Saturday, August 30, 2014
The New York Times of August 23, 2014, contains a front-page story by Matthew L. Wald with good news. The use of blood in the US has gone down, because the need has gone down significantly: a decline of almost one-third over the last five years. One big reason is that new surgical techniques, such as laparoscopy and other “minimally-invasive” methods, have replaced many of the traditional “cut someone open” surgeries, so there is thus less blood loss and less need for transfusion. The other reason is that guidelines for blood transfusion have been more standardized and made more stringent, so that only people who really need blood get it rather than it being administered “routinely” to people after certain kinds of surgery. Certainly, in my institution, the physician who is director of our blood bank keeps a close eye on transfusions being ordered for people whose blood counts are above the generally-recommended cut-offs (provided of course, that they are not actively hemorrhaging). Since blood transfusion, like any other treatment, can have negative effects (the transmission of viral diseases like Hepatitis B and C, and HIV are not very significant any more now that we can test for them, but transfusion reactions still occur, especially in those who have multiple transfusions), it is obviously a good idea to limit them to only when they are really needed. Wald notes other reasons:
…new guidelines emphasize treating patients for anemia [my note: not with transfusions but with treatments that encourage the body to make more of its own blood, such as iron] in the weeks before surgery to minimize the need for transfusions. Cancer therapies have also changed in a way that reduces transfusion needs. So has surgery: In a total hip replacement, loss of 750 milliliters of blood, about 1.5 pints, was considered standard; now it is just 200 milliliters.
So it is a little surprising that the title of the article is in the negative: “Blood industry hurt by surplus” in the print edition (a little less negative, “Blood industry shrinks as transfusions decline” in the on-line version), and much of its thrust is about how this decreased need for blood and associated pressure from its purchasers (mostly hospitals) for lower prices is leading to decreased profits, industry consolidation, and worker layoffs. I assume that (based on the fact that the on-line version is part of “Business Day”) that this is in part because it is a business article and that Mr. Wald is a business reporter, not a health reporter. I guess it is indeed too bad for the owners of the for-profit blood banks (as opposed to the non-profit American Red Cross), and it is really bad for the workers, many of whom seem to be represented by the Communication Workers of America, who are losing their jobs. But from a health point of view, the fact that people are only getting blood transfusions when they really need them, and that the frequency of that need is declining, is a very positive development.
One of the more interesting points that Wald makes is the cost of blood products:
Nonprofit organizations collect whole blood from unpaid donors, but hospitals may pay $225 to $240 a unit, according to executives in the business, which covers a variety of costs, including testing. If the unit is billed to the patient, the price can be $1,000 or more.
That’s quite the markup. The markup from unpaid donors to the cost to hospitals is in part explained by the cost “…for storage, management and inventory losses; around a million units a year are discarded, mostly because they are not used soon enough.” Fair enough; these are real costs that must be covered, and the blood banks are bearing them, and hospitals want to pay less for the blood. Less justifiable is the markup by the hospitals, from less than $250 to over $1,000 per unit of blood, although as I have often discussed, this is not atypical for hospital charges. Once again, this is an example of business interest (maximizing profit, even in non-profit hospitals) diverges from the health interest of people (to get their care at a reasonable cost).
The treatment of positive health developments as negative business developments is not new, or unique to blood banking. If more care can be safely and effectively delivered in the outpatient setting, so that hospital admissions decrease, it may be bad for hospital business but it is good for people. If cheap drugs are effective for preventing or treating serious medical conditions (like aspirin to prevent heart attack in men or stroke in women, or folic acid – a vitamin – given to pregnant women to prevent neurologic defects in babies), it may be bad for companies making more expensive drugs to do the same thing, but it is good for people. Conversely, when a previously generic and cheap drug is allowed by a glitch in federal law to be patented, it is good for business but bad for patients (this actually happened in the case of the anti-gout drug colchicine; see the April 16, 2010 guest blog by R. Steven Griffith, VISA and colchicine: maybe the banks and Pharma really ARE in it for the money!). If we have duplication (or triplication, or quadruplication, or whatever) of expensive health care services so that there are more cancer centers, or MRI machines, or transplant centers than a community needs, it may be perceived as necessary for that individual hospital to “compete” but it costs our health system (that is, us all) more money.
What is interesting about this article is the difference in how the cost of health care services are treated by a business reporter (good or bad for business) and how they are treated by a health reporter such as Elisabeth Rosenthal, whose series of NY Times articles (e.g., “The $2.7 Trillion medical bill”) extensively document the high costs and markups in health care. The question for the rest of us is what we feel is more important, business profits or quality cost-effective health care, without unnecessary markups or excessive redundancy in capacity. It is sad when jobs are eliminated because certainly our people need jobs, but that is another question.
I think I am pretty clear on where I stand.
Saturday, August 23, 2014
“Second chance med school”, by Anemona Harticollis in the New York Times July 31, 2014, is the most recent treatment of the topic of for-profit Caribbean medical schools that train American students who, in most cases, were unable to gain admission to traditional US-based schools. This is not the first time Ms. Harticollis has covered the story; they are also the subject of her article in the Times from December 22, 2010, “Medical schools in region fight Caribbean flow”, which focused on the fear of US schools that these Caribbean schools are willing to pay for the use of clinical teaching spots in hospitals that these US-based schools have been using for free. This most recent piece focuses on St. George’s University in Grenada, one of the more established and better-regarded Caribbean schools. It was briefly famous when protection of its students was one of the justifications for President Ronald Reagan’s invasion of that country in 1983. The article also mentions the other three schools that have been approved for US loans by the Department of Education. However, beyond this, and despite Harticollis’ efforts, the discussion gets murky on two counts: which Caribbean schools are under discussion, and what are the issues of concern.
Harticollis notes that
There are more than 70 medical schools across the Caribbean, about half of them catering to Americans. A handful — including St. George’s, Saba University, Ross University in Dominica and American University of the Caribbean in St. Maarten, all of which are for-profit — have qualified for federal financial aid programs by demonstrating that their standards are comparable to those in the United States. And they report that high numbers of their test-takers — 95 percent or more — pass the United States Medical Licensing Exam Step 1, a basic science test.
But quality is all over the map in the Caribbean. A 2008 study in the journal Academic Medicine looked at 14 schools and found that the first-time pass rate on the exam ranged from 19 percent to 84 percent. Countries whose schools performed lowest were the Cayman Islands, Haiti, Cuba, Aruba, Dominican Republic, Antigua and Barbuda and, the lowest, St. Lucia, which hosted four medical schools at the time. High performers were in Jamaica, Barbados, Dominica and, the highest, Grenada.
It is irrelevant to the discussion of American medical students going to the Caribbean to look at the national medical schools in Caribbean (or any other) countries; it is only relevant to look at those which were created to educate Americans, and for the purpose of this discussion to limit it to the four that have Department of Education approval. The next thing is to understand that what is “good” or “bad” about any of these schools, or whether they should exist altogether, depends on who is looking and what their interests are. From the point of view of the individuals or companies that own these schools, the motivation is profit, but having a high-quality product increases their enrollment. From the point of view of students enrolling, the motivation is a chance to become physicians and practice in the US. From the point of view of those who are responsible for the academics of the schools themselves, it is to support students, provide a good education, and help them to be successful. From the point of view of many American medical schools, it may be to limit competition, whether that is for clinical teaching spots in hospitals such as those of the New York City public hospitals or for good students.
Most US allopathic medical schools, and their trade association, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), disparage the Caribbean medical schools in terms of quality of the students that they accept, since the majority of those attending such schools have failed to gain admission to AAMC member schools. However, since most of these AAMC schools have recently or are in the process of expanding their own classes, they must believe that there are well-qualified students who are not currently being admitted, and many of these have ended up in Caribbean schools. When AAMC campaigns to disparage the Caribbean schools, they tend to lump them all together, rather than looking at individual schools or only the 4 listed above. Unquestionably, students even at these four schools have, on average, lower grade-point averages (GPAs) and Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) scores, and may, on average, not do as well on the USMLE exams as those from US allopathic schools, but there is great overlap. On the other hand, what is perhaps the most concerning part of education at the Caribbean schools is their clinical training – where they learn clinical medicine in the last two years of school. Are the doctors teaching them and the institutions in which they practice of high quality? Is there a well-defined curriculum? Is there standardization of the curriculum so that they can be confident that students are learning what they need to whether they are doing, say, a surgery clerkship in a NYC public hospital or a community hospital in Michigan? However, when AAMC schools are fighting with them about whether they should be able to have spots at the same places US medical schools use – say, NYC public hospitals – this point is also moot.
The most important perspective, of course, is not that of the students, the owners or faculty of the Caribbean schools, or that of the US schools and the AAMC. It is that of the American people and whether they will have access to physicians who will provide excellent care for them. The measures that are usually used for assessing the “quality” of applicants and students – MCAT and GPA and USMLE Step 1 scores – are at best peripheral, since, as I have often argued, they are scarcely relevant to being a good doctor. Does it matter that a doctor didn’t focus when they were a freshman in college and so got C’s, and so even after doing well for 3 years had a lower GPA than another? Should the chance to become a doctor be a reward for having your nose to the academic grindstone your whole life without surcease, or an opportunity for those with skill, passion, and commitment? I have often argued that the way to judge a medical school is by what its graduates do with their lives, and that the percent that enter primary care and practice in underserved areas is a major criterion. It is fine to have some of your graduates doing laboratory research or entering narrow subspecialties, but a school should be judged on its overall output and how well it provides for the needs of our nation.
There is some concern that because of recent agreements between the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME), which accredits allopathic (MD) residencies and the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), which accredits DO residencies, that osteopathic graduates will be more welcome in allopathic residencies, tending to crowd out Caribbean graduates. I would doubt that this will be an issue in the Midwest, where osteopathy is strong and most residencies already tend to prefer DOs to Caribbean grads, but it might have an impact in the East, where osteopathy is less present, and where I hear that information pre-med students get from peers (and perhaps sometimes pre-med advisors) is that Caribbean schools are preferable to US-based osteopathic schools.
Like osteopathic schools, Caribbean medical schools, including the 4 DOE-certified schools, place a much higher percentage of their graduates into primary care than do US-based allopathic schools. Is this just a result of the fact that primary care residencies are less competitive than many other specialties, so easier for students from Caribbean schools to get into? Unquestionably, this is part of the explanation, but there is also more encouragement for primary care in these schools, which do not boast a huge research enterprise or maintain tertiary-care hospitals. It also doesn’t change the fact that graduates of these schools, like many international graduates who were not US citizens, are serving the needs of our country because the US schools are not stepping up to the plate. US medical schools are very selective about taking students with high grades, and putting most of them into oversupplied specialties.
The education at Caribbean schools varies, and it would be a mistake to say that they are doing a better job than US allopathic schools. However, US schools are doing a poor job of training the doctors America needs, of ensuring that all people have equal access to quality health care, and the students graduating from Caribbean schools are often filling the holes that they leave.
Those who live in glass houses…
Saturday, August 16, 2014
The social determinants of health are those factors that affect people’s health status that are the result of the social situation in which they find themselves. Thus, in the well-known graphic from Healthy People 2010 (dropped, for some reason, from Healthy People 2020), which I have reproduced several times, they complement the other determinants such as the biological (genetics), but are represented in most of the other areas. Physical environment and socioeconomic environment, certainly, but even “behaviors” are affected by the circumstances into which one is born and lives. So is biology, actually, as we learn more about genetic coding predisposing some people to addictive behaviors. Certainly it is not all volitional or evidence of weak character.
The social determinants of health can be partially enumerated, and include adequate housing (including sufficient heat in the winter), adequate food, education, and also a reasonable amount of nurturingand support from your family. In short, they are “the rest of life”, outside and often ignored by the healthcare system. Camara Phyllis Jones, in her wonderful “cliff analogy” (which I have also reproduced before) creates a metaphor in which medical care services are provided for those who need them (or “fall into them”) along a cliff face, while the social determinants of health are represented by how far a person, or a group of people, lives from that cliff face. As such, it illustrates the degree of protection that we all have from falling off that cliff, more for some and less for others.
One of the clearest ways to show the impact of these determinants is by a technique called “geo-mapping” in which certain characteristics (income, educational level, gang violence, drug use, number of grocery stores or liquor stores, public transportation routes, whatever you can think of) are laid over maps of a city, town, or region. We have seen these portrayed on TV or in the newspapers as national and state maps for political events (such as what areas voted for who), but they can also be very useful for understanding the different challenges faces by people living in different areas. The work of Steven Woolf and his colleagues at Virginia Commonwealth University has greatly contributed to this work; in addition to their incredibly useful County Health Calculator, has produced graphs that can be found on the Robert Wood Johnson Commission for a Healthier America site that show how life expectancy can vary dramatically in different neighborhoods, as in the map displayed of the Washington, DC area, mapped along Metro lines for greater effect, or the one of my area, Kansas City, Missouri (which doesn’t have a Metro!)
A recent contribution to this field has been made by Melody S. Goodman and Keon L. Gilbert, of Washington University in St. Louis, who mapped the dramatic differences across Delmar Boulevard in that city, in “Divided cities lead to differences in health”. Their graphic shows the disparities in education, income, and housing value, and, unsurprising, racial composition, on either side of Delmar. This work was covered in a BBC documentary. Dr. Goodman, speaking to a symposium from her alma mater, the Harvard School of Public Health, is quoted as saying “Your zip code is a better predictor of your health than your genetic code.”
This is a pretty sad commentary, given not only the incredible amount of money that has been spent on unraveling the genetic code but the amount of faith and expectation that we have been convinced to have in how this new genetic knowledge will facilitate our health. By knowing what we are at risk for, genetically, the argument goes, science can work on “cures” that target the specific genes. This is a topic for a different discussion, but in brief one problem is that the most common diseases we suffer from are not the result of a single gene abnormality. It is probable that, at least in the short-to-medium term, knowledge of our genetics will be more likely to lead to higher life insurance rates than cures of our diseases. The more profound issue, however, is that there is evidence from the social determinants of health, from the work of Woolf and Goodman and many others, that we do not address the causes of ill health even when we know what they are.
Why is this so? Why is there such great resistance to understanding, believing, that investment in housing, education, jobs, and opportunities will have a much greater impact on people’s health than more and more money spent on high-tech medical care (and, of course, profit for not only the providers, but the drug and device companies and middleman insurance companies)? It is in part because we hope (and, when we are more privileged, expect) that we will be the beneficiaries. And it is also because we choose to believe that those who do not have the benefits we have (of money, education, family) somehow “deserve” it because of character flaws.
The issue of “fault” is articulately addressed by Nicholas Kristof in a New York Times Op-Ed on August 10, 2014, “Is a hard life inherited?” Kristof argues that it is, not genetically but because the circumstances to which one is born and in which one grows up, the presence of caring parents who read to you rather than beat you, who take care of you instead of abusing drugs, as well as adequate food and housing make a tremendous difference in how you turn out.
Indeed, another major study by Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander, to be published in his “life’s work”, “The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and Transition to Adulthood”, and covered on NPR, confirms this. Alexander and his colleagues tracked nearly 800 children for more than 20 years, and found that those from less privileged backgrounds with lower incomes and less supportive families did worse. Only 33 of the children moved from the low income to the high income bracket. Problems with drugs and alcohol were more prevalent among white males than other groups, but they did better financially anyway. Some people, rarely, overcome the deck being stacked against them, but most of those who do well after being born with relative privilege would likely not be among them had they been in the same situation. Kristof writes:
ONE delusion common among America’s successful people is that they triumphed just because of hard work and intelligence. In fact, their big break came when they were conceived in middle-class American families who loved them, read them stories, and nurtured them with Little League sports, library cards and music lessons. They were programmed for success by the time they were zygotes. Yet many are oblivious of their own advantages, and of other people’s disadvantages. The result is a meanspiritedness in the political world or, at best, a lack of empathy toward those struggling…
That lack of empathy leads to a lack of action; we are willing to accept people living in conditions that we would never accept for our family and neighbors, not only across the globe but across town, or even across a street. From the point of view of health, our priorities and investments are misplaced when we do not address the social determinants of health as well as cures for disease. When we do not try to change the known factors of zip code that impact our health as we investigate those of the genetic code.
If there are to be “cures” that come from our understanding of genetics, there is every reason to expect that they will be one more thing that is available to the people on the south side of Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis long before they are to those on the north side of the street.
 Jones CP, Jones CY, Perry GS, “Addressing the social determinants of children’s health: a cliff analogy”, Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 2009Nov;20(4):supplement pp 1-12. DOI: 10.1353/hpu.0.0228
Saturday, August 9, 2014
The title of Alan Bavley’s article, “Kansas is only state to see an increase in its uninsured rate, survey says”, (Kansas City Star, August 5, 2014) kind of says it all. It could be seen as a victory by some. Four years after the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), aimed at expanding health coverage to more Americans by a combination of strategies including the creation of both state-run and federally-run (for those states that chose not to run their own) insurance exchanges to match people seeking coverage with insurance companies and subsidizing premiums for the moderately low-income, and expanding Medicaid for the very low-income, Kansas has succeeded in actually reducing the number of people covered!
The adult uninsured rate in Kansas rose from 12.5 percent last year to 17.6 percent during the first half of this year, giving the state the seventh-highest rate in the nation, according to data collected as part of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index…. in other states uninsured rates declined or remained unchanged. Kansas was the only state with a statistically significant increase in the percentage of uninsured residents.
One could construct a fantasy out of whole cloth demonstrating how this proves why the opponents of the ACA were right all along; that it is not increasing health care coverage because it is evil and socialist, and that the increased costs for some people, along with cuts in the number of employed folks because of policies that do not always support “job creators” (read: very rich people) have decreased our employer-based insured group. Of course, that would be incorrect, but I expect to see it anyway.
In fact, those governing my state have worked very hard to make this happen. Governor Brownback and most of the state legislature are strong opponents of Obamacare, and have done what they could to make it not succeed. When the Supreme Court ruling allowed states to opt out of expanding Medicaid, Kansas did so, eliminating the very poor (under 133% of poverty) from the method the law intended for them to receive coverage. Kansas also chose not to develop a state-run insurance exchange and pu up as many obstacles as it could to the federally-run one. One of two Court of Appeals decisions (discussed in this blog in ACA: Where are we? And where should we go?, July 27, 2014) ruled that subsidies could be available only to enrollees in state-run exchanges (which Kansas doesn’t have); it hasn’t gone into effect yet, because another district’s Court ruled the other way, so we will have to wait for the Supreme Court to decide, but if it is upheld would bolster the number of Kansans not getting insurance.
But a decrease in the number of insured? The only one? Surely that is a notable accomplishment. How did we pull that off? “’It’s eye-popping. Kansas really sticks out,’ said Dan Witters, research director for the Well-Being Index, an ongoing national poll that surveys people’s health, relationships and finances.” For starters, it could, possibly, not be exactly true, but a data anomaly of the survey somehow. This is basically the position of the state’s Insurance Commissioner, Sandy Praeger, who said
…the number “appears to be an anomaly that needs more review. To have the uninsured jump that much in one year would be unprecedented.” The uninsured numbers in Kansas have hovered around 12 to 13 percent for many years, Praeger said, adding, “We will try to find out where the discrepancy is.”
This is worth noting, as Praeger is one of the few honest, trustworthy, and non-ideological members of state government in Kansas. Note that she does not claim that it is a liberal lie, or that it is a good thing, but just that it is inconsistent with previous data and she will try to find out why there is a discrepancy. If that is the reason, I’m sure she will.
But there are reasons to think that the numbers may not be inaccurate, even if they turn out not to be quite as bad as this survey indicates. Since the election of Governor Brownback in 2010, and with the support of the legislature, taxes in Kansas have been slashed, particularly income tax rates on high-income people and corporations and business taxes. The motivation was a profound belief in supply-side economics, that tax cuts would stimulate job growth. Unfortunately, it has not. Job growth in Kansas has been more sluggish than in the country as a whole, and the state is facing enormous deficits. Cuts in spending have been dramatic, but the problem is, in fact, on the supply side – not enough tax revenue. People don’t have jobs, and thus often don’t have enough income to qualify themselves for the exchanges, even if subsidies are allowed by SCOTUS to continue. The state has a very large number of undocumented workers (and most are indeed working, or in families of people working) who would not be eligible for coverage by any part of ACA, and can only get it if their employers pay for it. Which many do not.
While many states with Republican governors have pursued many of the same tacks as Kansas, including limiting the impact of ACA and cutting taxes, Kansas has been in many ways a test case for these strategies, even more than Wisconsin, because of its strong Republican tradition. Americans for Prosperity has a very strong political and financial influence in the state, and it is heavily financed by the Koch brothers whose Koch Industries is based in Wichita, Kansas (where Charles Koch still lives). Cutting taxes for the wealthy and corporations, and blocking any opposition to fossil fuel expansion, is the cornerstone of state politics, not ensuring the health or well-being of its residents.
In a larger sense, however, this is more than a story about Kansas. It may be the only state with a statistically significant increase in uninsured in the last year, but it is far from the state with the largest percentage of uninsured. Many other states that have not expanded Medicaid, and cut social services, have similar situations. Sadly, of course, many of these states (particularly in the southeast) started pretty far down, much worse than Kansas did, and have dug themselves deeper in the hole. The real story, I think, is in the states that, despite being southern and conservative, have chosen to expand Medicaid, and have seen real benefit for their people.
The Gallup poll found that the 10 states with the largest reductions in uninsured rates this year had all expanded their Medicaid programs and had either created their own exchanges or partnered with the federal government on an exchange. Arkansas saw the steepest decline, from 22.5 percent uninsured in 2013 to 12.4 percent this year. Kentucky was second with a decline from 20.4 percent uninsured to 11.9 percent.
Good policies can actually help. The state with the actual highest rate of uninsured people is Texas. “Look out, Texas,” Governor Brownback stated in announcing his original tax cuts, “here comes Kansas!” He was talking about job growth, which we haven’t achieved, but we are making much more progress on denying people access to healthcare coverage.