Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Health is more than Medical Care

Bob Herbert’s column in the New York Times, January 23, 2010, “They still don’t get it”, is one of many recent pieces that articulately criticize the administration for pursuing policies that benefit the wealthy and the elite, and ignore the absolutely justifiable anger of the majority of American people. That anger is being stoked and ridden by the Republicans, as it was by Obama in 2008, because they are out of power. There is no question that, if the Repubs were in power, they would be even worse, and cater even more to that elite (ref: see administration of GW Bush, 2001-09.) One of the issues that Herbert takes on is health reform: “While the nation was suffering through the worst economy since the Depression, the Democrats wasted a year squabbling like unruly toddlers over health insurance legislation.” Herbert is not opposed to health reform, but rather the outrageous way that this sausage has been made: “No one in his or her right mind could have believed that a workable, efficient, cost-effective system could come out of the monstrously ugly plan that finally emerged from the Senate after long months of shady alliances, disgraceful back-room deals, outlandish payoffs and abject capitulation to the insurance companies and giant pharmaceutical outfits. The public interest? Forget about it.”

With the election of the 41st Republican senator – under Senate rules, 41 votes constitutes a majority in terms of blocking legislation – we have heard many opinions on what should happen with health reform. The Republicans and the right-wing, who, despite their opportunist populism stand firmly in the grasp of “insurance companies and giant pharmaceutical outfits” are predictably calling health reform “dead” and reveling in the possibility that the system won’t change at all. This, of course, is a disaster; the folks who voted for Scott Brown in Massachusetts because they were convinced by demagogues that they would lose their current health benefits will continue to lose them anyway, not because of health reform legislation but because that’s where it was headed – higher cost, lower benefits. Some progressives, including Paul Krugman (“Do the right thing”, January 22, 2010), and physician-writer Atul Gawande (in his Democracy Now! Interview with Amy Goodman on January 5, 2010), call for passage of the current plan because it will, in fact, benefit a lot of people. Krugman says the House should just pass Senate bill to avoid any further votes in the Senate, which might lose. There is a lot to be said for this position. Others, including those I respect most from Physicians for a National Health Program, call for scrapping this whole bill and passing a single-payer Medicare for All program, which is absolutely the right answer, but not going to happen. (Nonetheless, I will, and I urge everyone, to write their representatives every day demanding it!)

While I support single-payer health insurance as the necessary pre-condition for improving health care for the American people, it is also clear that the process of self-interest politics in the formation of the Senate and House bills (in which the self-interest of the most wealthy and powerful is the biggest influence) has moved the discussion so much to medical care insurance coverage and access that we lose sight of the ultimate goal, greater health. In an excellent “Perspective” in the New England Journal of Medicine, January 14, 2010, “Ranking 37th – measuring the performance of the US health care system”, Chistopher J.L. Murray and Julio Frenk review the 2000 World Health Organization rankings of health status in different countries in the world. They remind us that “It is hard to ignore that in 2006, the United States was number 1 in terms of health care spending per capita but ranked 39th for infant mortality, 43rd for adult female mortality, 42nd for adult male mortality, and 36th for life expectancy,” and that the probability of death for men 15-60 has dropped dramatically more slowly since 1974 in the US than in many other countries.

Murray and Frenk also remind us of “the vast number of preventable deaths associated with smoking (465,000 per year), hypertension (395,000), obesity (216,000), physical inactivity (191,000), high blood glucose levels (190,000), high levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (113,000), and other dietary risk factors”. We may not see these numbers every day, but health professionals and policy people know (or should know) them. We have certainly seen calls from many sectors, from this blog to the President, for a realignment of funding priorities from expensive procedures to prevention, from high-tech subspecialty care to primary care, from huge expenses at the end of life to strategies that will extend healthy life, and these numbers emphasize how important those changes are.

But those changes only address health care, and more usually medical care. This can be a diversion, from other, maybe more important, policies that truly will promote health. Even if we can produce more primary care physicians (and other providers), even if we offer “pay-for-performance” type incentives for physicians to do “quality care”, even if we actually pay as much for spending an hour counseling and working with a person to stop smoking, change their diet, and exercise, as we do for a cardiac catheterization or colonoscopy, the problems listed by Murray and Frenk require behavioral change on the part of people. Doctors can help, by counseling, by prescribing drugs for the conditions (e.g., hypertension, diabetes) that may be drug-susceptible, but people themselves are going to have to be the ones who change their diets, exercise more, stop smoking, take those medications.

Please note that I am not one of those who wants to place the blame on individuals, and excuse physicians and other health professionals from their own responsibilities (“I told them to lose weight, to stop smoking, to exercise! They didn’t do it! They are not compliant!”). It is important, however, to look at these problems from a larger social perspective. In the paragraph above I purposely used the word “people”, not, as is popular, “individuals”. Because while individuals, if they are highly motivated enough (and this is helped by having higher income and education and social class) can change these behaviors -- and have, in many cases, such as the dramatic reduction in the prevalence of smoking, these are really societal issues. This sort of behavioral change is hard to do – stopping an addiction like nicotine is harder than heroin, but is nothing compared to changing your diet from foods that taste good (and yes, while to some degree poor food choices come from habit and culture, the fact is that sugar and fat taste good!) to those that are more healthful, to limiting intake of excess calories. And exercise is hard, not only when you are already fat, out of shape and a smoker, but when you are working 2 or 3 jobs, live in a neighborhood that is unsafe, and have to try to fit in taking care of your children.

Changing these health parameters is not going to happen solely from everyone having health insurance and access to medical care, paying physicians for “quality”, or increasing the number of primary care providers, or completely changing the premises of medical care reimbursement. It is going to require major societal change. Some has begun to happen – public smoking bans in many cities and states, calorie labels on fast foods in some cities, removal of high calorie snack and drink machines from some schools. But what it needs is not only for these actions to be universal, it will require much more. Stricter regulation of advertising of junk food to children, higher taxes on it, and less availability. The messages for eating healthful food need to be louder and more frequent than the messages to do the opposite. We have to ban insidious campaigns like “drink wisely” (i.e., "do drink"). And have strict limits on access to firearms. And we have to rebuild our communities to encourage not only purposeful exercise (“going to the gym”) but activity as a part of daily life: walking instead of driving to school, shopping, work.

Of course, for all of these changes, there will be powerful lobbies against it –even the easy ones (smoking bans, labeling) not to mention the generations it will take to significantly modify our built environment. And if you thought that the opposition to meaningful health care insurance reform was powerful, you ain’t seen nothing yet!


Hua said...

Hi Josh!

You have a great blog going on here. Thank you for taking the time and dedication to share your knowledge.

I look forward to more updates soon!


Director of HealthBlogger Networks

Unknown said...

This is Hannah Bevills, I am an editor with We are a medical publication whose focus is geared towards promoting awareness on hospitals, including information, news, and reviews on them. Given the relevance of what you are offering from your site and what our mission is, I feel we may be able to collaborate in some way or another, I look forward to your response regarding the matter. Thanks!

Hannah Bevills

Total Pageviews