Friday, August 30, 2019

Some medical care may not help. Alternatives may not either.

‘Why Doctors Still Offer Treatments That May Not Help’, by Austin Frakt in the New York Times, August 27, 2019, is a well-done article that, despite its title, is fairly optimistic. He reports that while about 50% of current medical treatments no not have good evidence supporting them, only 3% have evidence showing them to be harmful, and another 6% unlikely to be helpful. This means about 41% (or only 41%, if you prefer) have good evidence that they are helpful.

Frakt cites some of the research on health interventions that do not work, or may even harm, quoting leading researchers Vinay Prasad and Adam Cifu (although he does not mention John Ionannidis, arguably the father of the field). He discusses the important “Choosing Wisely” campaign, initiated by the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation, that asks each medical specialty society to identify at least 5 things often done in their specialty which usually should not be done. There is not, however, always consensus. For example, among its 20 recommendations (a high number that continues to grow, perhaps because of its discipline’s broad scope), the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recommends against imaging (including MRI and CT) for uncomplicated back pain, as does the American College of Physicians (Internal Medicine) (seeMedicine should not be primarily a business: choosing appropriate care for all, not excess testing for some, August 19, 2018).  Yet, neither the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, or the various groups of radiologists who perform these procedures, make this recommendation. Of course, both stand to benefit financially from doing these procedures.

It is concerning to think that, at least in some cases, financial benefit may influence the selection of some medical societies’ “Choosing Wisely” recommendations. Sadly, it is not a surprise, and financial benefit is, I believe, the reason for the use of many unproven treatments. Another important reason is an understandable reluctance for providers to abandon therapies that they have used for many years and believe to be successful. After all, if 50% of treatments do not have good evidence that they help or harm, many probably often do help, even if most of the evidence is anecdotal. Much more malicious, however, is the intensive marketing of new drugs and therapies to physicians by drug and device makers with a strong financial profit motive.

Frakt provides a litany of therapies-since-found-not-to-work-or-even-do-harm, including hormone replacement for post-menopausal women. The only drug he specifically names is Vioxx®, the “miracle” anti-inflammatory pulled from the market when it was found to cause heart disease (at least publicly found; the manufacturer actually knew it before it was released!). He also mentions “tight blood sugar control in critically ill patients” (and actually, probably most patients). This certainly relates to drug. The plethora of new, expensive, and marginally advantageous diabetes drugs is a testimony to their profitability. Ironically, it is often the same physicians who are unwilling to give up on treatments that are unproven or even proven to be of no benefit or of harm who are the first to begin using new (and, redundantly) more expensive drugs heavily promoted by the manufacturers.

Of course, it is not just diabetes drugs that are expensive. Compared to some of the newer drugs for rare diseases they seem like a bargain. In “The $6 million drug claim”, Times writers Katie Thomas and Reed Abelson discuss a woman who has $1 million in drugs to treat her condition in her refrigerator! While in her case they were paid for by her husband’s union, the cost can still be backbreaking: “At one point in 2018, for every hour that one of the union’s 16,000 members worked, 35 cents of his or her pay went to Alexion to cover the Pattersons’ prescriptions.” And what about those who have poor insurance, or no insurance? Or a union that goes bankrupt paying for them? Alexion, of course, does well, though.

A new law allows “gravely ill” patients the “right to try” drugs that the FDA has not approved. It sounds good; as a friend told me “I figure if I’m going out and they want to try something that might kill me I haven’t got much to lose. At best I’m cured. At worse, I go out but knowledge is gained.” Except for maybe dying sooner or more painfully, or possibly going bankrupt. It is not uncommon for doctors to suggest something new, unproven, or even a treatment that has already failed, one more time. Not everyone in this country has good insurance, and if your insurance company appropriately refuses to pay because there is no evidence of efficacy (yes, they are sometimes right!), you are on the hook for the bill. You may be dying, but your family may need the money you were saving for retirement. Thus, there may be a great deal to lose.

A certain percentage of people will take all this to mean that mainstream medicine is not to be trusted. This is definitely an overreaction, although a healthy skepticism is warranted, especially when the treatment is incredibly expensive and it is obvious that somebody (or some corporation) is making a killing on it. Some people will decide to pursue only what used to be called “alternative” medicine. These practices, often with hundreds or thousands of years of experience, are often called “complementary” and are now frequently offered along with mainstream medical therapies in “integrative” practices. But the same cautions must apply; because something is different, or traditional, does not make it necessarily either effective or safe.

For example, while people sometimes believe it is safer to choose only “natural” medicine, because a therapy grows in nature does not mean it is necessarily safe. Earlier in my career, medicine virtually abandoned the use of digitalis, made from the natural plant foxglove, to treat heart disease, after it had been used for decades. The key point is that if a substance works biologically and has “good” (i.e., desired) effects it can also have “bad” (i.e., undesired, or “side”, effects). This is true if it is straight from the plant, modified and standardized, or completely created in the laboratory.

Another real danger is what Frakt calls “wishful thinking”. Being optimistic and hoping that things will turn out well is good, and often useful when confronting serious illness. But when this transitions into the realm of “magical thinking”, being convinced that something good will happen to you because you want it to (or vice versa, that something bad will not happen because you don’t want it to), or believing a treatment will work because it is “natural”, or because your doctor recommended it in the absence of evidence, it is a real risk. “Magical thinking” is normal in three year olds, but dangerous in adults.

So what to do? Be open to new treatments, but do not reject the old, whether “traditional” or medical. Ask for evidence for treatment, such as when just changing a drug from an inexpensive standard (say, metformin for diabetes) to a new, costly one. Learn to understand probability, and ask for numbers. Do not reject anything out of hand, but do not believe that something will work just because you want it to.

Stay skeptical but not intransigent. Look for the evidence. And look also, when something is expensive, for the profit motive. Cui bono? It may not always be you.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

"Medicare for All" means ALL -- Accept no substitutes!

Let’s start with the good news. “Medicare for All” is definitely trending. It is the central domestic issue for the Democratic primary. This is because of the absolute crisis in the health system. It is also, let us remember, because of Bernie Sanders, who has supported a single-payer universal health system for decades and made it a central part of his 2016 presidential campaign. He didn’t win the nomination, but he won the battle of ideas, which is why it is so important in this campaign.

People love the idea of being covered for their healthcare needs, and having that coverage untethered from where they work (assuming that where they work provides health insurance), whether they can work if they have been laid off, can’t find a job, or are disabled, or whether they are quite old enough to qualify for Medicare, whether they are quite poor enough to qualify for Medicaid (and let’s be straight, you have to be REALLY poor, even in the most generous states, and in some states it is just ridiculous). This is because the current healthcare system in the US really stinks. A huge percentage of those who are insured have terrible coverage, those who have reasonable coverage pay (often along with their employer) an extremely high amount for that coverage in premiums, deductibles and co-pays, and an unconscionable number of Americans are completely uninsured. The health outcomes in the US are terrible, trailing all other developed countries (discussed here many times). The only thing we lead in is the cost of the system, and of course the amount of profit made by the predatory components of it such as insurance companies, drug companies and some providers – which is of course totally related to why it costs so much.

An excellent example of the insanity of our current profit-driven system is provided by the Kaiser Health Network and covered by CBS Morning News and the medical news site “Medscape”, detailing how a dialysis patient received a half-million dollar bill because the dialysis center he went to, which was closest to his home (70 miles) was “out of network” for him. This particular patient will probably have his bill written off because of the extensive national coverage, but it happens all the time; it is the norm, not the exception. No wonder people are fed up!

The less good news is that, although most of the Democratic presidential candidates (notably excluding front-runner Joe Biden) have endorsed the words “Medicare for All”, their proposals are all over the place. Most of them do NOT guarantee universal coverage, not to mention the necessary expansion of benefits (“Improved and Expanded Medicare for All”) needed to ensure that the American people get ALL the health care that they need (including mental health, vision, hearing, long-term care, substance abuse treatment, etc.) The New York Times, which has made a crusade of limiting coverage of Bernie Sanders and trying to minimize or denigrate him when they do cover him, and is also an opponent of truly, universal, comprehensive single-payer health care, does have a very useful graphic in an article originally from the “Upshot” in February but in the print edition of August 13. It portrays the characteristics of many of the health plans proposed currently, and makes clear that only two, those sponsored by Sanders in the Senate and the bill in the House with Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) as the primary sponsor and over a hundred co-sponsors, actually would provide what we need.  
A clear exposition of many issues, including facts misrepresented about universal single payer, is summarized in an elegant piece in the Washington Post by Rep. Jayapal. It is an excellent point-by-point response to various criticisms and concerns that have been raised, and is well worth the time to read, even if you don’t have time to read the whole bill (Medicare for All Act of 2019).

Two of the most important criticisms to which she responds are particularly telling, since they are deeply tied. One is that people want to be able to keep their private insurance (presumably those who have, or possibly mistakenly think they have – good insurance). The “evidence” provided for this claim is that the percent of people who say that they support “Medicare for All” goes down if the question “even if you have to give up your current insurance” is added. Of course, the question is misleading; when people are told that they would be fully covered for everything, with no co-pays or deductibles or co-insurance, and that they will have completely free choice of providers, this objection goes away. Let’s be honest; no one cares about having a choice of which insurance company will deny them what they need; this is a nonsense concern. And, yet, this is driving the proposals of some presidential candidates and members of Congress to do a less-than-universal solution, some version of Medicare-for-More, or “buy-ins” or expansion of Obamacare.

The other objection, “how will we pay for it”, is also frequently heard, even from those who know how but just don’t want to accept it. The answer is very closely tied to the answer to the question above, because the cost only becomes impractically expensive if insurance companies – and their overhead and profit – are built back into the equation. A comprehensive Medicare-for-All program, when fully implemented, will be funded by the money that Americans and their employers pay for health insurance currently, including all the money spent by the federal government and states on Medicare and Medicaid, supplemented by additional taxes on corporations that do not already provide comprehensive insurance and on the wealthiest Americans. Yes, most people’s taxes would increase, but for the vast majority, the increase would be far less than they pay now in insurance premiums, co-pays, and deductibles, and would “buy” them comprehensive care for all medical problems with no limited ‘panels’ of providers. Those who would pay more can well afford it. But the key here is not having insurance company profit and overhead built into the system; this is one big reason that the US health care system is so expensive, and leaving it in makes it much less affordable. To suggest such solutions is like saying “the cost of business is so high, especially including payoffs we make to gangsters for protection -- but of course it is really important that any new system we develop include those gangster payoffs!”

Why would many pundits and “liberal” media outlets like the NY Times, CNN, etc. want to create such confusion and undermine efforts to create a truly universal, comprehensive single-payer system? I can’t know. I do know that they are all in the upper tiers of income, have good insurance, and are surrounded at work and in their neighborhoods by those in similar situations. Maybe this makes them blind to the needs of most people; maybe they believe that the top 10% of income of which they are a part is in fact typical. Or maybe they realize their privilege and want to keep it, and don’t want everyone else diluting their access.

But including everyone is key, not only for the financial reasons, but for quality reasons. When the upper income and well-educated are in the same system as the poorer and less empowered, they can be depended upon to ensure that the system is of quality, and this benefit then applies to everyone. It is why we cannot let them opt out.

Out health care system is a mess, delivering poor outcomes for lots of money, and is a maze of different programs and eligibility. We don’t need more of that; we need to simplify it and have one outstanding system that covers everyone.

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