Tuesday, May 3, 2022

SCOTUS, Roe, Reproductive Rights, and All Our Freedoms: We must act

 

Politico, and now other outlets such as the NY Times,  have reported on a 98-page draft opinion from the Supreme Court that, in no uncertain terms, overturns both Roe v Wade and Casey and removes federal protection for abortion rights. While it is true that this is a draft and individual justices’ final decisions could change, the fact that 5 of the justices (Alito, who wrote it, Thomas, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Coney Barrett) signed on to it makes it unlikely that the final decision will change. The only uncertain vote is that of Chief Justice Roberts, but he is no longer the swing vote he once was; the only difference is whether the vote to say that women have no Constitutional right to control their own bodies would be 6-3 or 5-4.

And, absolutely, let us be clear: that is what overturning the 50-year old Roe decision would mean, that the majority of the justices on the Supreme Court will have ruled that the control over a woman’s body, on whether she has to continue a pregnancy regardless of the circumstances, is in the hands of others. It may be Congress, state legislatures, governors, husbands or other relatives, churches that they may or may not belong to or believe in, petty pettifoggers, vicious misogynists, non-vicious misogynists (?), and folks with their own right-wing agendas, but not the women themselves. When Roe was decided, Justice Blackmun, who wrote the opinion, said abortion should be a decision made by a woman and her doctor. That was itself a bit paternalistic, but it was 50 years ago; I think the way that still should be read is “with adequate medical advice”, understanding the potential (or likely) risks involved in the decision that the woman makes. And ONLY the woman whose body involved should be able to make!

The majority of justices on the Supreme Court obviously do not believe this, along with a substantial minority – but definitely a minority – of the American people (most polls put support for Roe at about 70%). Their anti-abortion movement, well funded by multi-millionaires and billionaires, and supported by both the Catholic Church and many fundamentalist Protestant sects, seems to have finally won their cause after 50 years of reactionary fighting to impose their will on everyone else. It is a coup, be certain of that. It was, most immediately, made possible by the fact that Donald Trump got to name 3 Supreme Court justices, through the hypocritically evil behavior of Mitch McConnell the GOP Senate majority, which decided both to block President Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland, not even holding hearings, 9 months before his term expired, and then approving Trump’s appointment of Amy Coney Barrett just weeks before the election he lost! This alone should be enough to make everyone who cares about reproductive rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, voting rights, any rights, pull out all stops to make sure that the predicted Republican victory in November does NOT happen, that McConnell (and I make no analogies since anything you might compare him to would be insulted by the comparison) does NOT again become Majority Leader. The Democrats are far from perfect, but every justice who voted to repeal was appointed by a Republican, and it was the Republican majority in the Senate that facilitated the appointment of the last three. The SCOTUS opinion will say that the decision is Congress’ and there is no possibility that legislation maintaining women’s rights will get 60 votes in the Senate, or even 50 given Joe Manchin. The pundits and pollsters are all predicting a big INCREASE in GOP seats in November. Unless we do something about it.

Make no mistake: this SCOTUS decision is that the opinions of some people are worth more than the lives of others. No one who is opposed to abortion has ever been required to get one by the decision of Roe. Of course, there were many “mental disabled” people or others judged incompetent who were required to get them in the past, vicious abuse in itself. Ironically, the issue is that the same logic is now being applied to ALL women; they do not have the Constitutional right to make their own decisions about their own bodies.  As Susan Matthews in Slate writes, Justice Alito could not find a justification for the right to abortion in the Constitution because “The Constitution was not written for women”. It didn’t even give them the vote!

Although it does not change the core issue, the choice of words in the debate has been unfortunate; anti-abortion people use the term “murder” of “babies” while abortion rights advocates have used the term “choice”, as if it were a matter of convenience, or what color bedspread to get. It isn’t. It is about the decision to carry a pregnancy, something that is medically risky even in the lowest risk people (but a risk that most people who want to have a baby gladly accept), to give birth, to probably raise a child, to completely change their life, to possibly be unable to care for already-born children, to give birth to a child of a rapist (perhaps incestuous rapist), to give birth to a child already unable to survive because of genetic or other malformations occurring in utero, etc., etc., being only the right of the woman who is pregnant, and not that of anyone else. Consulting them – family, friends, doctors, is fine, but the decision needs to be that of the woman alone, not the state legislature.

This decision, if it stands, will not end abortion in the US, as it will send us back to pre-Roe times when the decision was left to the states (indeed, several states had legalized abortion before Roe). So, abortion will likely remain legal in states like NY, CA, MA, IL, etc. But other states, including of course TX and FL, which have already passed draconian restrictions on access to abortion, will almost undoubtedly make it illegal again, along with many others. It has been estimated that abortions will decrease by 14% (“only”) but if this is true, it has to be taken in the context of geographic access. Women with money from TX, FL, and other states that severely limit access to abortion may be able to travel to another state, but poor women, on whom the burden always falls the hardest, will find it much more difficult or impossible, as will teenagers, including those who are pregnant as a result of incestuous rape (see “Who gets abortions in America”, by Sanger-Katz, Miller and Bui, originally published in the NY Times Dec 21, 2021 and republished on May 3, 2022). Health and healthcare are already incredibly inequitable in the US, and this decision will make it much worse. Jill Filipovic, writing in Substack, provides a number of other concerning likely outcomes,  including that there will be a 21% increase in maternal mortality!

And if that were not enough – more than enough – to get your blood boiling,  get you out to the streets, the likelihood that this will end with abortion approaches zero. Many of the opponents of abortion rights also oppose other reproductive rights, including cheap and easy access to contraception and sex education in schools. This would be illogical if preventing abortions were truly their goal, as it is precisely access to these two factors that are universally associated with lower abortion rates – see ‘Scandinavia’. When abortions were illegal in countries such as Ireland, sex education and contraception were also severely restricted – and the abortion rate was higher than in say, Denmark. But the women receiving these abortions, illegally, were at much higher risk. These arguments, however, get little traction, since those who would restrict all reproductive rights are doing it for other reasons – maybe they hate sex, maybe they hate women, but they surely believe that they know better and freedom is not important to them. If this is hypocrisy – they will fight for the right to own and carry a gun or not wear a mask – hypocrisy is not important to them either.

And it will not end with reproductive rights and contraception. Certainly the rights of LGBT+ people will be even more infringed. And our rights to read books and have our children learn science and history. And our right to vote. Listen to the far-right carry on about restrictions on their freedoms, but think about the freedoms that are at the core of the US and on which we depend.

And most important, these are freedoms we can no longer can passively depend on. If you don’t fight for them, they won’t be there.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Lower life expectancy in the US: A reflection of racism, classism, and social inequity

One of the things that most fuels self-deception is imagining that we should be living, or maybe even still live, in what we imagine was a better past. Of course, the past was not always better – in fact, it was overall, for most people, worse – but our minds repress the bad and remember the good from when we were children, as I have discussed in my other blog, “Life, the Universe, and a Few Things” (Brooklyn Nostalgia, August 21, 2011). Sometimes there is a conscious effort, a movement if you will, to block out the really bad things that have happened in the past not only from our individual memory but from our history books and schools. Clearly, this is happening now with regard to the primary founding evils in US history, extermination of the indigenous inhabitants (Native Americans, Indians) and slavery. That these were real is incontrovertible. That they were horrific, inexcusable, and must be remembered both to honor the victims and prevent recurrence should be obvious. But the effort to suppress teaching of this history, parallel to suppressing teaching about the Holocaust (which is not suppressed in Germany) is ongoing, vicious and wrong. To add insult to injury, advocates are adopting the language of microaggression, justifying their racist efforts to whitewash history with ostensible concern for “making white children feel bad about themselves”.

This is, in addition to every other evil and reprehensible aspect of it, also a way to divert those children – and their parents – from knowing and worrying about the things that they should be worried about, such as climate change and nuclear war. And the incredible inequities in American society (not to mention the world!) that have actually led to terrible social and individual outcomes. For example, the drop in life expectancy in the US. Yes, drop. People living shorter lives than they used to. Due in part to the COVID pandemic, but due in the US more to the vast inequities in wealth, social support, access to health care, jobs, use of harmful substances (such as alcohol, opioids, and tobacco) and every other determinant of health. What this has to do with self-deception and living in the past is the false idea that things are always, automatically, better in this country, the USA, a belief that persists in the face of evidence.

Of course, some things were, in fact, better in this country for earlier generations, some of whose members are still alive and sentient. America may not have always welcomed its immigrants, even those from Europe, and viciously and continuously repressed and oppressed members of many minority groups (particularly Natives and the descendants of Black slaves), but in the first half of the 20th century, major parts of life were often better here for poor people than in many other countries. This was even more so after World War II, when the economies of most of the rest of the developed world were destroyed but the US' was intact, with no wars fought on its soil. This resulted in great success for US manufacturers (no competition!) and other benefits. One was life expectancy, due in large part to better nutrition. In the second half of the 20th century it was widely observed that children of immigrants were bigger than their parents, because from infancy they were better nourished. Then, even later, at the end of that century and into the 21st, some of the major causes of premature death saw a decline, mainly tobacco use.

But the premature death rate in the US is going up, life expectancy is going down. An important paper, published in 2014 in the Annual Review of Public  Health by Mauricio Avenando and Ichiro Kawachi, ‘Why do Americans have shorter life expectancy and worse health than people in other high-income countries?’, provides extensive documentation and discussion, including a supplement with several tables comparing life expectancy among different countries (a representative one, Female Life Expectancy at 40, is reproduced here).

 

While it has long, forever, been true that the life expectancy of underserved minority populations was less than for white people, the decrease in life expectancy for the “majority” group was shockingly revealed by data provided in 2015 by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, “Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century”, and has been demonstrated for larger and larger portions of the US population. As I noted in this blog (Rising white midlife mortality: what are the real causes and solutions?, November 14, 2015) this was a shock for those who held to the belief that it was only true for minorities (and in perverted way, found this reassuring). Indeed, while the life expectancy for Black Americans was and is still shorter than for whites, it was slowly rising while for many whites (of course, especially lower-income whites) it was dropping. Case and Deaton, noting the large increase in mid-life death (kind of an oxymoron, but meaning “middle age”) attributed this to “deaths of despair”, specifically due to opioids and suicide. On November 29, 2019 I wrote about an article by Steven Woolf and Heidi Schoonmaker, “Life Expectancy and Mortality Rates in the United States, 1959-2017” (Decreasing life expectancy in the US: A result of policies fostering increasing inequity), and I noted that, amazingly, women in lower income groups born in 1950 had shorter life expectancies than their mothers born in 1920!

Woolf and his colleagues RK Masters and LY Aron have recently come out with a new publication looking at life expectancy in the US and other OECD countries for 2019-2021. (Note: at the time of publication, the paper, in medRxiv, had not been peer-reviewed). They found that the pandemic shortened the life expectancy in almost all countries, but

US life expectancy decreased from 78.86 years in 2019 to 76.99 years in 2020 and 76.60 years in 2021, a net loss of 2.26 years. In contrast, peer countries averaged a smaller decrease in life expectancy between 2019 and 2020 (0.57 years) and a 0.28-year increase between 2020 and 2021, widening the gap in life expectancy between the United States and peer countries to more than five years.

In addition, ‘The decrease in US life expectancy was highly racialized: whereas the largest decreases in 2020 occurred among Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black populations, in 2021 only the non-Hispanic White population experienced a decrease in life expectancy.’ So while in 2020 the most vulnerable populations took the greatest additional hit from COVID, by 2021 they were slowly recovering, while white populations continued to lose life expectancy.

So why? This may be cognitive dissonance for the self-deluding, or racist, or narrow-minded, or those who think “America is always better”, but it is true. And the reasons for it are the inequities of American life, much of which is detailed in the Avenando and Kawachi paper, as well as Masters, Aron, and Woolf. We do not have universal health insurance, and we do not have universal access to health care. Even many “insured” Americans have very poor insurance, many Americans do not have geographic or physical access to health care services, and thus many people forego health care altogether or until it is too late. Our infant mortality rate is far higher than that of comparable countries. We still have large numbers of people who are “food insecure”, which often means chronically hungry and undernourished, not to mention those who are “housing insecure”, often homeless. And we have phenomenal income inequities which have grown tremendously since the 1980s Reagan assault on the social safety net. A paper by economists Emanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, widely covered, shows examples of this: since 1982 the wealth of the 0.00001% (18 families!) has increased from 0.1% to 1.2% of all US wealth.


 

Just from 2009-2022 the wealthiest American has gone from $40B to $265B, while average income has decreased from $54,283 to $53,490, and the minimum wage ($7.25/hr) has stayed the same! So the US remains an outlier, with great social and economic inequity, poorer health, and shorter (and decreasing) life expectancy. You can believe what you want in terms of political and social theory, but you have to be willing to accept the consequences.

I find these consequences, completely unnecessary, intolerable.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Burnout and depression in physicians: Not good for them or for the public's health

For some years now, there has been increasing emphasis in the medical community about “physician burnout”. While there different degrees and kinds of burnout, generally it refers to a feeling among physicians from having little or no enjoyment in their work to feeling unable to continue. At this far extent, it contributes to doctors leaving the direct practice of medicine for a less-stressful area where their medical background is useful (administration or insurance work or consulting) to leaving the profession altogether. It can be for a different career, or, if they are older and more financially able, early retirement. In the case of young physicians, particularly residents who are still doing their post-graduate training, working very long hours and getting paid relatively little – and since many have medical school debt exceeding a quarter of a million dollars, it can be actually little – burnout could prevent them from taking on a full career in medicine.

Of course, burnout can affect any profession, or any job, although that term is mostly used for professionals, who have historically counted on some degree of independence and control of their work lives. Feeling burned out, not interested, overwhelmed, and even resentful is common and maybe even normative in much non-professional wage work, where the assumption is often “of course you are alienated”, selling your labor to a boss whose only interest is in profit and to whom you are only a tool to generate it. It is a more recent phenomenon in the professions, particularly as professionals become essentially employees, and the profession I know most about is medicine.

Historically, physicians have worked very hard, long hours, often through the night, taking call to come in and see people (called, in medical terms “patients”), operate on people, deliver babies. In small towns and rural areas, where there were few other physicians with whom to share call, this was often particularly disruptive to home and family life, not to mention sleep. The compensating plusses were considered to be a good income, a high level of respect from the community, a sense of making a contribution and a difference, and some level of control of your practice. Although, often when coming in in the middle of the night, it might not seem like much control, many or most doctors were self-employed, and even when they became part of larger groups they were among the owners.

Over the last few decades, many things have changed in the practice of medicine, increasing the burdensome characteristics and decreasing the positives. These are mostly related to the increased size of medical enterprises and the corporatization of medical care. On the one hand, in the name of “efficiency” the practice of medicine has become routinized, less varied, less interesting, and sped up. Physicians often feel that they are on a treadmill churning patient visits as if they were widgets, not having the time that they would not only like but would be necessary to understand their patients as people, and to begin to meet their more complex needs – and people are complex, with every aspect of their lives affecting their health. They may be paid more, but they have much less control, and often seem to (and do) spend as much time completing their Electronic Medical Records (EMRs) as in patient contact, and it may feel (correctly) that the purpose of the work that they put into the EMR is aimed primarily at maximizing income and profit for their employers rather than maximizing the health of their patients.

The strategies which have been employed to attempt to address burnout have ranged from the individual (support groups, various therapies) to structural (changing the work situation). Many physicians are seeking to achieve more “work-life balance”, with more time for their families and other non-work life. The ameliorations include shift work (work hard but for a specified period of time, and know when you will be off and that you really will be off), limiting scope of practice, and, certainly, increased reimbursement. But because these “solutions” do not work as well for all specialties, burnout does not affect all specialties equally. Shift work is most effective in specialties in which continuity of care for an individual patient with an individual doctor is not seen as important; thus it works well for emergency medicine, anesthesiology, critical care, and a few other areas. It has also been widely employed in hospital work, with “hospitalists” who care for people who they do not see as outpatients working shifts (including for delivering babies), and has extended to generate yet newer specialties like "nocturnists” and “weekendists”. And has even renamed the doctors who do see people in the outpatient setting as “ambulists”. How well this works depends on who you ask; it is “efficient” for the employer, and the hospitalists know their hospital stuff, but for the patient, not only are you not seeing a doctor who knows you but your hospitalist may change every few days (and nights).

Salaries in medicine are still usually tied to how much the individual physician generates for the organization, which is heavily dependent on how insurers reimburse, and that is far more for surgery and other procedures than for “just” seeing, talking with and examining a person, reviewing lab and x-ray information, and coming to a diagnosis and treatment plan. So doctors who do the latter make less money (family physicians, general internists and pediatricians, psychiatrists) than do proceduralists. Thus, the physicians in the highest paid specialties (particularly those not just highly paid but that have the highest income/work ratios) are more likely to be successful in achieving work-life balance and avoiding serious burnout. And those who have to be most available for the greatest portion of time with the least support, rural family physicians, burnout can be highest. Although these doctors also often retain the most degree of autonomy, with time demands coming from their patients, not the corporations that employ them.

It is also worth talking about serious mental health issues that physicians confront, and especially the continued disincentives for them to receive necessary and appropriate care. A March 30, 2022 Op-Ed in the NY Times, ‘Why So Many Doctors Treat Their Mental Health in Secret’, by Seema Jilani discusses this, and in particular how employers and licensing boards feel free to ask about this, contributing to an atmosphere of stigma so that, in fact, many doctors do not treat their mental health issues at all. It would be outrageous for us to expect doctors to not treat their asthma, heart disease, cancer or myopia, but for mental health conditions this remains a real issue. It is one of the two great examples in medicine of the double-edged sword of “you should do this, but we may punish you for it”. The other is in the area of acknowledging mistakes (or even potential mistakes). There is excellent data showing that admitting and examining mistakes at the institutional level absolutely increases the overall quality of patient care (‘every mistake a jewel’, because we can learn from it; see W. Edwards Deming’s “14 points”). However, physicians who do so risk discipline, license loss or restriction, and even lawsuits. These punitive results (except for egregious cases) should not be there, and most of those who wrote letters to the Times in response to Dr. Jilani’s article (and I) agree that these punitive risks should not face physicians who seek treatment for depression or other mental health issues. Burnout and depression are not the same things, but may, and frequently do, co-exist.

Doctors are privileged workers; they are generally highly paid relative to most people, they still earn a great deal of respect, and they have the opportunity for great personal satisfaction through serving others. But they are often held to the standards of independent professionals while increasingly working for corporations, and they not immune from the stresses of overwork, lack of control, speed-up, and negative aspects of how capital treats its workers.

And they are certainly not immune from mental health issues, and should be able to receive appropriate treatment without inappropriate repercussions.

 

I did not address the issue raised by the recent conviction of a nurse in Tennessee for criminally negligent homicide for accidentally giving a patient the incorrect medication, but obviously this is entirely relevant to the issue of acknowledging errors, and the work situation for health professionals and thus issues of burnout and depression and, indeed incarceration.

A very good discussion of that case, 'Are All Medical Errors Now Crimes? The Nurse Vaught Verdict' appears in Medscape, and I would absolutely endorse this quote from one of the participants:

"A culture of safety is one in which the system that allowed the mistake to happen is changed, not one in which the individual is scapegoated. And a culture of safety correlates with better patient outcomes that we know. This verdict is the opposite." 

Monday, April 4, 2022

Lead poisoning of our children: then and now

Back in 2016 much of the country was shocked to learn about widespread lead poisoning among children in Flint, MI. The cause was lead leached from old lead pipes supplying water to people’s homes after the source was changed from Lake Huron to the more corrosive water of the Flint River (to save money, of course). The identification of this problem was largely due to the great work of a committed pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, about whom I wrote on Jan 24, 2016, “Flint, lead, medical heroes, O-rings and guns”. That piece also discusses the shameful – probably criminal – denial of both the problem and its cause by the then-governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, and his politically appointed state health department, until the evidence became too overwhelming to deny. After all, poisoning children is one thing, but getting negative press is another!

Many of us probably assumed – or at least hoped – that this epidemic of lead poisoning of children, as horrible as it was, was an exception, an outlier, something that should not be happening in the 21st century in the United States. We knew that it was related to the fact that Flint is a poor, largely minority, community, and if we are at all sentient we know that those are the people who suffer the worst from environmental degradation. In the case of lead poisoning, they live in houses that are more likely to have old lead paint, in neighborhoods built closer to heavy automobile and truck traffic areas where the soil (such as, for example, in the playgrounds) has high concentrations of lead. We might have even thought of lead pipes supplying water. But surely this was not something that was happening in many places around the country, even in poor communities?

 

But it was, and is. All over. More in very poor and minority communities.

A few years ago, [Sean] Ryan, now a Democratic state senator, learned that his constituents in Buffalo were sending bottled water to Flint, Mich., where widespread lead contamination in the water supply had drawn national attention. While respecting the gesture to help, he recalled from a Reuters investigation that there were 17 ZIP codes in Buffalo where the rate of children with high lead levels was at least double that of Flint. (Gabler, NY Times, below)

And it is still happening. And still not being addressed. Flint may have stood out because of the sudden increase in children with high lead levels identified by people like Dr. Hanna-Attisha after the change in water to a cheaper source leached lead from the old pipes, but chronic, ongoing lead poisoning of our children, primarily from lead paint in old houses, continues apace. And there is a lot of resistance to doing anything about it.

 

This is covered in depth in a recent (Mar 29, 2022) article in the NY Times by Ellen Gabler, How 2 Industries Stymied Justice for Young Lead Paint Victims”. This exposé documents the ongoing and continuing poisoning of America’s children (particularly those of poor and minority people) by lead paint in houses (“about 500,000 children under 6 have elevated blood lead levels in the United States and are at risk of harm”). One of the two industries is the housing industry, which both lies about whether there is lead paint in the homes that they are renting, and, if they are large enough, obstruct those people from finding some sort of (generally financial) justice by hiding the ownership in a web of companies, and fighting culpability.

 

Without insurance, there is little chance of recovering money for a child when a landlord has few resources. Property owners who do have substantial holdings have found ways to legally distance themselves from problem rentals, increasingly using L.L.C.s to hide assets and identities.

 

And the other industry? That would be the insurance industry itself, which places clauses in its homeowner’s policy excluding lead. Why? Well, you see, it would cost the insurance company a lot of money if they had to pay for the mitigation of lead paint in these old houses. So they don’t insure the owners, and the owners are either unable to afford to do the mitigation or are large and wealthy enough that they could afford it but choose not to. In fairness, the quote above about property owners legally distancing themselves from “problem rentals” applies to many “problems” (virtually all of which are the owners’ responsibility), not just lead. Property owners want to collect rent but not maintain the property; insurance companies want to collect premiums but not pay out when there is a problem. What could be more American?

 

Another recent article, in Medscape, documents how most current adults had elevated lead levels as children, and how, as stated in its title, Half of Adults Lost IQ Points to Lead Toxicity. The culprit in this case is primarily lead in gasoline. Added to gasoline beginning in the early 1920s, lead’s phaseout was accelerated by the advent of catalytic converters, which require unleaded gas, in 1975, but it was probably an additional 20 years before it was gone from most gasoline sold.  And, of course, the residual lead in the soil (including places where children play) remains even today. This graphic from the article demonstrates how ubiquitous high lead levels were when today’s adults were children, what age ranges are most affected, and of course how minority children (and today’s adults) were affected with levels far higher than whites (which were bad enough).


 

 

So we have a situation where the majority of today’s adults, at lead those over the age of 30, probably had high lead levels when they were children, and have lost IQ points as a result, and where poor and minority children then (now adults) had far higher levels than whites. And we have another situation in which children continue to have high lead levels, and to suffer not “just” a loss of a few IQ points but serious brain damage, because of ongoing lead exposure, now primarily in lead paint that still exists, unmitigated, in many houses. And, of course, these children are disproportionately poor and minority. (Some things, sadly, do not change.) When I was a young physician, working at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, we would not infrequently have to treat (often as inpatients) children with high lead levels. I thought, like measles and chicken pox and rheumatic fever and infections from Hemophilus influenza that this was pretty much history, stories of the “old days” that I could tell medical students and young doctors. I am aghast to discover how common it continues to be.

 

But there is another part of the story. It is that lead could be cleaned up. Houses with lead paint could have that lead mitigated. If it were, children would no longer be exposed to it and suffer the kind of brain damage described in the Times article. But it isn’t happening, because of the stonewalling, opposition, and outright blockage by the landlord and insurance industries, and their enablers in Congress and state legislatures. Their profits, of course, are more important than the brains of developing children, especially poor and minority children.

 

You can’t have it both ways — be a big company when it benefits you to generate revenue and business, and then hide behind an L.L.C. when you are sued in an attempt to escape accountability

 

says the attorney for “JJ”, a South Bend, IN, child with brain damage from lead paint in his home.

 

But they do have it both ways – this is how the US treats companies compared to children. And as a result we have the article’s final quote from JJ’s mother:

 

“We know it damaged his brain,” she said. “We know it is irreversible. And we know it is a lifelong thing. No doctor can tell you, ‘This is what is going to be.’”

 

Somehow, this does not make me proud.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

What is the problem with Primary Care? The US health system!

What is wrong with primary care in the US? Shall I count the ways? Medscape details a number of them in its recent article, citing much of the data provided in the Commonwealth Fund report “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall” which I discussed in my last blog post, Our health system: Not equitable, not effective, and not even efficient. Bad business!, (March 4, 2022). The spoiler answer is: what is wrong with primary care in the US is the US health care system – how it is designed, how it is implemented, the purposes for which it is intended, and the intrinsic corruption of it. If the primary care portion of the US health care system is in particular disarray, it is because it is the (relatively) poor stepchild of a system that is all about making lots of money for corporations, particularly large health systems, insurance companies, and the vendors of drugs, devices, and equipment. The way our health system is currently structured is to feature those parts of it that generate this money, rather than those that maximize the people’s health, and under our current reimbursement system primary care is not in the game. Thus, it is unsurprising – if incredibly depressing – that our primary care sector performs poorly on the metrics assessed by Commonwealth (and reported on by Medscape), because they are looking at different markers, that is, how it meets the health needs of our people, and a robust and effective primary care capacity is critical to that. If only they would look at corporate profit they would see how well the health system, by neglecting primary care, is doing!

What is primary care and what are primary care doctors? They care for all the issues that a person has, not limited to disease, organ system, procedure, etc. They care for people with as-yet undiagnosed problems, with undifferentiated conditions. They provide care over time, and consider the physical, mental, and social conditions affecting a person. They provide care in the context of a person’s family and community. Any issue that is affecting a person’s health, or that they think is, is fair game to bring to a primary care doctor, who will try to diagnose and treat it, referring if necessary. In a coherent and effective health system, they continue to be involved with the person, even after referral or hospitalization. The characteristics of primary care, and the reasons for its benefit to people and to society are discussed most clearly by Barbara Starfield, MD, in many papers including this one. I like to think that while the relationship between primary care doctors and their patient is defined by the relationship, not the disease, or procedure involved. Family medicine, unlike even other specialties in primary care does not even limit its practice to certain age groups. But even these doctors are being relegated to practice only part of what they could; few deliver babies, most don’t do hospital work, and a large number do not care for children.

But few of us have seen such a physician lately, still less with a “full scope” practice. There are not enough family physicians or other primary care doctors in the US. There are not enough to meet the primary care needs of our people, nor to adequately perform the role that primary care should play in regard to specialists – that is, assessing a patient, determining if they can be treated by the primary care doctor, and if not referring. Otherwise subspecialists spend a lot of time caring for things that could have been done by a primary care physician. Or missing problems that are outside their specialty focus when people directly self-refer. And it is not only in the US; in parts of Canada, there are such shortages of primary care doctors (there they are virtually all family physicians) that consideration is being given to a new profession, possibly called associate physicians. In the US, much primary care is delivered by nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants. Some of them do excellent work, but they are also hampered by the same constraints as those primary care physicians face – excessive workload, assembly line production, (relative) underpayment, and a perverted reimbursement system.

To the extent that the move to non-physicians is driven by the fact that they cost less because they earn less money, any such effort is doomed. Nurse practitioners are increasingly being recruited by hospitals and subspecialty physician groups where they can earn, as do the doctors in those specialties, more money. This has overwhelmingly already happened in the case of physician assistants. The answer to the need for more primary care is simple: PAY MORE MONEY. Pay them as much as, or almost as much as (70% would probably do it) other specialists. There are a lot of students, residents, doctors, nurse practitioner and physician’s assistant trainees who would like to do primary care, and would be good at it, but are dissuaded because they can earn WAY more in another specialty. It is not that complicated; virtually all reimbursement for health care in the US is based on Medicare rates; private insurers pay some multiple of what Medicare pays. So all that has to happen is for Medicare to completely revise its reimbursement schedule so that primary care is paid a lot more, and interventive procedural specialty care less. Don’t increase the size of the pie; reallocate!

Sadly, the reallocation (under both Republican and Democratic administrations) has been instead to increase the privatization of Medicare, effectively enhancing corporate profits rather than quality health care. The Medicare Advantage program, while it can be good for some seniors, is being touted as the greatest thing since sliced bread by many in Congress, although it is heavily subsidized and saps funds from Traditional Medicare (TM). MedPac (not a “political action committee”, but the official group convened by Congress to make recommendations on Medicare) has raised serious concerns about the program, which essentially cherry picks healthy seniors, gives them low cost benefits, and eschews sick people while getting more money from Medicare. As I have written before (Direct Contracting Entities: Scamming Medicare and you and bad for your health!, Feb 7, 2022), a program called Direct Contracting Entities (DCEs) was developed to push even those who have chosen TM into corporate controlled profit centers. And now, after DCEs have received criticism in Congress, they haven’t been abandoned, but re-branded as REACH, essentially the same model.

The problems with primary care are not with the clinicians. The problem is with the corporate model that seeks to limit the practices of the clinicians and speed up their work so they cannot provide the benefits of primary care. The key part here is being the core person who knows about you and your family and manages directly or in conjunction with others all your care. It cannot effectively happen if you are seeing different doctors in every setting, and no one is responsible for YOU. This is much different from being the person who orders the tests or prior authorizations. Family physicians and other primary care doctors and clinicians need to have the time to spend with the patients, getting to know them, getting to know them well enough that they are trusted by their patients, who may then reveal the Pandora’s box of complicated, difficult-or-impossible to solve problems that physicians dread to hear about and corporate employers hate to pay for. You can’t get to these, not to mention begin to solve them, in 15 minute visits. Often you can’t really begin to solve them at all, since they are based in the overall circumstances of life that people find themselves in, what are often referred to as the "social determinants of health" -- their income, jobs, education, housing, food, safety, and discrimination for starters. But they need to be revealed.

This is scary to corporate types, who want to continue to do what they do – generate big bucks by hiring procedural specialists to care for well-insured or rich people for big reimbursement.

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