Tuesday, October 16, 2018

A majority of Americans are worried about health care costs -- and a majority of Congress doesn't care


People in the US are worried about a lot of things, but apparently the top one is whether, and how, they are going to be able to pay unexpected medical bills. The chart below, based on an August, 2018 survey, is provided by Drew Altman, President of the Kaiser Family Foundation, in the September 24 Axios. Indeed, concern about medically-related costs come in not only as #1, but as #2 (health insurance deductible), #4 (prescription drugs), and #6 (monthly health insurance premium), making up 4 of the top 8 concerns, all of them ahead of “rent or mortgage” (#7) and “food” (#8). All 8 of these concerns are upsetting; it is outrageous that over one-third (37%) of Americans are very or somewhat worried about being able to afford food, or 41% rent or mortgage. But a twice as many people, two-thirds, 67%, are very or somewhat worried about being able to afford unexpected medical bills, and over half (53%) about their health insurance deductibles.
 Of course, those who are worried are not evenly distributed among all Americans. They are not the suburban men who are turning more toward Trump, as they sit on the golf course by their $500,000 homes. They are certainly not the people in power in Washington, whether in the administration like Jared Kushner, who pays no income tax, or his father-in-law, President Trump, who has not released his tax returns, or the senators and even congressmen who make policy, or the members of the Supreme Court.

They certainly do include the poor, including many who are members of minority groups; those who, even in the best of circumstances are barely hanging in there – or often are not. These are the folks for whom paying for housing and food is an all-consuming concern, who do not know where their next meal may be coming from. For them, extraordinary medical bills are not even something that they can spend time worrying about, although they would certainly not be able to afford them.

Those worried, however, also include the large percentage of Americans (see the numbers) who are not poor, but are not all that far from it, people who are not that many paychecks from homelessness (a good measure of real risk). These are people who do not qualify for Medicaid (especially in the states that have not expanded it under the ACA), do not yet qualify for Medicare (and even many of those who do), and who often have health insurance either through their employers or through the ACA marketplaces. The employer health plans, overall, are cutting back on benefits, increasing employee contributions (#6), requiring higher deductibles (#2), and even instituting lifetime caps on benefits as well as excluding many times of illnesses. Fortunately for these people, the ACA has important requirements that help protect them: that people with “pre-existing” conditions be eligible for health insurance (without that, many folks with chronic disease would not be covered), and that there be “community rating”, which means insurance companies can’t charge individuals with particular conditions many times more than they charge others (without which most folks wouldn’t be able to afford the premiums).

It is also true that the current administration and Congress have been trying very hard to limit, when they cannot repeal, these very protections that provide a minimum safety net for most Americans. They are also keeping up a drumbeat about the “cost” of programs such as Medicaid (it’s just poor people, after all, except it is also your elderly parents and grandparents in nursing homes, and this is the bulk of the cost), Medicare (a bit of a “third rail” in politics, but which lots of Republicans keep bringing up as needing to have its benefits cut), and even Social Security, the program that keeps many, many American seniors from being in real poverty even as it continues them in near-poverty. The fear of losing insurance because of having a pre-existing condition is, scarily described by Kurt Eichenwald in a NY Times Op-Ed on October 16, 2018.

The fear of #1, “unexpected medical expenses” is, I assume, primarily about getting sick when you weren’t planning on it. Most folks are not hoping to get sick, but for some the exposure is particularly great because part of the way they handle #6, monthly health insurance premiums, and #2, high deductibles, is not be either uninsured or poorly insured. The latter is particularly common, both in many employer plans and even in ACA individual plans. Indeed, while they call it something different (“free choice” and “granting Americans the freedom to buy health care across state lines”[1]), the administration and Congress are actively encouraging high-deductible, low-coverage policies. This makes premiums seem affordable (or more affordable), but is a disaster when someone gets sick (back to #1).

In addition, limited networks are a quicksand trap for many people, who try to carefully go to doctors and hospitals that are in their networks, only to find themselves faced with huge bills from emergency room physicians, specialists, surgical assistants, and lab and imaging services that are not. This is truly a kind of “gotcha”, a quicksand trap. It is unbelievable; or maybe it is too believable. What may be more unbelievable, to many Americans, is that in most other developed countries health care systems are designed to serve people’s health, not trick and bait-and-switch for the purpose of corporate profit.

Medicare, as currently structured, is not a panacea; 31% of US seniors go without health care because of cost. But it is much better than nothing, and could be really good if it was better funded, and for-profit insurers were not skimming the “cream” (the least sick) into Medicare Advantage plans (which have much higher overhead/administrative costs than traditional Medicare).

Sadly, the issue of whether Americans should have adequate and affordable health care has become highly partisan. This is in some part because at least a portion of the Democratic Party has moved to positions in support of health care as a right, and a universal health insurance system (such as Medicare for all). But it is much more because the Republican Party has moved into complete opposition to any plan to expand health coverage to more Americans (e.g., Medicaid expansion, ACA) and is actively and aggressively moving to cut funding for ACA, for CHIP, for Medicaid, and even for Medicare (“we can’t afford it” is the stated reason, although it really means “we can’t afford it while giving multi-trillion-dollar tax cuts to corporations and the wealthiest”).

Sadder is the fact that many of those most affected, many of those with the greatest worries about health costs, whether unexpected illness, high deductibles, high prescription drug costs, high premiums, are reliable Republican voters. The Associated Press published a piece describing how the Democrats are focusing on health care for the midterm elections, citing the senate race in my state, Arizona. It describes how the Republican candidate, Martha McSally (currently my congressperson) tries to talk with business executives about the tax cuts but is regularly interrupted with questions about health care:
‘They are asking about Democratic ads saying McSally, currently a congresswoman, supported legislation removing the requirement that insurers cover people with pre-existing medical conditions.
"It's a lie," McSally said quickly, accustomed to having to interrupt a discussion of the tax cut to parry attacks on health care. But she had voted for a wide-ranging bill that would have, among other things, undermined protections for people with pre-existing conditions and drastically changed and shrunk Medicaid.’

Actually, then, it is she who is lying. Hopefully she, and other GOP legislators, will pay a price because people vote for those who are actually trying to solve their health care problems, regardless of party. We can hope that more and more Americans will, at least on this important issue, stop voting against their own interests.

I hope.


[1] This is actually the phrase used in the “survey” – completely non-scientific and filled with leading or directive questions – that Trump sends out to his supporters.


Sunday, October 7, 2018

Corporate control corrupts medicine and reduces healthcare quality


Medicine and health care is always changing, and the pace of change seems to be accelerating. Some of this change is good for people -- some of the new drugs that come out actually help, either a lot of people, or more commonly a few people. Sometimes new treatments are more effective, less painful, shorter, or less debilitating than older ones. And, sometimes, they are not. One thing we can be sure of, though, when we see a new treatment advertised, whether on TV or in a magazine or on a billboard, is that someone is making a lot of money on it.

There has been a great deal of coverage of two of the most important and egregious industries in which large corporations make lots of money at the expense of our health: pharmaceuticals and insurance. They deserve it, and I have written about them often. But another extremely important area where corporatism and corporate culture has taken hold and is expanding is in the ownership and management of hospitals. The most important thing about this increasing corporatism is that it is about making money (even in “non-profit” hospitals), not primarily about providing the health care that people need; of course, if what you need (or can be persuaded to buy) is profitable for the hospital, they’re all about it. For example, new surgical techniques and imaging, and particularly high-margin, low risk procedures like joint repair and replacement in otherwise relatively young healthy people (let’s go for that high school quarterback or 40-something weekend warrior). Not so much problems that occur in people who have multisystem disease, are old, are high risk, or are poor and uninsured. And some stuff – like psychiatric treatment for the most needy, or trauma care, are big money losers. Hate that if you’re a CEO, although might be good if you are a person who needs it.

This trend has been going on for a long time, particularly in large metropolitan areas, where most big hospitals are, and most of them are now part of hospital systems. Of course, big hospitals were always big, but the overemphasis on making decisions based upon money rather than people’s health has been accelerating. And more recently the process has taken over hospitals in smaller communities, including Critical Access Hospitals in rural areas. The Critical Access designation is meant to reflect the geographic isolation of a community, such that travel to the next-closest hospital creates real health risks for the population, and so even if operating it is inefficient, it receives federal support.

This is discussed in an outstanding editorial by Andrea Wendling in the October 2018 issue of Family Medicine, Times Are Changing”. Dr. Wendling focuses on two major areas, the reinterpretation of the “value” of physicians and the role of family physicians. Family physicians are the most common specialists in rural areas, in part because they can have such a wide scope of practice. They can care for the medical problems of adults and children, deliver babies, provide care for many musculoskeletal problems, mental health, women’s health care, and provide many procedures. At least as important to patients, they can see them in all the venues where they need to be seen – the office, the hospital, the nursing home, and even the patient’s home. Dr. Wendling notes that this is threatened by the corporate perception of physicians’ value, which is their value to the system, measured financially, rather than their value to the health of the community. Yes, you might find it beneficial to have a doctor who knows you, who has cared for you and your family for years, be able to see you in whatever setting you find yourself in, but the system has decided it is more efficient (read “more profitable”) to have your doctor be only an ambulatory care provider, or only a hospitalist.

It is not only family physicians who are affected, although they predominate in rural areas. While some specialists – those that provide care that is not necessarily the most important, but is the most profitable – have always been more highly paid and more sought after by health systems, even they are seeing decreases in their pay and status. It is hard for the family physician to cry for slight cuts in the income and power of doctors (like orthopedists and radiologists) who are making many times what they do, and in fact it is hard for most Americans to cry for the plight of even the lowest-paid doctors. Perhaps it feels like crying for the white men who bemoan their loss of privileges (real and desired) because women and minorities are finally moving the playing field to being, at least a little, more equal. But the corporate influence is far more malignant.

Family doctors believe that their contribution to people’s health is relatively greater than their income. Doctors believe that, whatever their income, they are working to improve people’s health. CEOs and corporations believe that health is a good thing to try to sell, provided we sell the kind that makes money. They do not put the health of the community first; they put the financial well-being of the corporation first. And, not surprisingly, this affects both poor and rural communities the most, because of the limited access to services they had in the first place; an arrogant and self-serving corporation taking over the only hospital in a community does not bode well for the overall health of the people who live there.

And, adding insult to injury, it is not only the dollar-centered approach that is a problem, it is the egos of the local leaders who, emulating their corporate bosses and our political class, think that they as individuals are important and deserve respect and obeisance. I have a friend who led the physician group at a rural hospital when it was taken over by a larger system, and helped negotiate the criteria for bonuses for the medical staff. Soon after, that physician was fired by the local CEO for “embarrassing them”! The doctor got their job back with the help of lawyers, but imagine the gall of that CEO! If what they were doing was right and good, they had no reason to be embarrassed; if they had reason to be embarrassed because what they were doing was corrupt, self-centered, not good for the physicians or for the community’s health, what they were doing was wrong and should have been exposed. I have no doubt that if the people in that town were asked who they valued more, the physician who had cared for them for years or the new CEO put in by a corporation, which one would get more votes. Maybe the CEO would get that of their spouse.

So we have a health care system that is structured to be corrupt, from the insurance companies, to the drug and device makers, to the big health systems, all geared to profit. We have many physicians, in all specialties from the rich and powerful subspecialists to the family physician, who are trying to figure out how to stay on the “good side” of these corporate systems and of the local martinets. We have physician leaders, in hospitals and medical societies and academic departments who often are looking mostly at themselves and how to show that they as individuals are important (like that rural CEO), maybe believing that what is good for them is somehow good for people. Sadly, this is even true in family medicine, no longer the ‘counterculture’[1] its founders, like Gayle Stephens, wrote about, but now often simply other supplicants for corporate largesse.

All of this is at worst immaterial and at best subsidiary. The criteria for whether a healthcare system or aspects of it are good is whether it improves the health of people and the community. We have a long way to go in our healthcare system. And it’s long since time to get started.



[1] Stephens GG. Family Medicine as Counterculture. Fam Med 1989; 21(2):103-9.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh, bias and arrogance: present in medicine, not just politics


Mostly it is pretty easy for me to think of things I want to write about in the area of medicine and social justice; there is so much awful stuff going on there. But today it was harder; I want to write about the bravery of Christine Blasey Ford, and how powerful the calm, collected testimony that she gave was, especially given the fact that she had nothing to gain except harassment for herself and her family, and even death threats that required her to go into hiding.

I want to write about the atrocious behavior of Brett Kavanaugh, who has a lot to gain -- a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court of the United States – but chose to take the low road, not just denying the charges but displaying aggrieved entitlement, snarling and attacking and refusing to give straight answers to straight questions. Right out of the Donald Trump playbook. And absolutely not the behavior we want on the Supreme Court, or even that we heard about his control in his current Appeals Court job. Much more, in fact, like the 17-year old Kavanaugh that Dr. Blasey Ford described.

I want to write about the tone-deaf but mission-focused hubris of the 11 white men who formed the majority on the Judiciary Committee. Ten of them having made up their minds in advance, they were not going to be derailed by anything, certainly not the testimony of the witnesses. Led by their chair, Sen. Grassley, who never made eye contact with Dr. Blasey Ford but kept his eyes on the paper he was reading from, and their attack dogs (Lindsey Graham, harsh, and John Cornyn, snide) they had a woman prosecutor question the female witness so as not to look like they were who, in fact, they were. That the format never allowed Rachel Mitchell to pursue a line of questioning was irrelevant, since it was all a charade for them. It is a shame that they made old men look so dumb and evil; remember that Grassley (85) and Hatch (84) were arrogant misogynists when they were younger, and that those (like Crapo and Cruz and Sasse) still in the 40s already are the same.

But this is a blog about medicine and social justice, and while there are certainly social justice lessons to be learned (in the negative) from the disingenuous cavorting of racist, sexist, we’ll-do-this-because-we-can behavior of white men in the hearing room, it has little to do with medicine or public health. Except, of course, to the extent that this entitled behavior is so frequently seen in those fields.

I recently wrote about an example of entitled corruption in José Balsega, the former Chief Medical Officer of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Medical Center (“Baselga, graft and corruption in medical research: why should we tolerate it?”, September 16, 2018), and we just learned that their vice president in charge of corporate relations has been required to pay them back the $1.4M he made from, essentially, insider trading.

I have also written about other corrupt executives, mainly in the pharmaceutical industry (e.g., “Epi-Pen® and Predatory Pricing: You thought our health system was designed for people’s health?”, September 3, 2016). These “Masters of the Universe” (h/t Tom Robbins) think they deserve everything they can get, and the rest of us be damned. Thanks to women like Heather Bresch of Mylan (Epi-Pen®) and criminal mastermind Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, they are not all men. But mostly they are, and even these women had the protection of old men; Bresch’s father is Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Holmes attracted rich old white guys like Riley Bechtel of Bechtel, George Schultz, former Secretary of State and Bechtel CEO, and William Foege, former head of the CDC and hero of the anti-smallpox crusade, in a real-life parody of a bad thriller femme fatale.

Bad behavior is rife in the medical and public health communities, motivated, like that in the pharmaceutical sector and politics, by self-interest, a desire for money and power. Aaron Carroll, in “The Upshot” in the New York Times on September 24, 2018, writes about the many forms of bias in scientific and medical publication. He takes off from an article in Psychological Medicine, The cumulative effect of reporting and citation biases on the apparent efficacy of treatments: the case of depression”, but he points out the many forms of bias affect research and research papers in general. These include publication bias, which means journals are more likely to publish papers with positive results (our study showed this new treatment worked!) rather than negative (well, we thought this would work but it didn’t, 😞); outcome reporting bias where only the positive outcomes are published and the negatives are left out; spin where, when unable to avoid reporting results that are negative, you use language to make them seem more positive; and citation bias, whereby other authors are much more like to refer to (“cite”) papers with positive results than those with negative, thus increasing their visibility. He does not specifically discuss confirmation bias, in which researchers are much more likely to notice and report on findings that confirm their prior ideas and dismiss those that contradict them, but this is also very insidious.

Sometimes the stakes, seen by the really rich and powerful, are minor – status and reputation in the academic scientific community (recalling the old adage “competition in academics is so vicious because the stakes are so low”). However, it is not just the researchers who are at fault. Journal editors and publishers are motivated by their own metrics of success, such as the “impact factor” based upon how often articles in their journals are cited by others. And, of course, our old “friends”, the pharmaceutical companies, are behind much of this bias, suppressing negative results for the drugs they make and emphasizing secondary outcomes (unethical!). For them, the stakes are financial and very high.

Carroll does a masterful job, supported by research published in a number of journals. He ends by discussing the ways in which these practices hurt we, the people, by getting false or misleading information out to other physicians and scientists. This can lead to us receiving treatments that don’t actually work, or work as well as they are portrayed as doing, or may even be more likely to harm us than help us. He emphasizes the important fact that not all, or even most, published scientific research is not to be trusted, but that these scurrilous articles are out there, and depend upon not only reporters and the public, but doctors not reading them carefully. Sadly, many medical (and other) professionals often hear only the reports of research in the popular press or, if they read the study, read only the Summary, or the Discussion section (most easy to “spin”) instead of carefully looking at the reported Methods and Results and drawing their own conclusions. Carroll makes a series of suggestions as to how the discipline might change this culture of bias; they are good and should be pursued.

I am not sure where the blame originates, whether from our leaders like our politicians and businessmen who see truth as an option which can be disregarded in the pursuit of money and power, or our scientists who take these illegitimate roads to further their own careers, or the public which has become agnostic about truth and searches only for confirmation of their own preconceived notions (or biases). But I am sure that, at all these levels, it is a bad thing and corrosive of the progress that should come from new knowledge.

Most of us will never get the chance to publicly put ourselves out there on the line like Dr. Blasey Ford, and very likely wouldn’t if we could. We can, however, stand for the idea that truth is not “revealed” but emerges from continuing work, from confirmation by replication of studies, from more work that further elucidates the truth. And that the enemy of truth is the kinds of biases that Dr. Carroll discusses.

In talking about his suggestions for correcting them, Carroll writes “These actions might make for more boring news and more tempered enthusiasm. But they might also lead to more accurate science.” And that would be good for us all.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Baselga, graft and corruption in medical research: why should we tolerate it?


On September 8, 2018, the NY Times reported that José Baselga, MD, Chief Medical Officer at the prestigious Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and a world-renowned cancer researcher, had received at least hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments from drug companies and manufacturers of radiation equipment bought by his hospital. The number of companies from which Dr. Baselga was receiving payments turned out to be in the dozens. The emphasis in this article was not so much that he had received the money, for him personally, but that he had not reported this conflict of interest (COI) to the many journals that had published articles he had written. These articles were often studies of drugs produced by the companies that had paid him money.
 ‘Dr. Baselga did not dispute his relationships with at least a dozen companies. In an interview, he said the disclosure lapses were unintentional. He stressed that much of his industry work was publicly known although he declined to provide payment figures from his involvement with some biotech startups. “I acknowledge that there have been inconsistencies, but that’s what it is,” he said. “It’s not that I do not appreciate the importance.”’
He in fact DID let it affect his science, as the article reports:
‘At a conference this year and before analysts in 2017, he put a positive spin on the results of two Roche-sponsored clinical trials that many others considered disappointments, without disclosing his relationship to the company. Since 2014, he has received more than $3 million from Roche in consulting fees and for his stake in a company it acquired.’

This is important stuff. He took bribes from drug companies and spun the data to make their drugs look good. This is corruption. It is important to separate this from conflict of interest. COI, as I discussed on August 20, 2010 (“The AAFP, Coca Cola, and Ethics: Serving the public interest?”), exists when you have – surprise – conflicting interests! As when you receive money from your employer, and also money from some other company, thus creating a conflict. As medical ethicist Howard Brody, MD, pointed out in his article on the AAFP:
imagine that a judge who is sitting on a case involving a contract dispute between two companies is discovered to own $100,000 worth of stock in one of the companies. The judge cannot divert criticism of this conflict of interest by saying, ‘But you haven’t waited until I delivered my verdict—how do you know that I won’t rule against the company in which I own stock?
He has a conflict of interest. You don’t have to actually do anything to the detriment of one of your funders to be in COI; most journal policies require reporting it so that readers can be aware of the COI, but it does not necessarily mean that if impacts your work. In Baselga’s case, however, it obviously did.

I guess he realized it. On September 13, 2018, the Times reported Baselga’s resignation from Memorial Sloan-Kettering. You can just imagine the Sloan-Kettering board of directors holding their breath to see if this would just blow over, and I am sure mostly that it would not affect donations from rich people. On that same day, the Times also published several letters from readers about the topic, all of them critical of Baselga, but emphasizing different issues. Charles Fried, a law professor from Harvard, notes that Baselga received $1.5 million in income from his employer, Sloan-Kettering, and wondered “Why isn’t $1.5 million enough?” Of course, for some people, nothing is ever enough. But the important point here is that Baselga was scarcely a penniless medical researcher barely scraping by and thus in need of this graft to pay a mortgage on a modest home, or buy a second bass boat. He was just really greedy.

Other letters emphasize other aspects of this practice, noting that Baselga may be a famous and particularly corrupt example, but that he is far from the only one receiving payoffs. Daniel J. Brauner, MD, a geriatrician and ethicist from the University of Chicago, notes that revealing COI is insufficient, observing that ‘The sad fact is that the current system of medical research and care conducted by physician-scientists like Dr. Baselga is fundamentally flawed and does an extreme disservice to patients, who deserve an unbiased accounting about the true worth of potential treatments.’  Frances M. Visco, president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, bemoans the fact that ‘Breast cancer patients are tired of “breakthrough” therapies that do not extend life for even a day but do bring millions of dollars to industry, medical institutions and the doctors who care for us,’ and demands that researchers and journals ‘Just stop circling the wagons, focusing on financial gain and fame.’

On September 16, 2018, the Times published a full-column editorial on the issue in its widely-read Sunday Review. It notes how common the practice of paying corporate money to doctors and researchers is, observing that ‘A 2015 study in The BMJ found that a “substantial number” of academic leaders hold directorships that pay as much as or more than their clinical salaries.’ In addition, it report that ‘nearly 70 percent of oncologists who speak at national meetings, nearly 70 percent of psychiatrists on the task force that ultimately decides what treatments should be recommended for what mental illnesses, and a significant number of doctors on Food and Drug Administration advisory committees have financial ties to the drug and medical device industries.’ In its analysis of the problem, the editorial leaves out one major issue: much, or most, of the basic research that is done and leads to the production of these hugely-profitable drugs is funded by the federal government through the National Institutes of Health (NIH); that is to say, you and me. The drug companies pick up the work later when they think that the drug may represent a big financial boon for them.

The Times calls for greater safeguards to protect the public, with several suggestions including: 1. Ban paid appointments to outside boards, 2. Create uniform reporting standards, 3. Establish real consequences for violations, and 4. Build a culture of transparency. These are good suggestions, and should be implemented, although how one does #4 is not entirely clear, and the likelihood of #1 happening is low. But the real issue is the degree to which we, the American people, are willing to tolerate graft and corruption. We may – or may not -- dislike it when it occurs in the private sector (certainly President Trump was a major practitioner in his pre-Presidential years). We condemn it when it involves politicians, though it is rampant in federal, state, and local government (although what is illegal graft for state legislators is legal, if sometimes embarrassing, for Congressmen), but we expect it when it comes in the form of “campaign contributions”. And we should not be surprised when it infects medical researchers and physicians, who we hope have our health interests, not their own financial interests, at heart in what they do.

Corruption and graft is corruption and graft. It happens, and shouldn’t, and won’t stop until we demand it. And it won’t stop in health care until we get the profit incentive out of it.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Free tuition in medical school is only one step toward producing the doctors America needs


The NYU School of Medicine shook the world of medical education recently by announcing that tuition would be free. The NY Times article about it says that ‘Rising tuition and six-figure loans have been pushing new doctors into higher-paying fields and contributing to a shortage of researchers and primary care physicians.’ Certainly, it is easy to understand that a $55,000 per year tuition bill is going to be way beyond the ability of most medical students and their families to pay, and that a total indebtedness that is often over $250,000 may well affect the specialty choice of medical school graduates. While physicians in any specialty make far more than the average American, compound interest makes the payments a lot more than $25,000 a year for 10 years; often more, indeed, than that average American income (think about the payments on a $250,000 home loan, which usually has a lower interest rate). This may tip the balance between choosing betwee, say, family medicine or anesthesiology, when the latter choice can be expected to result in an additional $7 million in lifetime income.

The other, presumably obvious, impact of free tuition could be the ability of the school’s admissions committee to take more students from lower income families than they currently do. Note “lower income” is not necessarily the same as “low income”, as 80% of medical students now come from the top 20% of income. And, yet, they still have a lot of trouble paying for school, tuition plus the Times’ estimated $29,000 a year in living expenses (in NYC). It is not necessarily true that ability to pay is a significant criterion in the admissions decisions of medical schools, but rather that there are confounders. A big one is that being from a high-income family is associated with having the higher grades and test scores that are so valued by medical school admissions committees (probably especially those, like NYU, that are very interested in producing MD/PhDs and other laboratory researchers). Free tuition, however, might mean that those students from lower-income families who do gain admission will be under less financial pressure to take paying jobs while in school (a really bad idea when trying to succeed in medical school). In addition, those students who have started their own families or whose families of origin have counted on them helping to support them, would have one big less thing to worry about.

We definitely need more family physicians and other primary care doctors than we are producing now (and NYU has produced one of, if not the, lowest number family physicians of all US medical schools). We also need far more students from lower-income and underrepresented minority and rural backgrounds. The reason is not just for ethical or moral, or making up for past practices. It is directly about providing quality healthcare to all the American people, because physicians are most likely to practice in settings like those in which they grew up and feel most comfortable. Thus, students from upper-middle and upper income, primarily white (and Asian) suburbs are most likely to practice in those settings – which are precisely those least in need of more doctors. Students from rural or low-income or minority communities are much more likely to practice in such communities, and these are the places most in need of more doctors. Of course, the correlation is far from 100%, but the trend is overwhelming. Thus, to the extent that free tuition can increase either of these goals, it would be a great thing.

So what is the problem? Well, it is far from certain that free tuition will lead to these desirable outcomes. This point is made by family physician (and NYU medical school graduate) Kenny Lin, MD, in his Common Sense Family Doctor blog. Although Dr. Lin’s 2001 class had only four graduates entering family medicine, it was a larger number than any class since. He points to the fact that NYU has never had a Department of Family Medicine (one of the few such schools, almost all of which are “elite” private and on the East Coast). He also notes that in terms of producing other primary care doctors (general internists and general pediatricians), NYU has also done very poorly.

More important, Dr. Lin cites a study published in the JAMA Network by Grischkan, George, Chaiyachati, et al., that demonstrates that students entering family medicine (one of the lowest paying medical specialties) have a higher average debt load than those entering fields such as radiology, dermatology, and ophthalmology. He writes
These findings suggest, paradoxically, that physicians with the highest debt burden are preferentially choosing a specialty with among the lowest income expectations - why on earth would that be? What it says, actually, is that students from less well-off backgrounds are more likely to be attracted to primary care in the first place.

This is a very important point. Dr. Lin, focused on the critical issue of producing more family physicians and primary care doctors, believes that eliminating tuition and thus taking students from more diverse backgrounds “will likely have a small, but measurable, positive effect on primary care.” He urges that NYU and other schools increase their “pipeline” programs to help students from less advantaged background gain the skills that they need to be both admitted to and successful in medical school. I agree, but I would go beyond that.

Medical schools should train the doctors America needs. This means fewer subspecialists, and more primary care doctors. This means a smaller percentage of doctors practicing in the suburbs of big cities, and a larger percentage practicing in rural areas and underserved inner-city communities. This is not going to happen if we keep taking the same students we currently do, no matter how nice they are, no matter how high their grades are, and no matter how much they are like (or often are) the children of the faculty of the medical school. If you don’t think this is important, a recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research by Alsan, Garrick, and Graziani titled “Does Diversity Matter for Health? Experimental Evidence from Oakland” (reported in the Times article “The Secret to Keeping Black Men Healthy? Maybe Black Doctors”) demonstrates that it does: a significantly higher percentage of black men received important tests, took medicines, and made lifestyle changes when advised to by a black doctor rather than a white or Asian one. Importantly, this comes from more than a knee-jerk reaction to the race of the physician; it has a lot to do with how they were treated. While the ‘white and Asian doctors often wrote comments like “weight loss,” “tb test” and “anxiety” — cryptic notations that referred to medical recommendations…black doctors often left more personal notes, like “needs food, shelter, clothing, job’. This goes beyond race, and suggests that both our overall medical curriculum focuses too much on the disease and not the person, and further that minority physicians may be more likely to realize that it is a person who needs to be treated, and identify the social determinants of health.

Indeed, Elisabeth Rosenthal, the editor of Kaiser Health News, argues in an Op-Ed in the Times that medical school should be free only for those who make a firm commitment to entering specialties and practicing in areas that have real need:
…if a student chooses to become an ear, nose and throat surgeon in suburban New York or a private cardiologist in Miami, fine. He or she can pay back what has been borrowed. But if that doctor chooses to deliver babies in rural Oklahoma or practice pediatrics on the South Side of Chicago, then he or she should get to keep every penny of salary.

I agree, and believe that to make this likely, medical schools, both private “elite” schools like NYU, and certainly state-supported schools, need to take a much higher percentage of students from the lower half of the family income scale, from rural areas and from groups that have been historically underrepresented in medicine. And not just a few more, not just a pilot program with 2% or 5% or 10% of the class. These programs must be far more extensive. The entire class should be composed either these groups of students or of students who, while perhaps from wealthier, whiter, more suburban backgrounds, have demonstrated an extended commitment to service to others. Extended, like the Peace Corps, or Teach for America, or VISTA, or working abroad for years in service programs, not a car wash fundraiser one Saturday.

Some, and sadly this may include many in the administration of medical schools, particularly “elite” ones, will say this can result in the exclusion of the “best” applicants. It may, in fact, lead to the exclusion of some of those with the highest grades, and may even require additional work on the part of the faculty to help students with less rigorous academic preparation. Or, perhaps, elimination of much of the nonsense memorize-detail coursework of the pre-clinical curriculum. But while “best” can mean many things, if the definition is not “most likely to make a positive difference in the health of all the American people” it needs to change, and soon.

Free tuition, at NYU, or other private schools, or state-sponsored schools, may be a terrific idea, and one that should be widely imitated. But it is only one part of an overall strategy, including changes in the selection of applicants, the curriculum of the schools, and the reimbursement of primary care, to significantly change the kinds of doctors that are produced so that they meet our nation’s needs.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Medicine should not be primarily a business: choosing appropriate care for all, not excess testing for some


The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) has added five new recommendations to its Choosing Wisely campaign. I have discussed “Choosing Wisely” before (‘“Eggs Benedict” and “Choosing Wisely”: Often the best thing to do is nothing’, April 14, 2012), but will briefly review it. First introduced by the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation (ABIM-F), the program calls for each specialty society to list at least five things that are done by members of that specialty but either should not be done at all or should only be done in far more restricted circumstances that they currently are.

The five new recommendations by the AAFP bring their total to 20; this is good, because many other specialty societies have never expanded upon their original five. And for some of those groups, even those original five were kind of tentative, almost like “well, this test or procedure is not good, so you probably shouldn’t use it too much”.  One reason Family Medicine has more is because the field is so broad and its practitioners care for problems in all areas, but I fear that another reason is the reticence of some specialty societies to make negative recommendations about things that their members make a lot of money from doing, even if they are not medically indicated. As I noted in ‘Medical interventions we shouldn’t be getting: issues of cost, health, and equity’ (December 12, 2015) regarding imaging for uncomplicated back pain:
…some of the tests chosen (MRI or CT for new-onset uncomplicated low back pain) were imaging studies not recommended by the American Academy of Family Physicians and American College of Physicians (Internal Medicine) as part of the “Choosing Wisely” campaign, but are not recommended against by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons in their “Choosing Wisely recommendations. Of course, orthopedists stand to benefit from doing surgery on these patients.
The radiologists, who perform the MRIs and CTs, also did not recommend against this procedure.

The radiologist societies also recommend screening for lung cancer with low-dose CT scans in smokers and former smokers, and in fact, to date, none of the specialty societies are recommending against it. There is some evidence that this (not inexpensive) test may be able to detect lung cancer early in many people, sometimes while it still can be effectively treated, but even this is not certain. Rita L. Redberg, MD, in an editorial in JAMA Network “Failing Grade for Shared Decision Making for Lung Cancer Screening”, notes that while (payment by Medicare for) the test was approved on the basis of one positive study, three subsequent studies have not shown the benefit. In addition, it is not without risk of harm. The harms come not only from radiation exposure, but from complications of the biopsies needed to follow up on positive tests. And, also noted by Redberg, 98% of positive tests are “false positives”, where the patient does not have cancer. Some of this high percentage of false positives comes from testing the wrong people (“screening creep”, where a test that has been shown to be of benefit in a limited population is incorrectly assumed to also be of benefit to a wider group). the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that the screening only be done on the patients for whom it is indicated (!!), and only after the doctors engage in “shared decision making” (SDM) with their patients by helping them understand both the potential risks as well as benefits to the test, and what their individual probability of each is.

Apparently, doctors do not do this, as demonstrated by the research article that Redberg’s editorial accompanies, “Evaluating Shared Decision Making for Lung Cancer Screening” by Brenner, Malo, Margolis, et al. Taping and analyzing recordings of doctors recommending this test to their patients, they found no evidence of the physicians presenting the important information and engaging in SDM. It was a small sample (this is difficult and time-consuming work), but as Redberg points out there is no reason to imagine that overall practice is significantly different. While this study specifically looks at low-dose CT screening for lung cancer, and finds that SDM doesn’t happen often, this is a concern for many other tests and interventions that are often done when they are not indicated, and rarely have the risk/benefit presented to people so that they can participate in SDM.

One example of such a test is the use of screening pelvic examinations (the part where the provider puts her hands in and feels around, not the Pap smear part) in non-pregnant women. One of the AAFP’s new “Choosing Wisely” recommendations (#16) appropriately comes out against it: “Don’t perform pelvic exams on asymptomatic nonpregnant women, unless necessary for guideline-appropriate screening for cervical cancer”.  This is because the most basic characteristic of a screening test (essentially, any test – whether a physical exam or lab or x-ray – done in asymptomatic people) is that there has to be a disease that the test can, with some reasonable rate of accuracy, screen for. There is no condition that can be screened for by a pelvic examination (including ovarian cancer, which has been cited, and is always too advanced to successfully treat by the time it can be felt). I have been teaching students and residents to not do “screening” pelvic examinations in asymptomatic non-pregnant women for decades.

For similar reasons, previous AAFP “Choosing Wisely” recommendations, had already recommended (#5) against doing Pap smears in women in whom it is not indicated (those who are under 21 or have had removal of their cervix for non-cancer disease), and in women over 65 who have had negative prior Paps and are not at high risk for cervical cancer (#9), and not requiring either Paps or pelvic exams for prescribing oral contraception (#15). In addition to not doing a screening test when there is no disease to screen for (pelvic exams), they should also not be done when the risk is very low and lead to excessive false positive tests. This seems like a lot of “don’t dos” in the same general area of women’s screening, but it is warranted not only because family physicians do a lot of such screening, but, more embarrassingly, because many OB/Gyn specialists both continue to do them and to teach students and residents to do so. Indeed, not doing screening pelvic examinations is distinctly not one of the 10 “Choosing Wisely” recommendations by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).

Yes, OB/Gyns do make some of their living doing such procedures (as do family doctors), but frankly it is a small percent compared to doing surgical procedures. Sometimes tests and procedures continue to be done even when they are not indicated (or potentially harmful) because of tradition. Or because of publicity campaigns run by disease-specific advocacy groups, especially for various types of cancer, that sow fear rather than truth.

But when such tests and procedures continue to be done, even in part, because those who perform them, the doctors and hospitals and laboratories and device makers, make money doing them rather than for medical benefit, it is reprehensible. And, even more, it saps funds from other important health-related care, particularly for those people who have the least money and are least likely to be insured. We do not have a unitary national health system in which money not needed in one area can be easily transferred to spending on necessary care for other people or conditions, but we need to get there.

It is unacceptable for people to get tests and procedures that are dangerous and of no benefit regardless of funding. It is similarly wrong for even relatively benign tests and procedures that are not medically indicated to be done because those performing them make money. But it is worst that many people do not get even basic, indicated, beneficial care while money is being wasted, or worse, on these other procedures.

The terribly flawed attitude of treating healthcare as a business was illustrated by a comment from Charles Bouchard, senior director of theology and ethics at The Catholic Health Association, in a NY Times article that found fewer than 3% (all in Washington State, which legally requires it) of Catholic hospital websites “contained an easily found list of services not offered for religious reasons.” He said '“I think that any business is not going to lead off with what they don’t do. They are always going to talk about what they do do. And that goes for contractors and car salesmen. They are not going to start off by saying, ‘We don’t sell this model,’ or ‘We don’t do this kind of work.’”

That’s the problem. Selling things people do not need to them if they have money (and not offering things there is no profit in so doing) is a common way to run a business. It is no way to run healthcare.

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