DrRich’s Independence Day Address to his Loyal Readers:
DrRich has always found it fascinating that the television show, “House MD” has remained so popular for so long. After all, Gregory House embodies the polar opposite of what we all say we want in a modern physician. House may be brilliant, but he’s antisocial, arrogant, sloppy and rude. He holds his patients in contempt, and considers them to be mentally deficient, or prevaricators, or both. He will take any action he deems necessary, however illegal or immoral it may be, to make sure his patients get whatever medical interventions he has determined they need, whether they (or anyone else) likes it or not.
And when he does what he does, the individual autonomy of his patients never, ever enters his mind.
Given that House extravagantly violates his patients’ autonomy whenever he can find any excuse to do so, joyfully proclaiming his great contempt for them and their individual rights, then why is his story so popular in America and around the world?
DrRich believes that the answer to this question ought to remind us of the fundamentally precarious nature of individual autonomy within our healthcare system, and within our culture.
Individual Autonomy in Medicine
Maintaining the autonomy of the individual patient has become the primary principle of medical ethics. And medical paternalism, whereby the physician knows best and should rightly make the important medical decisions for his or her patient, is supposed to be a thing of the past.
It has been formally agreed, by medical ethicists all over the world, that patients have a nearly absolute right to determine their own medical destiny. In particular, unless the patient is incapacitated, the doctor (after taking every step necessary to inform the patient of all the available options, and the potential risks and benefits of each one) must defer to the final decision of the patient – even if the doctor strongly disagrees with that decision. Hence, the kind of behavior which is the modus operandi of Dr. House should be universally castigated.
The notion that the patient’s autonomy is and ought to be the predominant principle of medical ethics, of course, is entirely consistent with the Enlightenment ideal of individual rights. This ideal first developed in Europe nearly 500 years ago, but had trouble taking root there, and really only flowered when Europeans first came to America and had the opportunity to put it to work in an isolated location, where rigid social structures were not already in place. The development of this ideal culminated with America’s Declaration of Independence, in which our founders declared individual autonomy (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) to be an “inalienable” right granted by the Creator, and thus predating and taking precedence over any government created by mankind. And since that time the primacy of the individual in American culture has, more or less, remained our chief operating principle. Individual autonomy – or to put it in more familiar terms, individual freedom – is the foundational principle of our culture, and it is one that is perpetually worth fighting and dying to defend.
So the idea that the autonomy of the individual ought rightly to predominate when it comes to making medical decisions is simply a natural extension of the prime American ideal. It is obvious, most think, that this ought to be the governing principle of medical ethics.
Dr. House: The Champion of Beneficence
But unfortunately, it’s not that easy. There’s another principle of medical ethics that has an even longer history than that of autonomy – the principle of beneficence. Beneficence dictates that the physician must always act to maximize the benefit – and minimize the harm – to the patient. Beneficence recognizes that the physician is the holder of great and special knowledge that is not easily duplicated, and therefore has a special obligation to use that knowledge – always and without exception – to do what he knows is best for the patient. Dr. House is a proponent of the principle of beneficence (though he is most caustic and abrasive about expressing it). DrRich believes House is popular at least partly because the benefits that can accrue to a patient through the principle of beneficence – that is, through medical paternalism – are plain for all to see.
Obviously, as “House MD” nicely illustrates, the principles of beneficence and of individual autonomy will sometimes be in conflict. When two worthwhile and legitimate ethical principles are found to be in conflict, that is called an ethical dilemma. Ethical dilemmas are often resolved either by consensus or by force. In our culture, this dilemma has been resolved (for now) by consensus. The world community has deemed individual autonomy to predominate over beneficence in making medical decisions.
DrRich’s point here is that Dr. House (the champion of beneficence) is not absolutely wrong. Indeed, he espouses a time-honored precept of medical ethics, which until quite recently was THE precept of medical ethics. There is much to be said for beneficence. Making the “right” medical decision often requires having deep and sophisticated knowledge about the options, knowledge which is often beyond the reach of many patients. And even sophisticated patients who are well and truly medically literate will often become lost when they are ill, distraught and afraid, and their capacity to make difficult decisions is diminished. Perhaps, some (like House) would say, their autonomy ought not be their chief concern at such times. Indeed, one could argue that in a perfect world, where the doctor has nearly perfect knowledge and a nearly perfect appreciation of what is best for the patient, beneficence should take precedence over autonomy.
Why Autonomy Predominates
In this light it is instructive to consider just how and why autonomy came to be declared, by universal consensus, the predominant principle of medical ethics. It happened after World War II, as a direct result of the Nuremberg Tribunal. During that Tribunal the trials against Nazi doctors revealed heinous behavior – generally involving medical “research” on Jewish prisoners – that exceeded all bounds of civilized activity. It became evident that under some circumstances (circumstances which were extreme under the Nazis, but which are by no means unique in human history) individual patients could not rely on the beneficence of society, or the beneficence of the government, or even the beneficence of their own doctors to protect them from abuse at the hands of authority. Thus, the ethical precept which asks patients ultimately to rely on the beneficence of others was starkly revealed to be wholly inadequate; and indeed, invites horrific results. Thus the precept of individual autonomy won out not because it is so inherently superior, but by default.
Subsequently, the Nuremberg Code of medical ethics was drafted and formally adopted worldwide. The Nuremberg Code officially declared individual autonomy to be the predominant precept of medical ethics, and the precept of beneficence, while also important, was declared to be of secondary concern. Where a conflict occurs between these two ethical precepts, the patient’s autonomy is to win out.
Again, this declaration was not a positive statement about how honoring the autonomy of the individual represents the peak of human ethical behavior. Rather, it was fundamentally a negative statement: Under duress (the Nuremberg Code admits) societies (and their agents) often behave very badly, and ultimately only the individual himself can be relied upon to at least attempt to protect his or her own best interests.
House vs. Autonomy and the Great American Experiment
DrRich will take this one step further: when our founders made individual autonomy the organizing principle of a new nation, they were also making a negative statement.
From their observation of human history (and anyone who doubts that our founders were intimately familiar with the great breadth of human history should re-read the Federalist Papers), they found that individuals could not rely on any earthly authority to protect them, their life and limb, or their individual prerogatives. Mankind had tried every variety of authority – kings, clergy, heroes, philosophers and professors – and individuals were eventually trampled under by them all. In the spirit of the Enlightenment, and because everything else had been tried many times and had failed, our founders declared individual liberty to be the bedrock of our new culture.
There is an inherent problem with relying on individual autonomy as the chief ethical principle of medicine, namely, autonomous patients not infrequently make very bad decisions for themselves, and then they – and their loved ones, and sometimes society – have to pay the consequences. The same occurs, of course, when we rely on individual autonomy as the chief operating principle of our civil life. The capacity of individuals to fend for themselves – to succeed in our competitive culture – is not equal, and so the outcomes are decidedly unequal. Autonomous individuals often fail – either because of inherent personal limitations, bad decisions, or bad luck.
So whether we’re talking about medicine or society at large, despite our foundational principles we will always have the temptation to return to a posture of dependence – of relying on the beneficence of some authority, in the hope of achieving more overall security or fairness – at the sacrifice of our individual autonomy.
In DrRich’s estimation the popularity of “House MD” is entirely consistent with this very strong tendency. Indeed, he thinks, the writers are compelled to make Dr. House as unattractive a person as he is, just to temper our enthusiasm for an authority figure who always knows what is best for us and acts on that knowledge, come hell or high water. If a figure such as Dr. House was also a compelling personality and had a gift with words, he would become almost Messianic – far too dangerous a prospect for a television program.
Those of us who defend the principle of individual autonomy – and the economic system of capitalism that flows from it – all too often forget where it came from, and DrRich believes this is why it can be so difficult to defend. We – and our founders – did not adopt it as the peak of all human thought, but for the very practical reason that ceding ultimate authority to any other entity, sooner or later, guarantees tyranny. This was true in 1776, and after observing the numerous experiments in socialism we have seen around the world since that time, is even more true today.
Individual autonomy will always be a very imperfect organizing principle, both for healthcare and for society at large. Making it an acceptable principle takes perpetual hard work, to find ways of smoothing out the stark inequities that will always result, without ceding too much corrupting power to some central authority. This is the Great American Experiment.
Those of us who have the privilege of being Americans today, of all days, find ourselves greatly challenged. But earlier generations of Americans faced challenges that were every bit as difficult. If we continually remind ourselves what’s at stake, and that while our system is not perfect or even perfectable, it remains far better than any other system that has ever been tried, and that we can continue to improve on it without ceding our destiny – medical or civil – to a corruptible central authority, then perhaps we can keep that Great American Experiment going, and eventually hand it off intact to yet another generation, to face yet another generation’s challenges.
DrRich explains it all in, Fixing American Healthcare – Wonkonians, Gekkonians and the Grand Unification Theory of Healthcare.
The United Kingdom’s National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) has now issued its final ruling on the new cancer drug, Nexavar, which has proven effective in treating liver cancer. NICE will not cover Nexavar “because its high cost could not be justified by its marginal benefit.”
In a well-designed randomized clinical trial, Nexavar significantly prolonged the survival of patients with liver cancer, by an average of 2.8 months. Prolonging survival by a little less than 3 months may not seem like much, except for two things. First, that’s only the average. Some liver cancer patients treated with Nexavar have survived a year or longer, a result which is at least a little remarkable. And second, Nexavar represents a true and long-awaited breakthrough in the effort to find an effective treatment for hepatocellular carcinoma. Until Nexavar came along no chemotherapy had ever been shown to significantly prolong the survival of patients with liver cancer. For the first time, thanks to Nexavar, these unfortunate patients have been offered a real glimmer of hope.
But alas, Nexavar is expensive. Very expensive. It was a difficult drug to develop and test and bring to market, and it is expensive to make. So to recoup its costs, and to make the sort of profit that justifies its risk, the Bayer company is charging about $5000 a month for Nexavar. This means that any insurance company or government that agrees to pay for this drug is going to be out some big bucks.
The UK’s NICE was not being evil when it declined to pay for Nexavar. NICE simply did the math, and determined that spending money for the marginal benefit provided by Nexavar would create too high an opportunity cost – that is, that money would be better spent elsewhere, on other patients, for greater gain.
This is what open healthcare rationing looks like. It’s ugly, all right. But because it is open and transparent, making clear to everyone the rationale for its coverage decisions, NICE gives the British electorate all the information it needs to decide whether to accept the process, or to change it. This is far better – far more equitable and far less destructive to a society – than rationing healthcare covertly. DrRich tips his hat to NICE.
But DrRich notes that this recent decision by NICE has caused some of his conservative friends to descend into major bouts of caterwauling. Horrified that NICE has condemned liver cancer patients to an avoidable premature death, they insist we all notice that Obamacare creates an Outcomes Research Institute that is modeled after the British NICE, and so, we could soon have the same kinds of coverage decisions here in the U.S. American citizens, they demand, must consider how well they will like it when some government “panel” refuses to cover life-saving medical therapies because they are too expensive.
DrRich agrees that Americans will not like it much at all, but believes his conservative colleagues are overlooking an important difference between the British NICE, and any American NICE that might accompany our new healthcare system.
The Brits are plagued with a constant deluge of new medical products that are extremely expensive, and that, like Nexavar, offer real but only marginal improvements over current, cheaper therapies. Each time NICE has to render a coverage decision on one of these new therapies, the process is painful for everyone involved. But, being Brits, when faced with a difficult but necessary task they suck it up and carry on.
It is important to note, however, that the British NICE is required to deal with a constant stream of new medical products only because there is a ready market for those products elsewhere, and that market is in the U.S.
For, in the U.S., we have always recognized that medical progress usually occurs in incremental steps, and that to encourage continued medical progress we have to accept (and pay for) these incremental steps. That is, medical progress is much like all other forms of progress. Americans famously went to the moon, for instance, but did not do so all at once. Hundreds of incremental steps were required, several of which were seemingly trivial and expensive, and others of which involved catastrophe and tragedy. But we all understood that this is how one gets to the moon.
So a product like Nexavar, which does not cure liver cancer but gets us one step closer, would traditionally be viewed in the U.S. as an important incremental step toward the ultimate goal. And indeed, in contrast to the British NICE, the FDA has approved the use of Nexavar for liver cancer. This approval, in turn, encourages medical industry to keep going.
But consider: If a new American NICE steps in, and begins refusing to cover treatments that provide only incremental improvements, then the companies that invest hundreds of millions of dollars to achieve those incremental steps will simply stop doing so. After our new American NICE refuses to cover Nexavar-like therapies two or three times, medical industry will get the message loud and clear, and as a simple matter of corporate survival will change its business model. And the rapid succession of new medical therapies we have enjoyed will stop, or at least slow markedly.*
This means, of course, that if our new American NICE can just find the intestinal fortitude to make a few tough calls like the one the Brits have just made, and stick with those tough calls despite the firestorm that may ensue, then the hard part of their job will end. Forever. Pretty soon, they simply won’t be faced with any more Nexavars.
The healthcare bureaucrats in Britain and elsewhere around the world, whose jobs are made very difficult by the continual medical progress which is stimulated by the traditional American healthcare system, are cheering on our new reforms. Most especially, they are praying that the American NICE will have enough backbone to do what needs to be done. If the Americans can just make a few of the tough calls the Brits and others have had to make routinely, the job of healthcare bureaucrats will become vastly easier all over the world.
In any case, the prospect raised by conservative alarmists – of a NICE-like panel that is forever condemning American patients to an early death through their refusal to cover effective new therapies – will be only a very temporary phenomenon. After a very short time, such coverage decisions will no longer be necessary, and Americans will no longer be subjected to the anguish these decisions will provoke.
*If individual Americans are permitted to purchase with their own money medical products that are not approved for coverage by the government, then at least some stimulus will persist for continued medical progress. But as DrRich has documented in detail, the plan is to disallow such individual prerogatives.
DrRich explains it all in, Fixing American Healthcare – Wonkonians, Gekkonians and the Grand Unification Theory of Healthcare.
The following is a close approximation of a talk DrRich gave to a gathering of some of the world’s most promising young cardiac electrophysiologists, in Nice, France, on June 15, 2010. He was asked to talk to these young physicians about physician-industry relationships. The organizers of this gathering apparently did not know, as anyone who reads this blog would know, that DrRich should never, ever be allowed an opportunity to influence promising young physicians. But, what’s done is done.
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A worldwide controversy is now roiling over the appropriate relationship between physicians and industry. Superficially at least, this controversy has to do with the undisputed fact that a physician’s relationship with industry can unduly influence his or her behavior.
That is, this controversy is said to be related to the conflicts of interest (COI) that are always inherent, to some degree, in such relationships.
I believe there is a deeper, and far more disturbing, reason behind this controversy, and I will address it in a short while. But let’s first talk about COI, because it is ostensibly the chief concern, and it is in fact a very important issue.
A COI is present when an individual has a sacred, fiduciary duty (i.e., a duty of trust) to Entity A, but then develops a secondary relationship with Entity B, which (by creating self-interest, competing loyalties, or even just an inability to be objective), threatens to interfere with the primary duty to Entity A.
Physicians, especially academic physicians, have (at various times) at least three primary fiduciary duties that must take priority. These are: a duty to patients when practicing medicine; a duty to students (i.e., actual students, colleagues, or the public) when teaching; and a duty to society (and truth itself) when conducting medical research. It is clear that ties with specific companies and their products can easily create important COI that may interfere with each of these primary fiduciary duties, and it is equally clear that physicians have commonly allowed this interference to happen.
Far more often than we like to imagine, doctors have allowed bias to creep in when recommending a course of action for their patients, in imparting knowledge to trainees, colleagues or the public, or when designing, analyzing or reporting results of clinical trials. And typically, most doctors who exercise inappropriate bias have convinced themselves that they are really acting in the best interests of their patients, students or society at large. For it is quite difficult to be objective about one’s own COI.
And there is no question that industry has become adept at the gentle art of creating COI among physicians (subliminally whenever possible), and have carefully incorporated the creation of such conflicts into their business models.
Obvious abuses we have all seen include doctors “shilling” for companies or their products at national meetings; clinical guidelines committees seeded with biased members; unbelievable amounts of money (well above “fair market value) being paid to key doctors for consulting services; long advertisements disguised as CME events; and ghost-writing scientific papers, then recruiting prominent physicians to sign on as “authors” after the fact. There are many others.
Such ongoing abuses of our fiduciary duties ought to be deeply embarrassing to us in the medical profession.
And if it’s not embarrassing, it is at least becoming painful. In the US, physicians who are discovered doing some of these things are being called out publicly, being investigated by Congress if not the Justice Department, losing their prestigious academic positions, and having their reputations destroyed. It is hard to be sympathetic toward them.
Despite all the negative attention – both public and legal – that such COI have brought to our profession in recent years, many of us continue to have tin ears. A recent example, which has caused a stir in the blogosphere if nowhere else, happens to relate to the EP community. (Thanks to Larry Huston of Cardiobrief who did the heavy lifting on this one. )
Recently, the ACC/HRS collaborated in the launch of a new website, called AFibProfessional.org, which is described as “a unique collaboration to address atrial fibrillation for the cardiology community.” The site has only one corporate sponsor – Sanofi, the maker of Multaq.
At the time of launch, all the content on this new website consisted merely of old, recycled material from older ACC and HRS websites, with a single exception. The single exception was a slide lecture by a prominent electrophysiologist, who we all know and love, on “Managing Atrial Fibrillation.” This lecture makes a strong case for the off-label, off-guideline use of Multaq. The lecture was posted without any COI disclosure statements, though the lecturer, it turns out, has significant financial ties to Sanofi. When the matter became a public issue, the lecture was pulled from the site, and the ACC promised to investigate. A few days later, the investigation apparently completed to the ACC’s satisfaction, the lecture was reposted, this time with a COI disclosure.
While one hesitates to suggest malfeasance here, it certainly looks bad. For the ACC and HRS to co-sponsor a brand new website that , by all appearances, is chiefly a vehicle for advertising Multaq suggests, if nothing else, that we in the medical profession, and our professional organizations, still don’t get it. If we don’t police our own COI, it will be policed for us.
What remedy should be applied? A reasonable approach would be to recognize that physician-industry ties will always bring at least some COI, and to manage the problem by strictly limiting inappropriate COI, and fully disclosing any that remain.
Accordingly, a number of groups – most prominently the Institute Of Medicine – have recently made formal, and tough, recommendations regarding physician-industry relationships. The final “rules” under which we will all have to live are still being negotiated.
But it is highly likely that they will include many if not all of the following:
- Doctors should not accept any gifts, no matter how small, from industry. These include trivialities such as pens and notepads, and more substantial gifts such as meals and travel.
- Doctors should not give presentations in which content is controlled or influenced by industry.
- Doctors should not consult for industry without a written contract, nor should they receive more than “fair market value” for consulting activities.
- Doctors should not accept drug samples from industry.
- Doctors who have a financial interest in a product or company should not participate in clinical trials in any capacity that involve that product or company, including patient enrollment, data collection, analysis or reporting.
- Doctors who have industry ties should not participate in the development of clinical guidelines.
- Medical schools and professional organizations should not accept direct funding, or attributable funding, for CME.
- Any interaction with industry will be fully disclosed, and made publicly available.
What this “full disclosure” will look like can be seen in the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, a law which is pending in the US. Under this act, all “transfers of value” totaling $100 or more in a year to any physician will be reported by each company to the government annually, along with each physician’s identifying information. Such “TOV” includes food, trinkets, entertainment or gifts; travel; consulting fees or honoraria; funding for research or education; stocks or stock options; ownership or investment interest, and any other economic benefit. This information will be posted on a public, searchable government website. Companies will be fined $10,000 for each incident of an unreported TOV.
You younger physicians will be spending your careers in a COI environment that is significantly different from that which we, your elders, have experienced. Activities that have been acceptable, and even encouraged, will now cause you to be publicly stigmatized, or worse. This matter is in great flux, and you need to pay close attention to it as the rules are changing. In the meantime, you need to choose your interactions with industry very carefully, and very circumspectly.
Everything I have just discussed assumes that the real issue regarding doctor-industry relationships is COI. Indeed, everything I have discussed assumes a particular way of looking at industry relationships, which I will call Theory A. Theory A, goes as follows:
- Medical progress is Good, and benefits mankind.
- Industry is responsible for a high proportion of medical progress.
- Industry-driven progress requires the active participation of physicians.
- Therefore, a well-managed cooperation between industry and physicians is beneficial to mankind, and ought to be encouraged.
If you subscribe to Theory A you believe that, because well-managed physician-industry relationships benefit mankind, these relationships are good. So, fundamentally, it’s the management of these relationships which is at issue. These beneficial relationships produce unavoidable COI, which we must manage by strictly limiting their extent, and fully disclosing the ones that are left.
On the surface, at least, that’s what the debate is about – where to draw the necessary limits. But just below the surface, the debate is about something else entirely. Beneath the surface, Theory A is rejected outright.
Today we hear prominent voices telling us that merely managing COI does not go far enough. No amount of COI is acceptable, and ALL physician-industry ties should be prohibited. Among these is Jerome Kassirer, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, who says, “The ideal handling of COI is not to have them at all.” For these voices, Theory A simply does not apply. Rather, (I submit) they subscribe to Theory B:
- The greed of medical industry creates excessive costs, and produces far more harm to society than good.
- Physician-industry alliances strengthen industry, and increase the harm.
- Therefore, crippling these unholy alliances is critical to the interests of society.
A corollary of Theory B is that it can only be the State’s job to cripple these alliances.
Proponents of Theory B, noting, not incorrectly, that medical industry is chiefly concerned with profits rather than the public good, conclude that industry will always behave in ways that are counter to the interests of society. While many proponents of Theory B will agree that industry provides at least some benefits, they are convinced that these benefits are far outweighed by the harm they produce. Therefore, Theory B proposes to stifle, if not cripple, medical industry. And a very useful strategy for achieving this goal is to de-legitimize any practical relationships whatsoever between medical industry and physicians.
Proponents of Theory B rarely say what their real goal is. Most of them give lip service to Theory A. One must discern their real motives from their behavior.
Much of that behavior, in practical terms, has to do with controlling the flow of information. Let industry develop whatever it wants (perhaps), but don’t let profit-drunk industry – or its greedy physician spokespersons – instruct doctors and patients on who gets to use industry’s products, or when and how.
That kind of information can only be managed by unbiased sources. Proponents of Theory B invariably refer to government-appointed panels of experts to determine which products of industry are good and bad, and to manage the flow of information about them. Information coming from anywhere else is to be regarded as being charged with bias and greed, and should be ignored, or even suppressed.
Inherent in this viewpoint is the notion that the State is an honest broker, with no bias of its own, except to do what is best for the population. The State, in its disinterested beneficence, is the only civil entity which can pass judgment on which medical information is suitable for general consumption.
But even as a general proposition, no government is an unbiased and honest broker. Politics, according to Harold Lasswell, an early Progressive political scientist, is determining who gets what, when and how. Government officials do not cancel their own human nature when they put on a government name tag. As they go about the business of determining who gets what, when and how, they inevitably – and most often intentionally – create various favored constituencies, fiefdoms, and clienteles to suit their own goal. That goal is to consolidate and expand their own authority. In this way, in the exercise of its political mandate the government always creates co-dependencies, and determines winners and losers. So even in the general case, the government cannot be an honest broker.
But with regard to healthcare, government bias goes far beyond the general case. Healthcare spending is the chief problem governments face today. In the US, projected Medicare expenditures over the next 30 – 40 years will be $35-55 trillion. Numbers like this are deeply destabilizing, and simply cannot be abided, and promise nothing but chaos, revolution, and societal disintegration.
To the State, controlling healthcare spending is an existential problem, a matter of life and death, an issue that justifies any solution that has even a slight chance of working.
Why is the cost of healthcare rising so rapidly? Fundamentally, it is medical progress. Medical progress has greatly increased overall healthcare expenditures. Simply consider, for instance, the many fatal illnesses we have converted to chronic, and chronically expensive diseases – coronary artery disease, kidney disease, HIV/AIDS, various forms of cancer, and heart failure, to name a few. Medical progress has made great strides in early detection and prevention, and preventive medicine always increases the cost of care. And thanks at least partly to medical progress, life expectancies are on the rise, and people have many more years to consume healthcare.
Medical progress is very expensive, and the more we have of it the more it costs. The State can only look at medical progress and say, “Medical progress is killing us.”
But it is not politically feasible to come right out and say that stifling medical progress is necessary to the survival of the State. Rather, the State must assert that what it is stifling is greed.
Hillary Clinton gave us the State’s operative formulation in 1993: “There are just too many greedy doctors using too much expensive technology.” So, to control costs, the State must control the doctors; and the State must control the technology, which is to say, industry.
I submit that an underlying theme within the debate over doctor-industry relationships is a desire to greatly slow or even stop the real threat to the State: medical progress, and the vast expenditures which medical progress produces.
The State has several means for stifling medical progress. The State can institute increasingly oppressive regulations, which can have the effect of hamstringing industry, but more importantly, has the effect of converting industry to a client of the State, dependent on the State’s favors for its success. The State can demonize industry, trying to convince the public that drug companies and medical device companies are evil entities that would just as soon harm them as help them, and indeed, without the strong hand of the State would prefer to distribute pain and suffering as the more favored pathway to windfall profits. But more to the point of today’s discussion, the State can stifle the doctor-industry relationships that are so critical in steering medical progress in a clinically relevant direction.
So the interests of industry must be represented as being fundamentally counter to the interests of society, and the doctors who have relationships with industry must be painted as their evil (or, at best, deluded) minions.
Yes, industry is biased, and industry will act on that bias whenever they can get away with it. Industry just can’t help itself. That’s just the way it is.
But the State is also biased. And the State will also act on that bias whenever they can get away with it. The State can’t help itself. That’s just the way it is.
Industry will try to exercise its influence over us by data-driven persuasion, and when that fails they will try to sweeten the persuasion, perhaps even with subtle or not-so-subtle bribes.
But the exercise of persuasion is even more dangerous when done by the State. While the State may also try to influence us with data-driven persuasion, it is very quick to resort instead to propaganda (i.e., the art of information-control by which the unwashed masses are told only what the specialized classes have determined is best for them), and when that fails, the State will resort to its ultimate form of persuasion – the enforcement of new and suppressive regulations at the point of a gun.
So, while industry is indeed biased, and needs to be kept at arms length, de-legitimizing industry altogether would be disastrous. It would create an open field for extraordinarily powerful forces which are at least as biased, but in the opposite direction. If we value medical progress, we need the balance that industry provides – and that includes not only industry’s products, but its voice.
Medical progress driven by industry-physician collaboration is good for mankind. But that collaboration inevitably creates conflicts. We physicians need to control those conflicts, or the collaboration will be forcibly terminated altogether. Our professional history to date is bleak in this regard, and we only have one chance left to get it right, if that.
But in controlling our COI, we should not allow ourselves to be pushed too far. We should agree to reasonable limits on conflicts, and on full disclosure of any conflicts that remain. But we should draw the line when we are urged to forgo all relationships with industry altogether. We must recognize that industry and its selfish goals provide a necessary counterbalance to even more powerful forces whose goal is to stifle medical progress.
I don’t ask that you accept my synthesis of this problem at face value. I simply ask that you listen to what I am suggesting, and observe for yourself what is happening out in the wild. Then challenge yourself to come up with a better explanation for what you see happening out there. I sincerely hope you can, as I would much rather that my conclusions were not true. So if you do come up with a better explanation, I will greatly appreciate hearing about it.
DrRich explains it all in, Fixing American Healthcare – Wonkonians, Gekkonians and the Grand Unification Theory of Healthcare.
DrRich will be absent from the blogosphere for a little while.
He will be traveling to an undisclosed location in Europe, at the invitation of a well-known professor of medicine, to do something which he should never, ever be permitted to do.
DrRich will elaborate when he returns, and the ill-advised deed has been accomplished.
It is quite popular for certain medical bloggers who count themselves as scientifically sophisticated to disparage so-called “alternative medicine.”
Indeed, some have built entire websites to demonstrate (Penn-and-Teller-like) that various forms of alternative medicine – such as homeopathy, therapeutic touch, the medical application of crystals, Reiki, naturopathy, water therapy, bio-photons, mindfulness training, energy healing and a host of others – are completely devoid of any scientific merit whatsoever; are pablum for the uneducated masses; are, in short, irreducibly and irredeemably woo.
These same bloggers are scandalized into virtual apoplexy by the fact that the NIH has funded an entire section to “study” alternative medicine, and worse, that some of the most respected university medical centers in the land now seem to have embraced alternative medicine, and have established well-funded and heavily-marketed “Centers for Integrative Medicine,” or other similarly-named op-centers for pushing medically suspect alternative “services”.
(An astounding list of prestigious institutions of medical science now sporting Centers of Woo is maintained by Orec.)
Until quite recently, DrRich counted himself among the stalwarts of scientific strict constructionism. He was truly dismayed that the NIH and some of our most well-regarded academic centers (under the guise of wanting to conduct objective “studies” of alternative medicine) have lent an aura of respectability and legitimacy to numerous bizarre ideas and fraudulent claims masquerading as legitimate medical practices. To DrRich, such developments were yet another clear and unmistakable sign of the End Times.
Furthermore, DrRich (a well-known paranoid when it comes to covert rationing) saw a more sinister advantage to the official and well-publicized support that government-funded institutions were giving to the alternative medicine movement. Namely, fostering a widespread impression among the unwashed rabble that alternative medicine is at least somewhat worthwhile (and plenty respectable) advances the cause of covert rationing. That is, the more you can entice people to seek their diagnoses and their cures from the alternative medicine universe, the less money they will soak up from the real healthcare system. With luck, real diagnoses can be delayed and real therapy put off until it’s far too late to achieve a useful outcome by more traditional (and far more expensive) medical means.
So, for several years alternative medicine was seen by DrRich pretty much as it is seen by all of the anti-woo crowd – as an unvarnished evil.
But in recent days the scales have fallen from DrRich’s eyes. He now realizes he was sadly mistaken. Rather than a term of opprobrium, “alternative medicine” may actually be our most direct road to salvation. Indeed, DrRich thinks that far from damning alternative medicine, we should be blessing it, nurturing it, worrying over it, in the precise manner that a mountaineer trapped in a deadly blizzard would worry over the last embers of his dying campfire.
What turned the tide for DrRich was a recent report, issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, estimating that in 2007, Americans spent a whopping $34 billion on alternative medicine. That’s $34 billion, for healthcare (in a manner of speaking), out of their own pockets.
The implications of this report should be highly encouraging to those of us who lament the impending creation of a monolithic government-controlled healthcare system, and who have been struggling to imagine ways of circumventing the legions of stone-witted, soul-eating bureaucrats now being prepared (Sauron-like) to descend upon us all, doctor and patient alike.
This is why DrRich has urged primary care physicians to break the bonds of servitude while they still can, strike out on their own, and set up practices in which they are paid directly by their patients. Such arrangements are the only practical means by which individual doctors and patients can immediately restore the broken doctor-patient relationship, and place themselves within a protective enclosure impervious to the slavering soul-eaters.
One reason so few primary care doctors have taken this route (choosing instead to retire, to change careers and become deep-sea fishermen, or simply to give up and become abject minions of the forces of evil) is that they do not believe patients will actually pay them out of their own pockets.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, this new report from the CDCP demonstrates once and for all that Americans will, indeed, pay billions of dollars from their own pockets for their own healthcare – even the varieties of healthcare whose only possible benefits are mediated by the placebo effect. DrRich believes that many of the people buying homeopathic remedies are doing so less because they believe homeopathy works, and more because they feel abandoned by the healthcare system and by their own doctors, and realize they have to do SOMETHING. The CDCP report, in DrRich’s estimation, reflects the magnitude of the American public’s pent-up demand for doctors whose chief concern is for them, and not for the demands of third party payers.
Perhaps more importantly, this new report implies that it may be somewhat more difficult than DrRich has thought for the government to outlaw private-sector healthcare activities. As DrRich has carefully documented, a government-controlled healthcare system will require the authorities to make it illegal for Americans to spend their own money on their own healthcare, thus rendering direct-pay medical practices illegal, and putting the final stake into the heart of the doctor-patient relationship.
But the rousing success of the alternative medicine universe will make such laws difficult to enact.
To see why, consider just how encouraging this new CDCP report must be to the third-party payers. Thanks in no small part to the efforts of the government (and the academy) to legitimize alternative medicine, Americans are spending $34 billion a year on woo. This amount indicates tremendous savings for the traditional healthcare system. The actual amount saved, of course, is impossible to measure, but has to be far greater than just $34 billion. Some substantial proportion of patients spending money on alternative medicine, had they chosen traditional medical care instead, might have consumed expensive diagnostic tests, surgery, expensive prescription drugs, and other legitimate medical services. Furthermore, those legitimate medical services (as legitimate medical services are wont to do) often would have generated even more expenditures – by extending the survival of patients with chronic diseases, by identifying the need for even more diagnostic and therapeutic services, and by causing side effects requiring expensive remedies. (While alternative medicine is famous for being useless, it is also most often pretty harmless, and tends to produce relatively few serious side effects – except, of course, for causing a delay in making actual diagnoses and administering useful therapy, but if you’re a payer, that’s a good thing.) So the amount of money the payers actually save thanks to alternative medicine must be some multiplier of the amount spent on the alternative medicine itself.
What this means is that payers (which, let’s face it, will soon mean the government) will be loathe to do anything that might discourage the success and growth of alternative medicine, and this fact alone may stop them from making it illegal for Americans to pay for their own healthcare.
Still, we musn’t be too sanguine about these prospects. Under a government-controlled system, the imperative to control every aspect of healthcare (in the name of fairness) will be very, very strong, and it will be very tempting to the Feds to declare at least some varieties of alternative medicine to be covered services.
But the alternative medicine establishment (bless it) will be largely impervious to government control. Practitioners of alternative medicine are expert at designing vague products and services whose techniques, theories, processes and protocols are fluid, nebulous and ill-defined. So if the Feds declare, say, homeopathy and therapeutic touch to be legitimate, covered services under the Fed’s health plan, why, the alternative medicine gurus will simply come up with entirely new forms of alternative medicine, specifically to remain outside the government plan. (New varieties of alternative medicine already appear with dizzying speed, and can be invented at will. No bureaucracy could ever hope to keep up.)
Therefore, as long as the central authorities depend on alternative medicine as a robust avenue for covertly rationing healthcare, the purveyors of woo will always be able to flourish outside the real healthcare system. And this, DrRich believes, represents the ultimate value of woo, and establishes why we should all be encouraging and nurturing woo instead of disparaging it.
DrRich has speculated on various black market approaches to healthcare which could be attempted by American doctors (and investors) should restrictive, government-controlled healthcare become a reality. But now, thanks to the success of alternative medicine, there is a direct and straightforward path for American primary care physicians to re-establish a form of now-long-gone “traditional” American medicine, replete with a robust doctor-patient relationship, right out in the open – the kind of practice where patients pay their doctors themselves.
Simply declare this kind of practice to be a new variety of alternative medicine. Likely, PCPs will need to come up with a new name for it (such as “Therapeutic Allopathy,” or “Reciprocal Duty Therapeutics”), and perhaps invent some new terminology to describe what they’re doing. But what’s clear is what they will be doing is so fundamentally different from what PCPs will be doing under government-controlled healthcare as to be unrecognizable, and nobody will be able to argue it’s not alternative medicine. In fact, it will seem nearly as wierd as Reiki.
The success of medical woo, in other words, can provide American doctors who want to practice the kind of medicine they should be practicing with the cover they need to do so. And this is why we must support medical woo, and celebrate its continued growth and success.
A minor dispute – and an extraordinarily (almost disturbingly) polite one – has developed between the only two other electrophysiologists, that DrRich knows of at least, in the blogosphere. DrRich, being the third, ought to weigh in – not because his “vote” would break the tie, but because (as always) DrRich knows best.
Dr. Wes started it all off with a post noting, with some degree of dismay, that “(b)oth the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Recovery Audit Contractors (RAC) are focusing investigations on Medicare billing for implantable cardiac defibrillator (ICD) surgery.” Wes, with an appropriate degree of paranoia, concludes,”Consider yourself warned, criminals,” then recalls the halcyon days when the prospect of spending time in court conjured up for physicians nothing worse than malpractice suits.
Dr. John M. counters with a post whose purpose is to “welcome the upcoming policing of cardiac device implants.” John goes on to chronicle several examples he has witnessed of physicians implanting ICDs when, clearly, they should not have. The investigations of ICD implants by the Feds – and their private counterparts, the RACs – John posits, will serve to root out the bad eggs.
To his credit, John allows right off that his post is published “at the risk of exposing my naivete.”
To which DrRich replies, “Indeed.”
When DrRich was young, his grandmother, an immigrant from the Old Country who never shed her rustic habits, and not owning a motor vehicle, kept an illegal henhouse in her garage, buying the silence of her neighbors with eggs. It was from her that DrRich learned that if a rooster is behaving badly – engaging in hen abuse, for instance, or perhaps chasing grandchildren around the yard – one does not deal with it by sending Uncle George’s pit bull into the henhouse to take care of the offender. While the nasty rooster (never one to avoid a confrontation) might well be taken down, so would a lot of innocent bystanders.
John, you are laboring under the charming delusion that the purpose of these new investigations is to carefully review ICD implants and tease out only those unethical and/or poorly-trained device implanters, who are clearly and habitually engaging in untoward medical practices. If this were the case, then you and Wes and all those other honest EPs would have nothing to be concerned about, and the audits would indeed make the world a better place.
But alas, DrRich must tell you otherwise.
First, he urges you to read about his own experience. DrRich is a bit older than you, John, and was around the first time the Feds decided to conduct such an “audit” of ICD implantations. DrRich – like you, as pure as the driven snow – was absolutely certain he had nothing to worry about. But as matters unfolded, the fact that DrRich is not today writing this blog from a federal prison (do they let you do blogs in the penitentiary?) is more a matter of luck than anything else.
This new “audit” is much more intimidating than the one DrRich endured. That one was done by the relatively benign Office of the Inspector General (part of HHS). This one is being done by the Justice Department. So if they finger you, you are by definition, as Wes suggests, a criminal.
DrRich has talked about the Regulatory Speed Trap many times. Regulations inevitably become obtuse by evolution if not by design, so that, if you are practicing medicine, it is likely that somewhere – in the hundreds of thousands of pages of indecipherable and self-contradictory Medicare regulations – you are guilty of failing to comply with a regulation somewhere or other, and thus are guilty of healthcare fraud – which is a federal crime. The only thing that likely separates you from a convicted (or, more likely, self-confessed as part of a plea bargain) criminal is that the Feds haven’t decided to “audit” you yet.
The Feds know this, of course. The fact that they know it is documented in a recent GAO report entitled “Improvements Needed in Provider Communications and Contracting Procedures.” The GAO report notes that the bulletins which Medicare carriers are required to send doctors periodically (to make sure they understand the regulations) are filled with dense, lengthy and poorly organized prose sufficient to make them unreadable. Even if they were readable, the GAO continues, these bulletins would do doctors little good since they routinely announce new regulatory policies well after the implementation date, when doctors will already have been guilty of violating such policies (and thus committing fraud). Finally, the GAO finds that when confused doctors contact the Medicare call centers for clarification on the regulations, they get the correct answer only 15% of the time. (Even the IRS does substantially better than that.) And the Medicare websites, required under the regulations to clarify everything for the providers, universally lack “logical organization and navigational tools,” and as a consequence are nearly unusable.
So even when a doctor prospectively asks for instruction on how to comply with Medicare regulations (so as to avoid committing healthcare fraud and incurring huge fines and jail time), nobody is able to give him/her a straight answer. For, while it’s easy to look at a provider’s actions retrospectively (as the auditors are about to do), and find something in the dense regulations that makes those actions imperfect, it’s not so easy to tell providers ahead of time how to navigate those regulations in pristine fashion. As the GAO report reveals, nobody knows how to do that.
Now, DrRich is not calling the DOJ evil. The Feds are not being evil when they set out to conduct audits of physicians’ compliance with uninterpretable regulations; indeed, from their way of looking at it they are being humane.
They are only doing what they have to do, which is find a way – any way – to reduce healthcare costs. In this instance they do not really want to label hundreds or thousands of electrophysiologists as criminals, and ruin their careers and their reputations and their lives. They just want to ruin a few, and make sure the other ones know about it. This limited-bloodshed approach will accomplish their goal, which is, to make all the other electrophysiologists think twice (or thrice) before using ICDs again, in anyone, ever.
But in this instance it gets even worse. With this audit, in addition to dealing with the relatively-restrained Feds, electrophysiologists will also be dealing with the slavering RACs.
The RACs are a fun tidbit brought to us by the Medicare Prescription Drug Act of 2003. Under the RAC initiative, private contractors are to be sent out to perform audits of billing already done by insurers, health plans and physicians. The objective is to find “overbillings,” which the providers will have to repay along with penalties. Further, the act explicitly allows for prosecutions to be brought for “fraud and abuse,” even if the providers have repaid any overbillings.
The purpose of the Recovery Audit Contractors is, well, recovery. During the 3-year pilot of the RAC initiative, which took place in only 3 states, over $300 million were recovered. This wonderful success is the reason RACs are being turned loose elsewhere.
The RACs are paid by commission. Essentially they are bounty hunters, and they get to keep 20% of whatever they collect. According to the Associated Press, hospitals and providers are just a tad worried that these contractors, being so generously incented, will prove a little overzealous in their enthusiasm to find fraud. But worried auditees should not look for sympathy from the public. “A little zealotry is what we’re looking for on the part of the taxpayers,” said Leslie Paige, spokeswoman for Citizens Against Government Waste. “We think it’s about time.” Indeed – everybody can get behind fighting fraud, which is what makes the fraud gambit such a powerful tool for covert rationing.
DrRich surmises that it is good to be a RAC, and thinks you should consider buying stock in these companies, if you can. These outfits are about to harvest the vast bounty of obfuscation that Medicare has been carefully cultivating in its regulations for over 40 years, and has been carefully fashioning as fraud-traps for a somewhat shorter period of time. The RACs see the vast herds of physicians (violators one and all) placidly grazing all across the fruited plains, just waiting to be harvested. Their chief problem will be in pacing themselves; showing some restraint so they don’t use up their resources all at once.
And so, in addition to the dogged, officious, unsympathetic countenances of the lawyers employed by the DOJ, electrophysiologists this time around can also look forward to seeing the leering faces of the RACs’ commission-drunk forensic accountants. Electrophysiologists will experience the worst excesses of both worlds – the excesses of the state, and the excesses of unfettered for-profit outfits.
John M. can welcome this if he wants, and DrRich will wish him the very best good luck. DrRich, though, is still a little shell-shocked 15 years after his own encounter with federal audits of medical practices, and is very glad he’s only a spectator, and not a participant, this time around.
Dr. Marya Zilberberg has an interesting post on Kevin,MD, speculating on the effect a worldwide oil shortage will have on healthcare, and what we ought to do about it. Marya is herself a notable blogger who has commented here several times (but whose comments, alas, were among those lost when the catastrophe struck), and she is one of the more thoughtful critics of DrRich. Her criticisms are always fact-based rather than ad hominem, and thus she always gets DrRich to thinking. Her post on Kevin, MD had that typical effect.
So DrRich hopes his readers will give Marya at least a little of the credit for what follows.
We as a nation face several apparently intractable problems at the present moment. Indeed, the problems individually seem so unsolvable that it will obviously take some major “outside of the box” thinking to solve any one of them, let alone the whole mess.
DrRich refers, of course, to the following five problems:
1. We as a nation face more than $50 trillion in debt obligations over the next several decades, thanks to Social Security and Medicare alone. This is an obligation we have no prayer of meeting.
2. Thanks to that massive accumulation of debt, we as a nation are mortgaging our futures to foreign nations, principally China. In fact, this totalitarian power will soon have veto authority on any initiative the US proposes to take.
3. We face an apparently growing threat of terrorist attacks whose base of operations (while it may be insensitive to say so) is in the Middle East.
4. Thanks to our profligate use of oil products, we are causing runaway global warming (and anyone mentioning the past decade of global cooling is a global warming denier).
5. As Marya points out, we appear to be drawing ever closer to a worldwide oil shortage that will threaten every aspect of our lives, even our healthcare.
Marya’s post was the key for DrRich.
DrRich, being a conservative American, has previously subscribed to a “Drill, Baby Drill” sort of philosophy. After all, we have oil in the ground, and we need oil to run our economy – so let’s go get it ourselves, instead of paying all that money to Middle Eastern and Venezuelan dictators, who just turn around and give it to terrorists.
But now DrRich sees the error of his ways.
There is a simple and straightforward solution that addresses all five of our intractable problems, indirectly if not directly.
Here it is: Stop drilling altogether. Leave American oil in the ground. And buy up all those other peoples’ oil (and take physical possession of it) – as fast as we can.
The estimated worldwide oil reserve is about 1 trillion barrels. Let’s buy as much as we can of those reserves, and bring it here. At $100 a barrel that’s only 100 trillion dollars, or only twice what we’re obligated to pay for our old farts over the next few decades. But the difference is, when we spend all that money on Social Security and Medicare, all we’ve got to show for it is old farts who are even older. But when we spend that money buying up the world’s oil, we’ve got a corner on the market.
Where are we going to put all that oil, skeptics might ask? Why, we’re going to store it in the rapidly-depleting Ogallala Acquifer, which is capable of holding up to 978 trillion gallons. The world’s oil reserves, if we choose to follow DrRich’s plan, will be right under Kansas and Nebraska – the heartland.
Even if the price of oil rises to substantially higher than $100 per barrel (which it certainly will as the world’s supplies become sequestered beneath Lincoln and Dodge City), it will still be a bargain for us to buy it up. It will be a bargain at any price. After all, we’re already in a debt hole so deep we cannot possibly get out of it. If we’re destined to perish in a sea of debt, we might just as well drown in $500 trillion as $50 trillion of debt. We’ll be just as dead either way.
So we should be delighted to accumulate whatever amount of debt is required in order to corner the world’s oil market. It’s our only hope.
Because, when the only oil left in the world is American oil, we strike back. Our oil will be a precious, life-sustaining commodity, which nobody in the world can do without. Even if energy technology develops to the point where people can really fly around in airships powered by solar batteries, oil will remain precious. Just try building those solar batteries without petroleum products. Marya herself points out that it’s only petroleum products which allow us to do all the remarkable stuff we do every day in healthcare, as well as in every other modern endeavor.
We’ll be able to charge whatever we want for our oil – DrRich (a humanitarian) is thinking merely $1000 a barrel, as a nice round number. We’ll be able to pay China back, and any other of our debt holders, in a trice. And in another trice they will all owe money to us (like in the good old days).
The Middle Eastern terrorists will become defunded.
Since nobody else in the world will be able to engage in hydrocarbon pollution any longer without our say so, we can control worldwide carbon emissions as we see fit, and “tune” the earth’s temperature like a fine clock.
Best of all, since (according to the current plans of our leaders) the American government will remain permanently in the hands of benign progressives, who by definition care very deeply about the people of the world, all this will be done with the most beneficent of intents, which will assure the very best of outcomes.
Of course, none of this will work if it turns out the world’s oil reserves are vastly greater than current official estimates. This might be something to think about, considering that today’s oil reserves are twice what they were in 1980, even though we’ve burned through (and, of course, spilled) 30 years of oil since then. Thankfully, the experts assure us that this time they’re correct. And if we’re not going to listen to the experts, what the heck are we paying them for?
Besides, given our current situation, we have nothing to lose by trying. So: Cap, Baby, Cap!
Recently, DrRich wrote a series of posts detailing how the American healthcare system – even before the new reforms kick in – is taking steps to prevent individual citizens from being allowed to spend their own money on their own healthcare. Part of that effort, of course, is to restrict physicians from offering direct-pay medical services to their patients.
DrRich may have given the impression that only primary care doctors are affected by efforts to restrict their practices in this way. If so, he apologizes.
He particularly owes an apology to his friends the dermatologists. Indeed, DrRich has been reminded of an article that appeared in the New York Times a while back, which castigated dermatologists for the sin of establishing direct-pay practices, and in particular, for creating their own brand of a two-tiered healthcare system – one for patients with skin disorders, and one for “cosmetic dermatology.”
As the Times describes it, patients who wish to see a dermatologist for, say, possible skin cancer are put on a waiting list, and when their appointed time finally arrives (generally several months later) they are subjected to modern medical hell. To wit: Upon arriving in a lackluster office, the patient is shelved for a while in an unattractive, poorly lit waiting room equipped with a broken TV, fuzz balls on the floor, old magazines, the unruly children of other patients, and surly office personnel. Eventually the now-even-more-disheartened patient’s name is called by an indifferent nurse practitioner, who, operating from a checklist of questions, will “triage” her to the appropriate patient-category (e.g., acne, fungus, cancer, warts- you know, dermatology stuff), then have her strip in order to fully expose the large organ (i.e., the skin) for which she has sought assistance, hand her a scratchy yellow paper gown to cover her nakedness, and have her wait for some time in a chilly exam room to see His Holiness, the actual doctor. At last the dermatologist arrives, mutters a greeting (or some other ritual uttering), glances at a clipboard, and announces, “Show me your [acne, fungus, cancer, warts];” whereupon, having regarded the cause of cutaneous concern, and having made a professional determination, he either signs the prescription that has been pre-written for him by the nurse practitioner, or schedules a procedure. Then, placing her bundle of clothing into her arms and wishing her a good day, the doctor shoves her out into the hall to finish dressing, as the formal interview is completed, and the exam room is at a premium.
Presumably, one hopes, some dermatology practices not visited by the New York Times might not be quite so bad. Still, anyone who’s been seen by an American PCP lately will nod sympathetically at the dermatology patient’s ordeal.
Now observe what the Times observes when the patient, instead of having an actual skin problem, merely is sagging here and there and wishes to be shorn up. That is, the patient has a cosmetic issue. That is, the patient wants Botox.
The same dermatologist will often have an entirely different setup for these patients. This time the patient is seen immediately, possibly the same day, as dermatologists are sensitive to the needs of their clients who have an impending public engagement, and thus need to look their best. If this patient is to wait at all, she will wait in a modern, tastefully decorated private room. She will then be seen not by a mere nurse practitioner but by an aesthetician, who will do a careful assessment of the sagging parts, and, aside from suggesting more injection sites than the patient might originally have had in mind, will offer a complete program for long-term cosmetic maintenance, which naturally will include quarterly Botoxification. At just the proper moment the dermatologist comes in, greets the patient warmly and reassuringly; then reviews the recommendations of the aesthetician and discusses those recommendations at length with both the aesthetician and the patient, studying the patient’s face in depth as he does so, pointing, nodding, studying, adjusting, all the while smiling confidently. Yes, he indicates, we will all be very happy indeed with the results. Finally the doctor begins to make the now-thoroughly-discussed-and-agreed-upon injections, doing so with the greatest solicitude and sensitivity. The patient is then given as much time as she needs to collect herself, and is invited to “recover” in a room set aside for this purpose, with flattering lighting, soft music, a cappuccino machine, and perhaps a glass of wine. She leaves the office a new person. And, just as the dermatologist has promised, all are indeed very happy with the outcome.
Naturally, the New York Times is scandalized by the dichotomy which its discerning readers will note here. Why should a patient with a mere cosmetic issue be treated so well, when a patient with an actual medical problem, possibly even skin cancer, is treated so shabbily? How can dermatologists openly encourage such a two-tiered system?
DrRich has a word of advice for the scandalized reporters of the New York Times, and any other concerned Americans who are worried that dermatologists, by setting up separate-but-not-equal practices for their two kinds of patients, are moving us one step closer to the dreaded two-tiered healthcare system we all abhor. That word is: Chill.
Allow DrRich to support this friendly recommendation with two observations.
1) We already have a multi-tiered healthcare system, and little or none of it is the fault of dermatologists. It is the fault of human nature. All countries have at least a two-tiered healthcare system, including countries (like Cuba and China) that have specifically embraced egalitarianism (rather than individual autonomy) as the fundamental operating principle. A second tier is necessary if for no other reason than political leaders and other individuals critically important to the collective effort must have somewhere to go for their healthcare. The second tier, like the poor, will always be with us.
2) When a dermatologist spends Tuesday afternoon in her run-down office, treating people who come to her for bona fide skin disorders like they’re not really patients but widgets on an assembly line, then spends Wednesday in her other, much more amenable offices, treating the merely cosmetically-challenged like they are minor nobility, she is not really engaging in two-tiered healthcare. Not at all. Instead, on Tuesday she is practicing real, true, prescribed-by-society, by-the-book American healthcare, just as our leaders (in their wisdom) have carefully set it up for us, and on Wednesday she is doing Something Altogether Different.
Injecting Botox is officially and formally not part of American healthcare. How do we know this? Because it is not covered by Medicare or health insurance. If you want Botox you’ve got to pay for it your own self, just as you do if you want a TV or a car. So by all that is sacred, injecting Botox is NOT American healthcare.
Furthermore, when one looks at it objectively, injecting Botox is not even really practicing medicine, at least not in any true sense. In actual truth, it takes very little training or expertise to inject Botox. There’s no reason one must go to college, graduate from medical school, or do several additional years of training in dermatology (or any other specialty) to do this. Anyone with a needle and syringe, an alcohol wipe, and access to Botox could do as well. Just find the wrinkle and stick it. If they made the materials available over-the-counter, most folks would do just fine with it.
The sheer arbitrariness by which injecting Botox is deemed by the authorities to constitute the practice of medicine can also be illustrated by considering a somewhat different, equally well-known cosmetic procedure, one that also involves injecting substances through the skin via needles, and that has much more to do with the actual skin itself than Botox injections (which do not really affect the skin itself, but only the muscles under the skin). DrRich speaks, obviously, of the tattoo. But unlike making Botox injections, tattooing requires real skill, knowledge, training, expertise and artistic talent. Most dermatologists simply could not manage a highly technical skill like that. The point being, of course, that if you were to describe Botox injections and tattooing to a visitor from Mars, then ask him/her/it which of these two dermatological procedures ought to require a medical license and board certification, the Martian would get it wrong every time.
DrRich understands, of course, that while administering Botox is, in practical and objective terms, no more practicing medicine than is applying an ice-pack to a bruised knee, legally it is indeed deemed to be the practice of medicine. Accordingly, doctors in general (and dermatologists in particular), relying on this nonsensical designation, have legally cornered the market on Botox injections. So it’s not like you could just set up a booth at the Mall and hire high school students to do this (as you can for, say, ear-piercing – which, in contrast to Botox injections, is an actual surgical procedure which is intended to result in a permanent structural change in a body part). If you set up a chain of Botox Booths, you would be practicing medicine without a license, which is a serious crime.
But fundamentally, while performing Botox injections may have a certain legal status, in any true sense it is not really practicing medicine. Not when ear-piercing and tattooing are not. Rather, in real life, injecting Botox is simply an activity some dermatologists may choose to do when they’re not doing real dermatology.
To say it another way, when the dermatologist goes to her “other office” to cater to a self-paying variety of clientele, she is practicing medicine only from the most arbitrary and strictly legalistic viewpoint. In real life, she is doing Something Else. She is engaging in a Pastime.
Doctors, of course, often have Pastimes. That is, they partake in activities other than practicing medicine when they could, in fact, be seeing more patients. Some have taken up golf. Others have started side businesses such as restaurants or software companies. Some do charity work, or go to graduate school for an MBA. Still others have opted to work part time in order to raise their families.
Society generally finds such activities acceptable, and – to this point – does not insist that all doctors forgo all other human endeavors in order to see as many patients as humanly possible, during all their waking hours. While society seems to be moving closer to declaring that doctors owe this duty to the collective, it has not reached this point quite yet.
Until society sees fit to legislate otherwise (which, DrRich supposes, could happen really very soon now), doctors will continue to spend some of their time engaging in hobbies and business or family activities outside of the formal healthcare system. Some may even leave the formal healthcare system altogether in favor of these other activities. DrRich himself has done this. And until society renders it officially illegal for doctors to do so, DrRich respectfully asks that doctors be left alone to celebrate their individual autonomy as granted to them under America’s founding documents, whether it’s by establishing authentic Indian restaurants, setting up Botox clinics, or even becoming direct-pay practitioners.
One last word of advice for DrRich’s dermatology friends: Have fun with your Botox clinics for now, fellas and ladies, but please don’t become too invested in them. This is definitely a shallow-moat line of business, and the only thing that gives you any protection at all is your aura as highly trained specialists, with special and secret knowledge about an organ (i.e., the skin) which visibly droops when the underlying muscles become lax with age and gravity. A single action by forces entirely out of your control – say, Congress or the FDA – could render your monopoly entirely moot overnight, and you will be instantly priced out of business by hordes of PCPs, nurse practitioners, Botox booths in Walmart, and even home Botox injection kits. So please remember to at least keep your hand in genuine dermatology, or get your MBA, or perfect your long iron shots, or even learn a real skill, like tattooing – but do something that will provide you with a Plan C. Because Plan Botox is definitely a high risk endeavor over the long term.