Monday, June 26, 2023

Doctors, patients, corporatization, and moral crisis

In the last few years a fair amount has been published, especially in the medical media, about physician burnout. This term includes everything from frustration, to saying they would not encourage their children to become doctors, to leaving the profession or retiring early, to, in extreme but sadly not rare cases, suicide. The emphasis has usually been on the amount of work that the doctors have to do, the stress of new technologies such as the “electronic medical record” that, rather than simplifying things or making them more efficient, mainly create much more time-consuming work, and the ever-present threat of malpractice suits and other litigation against them. Recently, the NY Times Magazine, in “The Moral Crisis of American Doctors” by Eyal Press (June 15, 2023), presents more balanced and accurate coverage.

The article discusses the work of Wendy Dean, a psychiatrist and administrator at the US Army research center. Dr. Dean was shocked to learn that the rate of suicide in physicians was higher than that of the active-duty military.

The doctors Dean surveyed were deeply committed to the medical profession. But many of them were frustrated and unhappy, she sensed, not because they were burned out from working too hard but because the health care system made it so difficult to care for their patients.

Dr. Dean thought about this issue in terms of “moral injury”, generally thought to affect those who participated in or observed horrible violations of their moral compass in war, such as the murder of civilians.

Doctors on the front lines of America’s profit-driven health care system were also susceptible to such wounds, Dean and [her co-worker] Talbot submitted, as the demands of administrators, hospital executives and insurers forced them to stray from the ethical principles that were supposed to govern their profession. The pull of these forces left many doctors anguished and distraught, caught between the Hippocratic oath and “the realities of making a profit from people at their sickest and most vulnerable.”

The article goes on at length, comparing the doctors to assembly-line workers who fear for their jobs if they speak out, to non-compete and non-disclosure agreements they are forced to sign, to the way that this manifests in particular specialties, such as Emergency Medicine.

This piece gets to the heart of the matter more than almost anything that has been published in the mainstream media. I would summarize the lesson as: The pursuit of profit is dangerous to your health. The transformation of medical care from control by doctors to control by accountants and venture capitalists means that something other than what is best for the health of people, as individuals and as a population, is the primary consideration driving the structure and implementation of health care. It is not a pretty picture. Yes, doctors make and have always made mistakes. Yes, doctor have often been avaricious themselves. Yes, sometimes people have been hurt or died from unnecessary procedures. But at least in theory most doctors believed that what they were doing was for the best interests of their patients.

We have moved beyond (or backward from) that. We have entered an era in which an assembly-line mentality has been implemented in American healthcare, when doctors and other healthcare workers are seen as replaceable cogs, when the provision of healthcare is, like selling cars or liquor or financial instruments, not mainly about the “product” but is just a vehicle for generating money for its owners and managers. Tough luck, all you “burned out” doctors, probably suffering from moral injury. Tough luck, sick people.

This has been a long time coming. The deprofessionalization of medicine should have been predictable decades ago, and it was. In a recent blog post (Private equity, private profit, Medicare and your health: They are incompatible, May 11, 2023) I cite two books. “American Health Empire” (1971) by Barbara and John Ehrenreich and other members of the HealthPAC collective, showed how even then hospitals and health systems were being corporatized. Paul Starr’s 1982 book “The Social Transformation of American Medicine” focused on the impact of this on the professional role of physicians.

Another huge warning signal was, or should have been, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. As reported at the time and in multiple more recent articles (e.g., Engineer Who Opposed Challenger Launch Offers Personal Look at Tragedy, and Remembering Roger Boisjoly: He Tried To Stop Shuttle Challenger Launch, both from 2012), engineers for the Morton Thiokol corporation knew that there was a problem with key pieces of the shuttle (the infamous “O-rings”), and had been ignored by their bosses when they called attention to it. And never went public with it for fear of losing their livelihoods. Until after the disaster. At the time, it was noted often how this conflicted with the codes of ethics of the engineering profession. But engineers were no longer self-employed independent professionals; they were employees of huge profit-seeking corporations. Many of us who were doctors pointed to this, saying this trend was not limited to engineering, but was happening to other professions, including medicine. It had not yet progressed that far, but was fast moving down that track.

Independent physician practice, solo or group, single or multi-specialty, had begun to disappear, as practices were acquired by larger companies. Sometimes these were physician-owned, and seemed to continue to carry the same “old” values. But then they were bought out by hospitals, health systems and private investors. So were the hospitals. We got a lot of glitz -- fountains and art work in our entry halls and fancy new machines, and investment in our practices, particularly those “product lines” that had the greatest “return on investment” measured, of course, in dollars and not human health. How could we, as ethical medical professionals, buy into the casual use of such terms as “product lines” and “return on investment” when talking about the health of our patients?

Some of the explanation is greed, and some of it is psychological, as doctor began to think that using corporate-speak meant that they were cool, and allowed them to hobnob with the real power players in control of the industry. Many doctors obtained MBAs.  And now some of them are very rich. Some are even CEOs. It’s not surprising that doctors can be smart enough to achieve this, or that they can be as susceptible to the lure of power and money as anyone else. It also does not mean that all doctors who get MBAs use it to limit care in order for their company to make more money. But that does not make it good for the people of the nation. And it can, and often does, create another moral conflict, perhaps even moral crisis.

Another recent piece, by the Reverend William Barber and Gregg Gonsalves in The Guardian, The fourth leading cause of death in the US? Cumulative poverty”, is scarcely unrelated, although rather than focusing on physicians it focuses on patients (the medical term for “people”). It clearly and thoroughly documents the impact that poverty has upon health. And while the poor are the tip of the iceberg, the most vulnerable, the cutbacks on care that come from megalomaniacal pursuit of money affects much larger parts of the population.

Because we have a healthcare system that is designed to make money for the corporate entities that control it, that system does not deliver quality care to many (or most) people. As a result it creates unfulfilling, stressful, and sometimes intolerable working conditions for its employees, including physicians. Moreover, in the classic “divide and conquer” technique long used by those in control, it leads to people being angry at their doctors for the frustrations and denials that they experience, which they mistakenly believe the doctors control. The denials of care are made by the insurance companies that they have (and often choose, such as Medicare Advantage). The long delays for getting appointments and the inadequate time physicians spend listening is the result of the management of the health systems that employ them, not only treating doctors as assembly-line workers but patients as widgets to be produced. If it seems impersonal and uncaring, it is.

So what is to be done? Doctors can start by demanding that their professional organizations, beginning with the AMA, condemn and resist this corporate transformation. They also must recognize that they are no longer independent practitioners, but employees, just as the Morton Thiokol engineers were, and that the greatest protection that they – and their patients – have is unionization. You, doctors, may be well-paid workers, but you are workers! Unions can educate people, their members and the public, about how the power is actually distributed and who is calling the shots. Other people can respond by contacting their political representatives and demanding that the power and authority of private corporations over their health care be drastically curbed; this includes insurance companies and health-care companies. A great first step would be to repeatedly demand that every representative and senator, every state legislator, sign on to support a universal health insurance system, such as Medicare for All.

There will still be plenty to do after that, but it would provide a structure for making things better.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

We don't need billionaires, we need a healthy population: It is time to move forward

I recently started reading Ricardo Nuila’s book “The People’s Hospital”, about Ben Taub, the largest public hospital in Houston. This will not be a book review (which can be found in many places, such as the NY Times, Washington Post, and elsewhere); I’ve just started it. What affected me was how, even in the first few pages, Nuila’s description of Ben Taub was so like that of Cook County Hospital (now John Stroger Hospital), the public hospital in Chicago where I did my family medicine residency and later practiced and taught for many years. That should not be surprising; the characteristics of large public hospitals in major cities, and especially the circumstances of the people who come to them for their health care (a major focus of the book, per the reviews) are going to be, sadly, very similar. What was most striking, and depressing, to me was the temporal aspect. Nuila is writing about recent years, including the impact of the COVID pandemic, while my years at Cook County were in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. And yet so little has changed, especially not for the better.

Yes, medicine has changed. What we can (or, maybe more important, could) do for people is more. When I was a resident at County, CT scanners were uncommon, and didn’t exist at our hospital. If a patient needed a CT scan, it could usually be scheduled for after midnight at the private hospital across the street, if they were accompanied by the resident. Who had been up the entire previous night doing admissions. CT scans, and other imaging, are far easier to obtain now. We now have dozens, perhaps hundreds of more antibiotics, and are able to effectively treat many more infections, although bacterial resistance to them seems to grow faster than the antibiotics themselves, both because of overuse and the special breeding capacity of bacteria in hospitals where antibiotics are so pervasive. We can treat, even  cure, cancers we could not touch in the past, although the cost of chemotherapy drugs – a bonanza for not only the pharmaceutical companies but the hospitals that get paid a huge markup from insurers for administering them – makes them often unavailable to those who are poor and uninsured.

But there have been other things that have not changed. Indeed, have often gotten worse. This is the main focus of Nuila’s book, the social conditions that so many people, especially poor people, live in that have such a major negative impact upon their health. Calling them the “social determinants of health” is largely accurate, although the “socioeconomic determinants of health” would be more so, but it tends to almost make it sound trivial. It is not trivial. The socioeconomic conditions in which people live have a far greater impact upon health than anything except, perhaps, genetics. Certainly more than medical care, which accounts by most estimates for at best 10% of health, although it is where we as a society spend more than 90% of our health-related money. It has far more impact than all those diet/exercise/lifestyle factors, or vitamin/mineral/“natural supplements” that are promoted by those who are true believers as well as those who see this as their way to cash in.

It is shocking and distressing to me that conditions for poor people are not better than they were so long ago, and are in fact worse. The same groups of people who have always been pushed into this category, especially Black and Latino and Native peoples, and indeed poor white people, have been supplemented by immigrants from all over the globe who our society treats just as badly. And even more, supplemented by the NON-poor, working and middle class Americans who often have trouble getting the health care that they need – and deserve – because of limits imposed by insurance companies and health systems, which all operate as if they were for profit.

It is still surprising to me, because although I intellectually know better, much of my instinctive reaction is deep-seated and believes that history moves in a positive direction and things tend to get better. Said so much more articulately by Dr. King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” it resonates with me as much as I fear it is not so. My own perspective is generational; grandparents who were immigrants and low-income, parents raised in the Depression and in WWII, myself raised after the war thinking we were now middle-class (we were working class); better off than our parents were growing up. It was in that period that CEO salaries relative to average workers were “only” about 30x as much (not the hundreds of times as much as today), unions were stronger, the civil rights movement was gaining ground. See, e.g., this from the Economic Policy Institute from 2019 showing CEO salaries gained 940%  since 1978 while average worker salary was up only 12%!

But now it is much worse. It is moving backwards, except for the wealthiest – and by the wealthiest I mean the really wealthiest. Midwifed by the Republican party (but abetted by the Democrats), especially since the Reagan 1980s, we have become a society in which not just a disproportionate share (which was always), not just most, but virtually everything goes to the wealthiest. This Oxfam report (January 2023) shows that in the last 2 years, the top 1% has accumulated nearly twice as much as everyone else in the world put together!! This is what it is all about. Yes, there is racism, and sexism, and anti-LBGTQ+ ism, and they are terrible and they often make people’s individual lives terrible, and should be fought against ceaselessly. But it is the gangster capitalism (Noam Chomsky’s term) in which there is literally no limit to the greed and the amount of money a few people have, hundreds of times more than they or their descendants could ever spend.

This is the trend in our world and our nation while the people who seek health care at Ben Taub Hospital in Houston or Stroger Hospital in Chicago or their equivalents, not to mention those who live in places where there are not public hospitals, not to mention those from all the parts of the world to whom coming to Houston or Chicago seems like it would be Heaven, get sick and sicker and die. In fact, contrary to the proclamations of right-wing pundits, all of these problems can be solved with money. It should be the money now being amassed by the richest individuals and corporations, including those in health care (providers and insurers and pharmaceutical and device manufacturers) could, and SHOULD, be used to provide medical care, but more important provide the conditions necessary for health. For EVERY person to have adequate and healthful food, to have adequate and warm housing, to have an opportunity for an education as far as their drive will take them, to have a job to feed themselves and their family. There is enough money to do this, and yet it is being socked away in private pockets so deeply it will never be touched.

In 1850, the Frenchman Frederic Bastiat wrote in “La Loi” that "When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men, they create for themselves, in the course of time, a legal system that authorizes it, and a moral code that glorifies it." They get to do this because we enable them. Directly, our politicians enable them; while Republicans and Democrats keep our attention focused on “culture wars”, both parties (except for the most progressive Democrats) depend upon and enable them. Indirectly, it is the rest of us, who do not demand that the politicians we elect fight for the interests of the people. If the 10,000 or so Americans worth $100M or more disappeared tomorrow, no one would miss them except (presumably) their families and the politicians who have become accustomed to being owned by them. If they averaged just $100M each, that would be $1 TRILLION ($1,000,000,000,000), but of course that is an underestimate since many are worth billions, or tens of billions.

It is well past time to take that, both in taxes and in other changes in public policy, and use it for the people.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Outrageous behavior by hospitals harms Americans' health to make money

The article in the NY Times (June 1, 2023) titled “This Nonprofit Health System Cuts Off Patients With Medical Debt” carries the subhead “Doctors at the Allina Health System, a wealthy nonprofit in the Midwest, aren’t allowed to see poor patients or children with too many unpaid medical bills”. That sounds bad. It is bad. It is disgusting. It is reprehensible. But it is only one example of the extreme lengths many “non-profit” hospitals go to in order to maximize their income (their “non” profit!) at the cost of limiting care to people.

I don’t know how many hospitals, hospital chains, or “health systems” have gone as far as Allina in explicitly refusing to see patients, but most of them go as far as they think they can – and maybe tiptoe over the line. The article states that “Many hospitals in the United States use aggressive tactics to collect medical debt. They flood local courts with collections lawsuits. They garnish patients’ wages. They seize their tax refunds.” This is, unsurprisingly, most prevalent among those that can do it, those that are wealthy, those that are in urban or suburban areas where they can make money taking care of insured people. (A different calculus informs the often-marginal rural hospital.)

It is, in theory, possible to have two different worldviews regarding this situation. One (mine) is that the main purpose of health care, hospitals, doctors, etc., is to improve the health of the population, not to make money. To the extent that the pursuit of money gets in the way of (or explicitly blocks) caring for the health of people, it is wrong, unethical, and should be condemned. Another possible view, however, is that the business of any business (making widgets, providing income tax services, flogging corporate interests on the internet) is to make money, and that healthcare is just another business, and if some people can’t afford it this is no different from someone not being able to afford a car. I do not believe this, and think it is a morally vacuous position (and, more important, one that actually hurts people), but it is popular in some circles. Folks cite the maxim attributed to economist Milton Friedman that the only responsibility a corporation has is to make profit for its shareholders.

But wait – these are NON-profits! They do not HAVE shareholders! They do have Boards of Directors and (very) highly paid management teams, but they don’t pay taxes. Because they are non-profits! The reason that they don’t is because, under the law, they are expected to provide “community benefit”. While such systems often try to claim that they are doing so by occasionally sponsoring low-cost events such as health fairs where you can get your blood pressure or blood sugar checked, that is not what the requirement actually intended. The Times article correctly states “Nonprofit hospitals like Allina get enormous tax breaks in exchange for providing care for the poorest people in their communities.” That means taking care of people who have need, and not pursuing ANY of the gross collection tactics, not to mention refusing care. “But a New York Times investigation last year found that over the past several decades, nonprofits have fallen short of their charitable missions, with few consequences.” Put simply, these non-profit hospitals are given very large benefits (no taxes) because they are supposed to care for those with need, for the poor, but then they do not. But they keep the money.

These non-profit hospitals (and systems), run by finance people and accountants, operate as if they were for-profits, seeking to maximize income just as much as the for-profits do. Not having to pay shareholders, they can pay huge salaries to management, and accumulate enormous bank balances. In fact, this is an incredible competitive advantage – if you are a for-profit, you have to pay taxes! As a result, most for-profit hospitals in large urban markets cannot, and do not seek to,  compete with non-profits, and are found primarily in niche markets, for example in subspecialty hospitals providing particular kinds of procedural care to well-insured people.

Not that I am endorsing overtly for-profit health care. It is also slimy and disgusting, meeting some needs of some people and openly refusing care to others. The pursuit of profit and money is the root of the failure of our health system to do what most of us think it is there for: to improve health. However, non-profits operating in this sector get huge government (meaning taxpayer!) subsidy for doing – things that they do not do, do not want to do, and will take every legal (and often extra-legal) avenue to avoid doing. Indeed, in addition to not paying taxes they get great financial payments from other government programs, such as the 340B drug program, often worth tens of millions (see "Non-profit" hospital systems behaving worse than for-profits: No end to the scams, October 1, 2022).

If there is anyone left who is still taking evidence-free issue with the idea that the US health non-system is a failure at providing health, take a look at this recent piece from the Washington Post by Steven Woolf and Laudan Aron. Yes, it is an “Opinion” piece, but it is full of facts (see graphic) and backed up by the work of the National Academy of Medicine in its report “Shorter Lives, Poorer Health”. Since 1980, when the life expectancy of Americans was in the lower half of wealthy countries, it has slowly dropped so that by the early 2000s it was the lowest, and well before COVID arrived, had plateaued while that of other countries continued to rise. Almost all countries took a “life-expectancy” hit with COVID, but for most it was short-lived and has since rebounded. Except the US, where it has just started to drop a little more slowly.


Life expectancy is not the only measure of health system function or success. However, there is no accepted measure (deaths of middle-aged people, infant mortality, maternal mortality, years of productive life lost, etc. etc.) in which the US does not lag its peers, and often poorer countries. Unless you think the provision of boutique specialty care to wealthy people (including foreigners) is somehow a measure of health system success.

Woolf and Aron cite the National Academy report which lists a number of reasons why the US does poorly:

(1) unhealthy behaviors, such as our diets and use of firearms;

(2) inadequate health care and public health systems;

(3) poor socioeconomic conditions;

(4) unhealthy and unsafe environments; and

(5) deficient public policies.

They note the last is most important, including failure to address basic human needs for food, housing, education, and jobs. The continuing effects of racism. The failure to have an adequately funded public health infrastructure.

The National Academy did not look at the fact that our gangster-capitalist system has taken over health care as a cash cow to have money extracted and only incidentally (when convenient and profitable) provide health care, but this too is a clear failure of public policy.

If hospitals, non-profit or for-profit, are not providing all the health needs of our people, rich and poor, they must be forced to do so, by public policy. They should be provided with a negotiated, global, annual budget for operations (and a separate one for capital, so they don’t milk patients to make money to expand) by a national health system. And be held to it.

Addressing the problem of greedy hospitals, the pursuit of money rather than health, will not solve our health problems. Not only does it leave the other parasites, insurance and pharmaceutic companies, it leaves all the other societal inequities cited above, that also must be aggressively acted on.

But it is a necessary step, and a good start.

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