In the era of payment reform, diabetes educators can lead the way toward value-based care

Our system of fee-for-service reimbursement—of being paid to do things—has created incentives that reward process, not outcomes. This has meant that care for diabetes, while an essential component of any health system, has been looked upon as a “cost center.” Meanwhile, the parts of our system that deal with the complications of diabetes, like a cardiac wing for heart surgery, have been seen as “revenue centers.”

Fortunately, and especially so for diabetes educators and other diabetes professionals, the system is changing. We’re moving from a fee-for-service world to one where value is key, with value being defined as improving health outcomes while reducing costs, or least getting better outcomes for the same cost. That is shift is happening now, and it will fundamentally change the work of diabetes educators.

The Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA), is the biggest change in the way providers are paid in more than 25 years. 3 MACRA fundamentally changes the compensation structure for providers, and it sets in motion the transition from fee-for-service to a fee-for-value system with the Merit-based Incentive Payment System, or MIPS. This starts with a fee-for-service payment, but adds a significant value component or score based on 4 elements: (1) quality, (2) resource utilization, or cost; (3) engagement in practice improvement, and (4) use of electronic health records. Of these elements, quality is the most heavily weighted.

While a MIPS score could initially cause payments to vary by 3% to 4%, eventually a MIPS score could swing payments by 9% to 10%. Thus, although some qualified providers are still learning about MIPS, at some point these shifts will capture everyone’s attention, and the focus on quality will be essential. In fact, 2017 data in many cases has been used to adjust 2019 payments. 3

From a health system perspective, however, diabetes educators are the value people: they teach patients self-management and provide support; they offer both specific information and encouragement in areas that include nutrition, exercise, and stress reduction; and they can identify those patients most at risk of complications or hospitalization and work with them to improve glycemic control.

Improved diabetes care is the foundation of savings seen in accountable care organizations (ACOs), which saved Medicare nearly $1 billion over their first 3 years, according to a 2017 report of the HHS Inspector General. 5 ACOs receive a lump sum to care for a population; if they succeed in improving quality and reducing costs, they are able to keep some of the money Medicare saves. ACOs have improved quality by reducing readmissions, by scheduling primary care hours later in the day to accommodate work schedules, and by thinking not only about the patients who come through the door, but those who haven’t shown up. Population health strategies demand that health systems engage with the community to identify those at high risk of costly events or complications, and take preventive steps, such as more screenings or adding office hours for primary care that more easily accommodate working people.

Elliott Joslin, the founder of Joslin Diabetes Center, became the world’s first diabetologist and the earliest diabetes epidemiologist by keeping registries of all his patients, in which he recorded their natural history and potential complications. He trained the “wandering nurses,” who today are called diabetes educators, to teach patients about the importance of exercise, attention to diet, and, later, proper insulin dosing. 6 From this early example of population management, we see the origins of today’s patient-centered medical home (PCMH) and the team-based approach that has been shown to improve outcomes for people with diabetes. We also see the idea of the “medical neighborhood,” which is essential to a well-functioning ACO. This includes not only the PCMH, but also medical and non-medical partners, including hospitals, home health care, specialists (such as a ophthalmologists), and mental health professionals, as well as community resources like school systems, large employers, or food pantries. 7

Under the shift to value-based care, health systems will be wise to add professionals who can help (1) identify those members of the population who are high-risk and likely to incur high costs, and (2) to intervene with those patients to take preventive steps to avoid major events or disease progression. There are 3 distinct opportunities where diabetes educators can be valuable to health systems as they shift their focus to population health management:

• Care management. If the goal is to reduce costs and improve quality, diabetes educators are well-positioned to be experts in risk stratification and working with high-risk patients, both those who are newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes (T2D) and those who have lived with the disease for some time. Data from the Agency for Health Research and Quality show that 10% of high-risk patients account for two-thirds of the costs—the key is finding that 10%. 10

• Augmenting digital care. For all the excitement about using digital therapeutics to manage diabetes, researchers are finding that early engagement tends to wane over time. A key seems to be finding a way to combine the technology with the human touch to ensure ongoing use. Competition in the diabetes digital technology sector ensures that companies will seek those with expertise in diabetes care and patient engagement.

In many ways, there has never been a time of greater opportunity for diabetes educators. It is important for those who understand how to identify those patients most in need of care—and how to motivate them to stick with a self-management plan—to step forward, both within their health systems and beyond. We can, and should, expect to see greater numbers of diabetes educators engaged in new roles as the transition to payment for value takes hold.