Could house calls make a comeback? It’s already happening. The University of California at San Francisco, for one success-story example, started the UCSF-Mt. Zion Housecalls Program in 1999 with a philanthropic gift. Its original goal was to teach medical students about home care, but with the exploding need for primary care for homebound elders it has evolved into filling that need throughout San Francisco — while still teaching the new generation about house calls.
In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, staff writer Victoria Colliver details some of the many advantages that such programs have.
June Hagosian’s brain tumor has made it difficult for the 77-year-old San Francisco woman to leave her house in recent years, keeping her mostly confined to her bed.
For someone like Hagosian whose medical needs require frequent doctor visits, that would usually pose a problem. But because of a program run by UCSF, the doctor comes to her. She has had to leave her bright yellow home in the Richmond District to go to the hospital just three times in the past seven years.
“This program has been so wonderful,” Hagosian said during a recent home visit with her physician, Rebecca Conant, director of UCSF’s Housecalls Program. “I wish everyone could have it.”
Conant, who had just 15 patients when she took over the program in 2001, is one of five part-time UCSF physicians who spend all their clinical time outside the office, traveling from home to home visiting frail and elderly patients. Housecalls currently serves nearly 100 San Francisco residents and has an eight-month waiting list.The Housecalls physicians visit patients whose conditions make it so hard for them to go to the doctor’s office that they might otherwise put off seeking medical care. By then, they would be so sick they would need an ambulance and end up in a hospital emergency room. The program takes patients regardless of whether they have insurance or an ability to pay, which separates it from private practices that offer home visits as a convenience but at an added cost.
UCSF’s 10-year-old Housecalls Program is an old idea that has gained new traction. Both the House and Senate versions of the health reform bills contain proposals to examine whether home-based care improves the health of chronically ill patients and saves the government money by reducing hospitalizations and ER visits.”There’s no question there is both a medical need and substantial cost savings to the Medicare program,” said Constance Row, executive director of the American Academy of Home Care Physicians.
The Department of Veterans Affairs’ Home-Based Primary Care program, which has been operating for more than two decades, has showed a 24 percent reduction in costs for those patients, and some studies suggest savings as high as 40 percent, Row said.
UCSF’s Housecalls Programs operates on an annual budget of $300,000, almost all of which is devoted to physician salaries. That’s an average cost of $3,000 per patient, which does not include the cost of hospital care when needed. Medicare spends a national average of $46,412 per patient over the last two years of life, when patients typically have several chronic illnesses, according to researchers from the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice.
But new technology – the ability to X-ray patients using portable machines, conduct blood tests and provide other services using mobile devices – allows doctors to offer a much higher level of care in the comfort of the patient’s home.
Conant, an associate clinical professor at UCSF, said she uses mobile devices to aid in her patient care, but she finds home visits offer other advantages like allowing her to see patients’ physical environments, meet their caregivers and better understand what kind of care they need.
“Not only does that improve medical care, but it’s based in reality,” she said.
The UCSF program is not the only home-based primary care program in the Bay Area. Kaiser Permanente, for example, serves some 370 members in San Francisco as part of its 13-year-old Community Care Program, which is handled by physicians, nurse practitioners and social workers.
Reinstituting and reinforcing in-home care, considering the significantly improved care for patients and the reduced cost to the taxpayer, would seem a no-brainer. But brains are losing out to politics a lot these days.