Sunday, October 22, 2017

Guns and the Public's Health: what can we do?

 "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

Recognize those words? The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, what all the fuss is about. In addition to the confusing use of commas, apparently more generously applied in the 18th century, we have two key phrases. The final phrase, “shall not be infringed”, is read by the NRA and other “gun rights” zealots (and it is important to remember that only a minority of NRA members, and a smaller minority of gun owners, support this position) to mean essentially “no legislation regulating guns in any way”. That includes assault rifles, semi-automatic and maybe even automatic rifles, armor-piercing (“cop killer”) bullets, and any other weapon or gun modification that creative minds can come up with. Of course, it has been noted that none of these types of weapons were available at the time of the Constitution, when firearms were muzzle-loaded muskets, quite different from current weapons (see graphic).

The NRA take the position that there is qualitatively no difference, as noted by its President, Wayne LaPierre, after the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School: "Absolutes do exist. We are as ‘absolutist’ as the Founding Fathers and framers of the Constitution. And we’re proud of it!" Others (including me, in case you were wondering) would disagree, and say that clearly at some point the quantitative difference becomes qualitative. This is the only amendment they are absolutist about; the First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech…”, but it has long been settled that it is not OK to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

The other obviously important phrase is “A well regulated Militia”. Again, obviously, this has been the source of much discussion, with the NRA taking the position that “Militia” just means “everyone” (kind of a stretch), and (as far as I can tell) “well regulated” means, um, not regulated at all. Is this cherry picking the words one wants? Maybe, but I can’t imagine how it is possible to ignore completely the words “well regulated”. But does it matter? Yes, when we live in a country where
The 36,252 deaths from firearms in the United States in 2015 exceeded the number of deaths from motor vehicle traffic crashes that year (36,161). That same year, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 5 people died from terrorism. Since 1968, more individuals in the United States have died from gun violence than in battle during all the wars the country has fought since its inception.
-Bauchner et al., Death by Gun Violence—A Public Health Crisis, JAMA, October 9, 2017[1]

Those are staggering numbers, and certainly justify the assertion that it is a “public health crisis”.

The authors also note that “60.7% of the gun deaths in 2015 in the United States were suicides, a fact often ignored. That is a majority. A large majority. If it were an election, 60.7% would be considered a landslide. But with guns it is a mudslide of death. I have written before about suicide (e.g, Suicide: What can we say? December 13, 2013, Suicide in doctors and others: remembering and preventing it if we can September 14, 2014, Prevention and the “Trap of Meaning” July 29, 2009) and its impact on myself and my family, with my son’s successful suicide-by-gun at the age of 24. My son, to my knowledge, had never used a gun before his final act. He lived in a state and city with strict gun control laws (some of which, sadly, have been eliminated by the courts). He was nonetheless able to go to another state, buy a carbine (terrific choice! No permit needed, even in those days, like a handgun would require, but short enough to reach the trigger with the barrel in his mouth!), and use it. It would be easier now, in that state and many others.

My son was apparently very committed to this act, and was successful despite some obstacles. But for many, many people it is the availability of guns that make a spur-of-the-moment decision lethal. I have noted before that nearly 95% of suicide attempts by gun are lethal while less than 5% by drug overdose are. My clinical experience is that many suicide survivors do not repeat their attempts (though many do). The successful suicide rate for young adult males in low gun control states is several times higher than in high gun control states. And on and on.

But the epidemic of suicide and murder and mass murders resulting from the easy availability of guns has not changed the legal landscape. After the Las Vegas massacre, there was a small ray of hope that maybe one of the most egregious products the white terrorist Stephen Paddock used, the “bump stocks” that effectively convert semi-automatic to automatic rifles, might be limited; even the NRA voiced some possible support. But never underestimate the cowardice and lack of moral fiber of the Congress; Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has suggested that this be done by regulation rather than legislation. This is absolutely because it will not require any congressperson to actually vote for it and thus be targeted by the zealots in the next election. Hopefully, not literally targeted by guns, but do not forget Gabby Giffords and Steve Scalise!

Dr. Bauchner, who is the editor-in-chief of JAMA, also joined the editors of several of the other most prestigious US medical journals, New England Journal of Medicine, Annals of Internal Medicine, and PLOS Medicine in an editorial that appeared in all their journals (this link is the the NEJM), ‘Firearm-Related Injury and Death — A U.S. Health Care Crisis in Need of Health Care Professionals’.[2] Again, this emphasizes the fact that guns are a public health epidemic in the US, and that there is little likelihood of anything being done at the federal level to stem its carnage. It recognizes that there is a variable response at the state level, with some states going as far as trying to legally prohibit physicians from asking about guns in the home (Florida; since struck down by the courts) while others have had stronger regulations. Many legislatures have also acted to prevent the cities in their states from acting independently to regulate guns in any way. One of the most insane was the state of Arizona suing to prevent the city of Tucson from destroying guns seized from criminals. The legislature mandated that they be sold – thus keeping them on the streets – and the Arizona Supreme Court upheld this, saying state law trumped local ordinances!

Given this situation, the joint editorial suggests that there are many things that physicians can and should do, including (quoted):
·        Educate yourself. Read the background materials and proposals for sensible firearm legislation from health care professional organizations. Make a phone call and write a letter to your local, state, and federal legislators to tell them how you feel about gun control. Now. Don’t wait. And do it again at regular intervals. Attend public meetings with these officials and speak up loudly as a health care professional. Demand answers, commitments, and follow-up. Go to rallies. Join, volunteer for, or donate to organizations fighting for sensible firearm legislation. Ask candidates for public office where they stand and vote for those with stances that mitigate firearm-related injury.
·        Meet with the leaders at your own institutions to discuss how to leverage your organization’s influence with local, state, and federal governments. Don’t let concerns for perceived political consequences get in the way of advocating for the well-being of your patients and the public. Let your community know where your institution stands and what you are doing. Tell the press.
·        Educate yourself about gun safety. Ask your patients if there are guns at home. How are they stored? Are there children or others at risk for harming themselves or others? Direct them to resources to decrease the risk for firearm injury, just as you already do for other health risks. Ask if your patients believe having guns at home makes them safer, despite evidence that they increase the risk for homicide, suicide, and accidents. [this is what the Florida law would have made illegal]
·        Don’t be silent.

The first (JAMA) editorial says:
Guns kill people….the key to reducing firearm deaths in the United States is to understand and reduce exposure to the cause, just like in any epidemic, and in this case that is guns.

The fact is that while physicians have influence and moral authority, so do other health professionals, and, in fact, so do all of us. So the advice must pertain to all of us.

Don’t be silent.





[1] Bauchner H, Rivara FP, Bonow RO, Death by gun violence—a public health crisis, JAMA online Oct 9, 2017, doi:10.100/jama.2017.16446
[2] Taichman DB, Bauchner H, Drazen JM, Laine C, Peipert L, Firearm-Related Injury and Death — A U.S. Health Care Crisis in Need of Health Care Professionals’, October 9, 2017DOI: 10.1056/NEJMe1713355

Friday, October 13, 2017

Fake news, fake facts, and fake science: making stuff up to justify hurting people and the planet

The flood of “fake news” threatens serious damage to our society as surely as floods have recently destroyed much of the Caribbean and coastal US or fires have burned up much of Northern California. While it is President Trump (whom I call the #Trumpenik, from the Yiddish “trombenik”, a lazy person or ne'er-do-well; a boastful loudmouth) who uses the term most often, in fact it is he and his allies who create most of the falsehoods. A central and terrifying one is the denial by the President and his EPA of global warming, certainly linked to the increase in horrific storms and fires, and the counter-scientific efforts of his administration to make it worse by increasing the burning of fossil fuels and refusing efforts to contain climate change despite the fact that it is “Trump country” that is supplying much of our nation’s alternative energy

Key to this fake news is the use of “fake facts” to support reactionary political agendas. While these agendas are mostly about making more money for the richest people and corporations rather than the middle and working-class Americans who support them, they also exploit a bizarre antipathy toward science among a good hunk of our population. (One explanation is that science sometimes reveals facts that are incompatible with pre-existing beliefs, so we reject them. However, the Catholic Church finally got over its opposition to Galileo, so maybe there is, eventually, hope.) Indeed, these people don't oppose all scientific facts, but rather those that make them uncomfortable despite being true. This is suggested by the efforts to manufacture false “scientific” facts to buttress social agendas. A prominent example is the use of “fetal pain syndrome” to justify efforts to limit access to abortion, particularly in the second trimester. The flaw here, of course, is that the evidence for fetal pain is slim to none, certainly before the third trimester, as shown is several reviews of the literature, and discussed at length in this article in Popular Science. LiveScience.com notes that “The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) said it considers the case to be closed as to whether a fetus can feel pain at that stage [20 weeks] in development.” Of course, while the number of people who would change their positions on the availability of second-trimester abortion if they believed that the fetus experienced pain during the procedure would be small to minimal, it provides a convenient, if false, cover for efforts to restrict access, including a House bill that passed just this month in Congress.

This use of fake facts and junk science has recently been expanded beyond restricting abortion to efforts to limit access to contraception for women. Let’s get this completely straight: access to contraception has been a terrific thing. It has given women – and men – much greater control of their reproduction, dramatically reduced the incidence of unintentional pregnancy (although this still remains far too high), and, duh!, even reduced the incidence of abortion. While the decision to use contraception should and does remain up to the individuals involved, it needs to be easily available to them. Thus access is critical. For many – including but not limited to teens – access is, instead, very limited, and there are ongoing efforts in Congress and in many states to further restrict it. Particularly onerous and vile is the effort of the Trump administration to roll back the ACA’s mandate for insurers to cover birth control, pandering to the religious right.

A terrific piece by Aaron Carroll on October 10, 2017 in the NY Times, “Doubtful science behind arguments to restrict birth control access”, details and refutes the bogus claims made by those who want, bizarrely, to do so. These include the idea that access to contraception has not reduced unintended pregnancy (it absolutely and most assuredly has, and greater availability would further reduce it). The Trump (and at the time, Tom Price-led) Department of Health and Human Services used cherry-picked and archaic data to support its tortured argument. Carroll notes that “In 2011, the unintended pregnancy rate hit a 30-year low. And the teenage pregnancy rate and teenage birthrate right now are at record lows in the United States. This is largely explained by the use of reliable and highly effective contraception.”

HHS also argues that there are health risks, especially from hormonal contraceptives. There are, of course, but there are health risks and side effects from any drug treatment, and the risk of harm from the treatment has to be weighed against the probability of benefit. Ironically, in the care of hormonal contraception, the most significant side effects (both symptoms and even blood clots) are similar to (if generally less severe than) those from the condition contraception is designed to prevent – pregnancy. That is, not using contraception because of concern about these side effects and then getting pregnant increases the risk of these adverse events!

The bugbear for religious conservatives in this debate is their fear that contraceptive availability will increase people – especially teens -- having sex, but for the rest of us the concern is how this would impact the unintended pregnancy rate. Carroll cites a “2016 study in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that the unintended pregnancy rate among women who earn less than the federal poverty line was two to three times the national average in 2011. An earlier study showed that in the years before, that rate was up to five times higher.” From a cost point of view, the study’s author, Jeffrey Peipert, notes that “Every dollar of public funding invested in family planning saves taxpayers at least $3.74 in pregnancy-related costs.” For women (and their partners), especially those who are low-income or teens, the direct cost for contraception is sometimes prohibitive, especially for the most effect type of contraception, long-acting reversible contraception (LARC), IUDs and hormonal implants, that have a high one-time up-front cost. It is the programs to make these more affordable and available are exactly the ones being targeted for major cuts. And, in the “adding insult to injury” department, the justification for cutting some programs is sometimes the existence of other programs, which are also being targeted for cuts!

The use of junk science, sadly but unsurprisingly, is not limited to contraception, abortion and even climate change. In a Viewpoint piece published in JAMA, October 10, 2017, “Flawed theories to explain child physical abuse”, John Leventhal documents a new trend in legal cases of child abuse. Defense attorneys bring in “medical experts” who testify that something else could have caused the child’s injuries. These include real diseases that could cause the findings but are both uncommon and can be ruled out with proper workup, real diseases that are very uncommon and unlikely to cause the findings, and essentially made-up conditions to explain the findings. Since child abuse is generally not a controversial area (nobody claims to be in favor of it!) the reasons for this seem to be mainly personal gain – such “experts” make big money for this testimony. There are not that many real experts in child trauma willing to offer absurd pseud-explanations for the injury, so there will be fewer of you willing to testify in defense of the perpetrators, so you again stand to make a lot more money.

In any case, the use of fake or fraudulent science and fake facts to support political agendas is one of the many bad things growing in the fertile “don’t try to tell me the facts” environment in Trumpian politics. The administration is now allied with “traditional” Republicans to facilitate rape of the planet in pursuit of gains for the wealthiest, and with “populists” in pursuit of social repression. There is some irony in that these advocates for “freedom” (e.g., from gun control) are so intent on denying it to others (e.g., gays, women, poor people, children), but apparently this is a long-standing US tradition (see: slavery), which inspired Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves,” There is also irony in the pursuit of the cloak of (fake) scientific facts to facilitate an anti-scientific agenda.

But the irony is not nearly sufficient satisfaction to mitigate the terror.  

Monday, September 25, 2017

How to prescribe a glucometer – or why I can’t support Medicaid-for-All

This is a guest post by Seiji Yamada, MD, MPH.
A shorter version recently appeared on the KevinMD blog, http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2017/09/heres-glucometer-turned-doctor-medicaid.html

In a recent Vox interview, Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii announced his plans to sponsor a bill to allow individuals without insurance to buy Medicaid coverage for themselves.  As a family doc who cares for patients on Medicaid in safety net clinics in Senator Schatz’s home state, I cannot support such a plan.

While private insurance companies offer supplemental insurance, Medicare continues to be run largely by the federal government.  In contrast, while Medicaid programs receive federal funding, they are largely run by state governments.  In a trend known as Medicaid managed care, in recent decades, states have been contracting out Medicaid to private insurance companies.

Prior to 1994, Hawaii’s state Medicaid system was run by HMSA, Hawaii’s Blue Cross/Blue Shield.  During the Clinton presidency, the buzzword was managed competition, the idea being that insurance corporations would compete on price to provide publicly funded health insurance.  Thus in 1994, the State of Hawaii devolved to managed care Medicaid and started farming out Medicaid to other corporations besides HMSA.  In 2009 Medicaid managed care was extended to the aged, blind, and disabled.
Medicaid also generally reimburses at lower rates than Medicare or private insurance.  (Senator Schatz proposes to fix this.)  However, low reimbursement is only one reason that physicians in private or group practice take few Medicaid patients today.  Another reason is the administrative hassles to care put up by insurance companies as well as the difficulties of dealing with multiple insurance companies.  Thus, Medicaid patients have relatively restricted networks of providers from which to choose.  Many are therefore seen by safety net providers such as Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) or training clinics.
The modern practice of medicine is complicated enough, but the different requirements and different formularies of different insurance companies complicates it to Kafkaesque levels.  I believe that the powerlessness and helplessness induced by this nightmarish bureaucracy is a major cause of physician burnout.  I want to give just one example.  Let us say that one of our patients has newly diagnosed diabetes.  Let us say that he has Medicaid.  Just to prescribe him a glucometer, I have to go through the following:
Patients on Medicaid must enroll with one of the following:  HMSA, AlohaCare, Ohana (WellCare), United Healthcare, and Kaiser.  I need to go to the insurance section of the patient’s Electronic Health Record (EHR) to find out which insurance corporation is responsible for this patient.  Then I go to The Prescribing Guide (http://prescribingguide.com/), a cheat sheet developed and maintained by my family medicine faculty colleague Chien-Wen Tseng, MD.  The prescribing guide tells me which brand of glucometer to prescribe.
Each insurer contracts with a different glucometer manufacturer, so I can’t just prescribe a generic glucometer.  I have to figure out whether to prescribe Freestyle, or OneTouch, or AccuChek.  Because the contracts are continually re-negotiated, the preferred brand can change every six months.  If you enter the wrong brand, the pharmacy will reject it and tell you to get a prior authorization.
Next, I have to identify the ICD-10 code that corresponds to the highest complexity of the patient’s diabetes.  Does she have nephropathy, or neuropathy, or ophthalmopathy?  I often have to review the patient’s labs to see if the creatinine/GFR is abnormal.  Am I going to place the patient on long-term insulin?  Because if I am, I can justify asking for test strips for more than once a day testing.  The number of times per day the glucose is to be measured, the ICD-10 code, and whether or not the patient is on insulin has to be on the prescription.  If not, the pharmacy will reject it.
Now that I have prescribed a glucometer, I can now start working on prescribing a diabetes medication.
And I’ve yet to address the fatigue, the blood pressure, or the back pain for which his friend’s oxycodone worked real good, Doc.
. . .
All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players” -Shakespeare
Was this theater of the absurd composed by Alfred Jarry?  Samuel Beckett?  No, this play was composed by the layers of business administration types that have piled onto the health care system over the past couple of decades to bring corporate-style efficiency to medicine.  Insurance companies limit their costs by imposing roadblocks.  By making it so time-consuming and so frustrating to get anything done, we physicians throw up our hands and decide, no it’s not worth the hassle to order a different medication or sophisticated tests.  Perhaps my patient gaining weight on a sulfonylurea would benefit from a glucagon-like peptide 1 receptor agonists or a sodium glucose transporter 2 inhibitors instead.  But the prior authorization form requires me to list the dates that the patient has taken every other diabetes medication she has ever been prescribed . . .
For those physicians who are employed by hospitals or other institutions, we are finding that our employers are engaging in an arms race with the insurers by hiring their own army of coders and billers.  These coders and billers find our documentation lacking in order to maximize return.  So now we are told to write addenda to chart notes entered months ago - in order to justify higher reimbursement.  These coders and billers shake their heads sadly and say to themselves, “Dr. Yamada, you are such an idiot.”
. . .
The new interns started in July.  When they were medical students, I taught them about the pathophysiology of diabetes, about the evidence base of what treatments have been shown to improve patient outcomes, about how to discuss lifestyle measures, about the social determinants of the development of diabetes.  Now that they’re interns, though – all of that goes out the window.  Now that they’re managing real patients, I teach them how to enter billing codes into the electronic health record, and how to get a glucometer covered by insurance.
They look at me with incredulity.  They are dumfounded by how irrational and Byzantine our health system is.  They realize that I am no longer teaching them medicine.  Because there is no time for that now.  There is only throughput.  Treat ‘em and street ‘em.
 “Welcome to the desert of the real,” I say.  “Get used to it.”
. . .
The MBAs who manage us physicians say, “It’s not about throughput.  It’s about quality.  We’re not going to pay you for throughput any more.  We’re going to pay for performance.  We don’t care how many times you see the patient.  We only care about their A1cs.”
OK, then, tell me how you get better outcomes with a patient with diabetes without seeing them every once to talk with the patient about diet and exercise, to prescribe a glucometer so they can learn how diet and exercise affects their glucoses.  What is the point of telling the homeless patient to bring down their A1cs by eating more fresh vegetables?  What use is the A1c when the patient has cancer?  What does the patient dealing with domestic violence care about her A1c?  To measure the quality of care provided by a physician through A1cs is like the drunkard searching for his keys under the streetlight because that’s where the light is.  The A1c is easily measured.  Other aspects of medical care are not so easily assessed.
. . .
Insurance companies and their corporate mind-set have so thoroughly taken over American medicine that we can hardly see the forest for the trees any more.  EHRs, essentially designed for reimbursement purposes, define the patient encounter – such that physicians look only at their screens.  I can’t afford to make eye contact with my patients, or I’ll fall hopelessly behind.  Was there a time that we used to eat lunch?  Nowadays, lunchtime is for finishing with charting or dealing with phone calls.  Dealing with medication refills, or lab or x-ray results?  Planning for the patients on tomorrow’s schedule?  We do that in the evenings or weekends by remote access to the electronic health record.


Though Senator Schatz’s proposal would make Medicaid something like the public option that didn’t make it into the Affordable Care Act, it would likely leave intact insurance company-run Medicaid managed care – with its restricted networks and administrative hassles.  As a practicing physician, I would like to get corporate profits and the layers upon layers of bureaucrats out of medicine.  The American physician is in a predicament like that of Josef K in Kafka’s The Trial.  The rules are obscure and seem to be constantly changing.  We are never told what crime we committed to justify our being treated the way we are.  The sense of a lack of agency and helplessness induced is one major cause of physician burnout.  The practice of American medicine needs to be rationalized, so that we health workers can go back to focusing on the medicine.  Medicare for All is what we need.  Not all the inefficiencies and irrationalities of the modern practice of medicine will be fixed by Medicare for All – but patients and doctors need a way out of this Kafka novel.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

"Blockbuster" drug or slanted reporting: never forget "cui bono"

‘Drug Aimed at Inflammation May Lower Risk of Heart Disease and Cancer’, by Denise Grady in the New York Times, August 27, 2017, reports on a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, Antiinflammatory Therapy with Canakinumab for Atherosclerotic Disease’ by Paul M. Ricker, et al. The study, funded by the drug’s manufacturer, Novartis, examined the impact of the use of canakinumab (brand name: Ilaris) on heart attack survivors. The drug is in a class called “monoclonal antibody inhibitors” (as is almost anything ending in “…mab”); in its case, it inhibits antibodies known as “interleukin 1β”. The main effect is anti-inflammatory, which is why it was originally developed for treatment of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, an inflammatory disease. However, research showing that inflammation plays a major role in coronary artery disease (the cause of heart attacks) stimulated this large multi-center, drug-company sponsored, trial.

So what did the study show? Of the over 10,000 people in the study, those who were treated with canakinumab had lower rates of what the study designers defined as the “primary end point”, the main thing that they were looking for, “nonfatal myocardial infarction, nonfatal stroke, or cardiovascular death.” That is, did patients have another heart attack or stroke, whether they lived or died. The lower rates in the canakinumab groups were statistically significant, with the group that did the best, the middle-dose (they tested 3 different dosages), having 3.86 “events” per 100 person-years, compared to 4.50 for the placebo group. In absolute terms, there were, thus, 0.64 fewer “events” for each 100 person-years (which is a valid concept, one person taking a drug for 100 years, or 100 people for one year, or any combination in between).

There was, however, no significant difference in “all cause” mortality between the treated and untreated groups, mainly because of the increase in deaths from infections in those treated.  This is not surprising because the anti-inflammatory effect of canakinumab also decreases the body’s immune response. It is also not surprising that the people most likely to die of infection were those who were oldest and sickest in the first place. Six people developed tuberculosis.

Given that the cost of the drug is about $200,000 a year (think about that!), 100 person-years of treatment would cost $20,000,000. And for this price, 0.64 fewer people have a cardiac “event”, and no fewer people die. And some untold number suffering serious side effects from canakinumab, including the infections that occurred that didn’t kill them (not reported). These could be really serious – long hospitalizations for sepsis or pneumonia or cellulitis, non-fatal but significant events like amputations, etc. No wonder the Times article quotes Dr. David J. Maron, the director of preventive cardiology at Stanford University School of Medicine, as saying “This is fantastic”! Dr. Maron, I imagine, has terrific insurance.

Of course, it didn’t cost Novartis $200,000 a year for the drug for the study; that is the retail price that it plans to charge hospitals, insurers, and patients. We have no idea what the drug actually costs Novartis to manufacture; the price they will charge is based on the highly scientific formula called “what the market will bear”. For their own bizarre reasons (see Elizabeth Rosenthal’s “An American Sickness” and this commentary by Jacob Hacker) insurers may gladly pay for this drug (they get to keep a percent, and a higher price means a higher percent, and they just raise rates). Or they may get a discounted charge. Certainly, many poor and uninsured people are not likely to get it. Maybe – probably – Novartis will have a program for giving the drug for little or no money to poor people. But, given how common coronary heart disease (CHD) is, they are incredibly unlikely to give it for free to every uninsured person who has CHD. Maybe they’ll give them a discount, say 90%. Then the poor person would only have to pay $20,000 a year out of pocket. To reduce their risk of another coronary event by 0.0064 per year. And have no lower likelihood of dying. And a greater likelihood of severe infection. Maybe this is, after all, a boon to the poor and uninsured, as they are unlikely to get this terrific opportunity.

The other amazing thing is the actual story in the Times, and what that says about health journalism. As noted by the insightful Howard A. Rodman, the
·        Headline says: "Drug... May Lower Risk of Heart Disease and Cancer"
·        The 2nd paragraph tells us it is a "major milestone"
·        The 3rd paragraph quotes Dr. Maron saying "This is fantastic."
But then you have to scroll down to find
·        In the 5th paragraph, that the drug costs $200,000 per year. It's available only from Novartis, and that Novartis paid for the study.
·        And in the 7th paragraph, that the drug suppresses immune response. In the study, the number of deaths from drug-caused infections equaled the number of lives saved.
Lead with the positives, and then let us down later, maybe after those of us scanning the article have stopped reading.

Is the Times trying to mislead us? I don’t think so. I think that they want, however, to get our attention, get us reading, show us blockbusters. Blockbusters are good for getting attention. It is a big article for the New England Journal of Medicine also. This is why there is a built-in prejudice in medical journals for publishing articles with positive results, and why the authors do their best to “spin” results to positive. As if the incredible amount of work they have put in to the study, not to mention the interest of the sponsor, in this case, a pharmaceutical company that makes the drug in question, was not sufficient impetus. After all, getting our attention is what it is all about; it is why reality TV is so big, and why a reality TV star is now POTUS; see Matt Taibbi’s piece “The Media Is the Villain – for Creating a World Dumb Enough for Trump”. He notes that “If a meteor crashes into jello night at the Playboy mansion, it doesn't matter if you send Edward R. Murrow to do the standup. Some things sell themselves.” Maybe a drug that treats a disease that treats heart disease isn’t that big, but it is big; after all, as Grady notes, “Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide and in the United States, where it killed nearly 634,000 people in 2015. Globally, it killed 15 million,” (paragraph 4, if you’re tracking it).

Neither does this mean that published scientific research is unreliable. Some of it is very good science (even this study is generally good science, despite the published report in NEJM and the coverage in the Times being unconscionably skewed to the positive). Some of it actually reports on drugs or other interventions that make a difference. Sadly, however, in addition to the “blockbuster” effect that the media (including medical journals) want to cover, those interventions that will make a lot of money for a company get more publicity. Especially when the company funds the research. Aspirin, by the way, is still cheap, and it is more effective than this drug, recommended by the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) for prevention of CHD in adults with greater than a 10% 10-year risk.

I tell medical and other health professions students (at all levels) that, although the Introduction and Discussion sections of the article may seem most interesting, the important parts to read are the Methods and Results, which have the meat (or soy, if you’re vegan) and from which you should draw your own conclusions, without the authors’ spin. If you’re not a health professional, and depend on the mass media for coverage, then you better read the whole article and not stop after the fanfare. It is the reporter’s job to provide the necessary information, but your job to read it wisely.

Certainly, health professional or reporter or consumer, look at who is funding the study. It is important information. And think about conflict of interest. And think, of course, about cui bono. It is likely to be the manufacturers, and maybe the researchers, and sometimes those who are wealthy or well-insured enough to get the drug or intervention (when it is of benefit).

And, surprise, it is never likely to be the poor, uninsured, or those most in need.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The frustration of actually trying to get health care: the other meaning of access

I have written about the quality of care that people in the US receive, and about access to and the cost of care, but another very important issue is the actual process of obtaining appropriate care. This is a major source of frustration for patients and their families, and can drive anger against the system, against doctors, against insurers, against the government. People who experience this frustration and anger want it to change, and sometimes want to lash out, offering an opportunity to be intentionally misled by influential others for their political ends. The demonization of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) is a good example. Obamacare actually did lots of good things, starting with insuring tens of millions who did not previously have coverage; it also forbid insurers from charging more to those with pre-existing conditions, and allowed children to stay on their parents’ plans until they are 26. Actually, it did little or nothing bad, if the criterion is access to care. A few people saw increased premiums, mainly the healthy young and those who previously had such terrible policies that they were both cheap and essentially worthless. While the Republican congress tried to repeal it, it turned out that, surprise, people would be worse off without it.

On the other hand, frustration with the obstacles to obtaining appropriate care are real, every day, and in-your-face for patients and their families. I have recently been experiencing these from the perspective of the patient (or family) rather than that of the provider, as I work at getting care for my 92-year-old father. My experience with the provider perspective helps me to understand the situation from both sides, and hopefully to try to figure out which obstacles are rational and which are simply unnecessary.

Let me start by largely absolving any of my father’s individual providers; all those involved with him – physicians both general and specialist, physical therapists, and more recently the nurses, social workers, and nurse practitioners through the palliative care agency – are committed, caring and hard-working. They do their best to help him, to be available, to respond when a problem, minor or urgent, arises. However, there are obstacles in the way. Many services require a referral from a physician, from calling in prescriptions, to ordering lab tests or x-rays (and getting the results), to getting physical or occupational therapy, to enrolling in palliative care. While none of these individually may seem to be burdensome for the doctor, there can be many for any individual patient, multiplied by the number of patients a physician sees who need these services. While it is sometimes the specialist who makes such a referral or fills out such a form, it most often “rolls downhill” to the primary care provider. That provider has to have a very large number of patients to get by and make a living, so the phone messages and faxes and lab results pile up while s/he is spending all day actually seeing his/her patients. Rationalizing the delivery of care means trying to get nurses or other staff to deal with as many as possible, but lots of these require a doctor (or other licensed provider, such as a nurse practitioner) to interpret, approve, or sign off on.  And having more staff costs more money, and means (particularly for the primary care provider, whose reimbursement is much lower than for many specialists) having more patients. Thus, a vicious circle, often compared (from the provider’s point of view) to running on a hamster wheel; for patients, this often seems like obstructionism.

Of course, it often is obstructionism, but rarely on the part of the individual provider. The reason is, unsurprisingly, money. For the providers of care, or more usually the companies for which they work (whether for-profit or not), the issue is reimbursement by insurers, including Medicare and Medicaid. There are rules that must be followed, forms that must be filled out, referrals that must be signed, and procedures to go through, or payment will not be forthcoming. And then the provider, whether physician, nurse practitioner, physical therapist, pharmacist, or social worker, whether self-employed or working for a company, doesn’t get paid. And, depending on how often this occurs, will make less, fire staff, or go broke. In addition, insurance companies themselves often create obstacles to payment (such as the time-honored one of just refusing to pay the first time or two, because maybe the provider will give up), but this is more often true for costly surgeries than lower-cost preventive and treatment services. And sometimes the practices seem almost incomprehensible as in insurers requiring patients to use brand-name rather than generic drugs and thus have to pay more out of pocket (“Take the generic, patients are told. Until they are not”, NY Times, August 6, 2017); one word, not used in the article but clearly described: kickback.

To be fair, many of the rules that seem to be obstructions are not only about saving money; they are about both preventing fraud and even patient safety. There absolutely are major fraudsters out there, doctors and home-health companies and nursing homes and every sort of medical support provider (even hospitals), who try to and often succeed in bilking Medicare (and other insurers) out of millions of dollars in inappropriate (“do you want a scooter at no cost to you?” – but someone else is paying!) or truly fraudulent (there is no patient) care. In fact, some care, even if you want it, even if someone is willing to provide it (if they get paid), is not appropriate for you, or your family member. Medicare and other insurers do set criteria, and require that it be documented. This can actually be good, not only for all of us as taxpayers but for our health and safety.

But often it isn’t good. It sometimes makes care that is appropriate, evidence-based, and desired, hard to get. It takes a long time. It takes lots of phone calls, and hours on hold or waiting for calls back. It has messages lost in piles, or over the weekend. It should not happen, but it does. And it is frustrating. The “Triple Aim” guiding progressive health care has received a lot of attention. It is to deliver high-quality care in a cost effective manner that is satisfying to patients. To document the last, many hospitals, provider groups, and companies send out “patient satisfaction” surveys, which are at best cosmetic and at worst destructive. People don’t fill them out “right”; they tend to reflect an overall impression that leads people to mark each of the ostensibly-separate questions “great” or “terrible”. Also, in forming this global impression, folks understandably often overvalue the things that they can assess (like the quality of food or attractiveness of the facility) compared to things that they cannot (such as the actual quality of care). This is, by the way, where providing good customer service makes a big difference, and while some places are getting better, the medical care industry is generally weak in this critical area.

As in almost everything, those with the least get the least. The uninsured, the poorly insured, and the just poor, provide the least incentive to providers (getting paid) to meet their needs. Government regulations that require certain services for Medicare or Medicaid without paying for them result in greater strain on those providers who provide care to people in these groups. Many providers, especially in some fields or medical specialties or geographic areas, try to avoid them. They locate in wealthier neighborhood, don’t take folks who are uninsured (or on Medicaid, and sometimes even Medicare), or offer indulgent, wonderful “concierge” services for those who can pay a significant retainer. Thus works the “market” in health care. A terrible way to go.

A universal health insurance system won’t make all these problems go away; even with it, systems can still be poor, providers can be uncaring. But it will help a lot. Because everyone is covered, there is no “vendor lock”; the market can function well because people choose their providers based on service, not because they are forced to because they are locked in to a limited pool. Information flows between primary care and specialists and therapists and labs and imaging because if it doesn’t folks are free to take their business elsewhere. The way competition should work; competition on providing the best product and service.


And, because we would all be in it together, in the same system, the most empowered will make sure it works for them, and thus, hopefully, for us all.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The social mission of medical education: Admit different students

In his JAMA “Viewpoint” article, “Social Mission in Health Professions Education: Beyond Flexner”,[1] June 17, 2017, Fitzhugh Mullan makes a convincing case for medical schools to be committed to their social mission. He takes his definition from the “Beyond Flexner” website (www.beyondflexner.org), which says “Social mission is about making health not only better but fairer—more just, reliable, and universal”. He details what this means in terms of commitment to reducing health disparities, increasing access to healthcare in both rural and urban underserved communities, increasing diversity within the health professions. These serious issues have been identified for decades, but in fact the trend may be toward getting worse instead of better.

Mullan cites some examples of medical schools, primarily newer and “community based” schools, that are working toward these goals. These include Morehouse and Mercer (founded in an earlier wave of medical school expansion in 1975 and 1982 respectively), those of a more recent expansion in the 2000s (Florida International University and the AT Still Mesa Campus), and those yet to come (the merger of Geisinger Health System and Commonwealth University, Kaiser Permanente School). But he also talks about “mainstreaming”, the need for consciousness about, and implementation of, social mission to be a characteristic of all medical schools.

I believe that the most important measures of a health professions school’s social mission are its outputs. Using the 3 criteria identified by Mullan and colleagues in their seminal 2010 Annals of Internal Medicine article “The social mission of medical education: ranking the schools”,[2] we need to look at whether its graduates are more diverse, whether they practice in underserved areas, and whether they are more likely to be in primary care specialties. The 2010 article showed that some schools do better -- more often those that are public, newer, and not in the Northeast -- but the fact is that none is doing all that well.

The number of students entering primary care is a critical indicator because, based on national and international comparisons, a well-functioning health system should have 40-50% of physicians should be in primary care; the US is well below 30% and going down. Family medicine match rates are the most sensitive indicators of primary care production, because unlike internal medicine virtually all family physicians practice primary care, so a choice of this specialty means a commitment to primary care. In addition, it is the specialty most suited for practice in rural areas. Even if all schools consistently produced 50% primary care physicians, it would take at least a generation to get to that number for all physicians in practice, and we are far, far from this.

In 2012 John Delzell and I looked at 10 years of data (2002-2011) published annually on the family medicine match by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) documenting the number and percent of students from each medical school entering family medicine.[3] We found only a few schools that were relatively high in both number and percent, with the University of Minnesota and the University of Kansas far ahead of the rest. And yet even those schools do not produce primary care physicians at the 50% rate. In the most recent AAFP report, on 2015 graduates,[4] even the “socially conscious” schools cited by Mullan did not have very high numbers matching in family medicine:  Morehouse 8 (12.9%), Mercer 13 (13.8%), FIU 4 (5%). Minnesota, at 42 (18.2%) had the largest number in the nation, but still had 20 fewer than it did in 1999! In 1994, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) announced Project 3000 by 2000, aiming for 3000 minority medical students into US schools by the year 2000[5]. It failed. Today, in 2016-17, we are not only far from that number, but the percent of many minorities (especially African-American men) continues to drop.[6]

As in any process, the results of medical (and all health professions) education are affected by 3 sets of variables. Input variables are the students enrolled, process variables include the curriculum and overall experience of students during their education, and output variables are the expectations of what the income and life experience of a graduate is likely to be. While the last is probably the most important determinant, especially given the degree of debt with which students are graduating and the fact that many specialists can earn 2-3 (or more) times as much as a primary care physician, it is also the area that schools have the least ability to influence. As Mullan and colleagues have emphasized, medical schools can influence the process variables, including the school’s vision and mission, the teaching of social mission, determinants of health, disparities, and other areas in their classrooms and clinics, experiences for students to serve such as free clinics, and mentoring and role modeling by faculty. However, making these changes seem to be insufficient to overcome the negative influence of the output variables in terms of students choosing primary care and practice in underserved areas. At least for most of the students currently in medical school.

Which brings us to the input variable: who is admitted? Clearly, from the data cited above, medical schools are not taking appreciable numbers of students from underrepresented minority groups, from rural areas, or from lower socioeconomic groups, at least not in anything close to the proportion in the population. They take, on the whole, white (and Asian) students from well-to-do suburbs of large cities who, not coincidentally, went to the “best” public and private schools and have the highest grades and Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) scores. The problem for the health of the American people is that the strongest predictor of where a medical student will practice is where they come from; minority students are far more likely to practice in minority neighborhoods, rural students are far more likely to practice in rural areas, and white upper middle class students from the suburbs are more likely to practice in the suburbs. These are the areas that already have enough physicians (and sometimes too many). In a real sense, a physician who enters practice in a non-underserved area in a non-shortage specialty is contributing little marginal benefit to the health of the American people. The imbalance of physicians practicing in health professions shortage areas (HPSAs) vs other areas is demonstrated in the attached table from Zhang, et al.[7]

Yes, our society must urgently address the “output variables” to ensure that students who choose primary care can earn a reasonable proportion of what other specialists do (some studies indicate that 70% of mean specialist income would be sufficient to eliminate that as a reason for not choosing primary care). Indeed, medical schools need to address the “process variables” by having explicit curricula on health disparities, social determinants of health, and community and preventive health, and ensure there is not a “hidden curriculum” mitigating against primary care. But they also urgently need to ensure that most of their admissions, not a token number, are students whose characteristics mean they are more likely to meet America’s healthcare needs. These include demographic characteristics, such as rural or minority origin and lower socioeconomic status of their family, and individual characteristics identified by past performance (not sentiments in an essay). This is primarily significant volunteer service, especially major commitments like the Peace Corps, Americorps, Teach for America, etc.

And, most importantly, these changes and programs must happen at all medical schools and for the bulk of the classes. The time for experiments and pilot programs is done. These efforts must be scaled up, to be, in Mullan’s word, “mainstreamed”. And now is not too soon.





[1] Mullan, F, Social Mission in Health Professions Education: Beyond Flexner, JAMA published online June 26, 2017. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.7286
[2] Mullan  F, Chen  C, Petterson  S, Kolsky  G, Spagnola  M.  The social mission of medical education: ranking the schools.  Ann Intern Med. 2010;152(12):804-811
[3]  Freeman J, Delzell J, Medical School Graduates Entering Family Medicine: Increasing the Overall Number, Fam Med 2012;44(9):613-4.
[4] Kozakowski S, Travis A, Bentley A, Fetter G, Entry of US Medical School Graduates Into Family Medicine Residencies: 2015–2016, Fam Med 2016;48(9):688-95, (online Table A).
[5] Nickens HW, Ready TP, Petersdorf RG, Project 3000 by 2000 -- Racial and Ethnic Diversity in U.S. Medical School, N Engl J Med 1994; 331:472-476August 18, 1994DOI: 10.1056/NEJM199408183310712
[6] https://www.aamc.org/data/facts/
[7] Zhang X, Phillips RL, Bazemore AW, Dodoo MS, Petterson SM, Xierall I, Green LA, Physician Distribution and Access: Workforce Priorities, Am Fam Physician. 2008 May 15;77(10):1378.

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