In my last blog I wrote about the Swiss healthcare reform which is proposed by the Swiss Council of ministers and about a controversial measure to introduce budget limits to outpatient healthcare, putting expenditure limits on treatment. The details are explained in my last blog. This measure is almost universally opposed by those affected: by patients, doctors, insurers and industry.
The proposals were presented to parliament in Spring. This blog title photo was published on Twitter by Michel Guillaume correspondent for the Federal parliament for the Swiss newspaper “Le Temps” and shows attendance at the parliamentary session on 31.05.2022. It documents the involvement and engagement, or rather lack of it, of Swiss parliamentarians to discuss one of the most important issues for citizens and society – health reform to create a healthcare system that delivers the best care for all in society. As Michel Guillaume of Le Temps reported, not even ¼ of parliamentarians attended the debate. Against this background of indifference, the law was duly passed on 07.09.2022, the Federal Council adopted the legislative bill to amend the health insurance legislation.
The approved strategy overlooks many other opportunities to save costs and improve the quality of care. In particular it ignores the cost-saving opportunities presented by listening to patients – something that I have written about in this and other blogs. These would be considerable — if the right incentives and structures are made available.
Patients at the centre of healthcare
Reform should put patients at the centre of healthcare and create the conditions for the system to prepare for future challenges and opportunities. Politicians seem to see the Swiss health system as a fiscal burden, which is managed by cost cutting efforts and budget restrictions. In my view an effective and efficient health system is an investment into the workforce as a pre-requisite of a flourishing and equitable economy. I do not dispute that there are enormous cost inefficiencies in the Swiss system. Anyone using the system is frequently confronted by them. The government’s reform efforts seem to have identified the problem to be doctors carrying out medically unjustified treatments and overprescribing to outpatients, who by implication do not really need the treatment and are perhaps just making it up. Is this really the root cause of the problems?
Like most people affected by chronic diseases I go to the doctor relatively often and I take expensive medication. Maybe budget restrictions will result in my doctor limiting my healthcare, and thus reducing the direct costs of my treatment as an outpatient. But chronic illnesses also cause indirect costs, meaning the loss of productivity of patients and their families due to illness. There have been times when I couldn’t walk to the local shop, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t work. In total, I have spent five years of my life collecting unemployment benefit. I now work part-time.
My situation is not exceptional. There are thousands of people who are living this way. If the outpatient services are restricted, which enable people like me to get back to a normal life, indirect health costs and the associated misery and hardship of the affected patients may increase. And these costs are not negligible. As the graph below shows, the indirect costs of musculoskeletal disease are much higher than the direct costs of outpatient treatment. Let’s look at this in more detail.
Health costs are not caused by doctors!
In Switzerland 80% of health costs are due to chronic, or non-communicable diseases (NDCs) – in normal times outside the Covid-19 pandemic. The four largest cost drivers are shown here with direct costs shaded purple and the indirect costs mentioned above and shaded turquoise. The largest disease group are the musculoskeletal disorders. It is apparent that the total indirect costs for the four most costly diseases are higher than their direct costs. These figures were last published in 2011. According to the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), the costs of NDCs in Switzerland increased by a further 28% between 2011 and 2019.
The new measures will restrict outpatient health care, but they do not address the area where the most costs are incurred: namely indirect costs. Instead, the measures will almost certainly reduce the quality of care and restrict patient choice, which may lead to higher indirect costs. Furthermore, they will result in higher administrative costs, because of the paperwork required from medical staff to prove that they are not overspending. This may well lead to undesirable evasive manoeuvres and side effects…. What, for example, will be the effect of these bureaucratic measures and red tape on the motivation of doctors and nursing staff, many of whom are already demoralised by over two strenuous years of the pandemic?
Patients Know Best!
My doctors want the best for me. They have enormous expertise and know a lot about my conditions. But I also know a lot about myself because I live with my illnesses 24/7. Especially with chronic patients with multimorbidity, no clinician can ever acquire this knowledge if she/he sees a patient perhaps 1-2 times a year.
Healthcare has a century-long tradition of patriarchy and not listening to its users. Think about it: in what other industries are consumers not consulted about their needs and wants? I started writing this blog over 5 years ago because it seemed the best way to get my voice as a patient heard. Since then, the Swiss National Science Fund (SNSF) has begun funding some medical research projects, where patients must be involved. The Swiss Clinical Trials Organisation (SCTO) has started creating resources about PPI (patient and public involvement) in clinical medical research. The Swiss Patient Organisation SPO is establishing an advisory Patient Council consisting of patients. Other patient organisations are taking similar initiatives, although these patients are not as yet embedded in decision-making organs. Patient-led organisations are almost unknown in Switzerland. RheumaCura Foundation, which I co-founded last year, is one of the first.
In public health commissions, which advise government, the inclusion of patient representation is becoming more common, although up to now the position is usually delegated to a health professional, rather than a patient with lived-experience. If a politician wanted to talk to me, I would have many questions. Two are raised by this blog:
Why are the indirect costs of healthcare not addressed in health reform?
Why aren’t the chronically ill supported in such a way that they use fewer health services, can work as long as possible, actively participate in society and through their earnings contribute tax revenues to government?
 These are also called non-communicable diseases and are broadly defined as conditions that last 1 year or more and require ongoing medical attention or limit activities of daily living or both. This is opposed to acute medical conditions, which occur suddenly, have immediate or rapidly developing symptoms, and are limited in their duration, e.g. like flu.
 A call to address the indirect costs for chronically sick patients has been made using the example of cancer survivors. Françoise Meunier former president of the European Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer calls for action to end discrimination against cancer survivors at the workplace and financially, which leads to high indirect costs of the disease.
 Wieser (2014) defines direct costs as medical costs that are incurred directly through the expenditure of resources for the treatment of a disease (inpatient costs, outpatient costs, medication costs) and non-medical costs such as adaptation of home facilities, which was not measured in this particular study. See Wieser et al. (2014) Die Kosten der nichtübertragbaren Krankheiten in der Schweiz, Schlussbericht im Auftrag des Bundesamtes für Gesundheit.
 Wieser (2014) writes that productivity losses among patients occur in the form of reduced performance during work (presenteeism), temporary absence from work (absenteeism) or permanent absence (early retirement). In addition, productivity losses can occur due to premature death. For relatives, unpaid care (informal care) causes productivity losses.)
 Patient-led in the sense of the European Medicines Organisation (EMA)