Sunday, February 22, 2015

Cuba: A health system designed to serve to health of the people, not the profit of a few

I just returned from a week’s visit to Cuba with a group of medical journal editors and public health people. We met with many people in the medical professions including family doctors and nurses and people from highly specialized referral centers in pediatric cardiac and hepatobiliary surgery, nutrition, and diabetes, and with faculty and leaders from the school of public health and some of Cuba’s medical journals, including the Cuban Journal of Public Health. We met with US students from ELAM, the Latin American Medical School that trains (for free) students with social commitment and economic need from not only Latin America (and North America) but the entire world.

Much has been written on the Cuban medical system, and how it is structured. One of the best recent articles is by C. William Keck and Gail Reed in the American Journal of Public Health in 2012, “The Curious Case of Cuba”.[1] Keck and Reed are, respectively, Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor of MEDICC Review, an academic journal that publishes research and commentary from both Cuban and US (and other international) authors about the Cuban health system and health status, and is part of MEDICC (Medical Education in Cooperation with Cuba). They were also leaders of our MEDICC-sponsored trip. I will not try to provide yet another in-depth description of the Cuban health system, with which many readers may be familiar, but will rather highlight some aspects of it that struck me as particularly important, and explain why.

First of all, the medical system in Cuba is a national priority. As a socialist country, its centralized nature exceeds that seen in the more-commonly described wealthy Western European nations, and it provides care for everyone. This is a positive, obviously, but also (of course) limits the access to some elective procedures for those who would be rich enough to afford it in another society. It also, of course, limits the ability of those people to be at the front of the queue, which is a particular irritation to the privileged, high-income people who are often those most critical of any type of equitable health system. The health statistics are excellent; several indicators, including infant mortality rate (4.8/1000 in 2013) are much better than in the US.

It is also very primary-care based. Teams of family doctors and nurses are in every neighborhood (in the densely populated parts of central Havana where we were, actually every few blocks) and are responsible for the health of a geographically defined population of 800-1800 people (depending on percent of older, high need people). They spend half their day seeing people in the office, and the other half making home visits, most frequently to those who are high-need because of chronic disease or recent mothers (the nurse sees almost daily). They also live in the neighborhood, frequently in or over the clinic, and are expected to be available 24-7 for any of the patients in their community who needs urgent help. Some of the doctors in these settings are residents in the second of their two-year FM residency, and they include those from other countries whose governments permit residency training in Cuba (we met a resident from Ecuador, who would be returning to his own country).

At the next level are polyclinics, also very neighborhood-based and serving a number of family medicine practices. Staffed with a family medicine professor as well as other specialists (pediatrics, IM, OB-Gyn, etc.) they see patients referred to them by the FM practices (and send them back for continuing care) as well as provide some procedural and imaging services. All physicians complete the 2-year FM residency, and then do residencies in other specialties; about 40% of doctors are FM. There are also hospitals, emergency / urgent care settings, and several levels of referral centers. The ones we visited in Havana for pediatric specialty surgery (including transplants of livers, although not yet hearts for children), nutrition, and diabetes were the most high-level referral centers in the country. At every level the centrality of the family medicine community practice for ongoing follow-up was emphasized. Specialty doctors have great respect for this system. In addition, although they make earn more than family doctors, the difference is small, and all earn far less in relation to the income of others in society than in the US. Doctors are not in it for the money. Public health is a much more prominent part of the health system in Cuba than it is in the US, and there are strong centralized efforts to integrate it more with the medical care, and particularly primary care, system. It remains underfunded relative to medical care delivery, but the inequity is significantly less than in the US where public health receives about 3% of the health care dollar compare to 97% for medical care.

In addition to the medical care that they provide to their own people, the Cubans provide care all around the world, and train doctors (as indicated above) from all around the world. Many poor nations have their health facilities staffed by Cuban physicians, and their human resource commitment to fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa dwarfs any comparable effort by the US or other nations (see the article “Cuba vs. Ebola” on the MEDICC webpage). As noted above, ELAM graduates several thousand physicians from other countries every year, including the US. The students from the US, selected by the organization Pastors for Peace, are typically from lower-income families and ethnic groups under-represented in US medicine. The US students are required to have at least 2 years of college, and spend at least 6 years in the medical school, plus an extra one before if they are not fluent in Spanish. They are provided free tuition, room, and board. Life is not easy, and like most Cubans – even those working in the most advanced centers, including the National Medical Library – have limited and slow Internet access, a result, apparently of the lack of access to satellites resulting in the “low bandwidth” we heard about constantly. But the graduates are expected to enter primary care and work in communities of need that are like those they come from, and despite the inability of Cuba to enforce this, most of them do. Many have completed residencies in the US and others are currently training, predominantly in primary care. They tend to bring excellent history-taking and physical examination skills, although need time to adapt to the electronic medical record and the ability to “just order a CT scan”.

The hardest part for me about the US medical students at ELAM is that they are exactly the kind of students that every medical school in the US should be aggressively recruiting: from families and communities that have not typically produced physicians, from underrepresented groups, and with a passion and commitment to provide care for those communities. It embarrasses me that they have to go to Cuba to school, while our medical schools are filled with “more of the same”: privileged, generally majority, students with much more interest in high-specialization than primary care, and much more commitment to themselves than to the needs of society.

There are a lot of problems with Cuba, and even with their health system. It is very expensive, very dependent upon physicians, and upon paying relatively low salaries to health workers. It is handicapped by limited resources in a relatively poor country, even though the largest portion of that nation’s resources are spent upon health care and education. Its poor access to the Internet and lack of money for international travel limit the ability of its health professionals to collaborate and stay on top of what is happening in the rest of the world. But what the Cuban model shows is that it is possible to have a health system based on trying to provide needed health care, relatively equitably, to everyone in the society. It starts with primary care, and everyone gets that before anyone gets more; as time and resources progress, more people get more, but still equitably. The emphasis is that health and healthcare and medical care are for everyone, not for a portion of the population. It is based upon the presumption that everyone should get what they need before anyone gets what they do not.

Advocates of a market-based model for health care in the US may insist that they are not mean or selfish, but that the market is the best model for organizing everything, including health care. Their mantra is that “the market will provide”, presumably not just profit for the providers of services, but health to the people.

How’s that working for us?

[1] C. William Keck and Gail A. Reed.  The Curious Case of Cuba. American Journal of Public Health: August 2012, Vol. 102, No. 8, pp. e13-e22. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2012.300822

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Medicaid expansion and uncovered lives: are people meaner in the South?

I have lived in a number of places, from New York City to Texas, Illinois to Kansas. Politically and socially there are very different norms that prevail, which are demonstrated by the difference in who we elect and what policies we choose to legislate. And, yet, in all of these places people are people. They can be kind and generous or mean and selfish. As individuals, they love and care for their children, or sometimes don’t. They are respectful of others, or not. In all places. And yet it is clear that there are major regional tendencies to policy that must reflect the local and regional values even though people are not necessarily nicer or meaner. I think that my blog posts have made clear my positions on many issues, particularly those related to health and to social justice.

Obviously, self-interest has a lot to do with what people believe, what policies they support, and which politicians they vote for to implement those policies. To a large degree, it is economic – what is good for me and my family, as illustrated in the old Clinton campaign mantra “It’s the economy [stupid]”. Of course there is more than that. If people voted mostly for their economic self-interest, we would have a very different set of national policies because there are so many more poor and middle-class people than rich, and in the last decade especially so many more middle-class people descending toward poor than ascending toward rich. Many of the policies we have would only be supported by those who are both rich and selfish, the latter being only a portion of the rich. And yet, so many of our policies only benefit the very richest. When it is “the economy”, it is usually good for the wealthy and big business, but not necessarily for all of us. And it is more so in some states and regions. We are, not individually but as a group, meaner some parts of the country than in others.

Access to health care and the means to be healthy (having the opportunity to have a home, and good food and a job and a reasonable opportunity to care for the needs of yourself and your family) is one important arena in which we are meaner in some places than others. We know, for example, that expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act has varied not only by state but largely by region. Since the ACA intended people under 133% of poverty to be covered by this expanded Medicaid (paid by the federal government, 100% for 4 years and then 90%), they are not eligible for health insurance exchanges. Thus, if their state did not expand Medicaid, they are unable to get coverage. This is the map of states that have expanded Medicaid; clearly, it there is a strong regional difference:

This figure from the Kaiser Family Foundation, showing the regional focus of non-expansion of Medicaid in the Southeast, South Central, Plains and Mountain states, is included in a very interesting piece in the Huffington Post by Harold Pollack of the University of Chicago, “Martin Luther King wouldn’t be very happy with this map”, posted on King’s Birthday holiday, January 19, this year. What he is referring to is that the South, the area King was from and spent most of his time working in (much of which is shown in the movie “Selma”) is one of the areas most affected. But Pollack makes the point that it is actually much worse, and that the South has the vast majority of uncovered people because some of those geographically-large Mountain and Plains states haven’t got very many people. Other states that have not expanded Medicaid, like Wisconsin, have other programs covering a large number of those who would be eligible for an expanded Medicaid. We have seen maps of the US re-drawn to make the size of states proportional to their population, where California and Texas and Florida and New York are huge, and Mountain states tiny. Pollack asked Harvard researcher Laura Yasaitas to show the states re-drawn to have their size proportional to the number of uncovered people. The results are even more amazing:

Because of their larger population, Southern states now obviously account for the vast majority of uncovered people, with the most populous states – Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina seeming huge. The two states Kansas City borders, Kansas and Missouri, are pretty big (Missouri is the one above Arkansas, the blue keystone in the middle, and Kansas is to its west, over Oklahoma which is recognizable because of its panhandle). Montana, Wyoming, and Utah fade not because they are covering people but because of their small populations. California and New York only show up because the mapmakers artificially pretended there were a couple of thousand uncovered people so they wouldn’t drop off the map altogether.

As Pollack points out, the two states that have benefited the most in terms of fewer people being uninsured are Arkansas, the keystone mentioned above, and Kentucky, the dark blue state above and to its east. This is because these two, southern/border states, had very large proportions of uninsured as did the rest of the South, so showed the greatest increase in covered people when they expanded Medicaid. Arkansas’ expansion created poignant stories in places like Texarkana where the poor folks in the Arkansas half were now able to get coverage, while those in the Texas half were not (see the NY Times In Texarkana, uninsured and on the wrong side of the state line”, June 8, 2014). The lesson is that Medicaid expansion could benefit even more people if it were implemented in these large-population states, with real significant changes in the actual and potential health status of lower-income people there.

But they haven’t done it and are unlikely to. The political will is not present. There are anti-ACA crusaders in many states, but they are particularly prominent in the South, which already has the highest proportion of poor and needy people and the lowest levels of social services. Clearly, this has a lot to do with race – that historically and in the present many of the poorest people in the South are African-American (and, especially in Texas, Latino). This makes Dr. Pollack’s invocation of Dr. King particularly relevant. And particularly poignant. Racism has been one of the dominant themes in America, and while it certainly exists in all parts of the country, it has never been as institutionalized as in the South (remember slavery? Jim Crow?). And to those who say it is not like that anymore, we don’t have Bull Connor, or the bridge in Selma anymore, we are the New South, look at the map above.

I really don’t think that the people in the South, any more than in Kansas or Missouri—or Montana and Wyoming—are meaner than they are in other parts of the country. So why do they elect people who institute policies to make it look like they are?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Precision medicine, trade policy and the cost of drugs: benefiting people or profit for business?

In a recent (January 29, 2015) New York Times Op-Ed, Mayo Clinic anesthesiologist Michael Joyner writes that “’Moonshot’ medicine will let us down”. What Dr. Joyner is referring to is what is now most commonly called, particularly in the large academic medical centers that have bought into it in a big way, “precision medicine” or occasionally “personalized medicine”. This is the concept that, by knowing your individual genetics, medicine can devise targeted treatments for diseases (most of the emphasis is on cancer) that will work for you, but maybe not for other people. Maybe the treatment most commonly used for the disease isn’t right for you; this would find it out.

It is a very attractive concept, and one that has clearly gained traction since the first complete sequencing of the human genome in 2003, moving from a science fiction idea to a mainstream investment by many institutions. As Dr. Joyner notes, “President Obama’s new budget is expected to include hundreds of millions of dollars for so-called precision medicine. The initiative, which he introduced last week in his State of the Union address, has bipartisan support and is a bright spot in the otherwise tight funding environment for medical research.” That is the “moonshot” part – hundreds of millions of dollars. When other funding for research is stagnant or being cut. Because it sounds cool, exciting, really like something cutting edge, a step toward the day when disease will no longer bedevil the human race. However, Dr. Joyner adds: “Unfortunately, precision medicine is unlikely to make most of us healthier.” Bummer.

Maybe he is wrong. Maybe the medical centers investing heavily in precision medicine, and the federal government which will fund it (of course, the “investing heavily” is not unrelated to the “hundreds of millions in federal funding) are right. “Star Trek” here we come! But let us look at the evidence that Dr. Joyner presents. He notes that most common diseases that affect people, even those with clear association with families and thus likely genetics, such as Type II diabetes, are not the result of a single or even a few genes that could be targeted if they could be fixed. There are multiple genetic characteristics that impact whether someone has a tendency to get DM2. Moreover, whether it actually occurs is a result of a complex interplay between those genetic risks and actual behaviors such as diet and exercise. He argues that it is obesity, caused by behaviors but certainly abetted by social changes in our lives, jobs, and easily availability of cheap high-calorie food leading to obesity, that has been the major culprit, given that DM2 (and obesity) is an epidemic of the last half-century, therefore not a result of any genetic change. In addition, even when there are genetic factors for differences between people in their response to treatment, it turns out that these do not explain most of the difference (“missing heritability”), such as in response to the anticoagulant warfarin (a so-far failed effort to use precision medicine to choose treatment). Treatment of chronic diseases like cystic fibrosis by genetic intervention has been unsuccessful, and cancer (like microbes) mutates a lot faster than genetically normal cells.

Joyner also raises the very real concern that people’s behaviors will change in ways that work against their health when they learn their genetic risk. Some people will use the information that they are at lower genetic risk to adopt risky behaviors. This has been described in many areas, everything from people with negative cardiac tests continuing to smoke and overeat to men who have had negative HIV tests and circumcision to decrease their risk of spreading HIV increasing their unsafe sex practices. He also notes that the opposite test result, finding yourself to be at greater genetic risk, can also lead to unsafe practices because you figure you’re doomed anyway. In addition, he notes that there are some people (“worriers”), “…who might embark on a course of excessive tests and biopsies ‘just in case.’ In a medical system already marked by the overuse of diagnostic tests and procedures, this could lead to even more wasteful spending.”

The main message here is only in part that “precision medicine” is something whose time has not yet come and may or may not ever come. More important thing is that, despite this, the government is planning to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in it. Most important is that money is not being spent on implementing treatments for conditions that we do know how to treat. People who are poor or uninsured cannot access many already available – and often incredibly expensive – treatments for diseases like cancer (see my piece “Squeezing the needy: a truly flawed financing system for healthcare”, March 2, 2013) or hepatitis C or many neurologic diseases. “Precision medicine” treatments are certainly going to be even more costly. In addition, we do not spend the necessary money to address the social determinants of health--housing and food and warmth and education--that make more of a difference in health than all of health care.

Indeed, we invest large amounts of money, public as well as private, in programs that effectively make our health worse. Sometimes this is in subsidies to major environmental polluters (BP, anyone? How about fracking and the Keystone XL pipeline?), and sometimes it is more direct, when we actually invest government funds in making treatments more expensive and less accessible to people, albeit to the benefit of the drug companies? Noted economist Joseph Stiglitz takes this on in another recent Times Op-Ed, “Don’t trade away our health” (January 30, 2015). He describes how the US Trade Representative, who negotiates trade agreements “supposedly on behalf of the American people”, is in fact consistently working on behalf of big corporations. In the case of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, this will mean increased obstacles to lower-cost generic drugs by making competition more difficult.Just the availability of generics drives prices down: In generics-friendly India, for example, Gilead Sciences, which makes an effective hepatitis-C drug, recently announced that it would sell the drug for a little more than 1 percent of the $84,000 it charges here.”  This competition should be encouraged; it is the essence of capitalism. But our trade representative is representing big business, not people.

Of course, high drug costs are already a reality. On January 28, 2015, the Times’ Business Section previewed a study coming out in the New England Journal of Medicine from Harvard. “Study finds HIV drugs priced out of reach”. Much of the great advance made against HIV in the last few decades come from effective and more tolerable drug regimens. Atripla, for example, is a once-daily combination of 3 drugs (2 made by Gilead, one by Merck), that is extremely effective. But this study shows that the “flexibility” available to insurers under ACA will mean that folks with worse insurance (usually poorer people) will have to pay $3,000 a year more for Atripla than those with better policies. Again, the poor pay more.

Precision medicine may sound good, and certainly cool, and sexy. It may even benefit some people, if at very high cost, in the future. But right now, today, there are lots of conditions we know how to treat and lots of people who are not getting that treatment because they don’t have the money, are not desirable, have diseases not in the most preferred “product lines”. And we are spending federal money on making some of the drugs that we have that we know are effective less available.

Despite publicity about or funding for precision medicine or any other “new idea”, the fatal flaw is that our health system is not about improving our health, it is about profit. This is intolerable.

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