Elaine L. Towle
In recent years, Thomas R. Barr and Elaine L. Towle have published what they consider to be one of the largest compilations of oncology practice clinical and financial data available: The National Oncology Practice Benchmark. One of their basic conclusions was that after a long period of revenue growth, practices were seeing tighter margins but also “becoming more mature, more efficient, and more self-aware.”
This spring, Barr and Towle are heading up a new data initiative, with the goal of helping practices to manage more successfully in an era of continuing, rapid change. The project is called PracticeNET, and it is an initiative emerging from ASCO’s Clinical Affairs Department designed to help practices learn from one another’s successes as they move farther away from fee-for-service (FFS) and toward increasingly cost-effective models of care.
Sharing data through PracticeNET will enable physicians to figure out what works best for them in the markets that they serve, says Barr, director of business metrics and analysis for ASCO. PracticeNET will also utilize provider data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) which is issued in great abundance but is difficult for many practices to analyze efficiently.
“It’s as though we’re all on little islands and we are only allowed to communicate by steamship, which takes years for the message to arrive,” Barr says. Both he and Towle, who serves as director of analysis and consulting services for ASCO, have previously served in administrative roles at oncology practices and say they have each experienced the practice siloes that make it difficult to spot solutions. “When we started to understand that we could communicate with folks on other islands, that really opened our eyes to the possibility of collaborative learning,” Barr says.
ASCO is offering PracticeNET participation free for the first year, then $50 each month or $600 per year per physician. The services provided will be exclusive to enrollees, though some material may be distributed more widely, Towle says.
PracticeNET will gather and analyze data and provide guidance for practices that participate, Barr and Towle say. Each month, oncology practices will submit data that they already collect in various electronic forms. Barr and Towle will use that information along with publically available data to distill useful insight into practice management techniques that are most effective. Each practice will receive quarterly performance reports that summarize the findings and include recommendations.
“The operations and business metrics that will be shared and which we hope to be able to promote here will come from all of the individual practices,” Barr says. In addition, there will be networking opportunities and collaborative learning to facilitate continuous practice improvement.
“Oncologists have an urgent need to improve operational efficiencies and the patient experience in the midst of a rapidly changing practice environment,” ASCO President Peter P. Yu, MD, said in a statement. “While health services research provides an evidentiary knowledge base, practitioners need longitudinally benchmarked performance assessments and a venue with which to share best practices with their peers.”
Barr defines “longitudinal benchmarking” as identifying ways in which oncology practices are moving as a group and then striving to help individual practices understand how they can continuously improve. The goal is to keep fine-tuning the guidance so that practices can maintain success under changing conditions, Barr says.
To achieve this mission, PracticeNET is looking for broad participation and aims to have 200 practices enrolled by the end of the first year. “Ideally it will grow bigger than that. The numbers will help drive the value of the information,” Towle says. To improve the relevance and value of the data returned to physicians, PracticeNET will create cohorts of practices according to like characteristics. “We may have a small practice cohort and a large practice cohort,” Towle says. Practices may be grouped according to their participation in CMS’ Oncology Care Model or by their involvement in programs that serve the disadvantaged, such as safety net hospitals. “Those are some of the things we have been thinking about,” Towle says.