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Remind Me Again...What's the Difference Between an ACO and a PCMH?

By Matthew Smith, Director of Business Development, GE Healthcare Camden Group

The Patient-Centered Medical Home ("PCMH") model was proposed by the American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Physicians, and American Osteopathic Association in 2007.

It is, in essence, an enhanced primary care delivery model that strives to achieve better access, coordination of care, prevention, quality, and safety within the primary care practice, and to create a strong partnership between the patient and primary care physician. Like accountable care organizations ("ACOs"), the medical home model is referenced many times in the current Affordable Care Act as one way to improve health outcomes through care coordination.

Medical homes are similar to ACOs in that they consolidate multiple levels of care for patients. However, medical homes take the approach of having the primary physician lead the care delivery “team.” Quite simply, an ACO consists of many coordinated practices while a medical home is a single practice. 

A medical home has several key characteristics, including:

  • Designation of a personal physician – each patient has an ongoing relationship with a personal physician trained to provide first contact, continuous and comprehensive care.  Also, the personal physician leads a team of individuals at the practice level who collectively take responsibility for the ongoing care of patients.
  • Whole person orientation – care is organized around providing services for all of the individual’s health care needs.  The medical home takes responsibility for appropriately arranging care with other qualified professionals on an as needed basis.
  • Care coordination and integration – care across the spectrum of specialists, hospitals, home health agencies, and nursing homes is coordinated with the personal physician leading the effort.
  • Evidence and outcomes focus – the quality and safety of care are assured by a care planning process using evidence-based medicine, clinical decision-support tools, performance measurement and active participation of patients in decision-making.
  • Enhanced access to care – practices are “open” in the sense that scheduling is available to individuals, hours of practice are expanded hours and new communications options are deployed for the convenience of individuals seeking care.
  • Comprehensive payment model – payments for services for individuals enrolled in the patient-centered medical home reflect a comprehensive payment for services that extends beyond the face-to-face visit with the personal physician.

The ACO is also based around a strong primary care core. But ACOs are comprised of many "medical homes"—in other words, many primary care providers and/or practices that work together. Some have even dubbed ACOs the "medical village."

An ACO is basically a network of medical homes. It is a collaboration of different organizations and practices working together which may include primary care physicians, specialists, hospitals, providers, payers, etc. The ACOs take medical homes a step further in emphasizing the alignment of incentives and accountability for providers across the continuum of care. There is a need for very strong leadership to address cultural, legal, and resource related barriers when creating an ACO.

The difference is that ACOs would be accountable for the cost and quality of care both within and outside of the primary care relationship. As such, ACOs must include specialists and hospitals in order to be able to control costs and improve health outcomes across the entire care continuum.

ACOs by nature would be larger than a single medical home or physician’s office. There are many known benefits of the ACO structure over the medical home model, including the ability to better manage the care for a greater population of people with a larger budget. Being able to use the dollars across a wider range of patients and conditions allows for better overall cost management, less variation within the population, and the ability to track and trend for quality. 

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