Sunday, June 19, 2011
The real face of lack of access to health care
I have often written about the fact that lack of health insurance is a major source of cost for the health system. People without insurance often cannot afford to pay doctors or buy medications, and so do not seek care for treatable illnesses until they are so far gone that they can no longer be ignored, and then show up in the Emergency Room and require admission and treatment for advanced disease (for example, in Does the nation need a clear policy on a right to basic health care?, April 10, 2009). The cost is not only enormous in human terms -- treatable diseases converted into much more serious conditions because they haven’t been treated -- although this is the most important. It is also much more costly in terms of actual health care dollars, as these advanced conditions are much more difficult and expensive to treat.
However, as in every area, what affects us most are not the data or the statistics, but the individual stories of individual people. These are the stories that touch our hearts because they we can identify with them – they could be our stories, or those of our friends or neighbors or relatives. These are the stories that make the evening news, the stories that might persuade a legislator to become interested in a problem, the stories that motivate us to send a donation to a worthy cause.
This was brought home to me very starkly when I recently served as the attending physician on our inpatient service in the hospital. We take care of a lot of patients, and they are very sick. Their medical diagnoses varied: kidney failure, diabetic ketoacidosis, malignant hypertension, severe asthma exacerbation, infections in a variety of places, etc. But, really, the most common diagnosis was lack of access to health care, mainly because of lack of health insurance. While not all these people are poor, they, like most people, have limited incomes, and have many other basic needs (rent, food, caring for their children) that compete with health care for the dollars available. Asymptomatic diseases (or conditions with “tolerable” symptoms) often seem to be a lower priority.
I’d like to share some of their stories, although obviously I cannot share their names or present too many actual details about them; I’ll make up initials and change some details that do not affect the essential issues. These are real people, with real names and real problems.
· AG has diabetes and high blood pressure. (These two conditions, diabetes and high blood pressure, are going to be a recurrent theme; they are the mainstay, most-common, diseases of any general adult medicine practice. They are treatable, but when not well controlled their complications -- strokes or kidney failure or heart attacks or amputations – are also major contributors to the work of many subspecialists: cardiologists and endocrinologists and nephrologists and neurologists and surgeons and orthopedists, just to name a few.) AG had lost his job, and while unemployed and without health insurance he hadn’t been going to the doctor. Luckily, his chronic diseases weren’t bothering him much, except for a small sore on the bottom of his foot. High blood pressure often causes no symptoms, until the stroke or heart attack; foot sores in diabetes are a big threat, because the disease both diminishes the sensation of pain, so it doesn’t hurt much, and the circulation of blood so it doesn’t heal well, but the lack of pain makes it seem not so bad. He finally found a job, a reasonably good job with the promise of health insurance after a while. Unfortunately, it involved walking almost 20 miles per day, not a good thing for his foot. The foot developed a severe infection, requiring expensive hospitalization for intravenous antibiotics, and might still need to be amputated.
· PS also has diabetes, which, especially when untreated, makes one susceptible to infections, and he has had several of them. Now, in late middle age, he presents with a very serious infection, requiring not only intravenous antibiotics, but surgery to clean out the pus, resulting in an open wound. A machine attached to drain out the residual infection and keep it clean will need to be regularly replaced, for many weeks as he continues the intravenous antibiotics. Fortunately (should you ever be in a similar situation), home health can be arranged to provide these services. Provided you have health insurance coverage. Oh yes, and a home. PS has neither. Makes follow-up care a little more difficult.
· DR is a good deal younger but also had a severe infection requiring long-term antibiotics for a foot infection, after an unsuccessful attempt at outpatient treatment. And, yes, his diabetes is uncontrolled because he hasn’t had insurance and so hasn’t gone to the doctor or taken his medicine in quite a while. He also had lost over 80% of his kidney function, so he’ll be on dialysis soon. There is a “silver lining” (!); thanks to a law passed early in the 1970s, anyone with end-stage kidney disease requiring dialysis is eligible for Medicare, so he will be insured. Of course, the cost to Medicare will be far, far more than would have been the treatment of his diabetes, had he had coverage before the “end stage”.
· MT will also become insured through this wonderful program, although her kidney failure is due mainly to untreated high blood pressure rather than diabetes. As I noted above, high blood pressure is often asymptomatic (thus the sobriquet “silent killer”); she didn’t have insurance or money so didn’t go to the doctor to find out how uncontrolled it was, as it slowly destroyed her kidneys.
Not all of our patients’ problems came from diabetes or infections, and not everyone who is uninsured is poor.
· KF has asthma, pretty severe asthma, for which he was taking an inhaler to be able to breathe. It is a bronchodilator (airway-opener), the right drug for an acute attack, but KF’s attack never went away and he was taking far more of it than was safe. And spending an awful lot of money on it. It is available for a much lower cost at some pharmacies that provide certain generic medications for $4, but he didn’t know that. He does now, after being in the hospital for a week getting expensive breathing treatments. It’s a good thing, too, because the other inhalers that he needs to prevent (or at least decrease the frequency and severity of) these attacks, steroids and sustained-release bronchodilators, cost a lot, well over $100 per inhaler. They have been around for a long time, so one would expect that by now at least some of them would be available generically and cheaper. But there’s a great story here. The propellant in these inhalers used to be fluorocarbons, but these, as we know, destroy the ozone layer and contribute to a lot of bad environmental effects. So they were made illegal, and the pharmaceutical manufacturers had to replace them with environmentally safe propellants. Good for the environment. Unfortunately, bad for KF and millions of other people with asthma; using a different propellant meant that the drug was a “new formulation”, which allowed the drug makers to extend their patents for many years. So low-cost inhaled steroids are still not available. This is a cruel joke, but it is not a joke. The pharmaceutical companies will not suffer; only patients will.
AG, PS, DR, MT, and KF were all people we cared for in one week, and they were not the only ones with a primary diagnosis of lack of health insurance coverage. Of course, we also took care of lots of sick people with health insurance; I don’t work in a “safety net” hospital. People with insurance, even with good insurance (and certainly not all insurance is “good”, not all insurance covers necessary medications and tests) also get serious diseases and need to be hospitalized. But the people whose stories I have told, and others I have not discussed, stand out because they didn’t have to be as sick as they were and require the costly services that they did. That they were, and did, is not only immoral and bad medicine, it is bad economics. It is inexcusable.
Maybe DR and MT would not have had kidney failure and need dialysis if they had Medicare or any other kind of coverage before needing it. Maybe everybody should have Medicare. In a future blog, I’ll discuss the proposals to “save Medicare” that are currently being floated, but now I’d just like to have some thought given to saving these actual people. Got any ideas?