Saturday, May 26, 2018

Maternal mortality in the US and UK: Why do we tolerate paying so much more for so much worse outcomes?

Last year, ProPublica, in association with NPR, published Why Giving Birth Is Safer in Britain Than in the U.S. In typical journalistic style, it starts by grabbing your attention with a case report of a woman in England who almost died of post-partum hemorrhage, but did not. The lesson is presumably that she did not because the physicians, midwives, and others attending her followed a rigorous set of established protocols for addressing post-partum hemorrhage that are implemented nationally in the UK.

Of course, there is a possibility that this individual woman could have died, or had to undergo more invasive surgical procedures further down the protocol’s algorithm, but the real point is that, overall, the system is working. The evidence is in that the maternal mortality rate (deaths/100,000 women delivering) is 8.9 in Britain, while in the US the rate in 2015 was 25.1, three times that of the UK! What makes this more dramatic is that the disparity has developed only since 1990; until then the maternal mortality rates in the US and UK had been declining in parallel since the 1950s.

The article cites several reasons for this difference. One, a very important one, is that the UK collects data on maternal mortality nationally and develops guidelines based upon this data which are implemented nationally. In contrast, the US collects data at best by state, or even by hospital, and
There is no federal-level scrutiny of maternal deaths, and only 26 states have an established committee (of varying methodology and rigor) to review them. Nor do all U.S. hospitals routinely examine whether a death could have been avoided. Procedures for treating complications such as preeclampsia, and for responding to emergencies such as hemorrhage, vary from one doctor, hospital and state to the next.
This is true despite the fact that the methods used by the British to collect and analyze this data were developed in the US. While there has been a well-documented 30-year effort to improve quality and to reduce preventable deaths (a category into which most maternal mortality falls) in the US, led by such organizations as the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) and embraced by such other organizations as the American Hospital Association (AHA), National Center for Quality Assurance (NCQA), the Joint Commission for the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (TJC), the National Academy of Medicine, and on and on, no compulsory national approach to this problem has developed. This reflects a common, and often knee-jerk, opposition to centralized approaches to almost everything, even when they have been determined to have an important effect on reducing death. It is actually parallel to efforts within hospitals to standardize care, to require, for example, all surgeries to go through a series of prescribed steps (“timeouts”) before operating, or limiting the number of different devices implanted to those needed by different types of patients rather than by the preference of the individual surgeon (for an interesting discussion, see A. Gawande, “Big Med”, New Yorker, August 13, 2012). That is, it is effective where it has been done, but it is not mandated to be done everywhere and comprehensive national data is not even collected.

Another big part of the successful UK approach to the reduction of maternal mortality has been collecting detail on what happened and why; this goes beyond “there was a death”, or “there was a death from hemorrhage”, or “there was a death from sepsis”, to identifying why it happened, particularly if the reason was something that is relatively easily addressed. Marian Knight, head of MBRRACE-UK, the group that collects the data and makes the guidelines, says
It’s all very well to know a woman died of sepsis, but to know that she died of sepsis because nobody measured her temperature, as they had no thermometers on the postnatal ward, that’s where the instruction Put a thermometer on your postnatal ward might make a difference. It’s not just the what, it’s the why.
Can you believe that there might be post-partum units where there is no thermometer? Apparently it has happened. And having a rule that it must be present is a way of preventing it from happening again.

There are at least three other important dimensions. One is that, as the report states, “These U.S. deaths are not spread equally. Women who are poor, African American or live in a rural area are more likely to die during and after pregnancy.”  This is not a big surprise.  Poor women, minority women, rural women, and uninsured women do much worse, and are much more likely to die from complications of delivery. It is the familiar song in the US, as in so many areas, of health and of every aspect of society. Is it not true in Britain? The article goes on to say
In the U.K., while inequalities persist when it comes to serious complications, according to 2012-2014 data, there is no statistically significant difference in mortality rates between women in the highest and lowest socioeconomic groups. All British women have equal access to public medical services, including free care and prescriptions from pregnancy through the postpartum period.

This also has two components; the greater equity of the quality of healthcare delivered to all segments of the population, a result of having a national health care system, and less disparity in the “social determinants of health”, the actual quality of the lives of people (women, in this case) before they access care. Especially for rural women, some of the problem the lack of an adequate number of health professionals. Over 20 years ago, family medicine residencies in Texas were surveyed and only a small percent of residents were interested in providing rural obstetric care, but no OB/Gyn residents were! This has not improved; while a recent study published by Tong, et al., in Family Medicine (Characteristics of Graduating Family Medicine Residents Who Intend to Practice Maternity Care) found that 22% of FM residents planned to deliver babies, they cite his 2012 study that showed that only 9.1% of FM residency graduates were delivering babies 1-10 years out into practice despite an intention to do so of 24%, comparable to the current study.

Another dimension is that the difference in maternal mortality reflects a greater focus on the health – and life -- of the pregnant woman in Britain, while in the US the focus is more on the health of the fetus and the newborn. This goes far beyond the issue of abortion, although the focus on children rather than women is one that is also characteristic of the anti-choice movement in the US. It is so deeply ingrained in our culture that even many health professionals (including midwives, doctors, and nurses) who see themselves as “pro-choice” and would never want to see a maternal mortality, are still more focused on the fetus and baby. It results in a practice, if not a belief, that considers the woman but a vehicle for producing a child.

Finally, there is cost, ironically but again unsurprisingly much higher in the US. Much higher. The total cost for a normal vaginal delivery in the US is about $30,000, and about $50,000 for a Caesarean section. In Britain, the cost for a normal vaginal delivery or planned Caesarean is about $2500, or less than 1/10th the cost in the US, perhaps rising to $3400 for complicated cases (such as the one that leads off the article). Thus, the US charges far more, but has much worse outcomes for maternal mortality (as for many other conditions). This is not a side note; it is not just an interesting contradiction that our care costs more but has worse outcomes. And it is not by any means limited to pregnancy care or maternal mortality, but is present in our healthcare system at almost all levels and for most conditions. What ties these two components, cost and quality, tightly and inversely together, is that our “healthcare system” is only secondarily about delivering quality healthcare, and primarily about being a profit-making business.

So, that is the bottom line. The US has three times the maternal mortality rate of the UK despite charging ten times as much for delivery. The reasons are the absence of a national strategy to identify and remedy the causes of maternal mortality and the lack of a national healthcare system to provide the access necessary for women at risk. It causes the suffering and death to disproportionately affect those women who are already at greatest risk: the poor, minority, rural, and uninsured. The root cause is that our healthcare system is composed of poorly interconnected components, most of which are run as businesses to make money.

It is inequitable, and it is irrational from a health perspective if not from a business one. It causes unnecessary death and excessive cost, and seems to not be improving. It is not acceptable. We need to change it.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Health status in the United States and State Health Performance: The Commonwealth Fund report and potential solutions

The Commonwealth Fund has recently issued its 2018 Scorecard on State Health System Performance. This scorecard has data for each state (+ DC, so 51 spots), measuring performance against a variety of metrics evaluating access to health care, quality of care, efficiency in care delivery, health outcomes, and income-based health care disparities. Because the Scorecard has been issued 2013, Commonwealth can compare the current year’s rankings and performance to previous ones, seeing how states get better (or worse) on these individual measures as well as on overall performance.  

There is not much change. The Top 5 in performance remain Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont, and Utah, in the same order as last year. The Bottom 5 (47-51) are Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Mississippi, and are close to the same, the only change being Florida dropping 5 spots to join the group and displacing West Virginia, now at 46. Hawaii at the top and Mississippi at the bottom are not only unchanged, but remain far ahead or behind of their nearest competitor. The top regions are still the Northeast and Upper Midwest, with the West dragged up by Hawaii and Utah but otherwise an average to low average group.

Commonwealth also ranks the states on degree of improvement of their scores in each of 43 different indicators. More indicators improved than went down, which in itself is a good thing, but there are a lot of caveats. For one thing, it doesn’t measure amount of improvement, or how much less a state might have improved compared to others. For example, Oklahoma joins the list of the top 5 states with improvement on the most indicators (17, to rank it #4), and yet dropped two places in the overall ranking, from a dismal 48 to 50th! This is not good. More important, however, were the areas in which indicators fell for many states and for the nation as a whole. This include rising death rates (a really big one!), including a 50% increase in deaths from suicide, alcohol, and drug use since 2005, rising obesity, and gaps in care with a rising disparity between and within states.

Many of the improvements are in areas that have been focal points of public health policy, like decreasing smoking. This is good, but this long-time-coming advance over the tobacco industry’s heavily funded effort to get people to continue to smoke, and young people to take it up, has still not been entirely won. More important, the lessons from the anti-tobacco campaign have not yet transferred to the other well-funded high-profit threats to health, notably sugar and guns, as well as alcohol and pharmaceuticals. Unfortunately, each of these struggles seems to need to rise up almost as if the others hadn’t been joined; activists can and do learn from the previous ones, but so do industries that manufacture unhealthful commodities. These industries replicate the strategies that tobacco used to delay change for so long. The main one, of course, is the liberal application of money to politicians. The same lobbyists who worked for tobacco work for sugar, and guns, and alcohol; the color of their money is still green, and politicians still enjoy receiving it.

While it is true that many politicians from both major parties have been recipients of such largesse, the retreat from reality-based policy that is the hallmark of both the Trump administration and the Republican Party in Congress has major impact on the causes of illness and will continue to do so into the future. One good example of the latter is the aggressive retreat from environmental regulation, personified by EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, rolling back auto-pollution emissions standards (a decision currently being challenged by a coalition of states led by California). Another is the firm resistance to common-sense regulation of guns, which result in over 30,000 US deaths a year, a tiny fraction of which are from foreign terrorists. Limitations on semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines, waiting periods and background checks, absolutely would decrease the number of these deaths (the majority, by the way, are suicides), but are blocked by legislators feeding from the gun-industry funded NRA trough.

Not only politicians are recipients of graft; a recent New York Times exposé provides evidence of pharmaceutical companies using ostensible “speaker’s fees” to actual provide kickback payments to physicians who are big prescribers of their drugs. The article emphasizes payments to doctors who practice pain medicine and are in a position to prescribe large amounts of the opioids manufactured by these companies. Sadly, this is almost as unsurprising as the graft going to politicians to compromise our health. What we should be is outraged about it, and working to combat it. Certainly the politicians do not seem to be. In the conclusion to her “controversial” speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner Michelle Wolf noted that: “Flint still doesn’t have clean drinking water.” It is harsh, it is true, and it is almost as bad as the news that the government of Michigan will no longer be providing free bottled water, even though the tap water is still unsafe.

Flint, of course, is a majority minority and overwhelmingly poor city. It has long been clear that its struggles with lead-poisoned water is not coincidental with the makeup of its population, and it not a coincidence that it is in Michigan. The Commonwealth Report illustrates a wide divide between those states that have better and those that have worse health status. Largely, the map is geographic with northern states better and southern states worse, but there is a tongue of northern states in the worse group, heading up from Kentucky and West Virginia into Indiana, Ohio, and on up to Michigan. What these states have in common with most of those in the south is control by Republicans who in most cases have not, in most cases, expanded Medicaid for their citizens. Expansion of Medicaid was a central part of the Affordable Care Act, but a Supreme Court left the decision on whether to do so optional for the states; those that have not done so have worse population health status. This is exacerbated by changes in federal policy that have increasingly made access to health care worse and more expensive in most states, with the impact felt most in states that have elected Republican government and that voted for President Trump.

In another blog post, First Look at Health Insurance Coverage in 2018 Finds ACA Gains Beginning to Reverse, the Commonwealth Fund notes that*:
·        About 4 million working-age people have lost insurance coverage since 2016
·        The uninsured rates among lower-income adults rose from 20.9 percent in 2016 to 25.7 percent in March 2018
·        The uninsured rate among working-age adults increased to 15.5 percent
·        The uninsured rate among adults in states that did not expand Medicaid rose to 21.9 percent
·        The uninsured rate increased among adults age 35 and older
·        The uninsured rate among adults who identify as Republicans is higher compared to 2016
·        The uninsured rate remains highest in southern states
·        Five percent of insured adults plan to drop insurance because of the individual mandate repeal

This is also not good news. Much of the problem is because employer health insurance costs (much of it passed on to workers) have been rising as Medicare and Medicaid control costs. A Washington Monthly article (excerpted by the great Don McCanne in his Quote of the Day) calls for price controls, noting that much of the cost (in lower wages) that workers bear for higher health insurance is not obvious to them, and they would thus have sticker shock from a Medicare for All program. Dr. McCanne notes that a current California bill, AB 3087, calls for price controls, and is supported by unions but opposed by industry and the California Medical Association so it has little chance of passage, suggesting that this solution is not more palatable to the powerful. He calls for well-thought out Medicare for All program, saying:
Now would it be that difficult to let people know about the hidden costs of health care that they are already paying? Do people really prefer being kept in the dark by an opaque financing system rather than being enlightened by the transparency of financing through an equitable tax system, especially if the amount being spent is somewhat less for all but the wealthiest of us?

I do not think so. It is time to do something to change a status quo that is unacceptable for the health of so many as well as unaffordable. It is time to do the right thing.

*Also summarized by Dr. McCanne

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