Kathleen Healey, APRN, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Neurological Sciences at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, NE, and a nurse practitioner in the Multiple Sclerosis Program at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. She has worked in the MS area since 1998. Dr. Healey has presented numerous programs on MS to patient and provider groups locally and regionally, has presented her research nationally, and is a consultant for Can-do MS. She has developed and led initiatives to improve care access and delivery of care to individuals with MS and significant disability since 2013.
Dr. Healey discloses that she has received grant funding through the MS Foundation.
What barriers to coordinated comprehensive care do patients with progressive multiple sclerosis (MS) face under current health care delivery models?
KATHLEEN HEALEY, PhD: In spite of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, evidence suggests that disparities in health services for people with disabilities remain. These individuals receive health care less often, receive poorer quality care, have unmet health care needs, lack basic screening for health care maintenance, and are offered fewer treatment options, compared to people without disability.
Health care delivery for individuals with disabling progressive forms of MS presents some unique challenges. This disorder is chronic, medically complex, generally progressive, and heterogenous in its effects on the central nervous system (unlike relatively fixed spinal cord and brain injury), producing varying degrees of immobility and loss of function. As the disease progresses, a significant proportion of patients need assistive devices, including power mobility, urinary catheters, gastric tubes, hospital beds, home modifications, sleep and respiratory aides, and other devices. Family members are also likely to suffer from caregiver burden.
In the early stages of MS, individuals may be successful in careers and raising families, but with advancing disability, the majority will incur severe financial and social consequences. Many will become unemployed and face financial hardship, and, furthermore, many lack social support and appropriate transportation and become socially isolated.
One of the bigger challenges in accessing care is transportation, especially for those in wheelchairs and power mobility. Ironically, beyond that, many of the obstacles to comprehensive care are deeply embedded in the traditional health care system itself. The traditional medical model and clinic structure was not designed to serve individuals with complex disability.
Studies have identified specific obstacles to care individuals with MS and disability encounter before, during, and after clinic appointments.1 For an individual with complex disability, something as simple as trying to contact a clinic can be difficult. Clinicians typically don't think about the time MS patients with disability must spend preparing for a visit. Individuals I work with tell me it takes about 5 hours for them to get ready and to schedule transportation. When they arrive, often there are too few handicapped parking spaces, and equipment adapted for persons with disability, like appropriate exam tables and even wheelchair scales, may not be available. In traditional check-ins to clinic, no additional time is allotted for those with disability. So, check-in generally is rushed and not complete.
The traditional medical fee-for-service volume model is based on time. Clinics typically allot perhaps 20 to at the most 40 minutes for a return visit. When a person gets into the room with a provider, it’s for an abbreviated period of time. And I've had patients tell me that such visits are not really beneficial.
Follow-up instructions and following through with additional referrals are problematic as well. Clinic visits can be very hurried: “Here's your discharge instructions,” or “Here's your after-visit summary.” Because of the heterogenic complexity of disability in MS, education and follow-up require an extremely individualized approach and instructions to accommodate specific disability. Although we have translation services for non-English speaking patients and large fonts for those with visual impairment, integrating follow-up for a person who has profound ataxia, or is blind, and or has some cognitive dysfunction and is in a power wheelchair is challenging. Also, ordering and accessing durable medical equipment needed to preserve independence in the community is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, especially in many managed Medicare and dual-eligible programs.
What is the Multiple Sclerosis at Home Access (MAHA) program and what are its goals?
Kathleen Healey, PhD: The MS Clinic at the University of Nebraska is part of an urban academic medical center in Omaha and serves more than 2500 people with MS. The MAHA program was designed specifically for individuals with progressive MS and significant disability. The individuals we serve are often in wheelchairs, and if ambulatory, able to walk only a few steps (patients with Expanded Disability Scale (Kurtzke) scores of 7.5 or greater). At this time, over 100 individuals are enrolled in our MAHA programs.
The majority of the individuals we serve are low income—at least half are dually eligible beneficiaries under Medicare/Medicaid. A substantial number of those we serve are eligible for Medicaid waiver, with incomes at or below the poverty level. Most of these individuals are still fiercely residing in the community, with assistance, and wish to remain so.
Our objectives are to coordinate and deliver comprehensive medical care, improve patient satisfaction, and prevent or treat common complications related to immobility, with an expected decrease in preventable/avoidable health care utilization. Our long-term goals are to improve quality-of-life, promote wellness, increase independence, and promote community reintegration.
The MAHA initiative derives its name from its city of origin, Omaha, Nebraska. This region was first settled by the Maha Native American tribe, and maha means “against the wind, against the current.” This word and meaning seemed to capture the struggles of patients with MS and their families trying to access comprehensive quality care.
MAHA focuses on the identified common problems, especially access to care and fragmentation in care. Our programs attempt to bridge primary and MS specialty care. Central to the model is productive interactions at each encounter. So, it’s not just checking off boxes, it is integration of an agreed upon plan of care, and that takes time and expertise to develop.
Initially, the program focused on house calls (established in 2013) and has now expanded to a transdisciplinary clinic and extensive use of telehealth across Nebraska, including for many in rural areas and in long-term nursing facilities. Our care delivery model is drastically different from a traditional medical model and includes the following components:
More time: New-patient encounters are templated for 1 to 2 hours, house calls up to 3 hours, and established follow-up “return” visits are at least 1 hour and may exceed 2 to 3 hours.
Continuity and competency in care: Limited core team members have frequent contact with patients. Initially, with house calls we had numerous providers going to the home, including physical therapy (PT), occupational therapy (OT), and, in some cases, speech therapy. Patients and family reported frustration with layers of numerous providers, frequent phone calls, and scheduling them to come into their home. Patients wanted to be able to count on a certain trusted few, familiar with their issues. If another discipline is needed, then the patient and core team make that decision and call that person in.
Designated team leader: The MAHA team is led by a ”MS-comprehensivist,” defined as a practitioner with expertise in MS care as well as a background in chronic illness and primary care. This practitioner bridges the specialist-generalist elements in care and serves as an expert care manager or integrator to coordinate and communicate care among providers.
Enhanced communication and follow-up: The patient and designated support person (family or primary paid caregiver) always know the plan of care and are on the same page. This includes a weekly care conference with the core team community nurse, PT, neurology comprehensivists, and nurse coordinator.
In addition, the MAHA program continually monitors outcomes, with immediate investigation regarding preventable complications; incorporates protocols and guidelines, generally from paralyzed veterans or other spinal cord organizations as well as the National MS Society; and commonly calls upon subspecialty physicians (Best Friends)
Finally, the program incorporates lessons learned from individuals with lived experience. Individuals with MS and severe disability are unique, talented, tenacious, and often fiercely independent. The challenges for these individuals and their families were initially underestimated by our team; the lessons learned from these experts allowed us to tailor our program to become better.
Over the course of 7 years, core team members reported increased knowledge and keen awareness of needs and issues of patients with severe disability, suggesting that a transdisciplinary team with multifaceted expertise was evolving. Transdisciplinary, to us, means relating to more than 1 branch of knowledge; examples included our community physical therapist gaining knowledge of necessary steps to obtain grants for direct assistance for equipment needed to prevent falls/injury, and becoming knowledgeable about MS and all of its complexity. Our care coordinator is a medical assistant who became an expert regarding transportation issues in community, and has gained advanced knowledge of MS and disability and integrated social services needs and connections to obtain needed resources. As a nurse practitioner and comprehensivist, over time I gained knowledge of PT and OT disciplines, and learned more about evaluation of the need for durable medical equipment, the importance of the whole person and environment, and acquisition of equipment, with frequent appeals and justification.
All of our persistent team members also unexpectedly became experts in community advocacy for persons with disability, attending city transportation meetings, conferencing with Department of Health and Human Services, and developing public awareness material.
What are the outcomes of the MAHA program in terms of patient response, quality indicators, and financial sustainability?
Kathleen Healey, PhD: We tailored the program to impact the frequency of secondary complications, which are generally preventable, such as urinary and respiratory infection, sepsis, skin pressure and other injury, falls, and fractures. These complications cause suffering and may worsen MS baseline symptoms, especially with severe infections. We know that individuals with significant disability who are hospitalized are at risk for a host of other complications. A recent study published in Neurology showed that 11% of all patients with a neurologic diagnosis admitted to hospitals developed hospital-acquired adverse events or complications.2
In our initial house call program, half of the hospital admissions were related to secondary and generally preventable complications, both during the 2-year preevaluation and postevaluation period. After program implementation, we saw decreases in the number of individuals hospitalized, hospitalizations/skilled facility admissions, and hospital days; the total number of emergency department (ED) visits decreased; and ED-only visits increased (ie, ED visits without hospital admission).3
Patient satisfaction reports and quality indicators were positive. We also measured perceived benefit by asking patients to write their thoughts on the benefits of the program, and we received really robust responses:
“This is the first time somebody actually sat down and listened to me, talked to me.”
“The program was very helpful for me.”
“It was a Godsend. They helped us so much.”
“It helps tremendously, I don’t have to worry so much, I’ve recommended it to others.”
“They get it done; it’s amazing, I have the equipment I need now to be more independent.”
So, you asked about sustainability. Programs like this are difficult to justify in traditional hospital/clinic accounting structures. Initiatives like MAHA may be more sustainable in a value-based structure, but this remains to be seen. Cost avoidance, especially in preventable complications, is likely the best financial indicator at this time.
We have been able to sustain our programs only with the help of grant money through the MS Foundation and through a community donor, to whom we are forever grateful. In addition, our division chair, Dr. Rana Zabad, has been supportive of this innovative initiative because she knows how essential it is for comprehensive care of all individuals with MS.
Importantly, we continue to track our clinical outcome data and have robust longitudinal data, giving us more information about the trajectory of the patients in our program.
Beyond in-home care, what opportunities exist to improve comprehensive care of MS patients via telehealth?
Kathleen Healey, PhD: We have been doing telehealth since 2013, well before the pandemic, but we were receiving variable to no reimbursement. Prior to the pandemic, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services did not reimburse for telehealth unless it was done at a critical access hospital, generally in rural parts of our state.
Since the pandemic and the release of telehealth waivers, we have been able to increase our telemedicine visits to individuals and be appropriately reimbursed. However, about 30% of our patients have limitations regarding telehealth with video due to specific disability, cost, or lack of reliable broadband. Telephone encounters are important if an individual can’t do a telehealth visit, but reimbursement is lower. In my opinion, lack of IT capability may add another dimension to health care disparity.
The benefit of telemedicine, in my opinion, is close to a home visit, because the patient or their caregiver can take their device and show us their environment, show us where the problem areas are. Like when you do a home visit, you get this incredible mosaic of different assessments and develop a deep understanding of the day-to-day challenges facing persons with disability.
Our team agrees that user-friendly adapted devices and reliable broadband are needed, especially for those who are disabled, lack or have inadequate transportation, are low income, or live in rural or underserved urban areas. For these individuals, this is “infrastructure” as important as highways or roads.
Has the coronavirus pandemic presented challenges to delivering in-home care? If so, how have you managed these challenges?
Kathleen Healey, PhD: During the pandemic, we have not been making as many house calls. However, we’ve been able to work around this because all of our home-care patients qualify for skilled home health care. So, with approval of the patient, and with the home health nurse (who is a core team member), we are able coordinate televisits and involve more members of the team, if needed, from remote locations. Importantly, if a family member is working or distant, we can bring them in also, which literally does get everyone on the same page. It must be noted that this takes a significant amount of time to coordinate, but, in our opinion, results in a very productive interaction.
As far as COVID testing, for a 2-month period of time we were unable to test a homebound patient. Some of our patients cannot leave their home—they are disabled in place, and the only way that they can leave their home is generally with an ambulance. Others rely on paratransit systems, which were not operating during the shutdown. Since then, we have worked with a nursing agency to have a nurse visit the homes of our patients with MS to conduct COVID testing.
The pandemic has uncovered significant disparities in health care that persons with disability face. About 15% of those we serve reside in nursing homes, and a substantial proportion of residents with MS and disability have tested positive for COVID-19.
The community-dwelling individuals we serve are younger (in the initial house call program, approximately 50% were between 35 and 54 years of age). To remain independent in the community, individuals require care assistance from family or paid caregivers. At this point, very few have tested positive for COVID-19, but with increased community prevalence, we are expecting that could change. Most of the people we serve are well educated on mitigation and taking extra precautions. Regardless, we field daily calls, many times from family caregivers with questions such as, “What if I get COVID, how will my loved one receive care.”
Paid caregivers assisting persons with disability are key to improving quality of life and health outcomes of people with disability. Unfortunately, these essential workers are poorly paid, generally have no benefits, including health care, and likely are more at risk for COVID-19. However, at this point, persons with MS and disability residing in the community clearly have fared better than those in nursing facilities.
1. Chiu C, Bishop M, Pionke JJ, et al. Barriers in the accessibility and continuity of health-care services in people with multiple sclerosis: a literature review. Int J MS Care. 2017;19:313-321.
2.Sauro KM, Quan H, Sikdar KC, et al. Hospital safety among neurologic patients: a population-based cohort study of adverse events. Neurology. 2017;89:284-290.
3. Healey K, Zabad RK, Young L, et al. Multiple Sclerosis at Home Access (MAHA): An Initiative to Improve Care in the Community. Int J MS Care. 2019;21(3):101-112.