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Do hospitals face same fate as big-box stores?

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Empty mall in Arizona.

Becker’s Hospital Review looks at the economic future of hospitals.

Among the observations:

Failed big-box stores are “somewhat similar to hospitals and health systems. Generally, larger hospitals and health systems operate at a 0 to 10 percent margin and no more. Hospitals also have a very high cost structure, roughly half of which is composed of overhead costs that are difficult to change. The same is true of big box stores. The small margins leave big box stores and hospitals vulnerable to relatively small losses of revenues.’’

“Hospitals and health systems do not face the exact same threat from the Internet. Rather, they face a similar threat from the movement to outpatient care, changes in reimbursement levels and the loss of lots of little pieces of services to ancillary providers and alternative care settings. For example, the movement of spine procedures and joint replacements to outpatient settings and the movement of imaging, lab tests and other low-acuity services away from hospitals into urgent care and other settings may, over time, make an irreparable dent to hospital revenues. Many of these movements in isolation can be combatted. Here, like the gradual and then increased movement to e-commerce from big box stores, the combination of outward forces can be devastating’’.

Hospitals and health systems have tried to counter this threat by becoming more integrated and trying to own markets. In the ideal situation, at least theoretically, the hospital is market essential or market dominant and can retain high prices and healthy margins. Alternatively, the health system takes directly or indirectly almost the entire insurance payment and is responsible for allocating it among itself and other providers. Health systems control more of the premium dollar by owning a health plan or taking risk and payment from a plan for services. However, many systems taking that route have found the insurance business is much riskier and tougher than they anticipated. Thus, this situation does not have an easy answer.’’

“In the hospital arena like in the big box arena, we see erosion of revenue (or much smaller increases in revenues) paired with a cost structure that remains largely unchanged. As with a lot of the big box stores, the movement to reduced revenues was relatively slow and then grew stronger to a tsunami type wave. Akin to the old story of the frog boiling. On some days, we wonder if the hospital industry is positioned to undergo a similar crisis over the next 5 + years.’’

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