Advice to Medical Tourists From the American College of Surgeons

DrRich | March 29th, 2011 - 2:41 pm

Podcast:

In an earlier post, DrRich offered several potential strategies for doctors and patients to consider should healthcare reformers ultimately succeed in their efforts to make it illegal for Americans to seek medical care outside the auspices of Obamacare. To those readers who persist in thinking that DrRich is particularly paranoid in worrying about such a thing, he refers you to his prior work carefully documenting the efforts the Central Authority has already made in limiting the prerogatives of individual Americans within the healthcare system, and reminds you that in any society where social justice is the overriding concern, individual prerogatives such as these must be criminalized. Indeed, whether individuals will retain the right to spend their own money on their own healthcare is ultimately the real battle. The outcome of this battle will determine much more than merely what kind of healthcare system we will end up with.

DrRich, despite his paranoia on the matter, is a long-term optimist, and believes that the American spirit will ultimately prevail. So, to advance this happy result DrRich (in the previously mentioned post) graciously offered several creative options that could be employed to establish a useful Black Market in healthcare, which will allow individuals to exercise their healthcare-autonomy against the day when such autonomy again becomes legal. His suggestions included offshore, state-of-the-art medical centers on old aircraft carriers; combination Casino/Hospitals on the sovereign soil of Native American reservations; and cutting-edge medical centers just south of the border (which would have the the added benefit of encouraging our government to finally close the borders to illegal crossings once and for all).

As entertaining as it might be to imagine such solutions, a readily available, though much more mundane, option exists today, which is to say, medical tourism.

Medical tourism is where one travels outside one’s own country in order to obtain medical care elsewhere. It is becoming a booming business. A number of superb state-of-the-art medical centers expressly aimed at attracting medical tourists have been established in the Middle East, Singapore, India, China and elsewhere in Asia. These institutions cater to citizens of the world whose own healthcare systems cannot (or will not) provide in a timely fashion (or at all) the level of care patients may desire. Many of these institutions offer modern hospitals, numerous amenities, luxurious accommodations, attentive nursing care, and top-notch doctors – and they do it all for a tiny fraction of what the same care might cost (if you can even find it) in the U.S. and other “first world” nations.

Obviously, medical tourism is not particularly feasible for medical emergencies such as heart attack or stroke, or for chronic illnesses such as diabetes, congestive heart failure, or Parkinson’s disease, which require frequent visits and long-term management.  What is feasible is to become a medical tourist for those one-time medical services that can be scheduled and planned, for which there is a long waiting period at home, or which is simply too expensive in one’s own country. Such medical services often include coronary artery bypass surgery, hip replacements, knee replacements, and numerous minimally-invasive and not-so-minimally-invasive surgical procedures. In other words, medical tourism to a large extent is something one does for elective (i.e., non-emergency) surgery.

These are the very procedures, as DrRich has pointed out, which are now being covertly rationed in the U.S. thanks to the “never events” policy adopted by CMS and private insurers. As a result, certain categories of individuals may soon find it more difficult to obtain elective surgical services than they might have just a few years ago, and medical tourism may accordingly become a more compelling alternative.

It ought not be a surprise, therefore, that the first organization of American physicians to issue a formal policy statement regarding medical tourism is the American College of Surgeons.

The reaction of American surgeons to medical tourism ought to be obvious. They hate it. Elective surgical procedures – the very procedures for which Americans become tourists – are the bread and butter of most surgical specialties. It pains them to think of their prospective patients going off to Singapore for their lucrative bypass surgeries. American cardiac surgeons, for instance (already underemployed, thanks to American cardiologists throwing stents at every tiny coronary artery indentation they they can justify as a “blockage”), are nearly apoplectic at the idea.

It’s always a delight to read formal policy statements which attempt to disguise an entirely self-serving message as a selfless public gesture. The actual message of the surgeon’s policy statement, of course, is, “We hate medical tourism, and if you do it we’ll hate you,” but they say so on a manner which is designed to be polite, politically correct, non-judgmental, helpful and even friendly.

The surgeons in general have made a good effort, as you can see if you’d like to read the policy statement for yourself. It’s pretty much what you would expect – “Go ahead and have your knee replaced in Timbuktu if you want to. It’s your right, so go ahead and devil take the hindmost. Just don’t come crying to me when things go south a month later.”  They do so, however, in an extraordinarily collegial way.

The artful style of their policy statement aside, DrRich is struck by two aspects of the actual substance of the document.

First, the surgeons begin with a litany of dire warnings regarding all the medical considerations one must take into account before trusting one’s health to foreign medical hands:

“Some of the intangible risks include variability in the training of medical and allied health professionals; differences in the standards to which medical institutions are held; potential difficulties associated with treatment far from family and friends; differences in transparency surrounding patient discussions; the approach to interpretation of test results; the accuracy and completeness of medical records; the lack of support networks, should longer-term care be needed; the lack of opportunity for follow-up care by treating physicians and surgeons; and the exposure to endemic diseases prevalent in certain countries. Language and cultural barriers may impair communication with physicians and other caregivers.”

Obviously, these are all very important considerations. What strikes DrRich, however, is that these are the very same considerations (even the warning about endemic diseases, when one considers the MRSA infections which are secretly “endemic” in some American hospitals) which patients must also take into account before agreeing to receive care in any American institution. It may turn out that these considerations are more an issue in top-notch foreign hospitals than in your average American hospital, but DrRich is not convinced this is the case, and the surgeons do not provide any evidence that it is. In other words, DrRich sees this very good advice as being equally applicable whether one is considering becoming a medical tourist, or just a typical American patient.

Second, and more astonishingly, DrRich notes – not so much with interest, but more with awe – that the surgeons are beseeching their patients to consider just how difficult it might be to launch a malpractice suit against foreign doctors. (DrRich himself does not know how difficult this would be. Given that we are being so strongly urged these days to merge the American legal system with several varieties of international law, it might not be such a big problem.) Indeed, a careful reading of this policy statement reveals that the potential difficulty in suing foreign doctors is offered as the chief differentiator, and thus it has become the primary argument in favor of good-old-American-surgery. The surgeons, in essence, are saying, “Let us do your surgery, because we’re easier to sue if we screw up.”

This, from the very body of American physicians who are most at risk for malpractice suits, and who traditionally have been most vociferous in favor of malpractice reform.

DrRich can only shake his head in wonderment. If medical tourism is viewed by surgeons as such a dire threat that they have embraced, as their chief weapon against it, a celebration of the ease of suing American doctors, why, one can only conclude that medical tourism must have caught on far more than most of us realize.

As an American physician who has always been proud of American medicine, DrRich’s innate tendency is to lament the fact that Americans are finding it to their advantage to travel to Mumbai for their hip replacements. But as a patriot, he celebrates the fact that his fellow citizens are willing to go to such lengths to exercise their individual autonomy. He finds it a hopeful sign.

Our would-be oppressors might find it more difficult to hold us down than they may think.

The Real Utility of Never Events

DrRich | March 23rd, 2011 - 8:21 am

Podcast:

In 2008, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) announced it would no longer pay for the treatment of “never events,” i.e., certain medical conditions in hospitalized patients which the Feds deem to be universally avoidable under all circumstances. These conditions included:

* Decubitus ulcers
* Two kinds of catheter-associated infections
* Air embolism
* Mediastinitis after coronary bypass surgery
* Transfusing patients with the wrong blood type
* Leaving objects inside surgery patients
* In-hospital falls

Then, having been delighted with the results of its original list (or dismayed that healthcare costs continued to skyrocket despite its original list) CMS subsequently proposed declaring several new conditions as “never events,” including:

* Surgical site infections following certain elective procedures
* Legionnaires’ disease
* Extreme blood sugar derangement
* A collapse of the lung resulting from medical treatment
* Delirium
* Ventilator-associated pneumonia
* Deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism
* Staph infection in the bloodstream
* Disease associated with Clostridium difficile infection

Numerous commentators have expounded on the advisability of declaring these particular conditions to be “never events.” All agree that while certain of them clearly should never be permitted to happen (e.g., leaving sundry tools inside a patient’s abdomen, or transfusing the wrong blood), certain other ones are going to continue happening to some patients no matter how high the quality of the institution and the medical professionals.

Because this topic has been so well-covered in the medical blogosphere, DrRich does not need to comment any further on the unfairness of insisting that doctors prevent every single instance of conditions that are often not particularly preventable; or on the fact that insurance companies quickly followed Medicare’s lead and now also refuse to pay for these “never events;” or that hungry attorneys have voraciously begun suing doctors and hospitals for unavoidable complications because those complications have been federally designated as avoidable; or even the fact that, having so deftly expanded the horizons of what can be considered a “never event,” the feds have cleared the path for defining virtually any medical condition they choose as a “never event.”

(As a case in point, DrRich notes that the feds’ own guidelines on preventing delirium, referred to in their own “fact sheet” that purports to justify the expanded list of “never events” admits that there are no effective means of reliably preventing delirium.)

There’s also no point in physicians complaining publicly about this expanded list of “never events,” since the public is foursquare behind the notion that no medical complications should ever occur, and if they do occur it is somebody’s fault, and equally behind the notion that the Feds can squeeze quality into the system simply by demanding it to be so. Therefore, any doctors who openly objects to these new, tough quality measures will reveal themselves to be both anti-quality and low-quality doctors.

Rather, DrRich will refer back to the true mission of this blog, and simply explain to his readers how this new “never event” strategy furthers the true mission of Medicare and the insurers, which is to say, the covert rationing of healthcare.

For covert rationing is the chief operating principle of both the Feds and the private insurers. Indeed, their behavior resembles nothing more than the behavior of the closet, white-collar narcotic addict: while smiling their pasty smiles and desperately pretending to us that all of their new initiatives are only concerned with quality and nothing else, in reality, with every ounce of their being, their devious minds are constantly inventing new schemes to manipulate, deceive and twist each and every opportunity into some means of scoring their next covert-rationing “hit.”

Consequently, we cannot go wrong if we ask, every time we see some new healthcare program ostensibly aimed at quality improvement: Where’s the rationing?

One might think the rationing in this case is easy to spot. After all, if the feds stop paying for “never events” that actually cannot be avoided, they will save dollars right up front simply by refusing to pay for services rendered. But Medicare itself has estimated that its up-front annual savings from its original list of “never events” will be only about $20 million. And that seems hardly worth the effort.

The real savings will come from a place far more sinister than that.

The “never events” initiative – just as the Feds insist to us – is aimed at changing physicians’ behavior. But quite predictably, that behavioral change will not be in the arena of quality improvement (since no amount of quality improvement can stop “never events” that are inevitable). Rather, the behavioral change will be in the arena of risk avoidance.

While it is unlikely that doctors will ever refuse to care for high-risk patients who are experiencing genuine medical emergencies, it is quite likely they will stop recommending elective medical therapy for high-risk patients. Patients who seem particularly prone to infection, bed sores, falls, blood sugar abnormalities, blood clots, delirium, or who seem likely to need intravenous antibiotics (which predispose to C. difficile) will be particularly targeted. Roughly speaking, these patients will include diabetics, the elderly, anyone with a clotting abnormality or a history of blood clots, the obese, people with immune disorders, and the chronically ill. Physicians know by experience and instinct the sorts of patients to whom they ought to avoid offering elective medical services.

But in an era of evidence-based medicine, it is inevitable that savvy doctors will not want to rely on instinct and experience in this important matter. In order to conduct their risk avoidance in the most cost-effective way, they will want to base it on firm statistical evidence.

Accordingly, it is notable that investigators reporting in the Archives of Surgery last year began the important work of providing the kind of evidence-based risk avoidance which today’s physician actually needs. They published a large study designed to show which sorts of patients are most likely to experience post-operative “never events.” To the authors’ credit, their article was not written with the overt goal of providing a roadmap for risk avoidance. Instead it was written to show that “never events” are not really “never events” at all, but rather, are sometimes unavoidable complications; and that in certain readily-identifiable and (and obvious) subpopulations of patients, the incidence of “never events” is particularly high. That is, the authors were trying to convince the Central Authority that its policy on “never events” is far too Draconian, and that some leeway ought to be made for doctors who care for these higher-risk patients.

But of course the Central Authority already knows this, and also knows that the public fully supports its “never events” policy just as it is. The Central Authority, DrRich suspects, will see the Archives article for what it will end up becoming – a roadmap for surgeons who want to avoid the risk of encountering career-threatening “never events.” DrRich thinks Central Authority is quite satisfied with this study, and hopes to see more like it.

Conducting a risk/benefit analysis is nothing new to doctors. Doctors have always computed a risk/benefit analysis before recommending elective services to their patients (such as hip replacement, coronary artery bypass grafting, back surgery, gall bladder surgery, anti-obesity surgery, &c.) And in making those risk/benefit estimates, they have always taken into account the increased risk of complications faced by the elderly, the sick, the fat, and the malnourished.

But now, the “risk” part of the risk/benefit analysis suddenly must include three important new risks, and this time they are risks to the doctor him/herself, and not to the patients: 1) If any of these complications occur, no payment will be made for the (often very expensive) treatment the complication will require; 2) If a complication occurs, another “never event” will be tabulated in the federal database next to the doctor’s (and the hospital’s) name, which will inevitably show up in a public report card; and 3) Such a complication, previously considered a predictable risk, will now engender malpractice suits, based on the declaration by the Feds that these “never events” always constitute, by definition, grievous examples of poor-quality medicine.  The Archives article serves to place this new variety of risk analysis on firmer ground, and as such is an important new addition to the medical literature.

Lest anyone think that doctors would not really stop recommending clinically indicated care to patients just because of the personal risk it would entail, remember that it’s already happened, and is well documented. The government and the insurance companies have already conducted that experiment; it’s been completed, the results have been tabulated, reported, and duly noted. It turns out that doctors, like most other people, respond quite logically to negative incentives.

CMS knows exactly what it’s doing here.

A Brilliant Plan For Pharmaceutical Progress – The Punch Line

DrRich | March 18th, 2011 - 10:40 am

Podcast:

In his prior post, DrRich offered for your consideration a Brilliant Proposal that would assure at least some continued advances in pharmaceutical therapy, while at the same time providing the drug price controls which we all very much want, and which many (mainly those of the Progressive persuasion, who assert that the essentially evil nature of drug companies justifies any action we care to take against them) insist we deserve.

For those readers who have seen fit to e-mail and Tweet DrRich to complain that his Brilliant Proposal is not nearly punitive enough toward the drug companies, DrRich reminds you that, while cheerfully acknowledging at the very outset that drug companies are indeed evil, his Proposal attempts to balance that unchallenged fact against the (apparently lamentable) truth that, every now and again, one of these companies will inadvertently stumble upon a product that actually benefits people in a very substantial way. His plan proposes a method by which the price controls we all deserve can be established, while still allowing for occasional spurts of pharmaceutical progress.

DrRich’s proposal can be summarized as follows. Each American would formally elect to participate or not in a voluntary plan of price controls. Those who elected to participate would be entitled to receive any legal prescription drug at low prices set by a sympathetic government board, as long as the drug had been on the market for some fixed amount of time. (DrRich arbitrarily suggested five years, but that number could just as easily be set at 10 years, or any other value.) Those who choose not to participate in the price control plan would have to pay whatever the drug companies wished to charge them for all their prescription drugs – but they would be eligible to receive new prescription drugs immediately upon FDA approval (that is, the five- or 10-year waiting period would not apply to them). Finally, individuals would be able to change their status (from participant to non-participant, and vice-versa) only every two years.

Just as is the case with the more traditional drug price controls which many Americans are calling for, DrRich’s plan would achieve low drug prices (for anyone who elected to participate). But DrRich’s plan offers, in addition and in distinction, a mechanism by which pharmaceutical progress could continue, albeit at a much slower pace than we see today. That is, it allows for a population of Americans who are willing to pay full price for all their drugs in exchange for earlier access to new products. Thanks to these individuals, drug companies will be induced to continue spending something on drug research and development.

As a result, even those who choose to participate in DrRich’s price control plan would be able to count on a pipeline of new drugs, which would become available to them at very low prices after the mandated five or 10-year delay. This is a very useful feature that would not be available under the more traditional price control plans being advocated by most Progressives, such as the price controls being enforced in Canada today.

(Canadians, of course, today rely on a steady stream of new, relatively cheap drugs which are made possible only thanks to their Southern neighbors’ “willingness” to pay full price. DrRich’s plan, fundamentally, mimics the relationship between the US and Canada regarding drug prices. Those who participate in DrRich’s plan are the “Canadians,” and those who do not participate are the “Americans.” So in truth, DrRich is not actually inventing anything novel.)

So: All we need is to launch a grassroots movement to convince our legislators that this proposal offers all the benefits of the drug price controls which many Americans are insisting upon, without its major drawback (i.e., a complete stifling of pharmaceutical progress). Then, having done that, we will simply need to set up the sundry federal bureaucracies which will establish and administer the participation status of every American, and a government board that will set the official prices of all prescription drugs, and a few new enforcement agencies here and there, and of course some sort of administrative judge that can hand out exemptions to unions and other indispensable entities which would really like to have some new drug they’re not legally supposed to have. But with the kind of streamlining in federal processes and procedures promised to us under Obamacare, we should be able to implement DrRich’s plan pretty quickly and efficiently.

The Punch Line

There is, of course, a punch line.

Now that you have had ample time to digest the favorable implications of DrRich’s proposal, and can plainly see the wisdom behind it, you will be delighted to know that you don’t actually have to wait for federal legislation and the establishment of a vast new federal bureaucracies in order to participate. You can participate today, right now, with nobody’s acquiescence but your own.

Here’s how. Simply declare to yourself that DrRich’s system is already in place, and that you are a participant, and that the only drugs available to you are the ones that have already been on the market five or 10 years or longer. (You can choose your own personal waiting period.) When you see your doctor, insist – demand – that he/she prescribe only older drugs. The price of most of these drugs will be set not by a government panel, but by WalMart (which for many common generic drugs has set a co-pay of $4). By declaring yourself as boycotting the brand new drugs that are being sold (unfairly, of course) at the highest premium, your personal drug costs will be remarkably reduced – just as if federal price controls were really in place.

Furthermore, since currently there really aren’t any federally-mandated price controls, drug companies are not yet constrained from investing in the development of new drugs. As long as this situation continues, there will be a reasonably steady stream of new drugs exiting that magic five- or 10-year boycott period you have set for yourself, and thus becoming available to you under your personal, voluntary price control plan.

And best of all, if you were suddenly to develop a medical condition that clearly calls for one of the brand new drugs, one that wouldn’t be available to you, either temporarily under DrRich’s Brilliant Proposal, or ever under a government-mandated price control system (because under the government plan the drug never would have been developed in the first place), you won’t need to wait five or 10 years (or forever) to get that drug. Since you are really only “pretending” there are drug price controls, the moment you decide that a system of price controls is no longer accruing to your own personal benefit, you can simply ask your doctor to write you a prescription.

Those clamoring for government price controls on drugs can have them today – this very afternoon. They can experience every aspect of price controls (both low prices and the unavailability of new drugs) in a way that places them in no worse a position (indeed, in a far better position) than if government price controls were actually in place, and without reducing the options for everyone else.

Indeed, considering the above, the only way it would make sense to continue demanding mandatory price controls would be if something other than reducing drug prices were the chief motivating aim.

DrRich leaves it as an exercise for his regular readers to determine what that motivating aim could possibly be.

A Brilliant Plan for Preserving Pharmaceutical Progress (Part 1)

DrRich | March 15th, 2011 - 1:16 pm

Podcast:

Evidence is building that our pharmaceutical industry is becoming diminished.

Recently, for instance. Pfizer announced a $2 billion cutback in R&D funding. One does not so massively trim R&D because of mere cyclical economic conditions; one only does this as part of a fundamental restructuring in business strategy.

Furthermore, the Wall Street Journal has noted that the big drug companies have entered a period of rapid acceleration in company mergers – but decidedly not in the manner of “creative destruction” that usually typifies such deals. Rather, it is being done in the manner of constructing a hardened shelter from which to hunker down for the coming nuclear winter, which they believe will be brought on by government-induced disincentives for innovation and growth.

Now, nobody needs to remind DrRich that drug companies are evil. DrRich has watched along with all of you as the pharmaceutical industry has fired off a never-ending parade of wasteful “me too” drugs, mainly aimed at keeping the joints, bowels, bladders and genitalia of aging baby boomers nicely lubed up, then running a steady stream (so to speak) of television commercials regarding same, which renders prime time TV far too embarrassing to watch with adolescents (especially if one is of a certain age).

Other evil behaviors abound. We can all see the drug companies systematically fail to publish research that makes their products look less than spectacular; routinely over-hype research that suggests a modicum of effectiveness; callously corrupt doctors with plastic, logo’d ink pens, and likewise corrupt legislators with huge campaign contributions and rides on private jets equipped with plenty of booze and bimbos (causing the indignant legislators to propose laws against logo’d ink pens); and most annoying of all, gouge American citizens with astronomical prices for their new drugs, while selling those same drugs to Canadians and other undeserving foreigners at greatly discounted prices.

But still, most objective observers must reluctantly admit that, every now and then, and most likely by mistake, a drug company will do something worthwhile. Here and there they manage to come up with a real breakthrough product that cures a disease, prolongs survival, restores functionality, or relieves suffering. That is, the pharmaceutical industry (in spite of all its evil behavior, which DrRich hastens to remind his readers he has formally acknowledged, as recently as in the prior paragraph), has done a lot of good over the years. Ask a parent whose child has survived acute leukemia, or the person who has survived a life-threatening infection, or the woman whose heart attack or stroke was aborted with clot-busting drugs, or – yes, this too -  the aging Lothario who once again can enjoy fine and durable erections upon demand. Such individuals, even if today they would join us in cheering on the demise of the pharmaceutical industry, have undeniably had their lives improved by drug companies.

So the question we must address before allowing the pharmaceutical industry to roll itself into a ball and hide in the shadows for the duration, is not, “What have you done for me lately?” (since their inventions will live on even if they do not), but rather, “What can you do for me tomorrow?”  Some of us in the boomer class, for instance, would like to think that current research in the areas of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson disease, kidney disease, heart attack, stroke, arthritis, osteoporosis and cancer will allow us to remain healthy and functional for a few extra years. And judging from the massive amounts of money American citizens of all ages donate to medical research of all types, it is apparently not held among the whole of the populace that medical progress has already gone far enough. Many of us would not be entirely pleased to stand pat right here. Many of us would like to see more improvements.

And here is where we run into a dilemma.

Everyone agrees that the cost of new prescription drugs has been kept obscenely high in the name of maximizing profits, and that the rising cost of drugs has been one of the prime drivers of healthcare inflation. Accordingly, we hear much talk of federal price controls, drug re-importation, more restrictive FDA policies, and other tools the Central Authority can employ to greatly restrict if not eliminate the huge profits made by the evil men (and, one must say it, women) who run these drug companies.

The problem, of course, is that if the potential for reaping large (obscene, if you insist) profits from new drugs is significantly curtailed, the hugely expensive process necessary for drug companies to bring new drugs to market will be proportionally curtailed. So if we place price controls on drugs, then we’d better be happy with the drugs we have today, because those are likely the only drugs we’ll have tomorrow.

There are some who would be quite satisfied with this outcome, and who would readily sacrifice pharmaceutical progress to keep costs down. Still, others of us appreciate the fact that every few years some truly earth-shattering drug will hit the market, and would think it a shame if progress on such drugs – even if they are but a few scattered islands in a sea of boutique pharmaceuticals – were to come to a halt, and even if for a good reason.

So here’s the question: Can we have our cake and eat it too? Can we bring down the price of the drugs we buy, while at the same time allowing at least some pharmaceutical advances to continue?

DrRich is delighted to reply, “Yes, we can!”

And he hereby humbly offers a plan to achieve this very end. It is a system of voluntary price controls. Of course, DrRich is talking here about us doing the volunteering – we the consumers – and not the drug companies.

DrRich’s Voluntary Price Control System works like this:

1) Each American will make a formal declaration of whether or not he/she wants to participate in a system of voluntary price controls on drugs.

2) Those who opt to participate will receive immediate, substantial discount pricing on all available prescription drugs, such pricing to be fixed by a sympathetic government agency whose makeup will include a wide diversity of representation, except, of course, that drug company representatives and their physician shills will be specifically banned.

3) “Available prescription drugs” under this price control system will be any drug whatsoever appearing in the U. S. Pharmacopoeia – that is, any legal prescription drug – as long as that drug has been on the market for at least five years.

4) Individuals who choose not to participate in the price control system will pay whatever price the drug companies feel like charging them for all their prescription drugs, but they will be allowed to receive any drug, as soon as it is approved for marketing, with no five-year waiting period for new drugs.

5) Individuals may switch their status (between participant and non-participant) only during one 30-day window every 2 years, determined by their month of birth.

Why DrRich’s Voluntary Price Control System is brilliant:

For drug companies it is the prospect of making large profits from new drugs, and only that prospect, that drives drug development. So as long as we want new drugs to be invented we’ve got to allow for the profit incentive to continue, as odious as we may believe that to be. The chief advantage of DrRich’s system is that it maintains at least some of the profit motive – to whatever extent citizens opt to be non-participants in the Voluntary Price Control System.

Given the growing hue and cry for price controls on drugs, one can confidently predict that only rich people will opt for this non-participant status. Therefore, a side benefit of this plan is that the rich – those who, after all, can afford it, and who, by virtue of the very fact that they are rich, owe much to the rest of us – will fund virtually all progress in drug therapy. Again, this is a burden they ought to feel obligated to bear, being rich and therefore obligated.

In contrast, under the universal, mandatory price control system of the kind that many Progressives seem to favor, the drugs available to our citizens would be essentially “frozen in time,” and henceforth there would be little or nothing new under the sun.

Of course, under DrRich’s Voluntary Price Control System, access to new drugs would be similarly restricted for participants. Yet this voluntary system would be far better for even those who choose to participate than would be a universal price control system – because under DrRich’s plan at least some drug progress would continue. And as new prescription drugs matured in the marketplace, and once their hidden dangers and side effects – during the 5-year “shakedown period” -  manifested themselves on the physiology of the wealthy (another great benefit of DrRich’s plan), these drugs would, eventually become available even to plan participants, and at a substantial discount to boot. And because only the rich will be harmed for the first few years, perhaps the FDA can relax its safety standards a bit, and pass a higher percentage of the effective drugs that are submitted for approval.

The bottom line: a five-year lag in gaining access to new drugs is vastly better than never having any new drugs at all, especially when the burden of paying for all that drug development, and the risk of becoming early adopters of new, relatively unproven, relatively risky pharmaceuticals, falls entirely on the undeserving rich.

So, while at first blush you may not like DrRich’s system – it being two-tiered and all – on further objective and logical reflection DrRich is confident you will see that it is far better for everyone than the universal system of price controls which many now want.

DrRich suggests you contact your legislators immediately to recommend to them this brilliant new plan, before it is too late. In making your case, you might remind your dedicated congresspersons that a robust pharmaceutical industry is inherently good for America, what with all the campaign contributions, airplane rides, booze, bimbos, etc. it provides to grease the wheels of American democracy.

Should All Young Athletes Be Screened For Heart Disease?

DrRich | March 10th, 2011 - 2:41 pm

Podcast:

In the wake of another sudden death in a another young athlete, the question arises – as it does after each of these tragic events – whether all young athletes should be screened for occult heart disease before participating in sports. It appears, for instance, that 16-year-old Wes Leonard had an underlying heart condition which likely could have been identified with a simple echocardiogram.

The question is controversial, and accordingly, even the professionals disagree. The European Society of Cardiology and the International Olympic Committee, for instance, recommend screening every young athlete with electrocardiograms (ECGs), and if the ECG is abnormal, following with an echocardiogram. But the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology do not recommend screening ECGs, and advocate only a medical history and physical examination – which will notoriously miss many if not most of the occult cardiac conditions that produce sudden death in young athletes.

To DrRich, of course, sorting through the controversy is mere child’s play. Allow him to explain.

The problem in answering this question stems solely from our failure to clearly identify what we wish to accomplish in establishing such a screening policy.

Those who advocate widespread screening stress the horrific nature of sudden death in vital young people.  They can fully articulate their argument simply by pointing to the awful video of young Wes scoring the winning basket to cap off a perfect season, then moments later, collapsing and dying. The scene is just too gut-wrenching to watch. Clearly, we should all want to do whatever we can to prevent such scenes from ever happening again. If Mr. Leonard had had an echocardiogram, it is likely that this tragedy might not have happened – and that should be argument enough for a widespread screening program.

For a good articulation of the alternative point of view we can begin by turning to DrRich’s colleague, Dr. Wes. Wes points to the experience of a Detroit area hospital that screened 5200 young student athletes, and identified three who had cardiac abnormalities which placed them at risk for sudden death. In finding these three individuals, the screeners not only performed ECGs on all 5200 students, but also performed nearly 1000 echocardiograms on students with suspicious ECGs, and in the process identified at least 30 students who needed even further evaluation (and possibly treatment). Evaluating these other, possibly false-positive cases not only cost money, but also subjected these young students to medical risk. Dr. Wes estimates the overall cost of this screening process at well over $600,000, and Wes is being very conservative in his assumptions.  As a result of this well-intentioned effort, it appears that several kids were told not to participate in sports any more; it is not clear that any lives were actually saved.

As it happens, a report from Israel this week in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology substantiates Wes’ suspicions. According to this study, the national mandatory cardiac screening program for athletes, instituted in Israel in 1997, seems not to have reduced the incidence of sudden death in young athletes at all. The incidence of sudden death was 2.6 per 100,000 athlete-years both before and after the mandatory screening was instituted.

Does this mean that screening does not save any lives? No. It is certain that some individuals are spared sudden death thanks to this aggressive type of screening program – just not enough to affect the overall statistics. This result illustrates that when you are dealing with an event that has such a low incidence of occurrence, it is extraordinarily difficult to prove that your intervention is producing a statistically significant reduction in that incidence.

Furthermore, by definition, screening programs of any type (whether it’s screening for sudden death in athletes or screening for breast cancer) don’t change outcomes. All they do is identify people at some degree of increased risk. To change the outcomes, you have to find a way of treating the at-risk individuals you’ve identified with some process that is sufficiently effective, that itself does not worsen outcomes, and that the at-risk individual is willing and able to employ.

In the case of screening young athletes, to effect a reduction in the rate of sudden death you must either convince the young person to give up sports (not only organized sports, but all athletic activities), or find a way to make the underlying heart condition go away. DrRich understands that some of his readers might not have experience in trying to convince dedicated young athletes to stop what they’re doing and become bookkeepers, but the fact is that informing them of the risk is not always perfectly effective in changing their behavior. And while most of the cardiac conditions that produce a risk of sudden death in these young people can be managed to one degree or another, they generally are not “cured” or mitigated to the extent that athletic activity becomes risk-free.

So, while occasional individuals are likely to benefit substantially from these screening programs, if you look at it from the collective point of view these programs appear to do little or no measurable overall good, despite the high cost.

So this brings us back to the original question – should routine cardiac screening of athletes be performed? It seems clear, to DrRich at least, that the answer is: It depends on what you are trying to accomplish.

If you are asking the question from a collective viewpoint, wherein “society” will be paying the bills for the screening procedures, and thus will not have that money any longer to spend on other healthcare services that might yield a more substantial result, it is obvious (since there is no measurable benefit but a high cost) that such screening should not be done.

But if you are one of the individuals – or the loved one of such an individual – who is concerned about having a readily identifiable cardiac condition which places you at risk for sudden death, and would be willing to change your behavior if you are found to be at high risk, it would be entirely reasonable for you to want cardiac screening, and furthermore you should have every opportunity to avail yourself of that screening.

So what we have here is that very common circumstance, which modern medical ethicists insist never ever occur, wherein what is clearly best for an individual is equally clearly not best for the collective.

This situation, DrRich thinks, is analogous to the situation with smoke detectors. Smoke detectors clearly save lives here and there – we have all heard anecdotes about a family being aroused to safety by a smoke detector. But proving that the overall incidence of death from fire has been significantly reduced in the era of smoke detectors seems difficult if not impossible. And if it were society’s job to buy smoke detectors for every individual, then society would – rightly – determine that the cost is not worth the insubstantial benefit.

Yet, everybody has smoke detectors. Why?

Simply, everybody has smoke detectors because it is NOT society’s job to pay for them. The individual does. And the individual does not care that smoke detectors cost $1.2 million per life saved. They only care that the life saved, potentially, is theirs, and that owning the smoke detector that might just save their life does not cost them $1.2 million, it only costs them $19.99.

The issue of screening young athletes would be resolved if we made screening ECGs readily available to individuals for $10 at Walmart, and a follow-up echo (if needed) for $50, also at Walmart. Then individuals who decide that they wanted to know if they’re at risk for sudden death could do their own cost-benefit analysis, and if the potential benefit is worth a few dollars to them, they could buy the screening for themselves.

So screening young athletes for underlying cardiac conditions seems like a pretty good idea, just like smoke detectors seem like a pretty good idea. Where we go wrong is by making such screening a medical service, and therefore making it the responsibility of the collective to pay for it (if indeed it is to be purchased), and furthermore, making it next to impossible – and soon illegal – for individuals to pay for it themselves.

From the collective point of view, paying for the screening of young athletes makes no more sense than would collectively purchasing smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, fog lights, back-up cameras, home security systems, and a host of other personal safety-enhancers that people will happily pay for themselves, but which would be ridiculously wasteful to pay for collectively.

Which just goes to illustrate a general rule: The more stuff we collectivize, the less stuff we’ll have.

Once Again, Insurance Companies Attempt to Save Obamacare

DrRich | March 7th, 2011 - 7:36 am

Podcast:

Health insurance premiums all over the country are rising at rates that, only a year ago, were rare, and when they occurred, provoked angry and threatening letters from Secretary Sebelius. Increases in premiums of 40% are not uncommon this year, and businesses across the land (which otherwise might be inclined to do their patriotic duty, as defined by President Obama, and hire some people) are suffering because of it.

Republicans, of course, already smell blood in the water. A federal judge has declared Obamacare – the entire law – to be unconstitutional, and has given the administration only a limited time to apply for a stay of his ruling. President Obama himself seems to be faltering on the individual mandate, telling states that they can forgo this mandate – if, that is, they can come up with an alternative plan that does everything the President claims Obamacare is supposed to do.*

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*States can’t really accomplish this, of course, so the President’s offer is empty. DrRich thinks that he is advancing this idea in order to make the argument, in court, that the mandate is not really a mandate, since, as he’s just made plain, it’s merely an option.
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And now, Republicans gleefully point out, thanks to Obamacare health insurance premiums are rising faster than they ever have before, at rates that threaten to make our jobless recovery remain jobless forever. “Look at the damage Obamacare is already doing,” they’re telling us, “and most of its destructive provisions don’t even kick in for three more years.” The increase in insurance premiums will soon be felt – directly or indirectly – by every American who has health insurance. It will be a huge boost, Republicans think, to their efforts to get rid of Obamacare.

In an action that will undoubtedly surprise those many experts who persist in believing that Obamacare represents a major defeat for insurance companies (and who therefore must live in a perpetual state of surprise regarding many things about the healthcare system), the insurance industry is vociferously denying that their current premium increases have anything to do with Obamacare. According to the New York Times, for instance, Vincent Capozzi, an executive at Harvard Pilgrim, insists that only 1% of the premium increase this year is caused by Omabamacare (mainly its requirement for free coverage of preventive services). The insurance industry, according to the Times, maintains that “premiums are rising primarily because of the underlying cost of care and a growing demand for it.” That is, the cost of healthcare is accelerating thanks largely to our aging population and the adoption of expensive new technologies.

Whatever it is that’s making premiums go up, the industry asserts, it’s not Obamacare.

To understand what’s really going on here, DrRich asks you, Dear Reader, to put yourself in the place of a health insurance CEO in early 2011. After a long, hard fight, in which you had to debase yourself in public several times (in order to play your assigned role of Villain in the Obamacare set-piece), you are now a mere 33 months from Nirvana. In January, 2014, the individual mandate kicks in, and you will reap your reward of tens of millions of new subscribers, subsidized by the government, and thus you will have your long-coveted One Last Windfall. A year or two after that, once you have blown through this last windfall, you will become a public utility. It is not a glorious ending to your once-arrogant industry, but it is far better than the oblivion which otherwise would be your fate.

Common wisdom (such as that employed by most of those perpetually nonplussed “experts” to whom DrRich previously referred) might suggest that your best course would to be to lie low for the next 33 months, to remain as unobtrusive as possible so as not to upset the apple cart, in a word, to keep any increases in your premiums down to an unremarkable rate. But you are smarter than that. You understand that while instituting outlandish premium increases at this juncture is indeed risky, you’re still walking a tightrope, and keeping your premium increases to a more reasonable level is equally risky.

There are two good reasons for you to raise your rates right now to a truly stunning degree. First, of course, you only have three more years to control your own insurance premiums. Once Obamacare is fully actuated, and the mandates are applied, stringent controls will be placed forevermore on your ability to raise your premiums. So naturally, you need to establish as high a baseline as possible during these next three years.

Perhaps more importantly, you need to place a shot across the bow of the Republicans. You need to let them know that if they manage to repeal Obamacare, either legislatively or through the courts, they will have a tiger by the tail. “Just look at us!” you are saying. “Today, before Obamacare even kicks in to any appreciable degree, we are forced to engage in these truly ridiculous premium increases. Increases like this will drive subscribers from our rolls, and will bring the wrath of the administration down upon our heads, but we do it nevertheless, as we have no choice. Look upon us, Republicans! If you succeed in repealing Obamacare, just look at what you will inherit! The alternatives you propose to Obamacare all hinge on a robust health insurance industry, but we are not robust – we are decrepit, we are dying. Our business model is so obviously broken that today we are behaving suicidally. We, your presumed partners in your post-Obamacare healthcare system, are the living dead. So think twice, Republicans, before you go any further!”

Just how well the insurance companies will succeed by this method in slowing the Republicans’ efforts to overturn Obamacare, one cannot say. Probably not much. But inasmuch as Obamacare is utterly necessary for the survival of the insurance industry, if this method fails DrRich is confident they will come up with something better.

Further Observations On Lying Doctors

DrRich | March 1st, 2011 - 8:26 am

Podcast:

In his last post, DrRich analyzed whether the young Wisconsin doctors who stood out on street corners proudly offering fake “sick excuses” to protesting teachers were engaging in an act of civil disobedience. DrRich respectfully kept an open mind on this question, but after careful deliberation concluded that it is very unlikely that their actions constituted classic civil disobedience as espoused by Thoreau or Gandhi.

Instead, these doctors were, in a professional capacity, lying. They did not lie in any truly malicious way, however. They lied because they have been trained to believe in a higher cause than mere professional ethics, namely, the cause of social justice. They lied in full confidence that telling lies to advance such a noble cause is a natural duty of the medical profession. They never expected to be criticized for it (except perhaps by Rush Limbaugh and sundry teabaggers and the like), and they almost certainly will be stunned into indignant incoherence if they end up actually receiving the full punishments their actions allow.

But what really interests DrRich is the near-perfect silence we have seen from the mainstream news media regarding this sad episode. While it’s easy to find stories about the phony sick excuses all over Fox News and conservative websites, major outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, CBS and NBC – sources one might expect to express at least some sympathy for these doctors and their work to advance a just cause – have reported next to nothing about it. When a left-leaning mainstream outlet does report on the episode (for instance, this article appearing in the Atlantic), rather than expressing any support for the Wisconsin doctors, they express at least mild dismay. It seems plain to DrRich that the mainstream media wish the whole thing hadn’t happened, and that perhaps their silence might help it go away as soon as possible.

So here we’ve got a small cadre of youthful and idealistic physicians, behaving in a manner entirely consistent with what they’ve just learned during their medical training, and not only are they facing formal investigations and potential punishment, but also the very people and organizations whom they were surely counting on for support have retreated into an embarrassed silence, or worse, criticism.

What gives?

What gives, DrRich thinks, is the great discomfort being experienced by left-leaning people and organizations by such a blatant, public display of the New Medical Ethics and its ultimate implications. That is, while they don’t actually object to the fact that the doctors were committing professional fraud for the advancement of what passes for social justice, they wish they hadn’t done it out in the open.  Calling attention to the fact that doctors will lie so readily might cause folks to want to take a closer look.

And since lying doctors are part of the plan, such scrutiny might turn out to be inconvenient. You see, Dear Reader, whether the payer is a private insurance company or the Feds, a principle mechanism of healthcare cost-cutting is to coerce the doctors to ration healthcare at the bedside. As a result, many more times per day than one would care to think, doctors are being placed into the unfortunate position of deciding, not whether to lie, but to whom to lie. Do they lie to the insurance companies and Medicare (in order to give one of their patients a needed medical service which, according to insurance company rules or government “guidelines,” they may not have)? Or instead, do they lie to the patient (usually committing a lie of omission, in which they fail to tell patients about some needed and available but forbidden medical service)?

The answer is – both. DrRich, as usual, backs up his outlandish generalizations with data:

Item 1: In a survey conducted by the American Medical Association’s Institute for Ethics, published in the April 12, 2000, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, 39% of American doctors admitted that they sometimes or very often manipulated reports to their patients’ health plans so their patients might gain coverage for needed medical care. These manipulations included exaggerating the severity of the patients’ condition, changing the billing diagnosis, or reporting symptoms the patient did not have. And 72% admitted using one of these tactics at least once in the past year. More than a quarter said that gaming the system was necessary in order to provide high quality care to their patients, and 15% asserted that it was ethical.

This survey elicited a deluge of criticism against the cheating doctors. Ethicists called for doctors to stop applying “insular” ethical norms and to begin using the norms that professional ethicists have long established against lying to health plans (which are busily engaged in covert rationing). Similarly, the AMA and the American College of Physicians have published strongly worded statements opposing the manipulation of reimbursement rules. And the federal government has made such “misstatements” to health plans a federal crime, punishable by huge fines, jail terms, and loss of license.

That doctors continue to do this anyway, DrRich has heard some physicians express, reflects that many physicians consider lying to a health plan to be a sin on par with the sin of lying to the SS when they knock on the door to ask if you are hiding a family of Jews in the attic.

Item 2: Another survey, published in the July/August, 2003, issue of Health Affairs, reported that nearly 33% of American doctors admit that they routinely withhold from their patients pertinent information about optimal medical treatments, because they suspect the patients’ health plans won’t cover those treatments. In response to this survey, the American Association of Health Plans, the group representing the very organizations that were pulling out all the stops to make sure that doctors do exactly what this study confirms they are doing, expressed shock at these results, and told the AMA News at the time that AAHP officials “actually find it difficult to believe that that’s going on.” (They found it difficult, no doubt, because they observed just how rapidly spending was still accelerating.) Meanwhile, the authors of the study could only conclude (with seeming surprise) that doctors are “rationing by omission” on their own volition.

These two surveys reveal some of the confusion and frustration being felt by doctors as a result of coercion to withhold medical services, and the guidance they’re getting from their professional organizations as to what to do about those rules. How are they to square those rules and that guidance with their time-honored obligation to always do what’s best for their patients?

So what’s a doctor to do when a patient needs a treatment but they know the health plan won’t pay for it? There are only three choices:

1) Tell the health plan whatever you must in order to get the needed treatment for the patient.
2) Don’t tell the patient about the treatment since they can’t have it anyway.
3) Tell the patient about the treatment they need, and then tell them they can’t have it.

The most truthful thing would be to choose Door Number 3. After all, a patient has a right to know what medical treatment he needs, whether or not he’s allowed to have it. Informing a patient that his insurance won’t pay for the needed treatment gives him useful information. It lets him know that his health plan is not adequate to his needs and gives him an opportunity to respond appropriately to that information. For instance, a patient might appeal to the health plan directly, seek intervention by his local Congressperson, or ask his employer (who is the health plan’s true customer), to intervene on his behalf. He can even raise the funds to pay for the therapy himself (and if he is not a Medicare patient perhaps it will be legal for him to purchase it).

What patients actually do when doctors choose Door Number 3, however, is to beg, demand, threaten, implore, and plead for the doctor to do something to fix things, since after all, it is the doctor who started the problem in the first place by insisting that this forbidden therapy is the only one that will do. So, the moment doctors choose Door 3, they are placed under incredible pressure to go back and choose again – Door Number 1, their patients are communicating to them, is actually the correct choice. This, plus wanting to avoid all the anguish and drama that follows telling the truth, leads doctors who are inclined to lie to health plans (and thus risk angering the entities that determine their ability to make a living, not to mention committing a federal crime), to choose Door Number 1 in the first place. If doctors are not inclined to risk their livelihoods and freedom by deceiving health plans, they will probably simply default to Door Number 2 – rationing by omission.

The above two items reflect the proportion of doctors willing to admit in a survey which group they routinely lie to – health plans or patients. Most of the other doctors, one suspects, would just rather not say.

Item 3: In 2000, the AMA filed an amicus brief with the Illinois Supreme Court on behalf of a Dr. Portes, asserting that doctors have no duty to inform their patients when health plans have given them financial incentives to withhold medical care. Apparently a patient of Dr. Portes died of a heart attack shortly after the doctor allegedly refused to refer him to a cardiologist. As it turned out, the patient’s health plan apparently had agreed to pay the doctor’s medical group 60% of any funds not used on referrals to specialists. A lower court in Illinois had found that Portes had a duty to disclose this financial relationship to patients, since it might clearly impact their interpretation of his medical recommendations, and Portes appealed. In this appeal, the AMA sided with the doctor.

The AMA said in its amicus brief that the obligation imposed on doctors by the lower court amounted to an “insurmountable burden,” since it was hard for doctors to keep track of all the sundry ways that health plans might induce them to behave in this way or that way, and besides, the need to disclose would impinge on the doctor’s valuable time with the patient and therefore disrupt the doctor-patient relationship. Interestingly, the AMA’s own Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs (CEJA) had previously written that, “physicians must assure disclosure of any financial inducements that may tend to limit the diagnostic and therapeutic alternatives that are offered to patients….” In explaining why its amicus brief differed from the opinion of its own Ethics Council, the AMA explained that its CEJA standard was just an ethical one and not a legal one.

So what we have here is: a) A health plan induces doctors to withhold medical care; b) a doctor acts on that inducement; c) as a result, predictable harm comes to a patient; d) after which, the doctor and the AMA declare that he shouldn’t have to inform patients of all relevant information because; e) to do so would harm the doctor-patient relationship.

This is all just too precious for words.

One can easily see how very confusing it has become for doctors to decide just when they must lie, and whom they must lie to.

Obviously, doctors are now in a position where, just to get by, it behooves them to lie repeatedly to either patients, or to insurers, or both. Their ethical obligation to always be straight with the patient has been turned on its head by the new ethical obligation to do what’s right for the collective.  In more cases than doctors – or the insurance companies and government health plans which (between them) “own” the doctors lock, stock and barrel – would like to admit, lying has become a way of life for many in the medical profession. It is not something they’re proud of (well, at least the older ones aren’t proud of it). It’s just something that is necessary for survival. Most doctors, to their credit, hate this. It’s one of the reasons so many doctors are so frustrated with their lot.

In any case, this is not a truth to which anyone would like to call the public’s attention. So for those callow youths in Wisconsin to don their white coats and go out to the street corners, in front of the cameras, to commit lie, after lie, after lie, and to do so with such obvious pride, and such obvious confidence that what they were doing was not only right but was expected of them as members of the medical profession – that indeed, they could do no less – was to call unwanted attention to what has become an unfortunate truth about our healthcare system and what it has done to our doctors.

No wonder the mainstream media largely ignored this embarrassing episode. Fortunately, the public (despite the best efforts of Fox News) still has not realized how generalized the problem is. The sooner Fox stops fulminating about it and moves on to whatever the next left-wing travesty turns out to be, the better. And perhaps no permanent harm will yet be done to the public’s perception of the truthiness of the medical profession.