Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Political is Personal: Corporate power, social isolation, and the health of the nation -- Part 2

This talk was presented at the 29th Conference on Primary Care Access, Monterey, CA April 16, 2018

Many officials and policymakers pay lip service to the importance of health, but most of the actual support (spelled M-O-N-E-Y) is for treatments for individuals, often with uncommon diseases. Being on the “frontiers of knowledge” is much sexier than rather than the old, pedestrian “taking care of people”. And such policies ensure enormous profit for drug manufacturers, who, like military contractors, are guaranteed huge returns while most Americans are not even guaranteed subsistence.

We abhor the individual excesses of Martin Shkreli and Turing jacking up the price of pyrimethamine (Daraprim ®) from $13.50 to $750 a pill (he has been sent to prison but not for this action against the health of the people; rather he committed the much worse sin of defrauding investors), or Heather Bresch and Mylan raising the price of Epi-Pen ® from $100 to $600, or the manufacturers of colchicine (URL Pharma), with the complicity of the FDA, being allowed to patent a drug that was identified as effective for gout in Egyptian papyri in 1500 BC and raise the price from a few cents to $5 a pill. And what is there to say about the scammer Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos and its A-List Board of Directors?

The Atlantic recently told us the history of the creation and marketing of Oxy-Contin ® by the Sackler brothers. When they bought Purdue, they inherited an expiring patent for extended-release morphine. So they not only developed extended-release oxycodone and marketed it, taking advantage of the public (and physicians’) caution about morphine, they greatly broadened the indications for this drug, which is just as addictive, from cancer and sickle-cell and the like to any chronic pain, especially back pain. Thus, we almost all are eligible users, and we see the results with our nation’s opioid crisis.

If we are still practicing, we see the results of the “breakthroughs” in recombinant DNA “-ab” drugs (actually, anyone who watches TV will see the ads for them), promising (occasionally with some validity) new hope for sufferers from cancer, auto-immune disease, and a variety of neurologic conditions. The TV ads do not contain, and I hope that we as physicians are aware of, the prices, often $30,000 to $100,000 a year or more, far more than the average family income in the US. The frequency of serious side effects, including death, from these drugs is very real – many are immune system stimulants that frequently, not rarely, cause autoimmune hepatitis, pancreatitis and the like – and these are not clearly portrayed on TV, or in marketing to physicians.

Even when the individual is partially shielded from the cost by insurance, the out-of-pocket costs to patients can still be enormous. In any case, no matter who is paying, the pharmaceutical companies are making out like the bandits they are, and less and less money within the whole system is actually available for population health, for prevention, for public health, for treatment of common diseases like hypertension and diabetes. And even for those conditions, we keep seeing newer – and always more expensive – drugs. While all the new diabetes drugs have some use for some individuals, many people with diabetes are still getting inadequate basic treatment with metformin, insulin, and good counseling and support for diet and exercise.

And what can be said about “precision medicine” (sometimes called “personalized medicine”)? Tens, or hundreds, of millions of dollars spent or promised by the federal government, promoted by former President Obama as part of the “moonshot on cancer”, the idea that every individual will have a relatively unique treatment based upon learning and understanding her genetic makeup. The promise is that we will be able to prescribe treatments for cancer and other horrible diseases as precisely as we target antibiotics to the culture results (and, I imagine, overprescribe them as we do with antibiotics). Pursuit of the money being allocated for these “cures”, as well as the cachet of being “scientific industry leaders”, has become a major motivator of medical school deans and chancellors, with every academic medical center developing Institutes for precision or personalized medicine.

What, by the way, has been the outcome? Not much, so far. Two genes have been shown to, themselves alone, cause cancers, and they have been well-known for a long time, BRCA-1 and BRCA-2. And the amazing precision/personalized medicine treatments? Well, get mammography earlier and more often and maybe consider prophylactic bilateral mastectomy. Where are the precision cocktails that cure each person? Do not fret; billions more will be spent on looking for them for years to come.

Is there a problem with this? Taken in isolation, pursuing effective treatments for terrible diseases that affect a significant (if relatively small) proportion of our population is not intrinsically a bad thing. But nothing is done in isolation. Those dollars that NIH spends on looking for these treatments, those insurance company dollars spent paying for outrageously overpriced drugs, the infrastructure development in our academic medical center that continues to support high-tech, high-specialization research and care, are dollars not being used for population health, public health, prevention and primary care, not being used to actually, effectively and broadly implement the treatment strategies that we know work so that they are not only available to but used for the benefit of everyone.

This is what we, as family doctors and primary care providers, and public health workers, can do. It is important, cost effective, and will make a real difference in the health of the population. But because it is cost-effective, it is not profitable for those corporations that have great influence in public policy, and so it continues to be recognized mostly with words and not resources.

Some years ago the VCU Center for Human Needs developed the County Health Calculator. You can click on any state, or any county, and find out the number of deaths per year, number of people with diabetes, cost of diabetes, percent of people with greater than a high school education, and percent of people with an income of at least twice the poverty level. You can compare to the best and worst county or state, and a neat slider lets you see how many lives and dollars would be saved if you had higher or lower percents. Here is Monterey County, CA, where we are. Despite the impression that might be generated by Reese Witherspoon’s HBO show “Big Little Lies”, it is not the richest or best-educated county in the state, but closer to the middle.  Allocating more of our money to addressing core societal functions, like education and poverty, will make a big difference in health, much more than any individually-directed medical care.

It should be obvious that the emphasis in medicine and health care to focus on individual treatments, despite (and maybe because of) huge costs (and remember, costs are someone’s profits!), rather than on interventions to improve the health of our overall population, is totally related to the political and social conditions and circumstances I spoke about at the beginning. We not only feel we are alone, we are actively being encouraged and directed to feel alone, and that we just need to look out for ourselves, and the treatments for our diseases, and our housing and food and children’s education and tax burden, and not for anyone else.

This serves the dual purpose of 1) pursuing, as I hope I have demonstrated for medical care (and others have also demonstrated for military contracting and other areas), strategies that maximize corporate profits, as well as 2) limiting the probability that people will organize together to attack the core structure of cynicism, exploitation, and greed that has become so ubiquitous that we can often not imagine any other way of society being organized.

I have talked about a number of issues, which I think are all related to our health, as individuals and as a nation. I have talked about social isolation, consumerism, a health system that is organized mainly for profit, the excesses of pharmaceutical manufacturers, “precision” or “personalized” medicine, and community health. Changing all of this is about changing society, but I think we, as health professionals, definitely have something to contribute. Whenever we think about these issues, whenever we are confronted by the false idea that we are each alone, that we cannot band together, that we should not care for the others in our society, that there is not value in social cohesion, we need to resist it and increase our efforts to work with others. As physicians and health workers, especially in public health and primary care, we need to continue to demand that most health dollars are spent on the strategies that benefit the health of most of the people.

       While policymakers and subspecialists and deans talk about “personalized medicine”, we as family doctors and other primary care providers, talk about personal medicine.  We are talking about the interactions between people – the medical term for whom is “patients” -- who need to be heard, and validated, and supported, with doctors and other providers who have enough time to do so. This is where the magic of personal medicine happens, not mainly in the provision of ever-more-expensive dangerous drugs and procedures. It is what we know how to do, and need to continue to teach others to do, and it is where we need to direct our efforts. It will not be easy, given the poor pay and resultant shortages of primary care doctors, and the mega-mergers that employ strategies such as retail clinics, currently being adopted. These strategies combine two major themes I have mentioned –  it is “corporate profit meets social isolation and instant gratification”, where people are encouraged to no longer value the relationships that come from continuity and community-based practices. 

We may well be on the road to 1984, even though it’s 34 years late. But I think we can still band together and resist going all the way there.

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