The top health care stories of 2015—and why they mattered

The health care industry made national headlines many times throughout 2015, from King v. Burwell and the infamous Martin Shkreli to the presidential election. But some of the most important stories this year—the most buzzed about within the industry—came below-the-fold.

In our annual review, the Daily Briefing team identifies the industry's 10 most important stories this year. And as usual, we're counting down to what we think was the top story of the year.

Think we missed a big story? Tell us what you think was important in 2015 in the comments section below or on Twitter.

10. More players join the ratings and data transparency game

There's a long list of organizations that have rated hospitals for years: the Joint Commission, the Leapfrog Group, and U.S. News & World Report, to name a few. But 2015 was noteworthy not just for who else started to publish hospital data, but how visible those data now are.

Arguably the most visible information is now on Yelp, which in August partnered with ProPublica to add data (such as ED wait times and patient-reported information on physician communication) to its pages for thousands of hospitals, nursing homes, and dialysis clinics. Meanwhile, CMS in April started posting hospital star ratings online.

2015 was also the year that doctor-specific data went mainstream. ProPublica in July released a much-debated scorecard of risk-adjusted complication rates for almost 17,000 individual surgeons, CMS in December posted quality data on individual physicians for the first time, and more and more hospitals began publishing data on their own doctors, too.

The hospitals taking that step, says the Advisory Board's Alicia Daugherty, will as early adopters "likely get the most 'credit' in the market for improving transparency and building trust" since "this data sharing will quickly become a standard must-have."

- Josh Zeitlin

Read more in the Daily Briefing archives:

July 14: ProPublica publishes complication rates for 17,000 individual surgeons

Aug. 5: Why your hospital's Medicare data just went live on Yelp

Aug. 13: Daugherty and Suchy: When more (and different) organizations start rating your hospital, what's a hospital leader to do?

9. Different communities, different health care landscapes

While health trends and the effects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—from diabetes trends to premium increases—are often talked about in national terms, the reality is far more textured.

For instance, health reform has felt far different in states that have expanded Medicaid through the ACA versus those that did not. This year, Alaska, Indiana, and Montana joined the ranks of the states that have expanded coverage. But in the 20 states that have not followed suit, more individuals tend to be uninsured, and hospitals often face more financial pressures from bad debt and uncompensated care.

The differences are not only between states but within states, too. Many rural hospitals are feeling the squeeze. According to the National Rural Health Association, more than 280 of them are at risk of closing, in part because of declining federal reimbursements, struggles adjusting to changing payment models, and states' decisions not to expand Medicaid. But others are finding ways to thrive.

Community hospitals can survive—if they have the right partners

There's also a lot of experimentation going on at the community level: the Daily Briefing recently covered Trinity Health's $80 million population health bet on six communities and how Oklahoma City's residents lost one million pounds.

- Aly Seidel

Read more in the Daily Briefing archives:

May 4: In rural America, some hospitals find ways to thrive

Oct. 12: Its hospital gone, one town asks what's next

Nov. 9: One in nine jobs are now in health care. But is that a good thing?

8. Superbugs make the front page

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria—so-called superbugs—made headlines several times this year, as outbreaks at hospitals sparked a conversation about the issue and related concerns about antibiotic stewardship.

Superbugs got the most attention in the United States when officials announced that hundreds of patients at UCLA's Ronald Reagan Medical Center and other facilities were exposed to carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae through difficult-to-clean duodenoscopes.

But as superbugs infected more Americans, the federal government also took further steps to combat them. The Obama administration in March released the first-ever White House plan aimed at slowing antibiotic resistance, which will require hospitals to adopt certain infection-control procedures. And in August, CDC released a report on how U.S. hospitals and nursing homes could cut 125,000 superbug infections per year.

- Sam Bernstein

Read more in the Daily Briefing archives:

June 29: Superbugs infect two million Americans year—and they're rising

July 30: Consumer Reports: These are the nation's best hospitals at preventing infections

Dec. 7: Researchers: How 'pain scores' cause more suffering

7. Big-tech went big on health care

Several large technology companies made moves in 2015 to expand their footprint in health care:

  • Google reorganized to become the holding company Alphabet—spinning off its health-care related efforts into several separate companies;
  • Apple launched Apple Watch and touted the wearable's implications for health care and medical research; and
  • IBM and other firms sought to capitalize on the growing importance of data in health care research and treatment.

Research institutions are already using IBM's Watson computer system to improve evidence-based cancer care, and the company launched a dedicated Watson Health unit to explore other opportunities for the technology.

Meanwhile, the high-profile health startup Theranos ran into trouble when critics said its blood-testing technology wasn't the game changer that the company claimed. At the same time, research suggests investor interest in health technology remains strong, even if some of the most disruptive innovations haven't had the effect yet that some had hoped.

- Sam Bernstein

Read more in the Daily Briefing archives:

Aug. 11: Google just became 'Alphabet.' Here's why that spells big news for health care.

Oct. 23: How Apple's latest projects—and hospital partners—could change research

Dec. 8: What everyone's missing about Mark Zuckerberg's plan to 'cure' disease

6. Much ado about ICD-10

After years of training and preparation—and 25 years after the World Health Organization first endorsed ICD-10—providers began 2015 wondering if this would finally be the year the United States transitioned to the new and massive set of medical codes, or if there would be yet another delay.

And indeed, in April lawmakers said they were discussing delaying a transition to ICD-10 for what would have been a fourth time, in part because of providers' concerns about the financial consequences of using the new ICD-10 codes improperly.

But there was no further delay. The Oct. 1 start date came and went, and the shift away from the ICD-9 code set—which had been in use since the 1980s—was relatively painless for most. The new ICD-10 code set, says the Advisory Board's Ed Hock, will allow providers to better capture what's occurring at a care site and give administrators and CMS more insight into what's happening with patients.

- Aly Seidel

Read more in the Daily Briefing archives:

Feb. 27: Is health care ready for ICD-10? Results from CMS's end-to-end testing

July 7: How the ICD-10 news is good—and bad—for providers

October 2: Goodie bags and war rooms: Inside hospitals' day one of ICD-10

Read on to see the top five stories of 2015


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