and to make it accessible to decision makers by examining various types of disease management interventions for different conditions and the evidence available for its effects on a variety of end points. Before discussing the details of our study, we need first to say more about the meaning of the term disease management.

Part of the controversy surrounding the effect of disease management stems from the fact that a variety of programs and interventions can be labeled disease management. Not all types of disease management programs are receiving the same level of policy interest, nor are all types equally well researched. In addition, evaluations commonly have design flaws, limiting the validity of their conclusions.8

The Disease Management Association of America states that disease management is “a system of coordinated health care interventions and communications for populations with conditions in which patient self-care efforts are significant.”9 The organization notes that a disease management intervention (1) supports the physician or practitioner/patient relationship and plan of care, (2) emphasizes prevention of exacerbations and complications utilizing evidence-based practice guidelines and patient empowerment strategies, and (3) evaluates clinical, humanistic, and economic outcomes on an ongoing basis with the goal of improving overall health.”9

Although the Disease Management Association of America definition provides a broad characterization of disease management programs, we need to refine this definition to review and categorize different types of disease management programs. We propose characterizing disease management programs along the following 2 dimensions: severity of illness among the target population and intensity of the intervention. The first dimension acknowledges that, although disease management programs have traditionally focused on more severely ill patients with common chronic conditions such as diabetes mellitus (DM) and congestive heart failure (CHF), more recently the scope of disease management has expanded to include programs aimed at all patients with a condition regardless of severity (commonly referred to as population- based disease management) and at patients with rare and costly conditions (eg, hemophilia and autoimmune disorders). In addition, health risk appraisal and management for patients at risk for chronic conditions and lifestyle modification or wellness programs for healthy individuals are increasingly being marketed as a supplement to disease management or as stand-alone offerings. The second dimension, intensity of the intervention, refers to the fact that disease management programs can vary widely from low-intensity interventions (which emphasize mass communication technologies such as mailings and prerecorded telephone messages) to moderateintensity interventions (which include more direct individual contact such as telephone calls from call centers) to high-intensity intensive case management (which would include face-to-face encounters between patients and disease managers).

Figure 1 shows how we can use these 2 dimensions to characterize the severity of illness in the target population in relation to the intensity of the disease management intervention. Most programs tend to lie on a diagonal through the grid, so that high-intensity programs are associated with high-risk patients and low-intensity programs with healthy participants or low-risk patients. Population-based programs that target the entire population with a disease tend to segment within that population and to use a mix of low-, medium-, and high-intensity interventions.



A third defining characteristic of disease management programs concerns the condition being addressed because the clinical course and baseline utilization patterns differ substantially across chronic conditions, creating a different set of challenges and opportunities for the intervention. For example, potentially avoidable high-cost events such as hospital admissions are common in patients with CHF, so a disease management program for this condition might seek to reduce the number of unnecessary high-cost treatments. On the other hand, patients with depression are commonly undertreated, so a disease management program might seek to increase levels of treatment. Therefore, although disease management will always strive to improve care and patient outcomes, whether it can save money by doing so may depend on the targeted disease. Finally, disease management programs vary by other important attributes such as the integration and involvement of the patient's primary care physician10 and the presence of financial incentives.

Population-based disease management programs that identify and target all patients with a given condition irrespective of severity are receiving the most interest from public and private purchasers.11 Most notably, the Medicare Health Support Demonstration is a randomized trial to evaluate the effect of commercial disease management programs on fee-for-service beneficiaries with chronic conditions. It should also be mentioned that the Medicare program has a long tradition of experimenting with case management approaches that target high-risk, high-cost beneficiaries. Most recently, the High Cost Beneficiary Demonstration, which tests a variety of case management models, was launched. Given that most of the interest of public and private purchasers focuses on large population-based programs that are typically offered by third-party vendors or by health plans, our review pays particular attention to the evidence for population-based programs.

METHODS

PDF is available on the last page.

Issue: December 2007
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