Thursday, May 27, 2010

Universal Coverage and Primary Care: The US needs both

In “Reinventing Primary Care: Lessons from Canada for the United States” (Health Affairs, May2010;29(5):1030-5), the eminent scholar Barbara Starfield provides just that – lessons from Canada for the United States. For decades, advocates of comprehensive health reform have pointed to our northern neighbor and suggested that a “single payer” system such as that in Canada would be a more-than-reasonable solution. In Canada, provincial governments provide the funding for health care services, under the guidance of the five principles set out in the Canada Health Act of 1972: public administration, comprehensiveness, universality, portability, and accessibility. The principle of universality means that every Canadian is covered, with the same health insurance benefit package, as every other Canadian. (In fact, because the various programs that are together called “Medicare” in Canada are provincial, it would be more accurate to say that every resident of a province has the same benefit package as every other; however, all provinces provide coverage for all essential services; more can be found on the website

Dr. Starfield’s article goes systematically through a variety of indicators of health status and costs, comparing the two countries, citing both similarities and differences between them. Overall, the US looks much worse in health status and much greater in cost. While not the best performer among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries (representing the most developed, “first world”, countries) in almost any area, Canada is ahead of the US in most, often significantly. A few examples from her “Exhibit 1” include Life Expectancy at birth (Canada ranks 9, the US 25), Potential Years of Life Lost at age 70 (Canada is 13, the US is 21), and Infant Mortality (Canada is 24, the US 26). Canadians have a lower death rate for conditions “amenable to medical care”, meaning that if you got care you’d be less likely to die, and the differences are not (as is sometimes asserted) due to racial differences between the two countries:

Studies of deaths from treatable conditions also show better performance of the Canadian health system compared with that of the United States, and the differences are not a result of existing racial disparities. That is, the worse health of the U.S. population compared with that of Canadians is found even when comparisons are restricted to the white population. Longterm comparisons show that the life expectancy of Americans has been worse than that of Canadians since the beginning of the twentieth century, but that most of this difference was a result of lower life expectancy among African Americans. However, this situation changed in the 1970s, when Canadian life expectancy rose even above that of white Americans.

“Differences in death rates have increased over time, with Canada improving in rank and the United States declining in rank. Differences by cause of death for conditions amenable to medical care are on the order of 25–60 percent lower in Canada than among U.S. whites and have increased over time since the 1980s.”

Starfield attributes the difference primarily to two features of the Canadian health system, a “universal, publicly accountable health insurance system”, and the presence of a strong primary care base. The first should be a “gimme”; of course such a system would make a difference, of course it is likely to improve the health of the population and reduce the burden of disease, physical, psychosocial, and financial, on both the individual and their family and the society. It is absolutely obvious that a rational, mature, and responsible society would provide financial access to health care for its people.

Unfortunately, that is not the case for the US, the only OECD country which does not have such a system, relies on “employer-based health insurance for the nonelderly population”, and it is not going to change under the new health reform law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). PPACA, even when fully implemented, will not cover everyone, will not control costs, will allow insurance companies to charge up to 3 times the premium for older (and note that this would be pre-Medicare; “older” could be over 40!), and will not have either the universality or public accountability to ensure quality care. We will continue to hear the pain of patients such as the woman featured in the “2009 Road Trip Video” by Mad As Hell Doctors ( who pulls off her turban to review her hair lost to chemotherapy, and tells us that “when I found out I had breast cancer I was worried that I might die, but I was terrified about how I would pay for it.”[1] Come on. This is simply not acceptable in a wealthy developed country. Those who do not support such a system are either incredibly greedy, selfish, and corrupt, as are the insurance companies and their minions in Congress, or incomprehensible.

The other difference between the US and Canada that Dr. Starfield emphasizes is the presence of a strong primary care base. She notes that “Several international studies have confirmed the importance of three health-system characteristics of countries that achieve better health at lower cost: government attempts to distribute resources, such as personnel and facilities, equitably; universal financial coverage either through a single payer or regulated by the government; and low or no cost sharing for primary care services…U.S. policy achieves none of the three structural characteristics of good health systems. Canada achieves all three. “

I have repeatedly written about the lack of sufficient primary care capacity, and primary care production, in the US, and clearly I am not alone. It has become almost a deafening chorus, with report after report identifying the deficiency in primary care, and the need to increase the number and percent of medical students entering primary care; much of this is presented in “Who will provide primary care and how will they be trained?”, the proceedings of a conference in April 2010 sponsored by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation. PPACA does commit significant resources to supporting primary care, but we are far from having a sufficient number of primary care providers or a reasonable geographic distribution of those we have. Canada and the other OECD countries have at least 50% of their physician workforce in primary care. When Canada saw that percent decreasing, they took strong action to reverse it, and now have a majority of their medical students entering primary care.[2] The US, on the other hand, has only about 16% of its physician workforce entering primary care. [3],[4]

So how we will change this? Not by anything we are doing now. We have less than 30% primary care doctors, and we need to get to at least 50%, but are producing 16%. This is, obviously, going in the wrong direction. Doubling the production of medical students entering primary care will still have us going in the wrong direction, and we are nowhere near getting to double. Even if we produce 50% a year, on average, from all medical schools, it will take 30 years, a generation, to get to that goal. And we are very, very far from that goal. The BEST medical schools in terms of placing students in family medicine and other primary care specialties, such as the one I work at, the University of Kansas, are not close. Most other medical schools are much worse. Many, particularly the private, Eastern, “elite” medical schools highly ranked by US News do not even accept any responsibility for producing physicians who are in the specialties that are needed to meet the health care needs of the American people.

The University of Kansas School of Medicine will be establishing a rural track in Salina, KS, where 8 students per year, committed to rural health, will spend their entire 4 years. The goal is that 75% will enter rural practice and 50% primary care, and preferably both. Great idea. Except this is 8 students in one medical school! The entire KU medical school, and those of all states – “from Colorado, Kansas, and the Carolinas too, from Virginia to Alaska, from the old to the new, from Texas and Ohio and the California shore[5], as well as those “elite” schools who feel no responsibility, all need to produce as high a percent of their graduates entering primary care as possible, to average over 50% nationally.

This will not be easy. It will probably mean taking different people into medical school, not those with the most elite educations and well-to-do backgrounds, not the children of the faculty, but those who are from rural areas and minority communities and want to go back to them; not those who want to become tertiary and quarternary care super-specialists but those who want to work in the community; not those likely to enter laboratory research (a noble career, but why take up seats in medical school?), but those who want to care for people. It will require rethinking and reprioritizing. But it must happen.

Dr. Starfield notes that “Universal health insurance alone is not sufficient to raise a country’s health levels to match those of countries with the best levels. Within the United States, there is a greater relationship between the presence of a good supply of primary care physicians and life expectancy than there is between either broad insurance coverage or affordability of voverage and life expectancy. Universal coverage alone, particularly if not organized through a single payer with uniformity of benefits, could expand access to inappropriate services.”

Well, we need both, the single payer system and the commitment to primary care. And we need action, not more words. And we need it now.

[1] Note that this comment may not appear on the abridged version of the wonderful video that appears on this website.
[2] McKee ND, McKague MA, Ramsden VR, Poole RE. Cultivating interest in family medicine: family medicine interest group reaches undergraduate medical students. Can Fam Physician. 2007;53(4):661–5.
[3] Roehrig C. Presentation to the Council on Graduate Medical Education, 2009 Nov 18. Data from the American Association of Medical Colleges Graduation Questionnaire.
[4] Sandy LG, Bodenheimer T, PawlsonLG, Starfield B. The political economy of U.S. primary care. Health Aff Millwood). 2009;28 (4):1136–45.
[5] From the late great Phil Ochs, “Power and Glory”, copyright Phil Ochs.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Primary Care: What takes so much time? And how are we paying for it?

In a piece that has gotten a lot of attention, “What’s Keeping Us So Busy in Primary Care? A Snapshot from One Practice”(New England Journal of Medicine, Apr29,2010;362(17):1632-6), Philadelphia general internist Richard J. Baron writes about the many tasks – many of them unreimbursed – that occupy the time of the physicians in his practice. While the physicians in the practice saw an average of 18.1 patient visits per day (the one activity they were paid for), they also returned an average of 23.7 telephone calls, and 16.8 email messages. They refilled 12.1 prescriptions, reviewed 19.5 laboratory reports, 11.1 imaging reports and 13.9 consultation reports per day. They also filled out large amounts of paperwork that they do not report on because they are not captured by their electronic medical record, such as “…administrative forms (e.g., for physical examinations for work, camp, and school and Family Medical Leave Act forms), correspondence received from health plan (e.g., disease-management letters), and reports on home care and physical therapy.” That’s a lot of work that is not being paid for. This is a huge issue in providing primary care, and one that is not often appreciated by the subspecialists, medical and surgical, who are very highly reimbursed for the procedures that they do, so that the paperwork, phone calls, etc., such as they are, are well subsidized.

Dr. Baron’s report reinforces both frequent observations and studies that have been done earlier. In 2003, Yarnall, et. al., published an article that looked at the amount of time it would take a primary care physician with a typical practice of 2,500 patient to provide all of the preventive care recommended by the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) at the “A” or “B” level. In “Primary Care: Is There Enough Time for Prevention?” (Am J Public Health. 2003;93:635–641), they found that:

In all, an annual total of 1773 hours, or 7.4 hours of every working day, is required for the provision of all recommended preventive services to a practice of 2500 patients with age and sex distributions based on the US population.”

That is a staggering statistic; in itself this is a full-time occupation, and yet it does not include any time for managing the chronic diseases that people have, or the acute conditions that are bothering them! In a later piece in 2009, “Family Physicians as Team Leaders: ‘Time’ to Share the Care” (Prev Chronic Disease Apr2009;6(2):A59), Yarnall and colleagues further assess all three types of care (preventive, chronic, and acute) and determine that together they would take 21.7 hours a day! This is reassuringly less than 24, as even doctors need to sleep and eat!

The recommendations from Yarnall, et. al., and from other recent pieces assessing the changes that will need to take place in the structure of primary care, coincide with the decisions made by Dr. Baron’s group to increase the size of their team. While the internists in Philadelphia mainly added a triage nurse, a true team requires a more comprehensive approach. Proposals planning for the Patient-Centered Medical Home (PCMH) understand that “it takes a team,” not just a physician. Among the best recent review and analyses is “Transforming Primary Care: From Past Practice To The Practice Of The Future” by David Margolius and Thomas Bodenheimer (Health Affairs May 2010, 29(5): 779–784 ). Virtually all these proposals advocate developing a team of providers, including doctors, nurses, medical assistants, pharmacists, secretaries/clerks, social workers, mental health specialists, even public health professionals, to collaboratively provide the appropriate and necessary care.

This is a great idea, but hard to implement in the current fee-for-service system, a system unlikely to change given the degree to which the new health reform law is built around insurance companies. Dr. Baron’s practice was participating in a demonstration project to provide coordination in the interest of the PCMH that was funded by the state of Pennsylvania; most practices are not. As I have said before, if proceduralist could do the procedures and subspecialists manage their particular rare or advanced disease, and allow primary care doctors to manage complexity and counsel and do prevention (and mental health professionals, and social workers, and pharmacists, and therapists to all do the things they were best able to do) rather than trying to do more procedures because they would make more money, this would make – sense.

Comprehensive care for people is a big undertaking. It is much more than consulting on one problem, or doing a single procedure and follow up. It is caring for many problems, and providing the preventive care that people need, and addressing their acute complaints, and doing counseling for both psychosocial issues and decision-making issues (e.g., “should I have this surgery?” “what is the risk of this diagnostic procedure recommended by the consultant?”) It is being available to refill lost or expired prescriptions, reviewing lab and imaging results and consultant reports, and answer questions by phone or email, and review and coordinate the care being provided by consultants. It is doing all those things that people expect that their “family doctors” (in whatever specialty they are actually certified) will do. It is a very different practice than that of a subspecialist; while for the latter “the buck stops here” for treatment decisions for a particular condition, for the former “the buck stops here”, period. There is nothing in the medical realm with which they cannot, reasonably, be expected to be involved.

Consider a patient who tells a subspecialist, say their cardiologist, about their knee pain. The cardiologist says “I don’t do knees,” and sends them back to their primary care doctor, or refers them to an orthopedist. On their next visit the patient says “I saw the orthopedist you sent me to,” and the cardiologist, reasonably, says “I don’t do knees. Do whatever s/he told you.”

Now consider the patient presenting with the same knee pain to their primary care doctor. Maybe that doctor has a good idea of what the problem is and how to treat it, but to be sure refers the patient to the orthopedist. On the return visit, the patient now wants to talk with “their” doctor about what the orthopedist said, what s/he recommended, what the primary care doctor thinks about that, and needs help making a decision. So, while for the subspecialist (cardiologist, in this example) a referral disposes of potential work, for the primary care physician, it will usually, while reassuring the doctor that the right care is being done, actually increase the amount of work.

Most primary care practices discover, as did Dr. Baron’s, that it is inefficient to have physicians doing virtually any of the work that could be done by a lower-paid staff member; this could be a nurse (which his practice did not employ initially) or a medical assistant. Subspecialists have always known this, employing nurses, physician’s assistants, and others (including medical “fellows”) to augment their productivity; for example, a surgeon can be in the operating room while a physician’s assistant sees patients in the office. But it takes money to pay such staff.

As long as the only reimbursement is for actual patient visits, and that reimbursement is spectacularly lower for primary care doctors than for subspecialists, and particularly proceduralists, the financial viability of such practices will be low, and the attractiveness to highly indebted medical students comparably low. This calls for a restructuring of the entire payment system, into one that encourages collaboration and the most appropriate management. A capitated payment system is very desirable because then patients can be “seen” in the most appropriate way based on the perception of patient and physician – phone, email, office, hospital, home – but only if that reimbursement is high enough to make the development and implementation of patient centered systems worthwhile.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Public Health and Changing People's Minds

In his Perspective “Why we don’t spend enough on public health” in the New England Journal of Medicine (May 6, 2010;362(10):1657-8), David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health goes beyond the familiar complaint of the field that it is underfunded, particularly in contrast to medical care, despite the fact that it responsible for a much greater proportion of, well, the public’s health. He describes, as the title states, why.

Medicine is primarily a private good — the patient receives the main benefit of any care provided. Payments usually come from the individual patient and, in the developed world, from private and governmental insurance. Public health, on the other hand, provides public goods — such as a good sewer system — and relies almost exclusively on government funding.”

The fact that public health provides a more general good would seem to be, well, good, but because it doesn’t as easily benefit a particular individual (me, or someone I know, or at least someone I can see a picture of) it is less engaging. People, Hemenway points out, are “wired” to value present need more than future benefit; cost today for potential benefit tomorrow is not easy to “buy” and is certainly rarely politically popular. In addition, the absence of disease (because it was prevented) is less obvious – and thus unfortunately less valued – than the cure of a disease that didn’t have to occur. We don’t wake up every morning and say “thank goodness I don’t have cholera because we have a clean water supply!”, but would be very grateful for a cure if we did contract cholera.

In addition, of course, and very importantly, Hemenway notes that while there are well-heeled advocates for spending money on medical care (e.g., pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, doctors), the money is generally working against public health measures which often threaten extra cost to business – regulation of air and water pollution, environmental restrictions, occupational health laws, smoking bans, alcohol restrictions. And especially gun-control, where opposition to minimal studies supported by the CDC on this major health problem were so opposed by congressmen influenced by the gun lobby that they effectively stopped research into this area. Or, more recently, where members of Congress such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), tie themselves into verbal knots trying to show how hard they will be on suspected terrorists, and how many Constitutional rights they are willing to abridge – unless it is the Second Amendment, and mainly the NRA. When addressing the issue of restricting the ability of people on the “no-fly” list to buy guns Sen. Graham is uncompromising: “I think you’re going to far here.” (“Congress Up in Arms”, Gail Collins, May 6, 2010) .

Hemenway cites the example of “Baby Jessica” who fell down a well in Texas in 1987 whose story gripped the country: “As a nation, we will spend tens of millions of dollars to save one Baby Jessica but are often unwilling to spend an equivalent amount to prevent the deaths of many statistical babies…The scandal that people remember about Hurricane Katrina is not so much the lack of preventive measures (e.g., stronger levees) that would have averted the calamity but the inadequate rescue efforts.”

This is why TV commercials for “Save the Children” and like charities that show the faces of actual children, or even better the agencies that allow us to “adopt” specific developing-world children by sending money to them, the individual kids, are so much more effective than general appeals for contributions to help the oppressed around the world. It is also why, when the New York Times published “Faces of the Dead” on the 7th anniversary of the Iraq war, it was so much more powerful than simply saying “more than 4,000 have died”, or even listing their names. It is now an interactive site; click on any of the little boxes and the photo changes to that dead serviceman or woman, with their name, age, hometown and service branch. Please check this site out, but have a box of tissues beside you.

The more common tack taken by public health experts has been to try to provide more and more data, to policymakers and the public, about the importance of public health measures past, current, and (potentially) future, in the expectation, or at least hope, that this will convince them and result in a greater commitment (spelled, like all commitment, “M-O-N-E-Y”) to public health undertakings. Hemenway’s piece, demonstrating that anecdote, personal stories, and treatment of existing conditions that are actually hurting people, are more powerfully convincing than data, evidence, and effective prevention, must be very frustrating. Indeed, the issue (and I would say the problem) goes beyond public health to health and medical care in general; indeed it applies to most issues in the policy arena. Data, whether presented in “dry” tables, journal articles, Congressional testimony, or the media, does not seem to change peoples’ minds.

Hemenway says that “societal change is hard”, but so is individual change. The case for this conclusion is clearly presented by Christie Aschwanden in “Convincing the Public to Accept New Medical Guidelines”, in e-zine Miller-McCune, April 20, 2010. In this important piece, Aschwanden begins by looking at the unwillingness of long-distance runners to change their use of ibuprofen (“Vitamin I”) for preventing pain and inflammation even when studies demonstrated that its use made these problems worse and those results were presented to the athletes. The conflict between the phenomenon called “naïve realism”, which is “the idea that whatever I believe, I believe it simply because it’s true,” versus the actually more naïve belief that “truth wins”. She discusses the recent breast cancer screening recommendations, and the belief (in part the result of a successful program of “education” from cancer awareness organizations) that the more screening of the more people, the better.

For years, women were taught the necessity of early detection for breast cancer based on the notion that breast cancer is a relentlessly progressive disease that will inevitably kill you if you don’t remove it in time. That story about breast cancer — call it the “relentless progression” mind model — is easy to grasp, makes intuitive sense and offers a measure of comfort: Every cancer is curable as long as you catch it in time.”

This is not a correct model, but it is hard to convince someone who had a mammogram, found cancer, had it treated, and is now alive, that mammography screening for everyone is not a good idea, much less that her cancer had a certain percent chance (much lower than prostate cancer, to be sure) of regressing on its own. I have addressed the breast cancer recommendations previously (Breast Cancer Screening and Evidence-based Medicine, November 25, 2009), so will rather focus on the studies that show, as she quotes social psychologist Robert J. MacCoun, “If a researcher produces a finding that confirms what I already believe, then of course it’s correct. Conversely, when we encounter a finding we don’t like, we have a need to explain it away.” I have previously noted that “data is only useful if it confirms my preconceived notions”; Aschwanden’s article cites study after study showing the same, on medical issues from breast cancer to low back pain. The President has called for more comparative effectiveness research (as have I, Comparative effectiveness research, March 27, 2010) but “How do you convince doctors and patients to dump established, well-loved interventions when evidence shows they don’t actually improve health?”

More generally, this is not just an issue with health beliefs. Aschwanden cites studies that demonstrated that people who believed Sadaam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction continued to believe it after being show evidence that it was not true. The opposite may occur, in fact; the presentation of facts that contradict your beliefs may serve to remind you of why you believe it and reinforce them. “It comes down,” Aschwanden writes, “to something the satirist Stephen Colbert calls ‘truthiness,’ a term he coined in a 2005 episode of his Comedy Central show, "The Colbert Report". ‘Truthiness is what you want the facts to be, as opposed to what the facts are,’ Colbert said. ‘It is the truth that is felt deep down, in the gut.’”

I admit to some my own truthiness. I want to believe, despite all this evidence, that people can be convinced by the evidence. That we will reconfigure the great imbalance of funding for individual medical care and public health because of the opportunity to improve people’s health and prevent disease; that we will choose prevention, screening, and treatment strategies based on evidence of effectiveness rather than myth or the financial benefit that accrues to the vendor of the service, and that we can unlearn that which is wrong as well as learn anew what is right. And that, even in the political arena, policy decisions may be guided by facts and reality rather than convictions. I know this is naïve, but I really want it to be true. Doesn’t that count for something?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Health Outcomes: The interaction of class and health behaviors

I have recently discussed (Poverty, Primary Care and the Cost of Medical Care, February 10, 2010) the “Whitehall Studies” conducted by Sir Michael Marmot and colleagues that “demonstrate that there is a more or less linear correlation between health (including longevity) and increasing social class". That piece discussed the report of a panel headed by Marmot, “Fair Society, Healthy Lives”, that shows that these problems have not been resolved. A new paper from the follow-up “Whitehall II” study, conducted by Silvia Stringhini and colleagues from both Britain and France, “Association of socioeconomic position with health behavior and mortality”, (JAMA Mar24/31,2010;303(12):1159-66), examined the role of alcohol, tobacco, diet, and physical activity in accounting for these differences over an extraordinarily long 24-year follow-up period.

Stringhini, et. al., found that in fact adverse health behaviors accounted for about 42% of the increase in mortality in lower socioeconomic groups (which was about 1.6 times as high in lowest than in the highest socioeconomic group). Smoking was the most powerful negative factor, with the others contributing a smaller amount. “There was a marked social gradient in health behaviors at baseline. Participants in the lower socioeconomic positions were more likely to smoke, abstain from alcohol consumption, follow an unhealthy diet, and be physically inactive and less likely to consume heavy amounts of alcohol.” Most of this is consistent with the observations of physicians and epidemiologists in the US, with the surprising exception of alcohol use being lower in lower income groups. This may be a difference between the US and Britain; in Britain, in the 20th century, cirrhosis was a disease largely of the upper class who could afford the highly taxed, and high alcohol content, distilled spirits. Another possibility (and this is my speculation, not data) is that the lower socioeconomic group studied by Whitehall II in England may have a large component of Muslims, who do not drink. In any case, the impact of smoking, poor diet, and physical inactivity accounted for a significant part of the class difference in mortality, although it did not account for even the majority of that difference.

Thus, this study supports two well-established assumptions: 1) that adverse health behaviors are a significant contributor to ill health and higher age-adjusted mortality rate, and 2) that people in lower socioeconomic groups have worse health and higher mortality rates, much, but not all, of which can be associated with their higher rates of adverse health behaviors. Previous work on the results of Whitehall have suggested, and demonstrated evidentiary support for, the hypothesis that stress in daily life (of worrying about how you will pay the rent and feed your family, whether you are going to lose your job, or, particularly in the case of ethnic and racial minorities, not only whether you will be arrested or harassed by the authorities but the indignities of ongoing discrimination), mediated through only partially understood neurochemical pathways, account for much of this effect. However, to the extent that people can divest themselves of risky health behaviors, they can decrease, if not eliminate, their higher risk for adverse health outcomes.

In the same issue of JAMA, James R. Dunn of McMaster University in Canada, has a very insightful editorial commenting on the Stringhini article, “Health behavior vs the stress of low socioeconomic status and health outcomes” (JAMA, Mar24/31, 2010;303(12):1199-1200). He repeats the caution of the Whitehall authors that the population studied in the Whitehall cohort may not be representative of the British population overall (and, by extension, of the US or Canadian population). Indeed, the cohort was originally selected by Marmot and colleagues to reduce the confounding that might come from general studies of people in different classes because of occupational risks. Dunn points to the association of the stress of low socioeconomic status and the prevalence of adverse health behaviors: “…it is possible to consider both factors [stress and behavior] as part of the same pathway between relatively low socioeconomic status and health. Unhealthy behaviors are more common among individuals with low socioeconomic status because of the stress of low socioeconomic status. Accordingly, there is a direct causal pathway between low socioeconomic status and poor health as well as an indirect causal pathway through health behavior, which reinforce one another over the lifecourse.” That is, the stress of being poor makes you more likely to do unhealthful things that we know about (smoking, poor diet, low physical activity) that make you less healthy, and also makes you less healthy through a pathway that we don’t completely understand.

Dunn notes that while changing health behaviors in lower socioeconomic populations would be a good thing, “The problem is that traditional individually oriented health behavior education interventions are not very effective, and individuals with low socioeconomic status have been notoriously difficult to reach with such programs”. He discusses a variety of early childhood developmental characteristics, especially “executive function” and “self regulation” which might increase the probability of not adopting or stopping adverse health behaviors, which are on average less well developed in those growing up in lower socioeconomic groups, presumably also as a result of the stress impacting them as young children.

The relatively good news from the Stringhini study is that the prevalence of many adverse health behaviors did decrease over the time period studied. For smoking, the prevalence decrease from 10.1% to 4.8% in the highest, and from 29.7% to 16.5% in the lowest socioeconomic groups and unhealthy diet from 5.8% to 1.0% and 14.9% to 5.2% respectively diet; on the other hand, sedentary behavior increased from 6.6% to 21.4% in the highest and from 35.4% to 41.6% in the lowest socioeconomic groups. Again, extending this to the whole British population is uncertain, and in the US the prevalence of obesity (a combination of both poor diet and physical inactivity) is growing at a staggering rate in all age groups, and especially in low socioeconomic groups.

The take-home message is that all people should be encouraged and supported to adopt healthful and eschew unhealthful behaviors, particularly related to smoking, diet and exercise, and the degree to which any programs can be demonstrated to be successful for large numbers of individuals or, better yet, groups, they should be promulgated and replicated. However, to have greater success, programs will have to strike closer at the etiologies of these behaviors. A lower level, achievable (and achieved in some jurisdictions) by legislation, exemplified by indoor smoking bans, calorie and fat content labeling of foods, especially fast foods, and banning the use of toys as gifts in fast-food meals (as recently done in Santa Clara County, CA), can have much more significant impact (see “Promoting health through tobacco taxation” by Ali and Koplan from JAMA, and “Cardiovascular effect of bans on smoking in public places: a systematic review and meta-analysis” by Meyer, et. al., in JACC, cited in The Public’s Health: Smoking and Salt, February 6, 2010).

The greatest changes, however, involve even more significant societal changes: the elimination of the wide disparity in income and opportunity, thus socioeconomic status, and of racism. Health-focused, as well as social justice focused, policies should try to achieve this end, but in the US it will be a long time coming. In the meantime, it remains a good idea to choose your parents wisely; being born white and rich still significantly enhances your health status.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Big Finance & Big Oil -- Teabaggers and Racism

The news coverage would suggest that President Obama and the Democratic Party should just give up now; the teabaggers and the Republican naysayers have convinced the American people and we all now believe in – what was it again? No taxes? No health care? That regulating banks is likely to increase the probability of having to bail them out? No matter; Scott Brown in Massachusetts was the leading edge and soon the entire Senate will be Republican (although if passing a bill with only 59% of the votes in the Senate is “undemocratic” what do we even care? Oh yes; 59 Democratic votes is a minority while 51 Republican votes is a smashing mandate!) Yes, the Repubs claim the mandate (although the Democrats are out-fundraising them).

Nonetheless, it seems pretty amazing that President Obama, whose victory 18 months ago seemed to usher in a new era in politics, now appears so significantly weakened, and on the defensive. I’d suggest that there are several issues. The first is, to recall the Bill Clinton election reminder, the economy (stupid!) It has taken, in case anyone hasn’t noticed, a tremendous blow, brought on by the selfish misdeeds of a bunch of evil financiers abetted by government non-regulation, begun under the same Clinton and exacerbated by the administration of the Worst President in History (WPH), George W. Bush. For whatever reason – his personality, his actual beliefs, his political calculations – Obama never loudly, consistently and firmly put all the blame on his predecessor, the WPH, missing the potential benefit from a tactic that worked so well for Franklin Roosevelt. When things are economically terrible people are upset and angry. We are told that the economy is getting better, and it is clear that stocks are improving and Goldman Sachs is doing great (unless they are actually indicted on criminal, as well as civil, charges (Nelson D. Schwartz, Goldman’s earnings fail to shift focus from case, NY Times April 20, 2010), but lots and lots of people still don’t have jobs, or the houses they once had. And of course, President Obama’s appointment of so many ex-Clintonite Friends of Wall Street (FWS’s) to leadership on his economic team has created the impression that he is sympathetic to them, which maybe he is. Except he is in the process of trying to pass a bill that increases regulation on the banks, which the Republicans, as much the party of wealth as they ever were, are opposing with nonsensical claims that it will increase the probability of bailouts (see Paul Krugman, NY Times April 16, The Fire Next Time, and especially Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone, "The Feds vs. Goldman", April 26, 2010).

The health reform bill recently passed, the Patient Protection and Affordability Act, is another target of attack. I have recently written about the contents of this law (PPACA, The New Health Reform Law: How will it affect the public's health and primary care? , April 22, 2010),and of the many ways in which it will actually help people as well as the many flaws. The flaws include that it doesn’t have a coherent mechanism to control costs, and the cost of paying for it is one of the bases upon which it has been attacked. While I clearly would rather see a Medicare-for-all single-payer system, not least because of the enormous immediate savings and potential for long-term cost control, as well as, um, the fact that EVERYONE WOULD BE COVERED BY THE SAME SYSTEM, putting us all in the same boat where we belong, the cost argument doesn’t work for those who opposed health reform and wanted to keep the same system. The new law is flawed because it deals the insurance companies in, with millions of new customers, but it at least puts some restrictions on them. Continuing the same non-system that we are currently in, with increasing numbers of people unable to afford coverage, losing coverage when they get sick, and even more and more of the middle class “squeezed” by costs (“The Squeeze on the Middle Class”) was financially, as well as morally, unsustainable. Attacks on the bill because of the cost from those who are not single-payer supporters are ridiculous.

And, of course, there is racism. Make no mistake; there are a lot of people who are still racist, who are furious that a black man is President of the United States, and will do and say anything to make him unsuccessful. This issue is being addressed by many columnists; they are articulate and correct: see the excellent pieces on the tea party movement by Charles M. Blow (A Mighty Pale Tea, NY Times April 17, 2010) and Welcome to Confederate History Month by Frank Rich (NY Times, April 18, 2010). The “whitewashing” of the motivation of the secessionists in the Confederacy (it was about slavery, St-pid!) is a very disturbing counterpoint to the current racist attacks on the President. Blow writes from Grand Prairie, TX about the fact that the teabaggers are almost all white, while it is blacks and Hispanics, at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, who are most negatively affected by the economy. I recently was in Hawaii, and driving to the airport in Lihue, Kauai, passed a demonstration and immediately knew it was teabaggers because, unlike a roadside collection I’d seen the day before which turned out to be a rally for a mayoral candidate, the whole crowd was white! Lest you think this might have to do with the demographics of the area, Kauai County has only 32.9% non-Hispanic white residents (and an astounding 21.3% who identify themselves as two or more races).

The governments of most countries of the developed world, led by the US under administrations of both parties and with Congresses of both parties, deregulated the financial industry with the expectation that it would do well for the economy. (Interestingly, the one G8 country that probably suffered the least because of financial regulation, Canada, has now elected a Conservative government led by Stephen Harper that is trying to out-do the US Bush administration!) The economy did do well, for a while, better for the wealthy than the working class or poor, until it all came crashing down, burying the most vulnerable but letting the perpetrators escape to their yachts. Maybe (if there is any ironic justice) they will be ruined by the oil slick from the BP explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, but probably not; it will again be the poor and working people, minority or otherwise, and the environment, that take the big hit. Oil companies were also deregulated, allowed to drill offshore, and probably not well examined to make sure that their safety was as tight as it could be. But heck, we needed the oil! And now we will pay the price.

Who could ever have imagined that big finance and the oil industry could not be trusted to be responsible and do their part to care for the rest of us? Well, of course, lots of people but not the ones with the money to get the attention of legislators and the administrations. And apparently not the teabaggers, both their cynical leaders who continue to support these big industries and oppose regulation, or their troops, overwhelmingly white, who yet again are being taken in by a racist divide and conquer strategy.

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