Whatever Happened To Managed Care?

DrRich | January 24th, 2012 - 7:18 am

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In his last post, DrRich demonstrated that our modern American healthcare system proposes to treat individual patients as if they were merely members of a herd of cattle or sheep.*

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*Doctors, on the other hand, will be treated like the border collies who – responding instantly to the various complex whistles, hand gestures, and occasional (less complex) kicks administered by their masters – will keep the herd nicely organized into manageable clusters.
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But we should take note that this systematic, official devaluation of individual worth was not produced out of whole cloth by the Obamacare legislation (nor would it be completely overturned by its repeal). Rather, it has been in the works for several decades, the natural, evolutionary result of a philosophy of healthcare that was all the rage until just a few years ago, but which – mysteriously – we seem to hear very little about these days. DrRich speaks, of course, of managed care.

Like many of the current travesties taking place within our healthcare system, managed care began with a pretty reasonable idea; namely, to apply certain management principles to the healthcare system that have been used successfully in other industries, thereby injecting logic, organization, and accountability to what had been a bastion of disorganization and inefficiency.

The unifying idea behind managed care boils down to one word: standardization. Standardization is virtually a synonym for industry. In industry, standardization is the primary means of optimizing the two essential factors in any industrial process: quality and cost.

This proposition can be stated formally as the Axiom of Industry:

The standardization of any industrial process will improve the outcome and reduce the cost of that process.

If you had a widget-making factory, you would break your manufacturing process down into discrete, reproducible, repeatable steps and then optimize the procedures and processes necessary to accomplish each step. To further improve the quality of your finished product (or to reduce the cost of producing it), you would reexamine the steps, one by one, seeking opportunities for improvement. You would need to understand the process thoroughly, and you would need to collect data about how well the process works. But with the right information, you could almost certainly identify a few minor changes to improve the manufacturing process. The beauty in such a system is that you have only to make one change — to the process itself — and every widget that comes off the line after you make that change will be improved.

So standardization is good. It leads to higher quality and lower cost. Conversely, variation is bad. It reduces quality and raises cost.

Proponents of managed care argued that standardization should be just as useful in healthcare as it is in other industries. As medical care has traditionally been individualized, highly variable, and without any semblance of standardization, there must be a huge opportunity to improve the processes of care and to make them both cheaper and more effective. There is obvious merit in such an idea.

Perhaps the most direct, and the most successful, application of managed care practices to modern medicine was the adoption of “critical pathways” in the 1990s.

Critical pathways are blueprints for delivering standardized care to patients with specific medical problems. Consider a critical pathway for hip replacement surgery. The critical pathway is a specific schedule of which services are to be provided for the patient and when, from the date of hospital admission until the date of discharge (which is, of course, predetermined). Checklists are created for which laboratory tests to order and when, which medications to administer at which times, and which specific complications to check for. Everyone involved in the patient’s care has their own relevant checklist. From the moment of the patient’s hospital admission, the critical pathway predetermines when to take vital signs, when to get the patient out of bed, when to begin physical therapy, and when to provide standardized instructions to the patient before discharge. Every vital service is included, and all extraneous services are omitted.

A “case manager” monitors the care each patient receives under the critical pathway. Every deviation from the prescribed procedure is tabulated as a “variance.” Variances are tracked not to decide who to punish, but to identify areas of the process that need improvement. If too many instances of a particular variance are seen in a critical pathway, then either medical personnel need to be retrained on following the pathway appropriately, or the pathway itself should be changed to reflect more realistic expectations.

Critical pathways, in fact, proved to be extremely helpful in many cases. But of course there were some drawbacks and limitations.

First, critical pathways are only useful for delivering medical services, like elective surgery, in which the process of care can be broken down into a predictable series of discrete, reproducible tasks that generate reproducible results. In other words, industrial management tools only work when the process of care is similar to the process of making widgets.

Critical pathways are almost worthless when you are dealing with medical illnesses in which neither the diagnostic procedures nor the treatments that may be employed can be predicted or, therefore, standardized. For instance, it has proven impossible to develop workable critical pathways to manage patients with congestive heart failure (CHF). Knowing only that a patient has been admitted to the hospital with CHF tells you nothing about whether that patient will require cardiac catheterization, a stent, bypass surgery, valve replacement, a pacemaker, an implantable defibrillator, a mechanical ventilator, a prolonged and complicated stay in the intensive care unit, or just a couple of diuretic tablets and overnight observation. No two patients with CHF are alike; and there is no such thing as a standard patient. Unfortunately, most non-surgical medical services fall into this category.

Second, it turns out that when you are taking care of patients, the Axiom of Industry simply does not hold true. Standardization does not always improve outcomes and reduce cost. The reason for this is: Patients are not widgets. And while in theory everyone seems to agree that patients are not widgets, the implications of this fact appear to escape many of our public health experts.

If you’re a widget maker, deciding between two manufacturing processes is a matter of economics. Nobody expects you to consider the widget itself. The outcome by which you are judged has nothing to do with how many individual widgets get discarded during the manufacturing process or even the quality of the widgets that pass final inspection. Instead, it’s the bottom line: how much profit you make in relation to whatever level of quality you put into the widget. So the quality of the widget is not necessarily maximized, instead it’s optimized, tuned to the optimal quality/cost ratio as determined by the market forces of the day. This is why, for a widget maker, the axiom holds: standardization, by rooting out variability, reduces the cost of making the widget (whatever quality level you choose). This automatically improves the outcome, because the outcome the manufacturer cares about is overall profit.

If instead of running a widget company you’re practicing medicine, the calculus is supposed to be different. You’re supposed to be more interested in how things turn out for individual patients than you are in the bottom line. So an expensive process that yields a better clinical outcome is one most people (patients, at least) would expect you to use, even though it only gets you a healthier patient and doesn’t help your bottom line. A process that increases patients’ mortality rate by five percent is one you should disregard, even if it is substantially cheaper than the alternative. The clinical outcomes experienced by patients — the measure of success you’re supposed to be concerned about — may move in the same direction as costs, or in the opposite direction. But because you’re dealing with patients instead of widgets, the Axiom of Industry doesn’t hold – and outcomes and costs do not always move in the same direction.

So the push to strictly apply managed care techniques to healthcare created a dilemma for doctors. Doctors – the widget-makers in this scheme – tried diligently to apply standardized procedures such as critical pathways to the care of their patients. But the more un-widget-like the medical services they were providing, the more often they were compelled to make “exceptions” to the prescribed standardized process, in order to best serve their individual patients.

Such exceptions are a legitimate and valued aspect of any industrial process. In the widget-making world, exceptions reveal that the process needs to be tweaked to make it more usable. Exceptions lead to further iterations and refinements of the process, and a steadily improving result. Exceptions are what allow these industrial processes to become self-correcting.

But in the messy world of patient care, the exceptions revealed instead that industry-like standardization only works for a minority of medical services. No amount of tweaking can standardize the management of complex patients with complex combinations of illnesses.

It did not take long for doctors to simply stop attempting to use critical pathways for non-widget-like medical services. They did this because they actually cared about what happened to the individual widgets in their charge.

Similarly, it did not take long for our public health experts to recognize the same problem. From their standpoint, however, the problem was not that patients are not widgets. The problem was that the doctors on the scene cared about the widgets. Further analysis revealed that the root of the problem was that classic managed care techniques were administered locally, and therefore the misguided loyalties of the doctors on the scene were allowed to rule the day.

The reason we don’t hear about managed care anymore is that such terminology refers back to those locally-administered, iterative, self-correcting, continuously improving industrial processes. And our public health experts have now realized that this model does not work, and must no longer be encouraged.

The solution to the widget-makers dilemma is to remove the dilemma. Since a dilemma requires one to choose between two bad options, any dilemma can be resolved by simply removing the choice. And this is what has now been accomplished.

There is no dilemma for physicians any more. Clinical decisions are now to be made centrally, through the “guidelines,” handed down by GOD panels (Government Operatives Deliberating), which will prescribe precisely who is to get what, when and how. Doctors are now enjoined, both by law and by the new medical ethics, to follow those “guidelines” to the letter, without exception.

Whoever thought that some day we would fondly recall managed care as the good old days?

Herd Medicine

DrRich | January 16th, 2012 - 8:27 am

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Farmer Emanuel has 10,000 head of cattle in his beef herd. He prides himself in staying up to date on all the latest methods, so he knows that adding a certain antibiotic to their feed will reduce the incidence of intestinal infections, and will increase his annual overall yield, measured in pounds of beef, by 7%. Unfortunately, he also knows that roughly one in 200 of his cattle will experience a likely fatal allergic reaction to the antibiotic. It is possible to do a blood test to determine which specific members of the herd are allergic, but the test itself is quite expensive, and the logistics of separating the allergic cattle at feeding time and providing them with their own antibiotic-free feed would be expensive enough to entirely wipe out his savings.

Obviously, the cost-effective solution is for Farmer Emanuel to give antibiotic-treated feed to all his cattle, accepting the losses of a few head as the necessary price for an impressive overall gain in productivity. He would be an ineffective and incompetent rancher indeed if he were to pass up this opportunity to achieve cost-effectiveness.

For the last two posts (here and here) DrRich has had some fun in deconstructing the Sixth edition of the American College of Physicians’ Ethics Manual, and especially in demonstrating how the ACP leadership has managed to wrap its collective tongue around the axle defending its unfortunate choice of the word “parsimonious” to describe the ideal mind-set of the modern physician. In the present post, DrRich will discuss a somewhat more serious aspect of the document, namely, what this re-statement of medical ethics really means, and why it was produced.

The Sixth Edition of the ACP Ethics Manual elevates the term “cost-effectiveness” to an ethical mandate; and furthermore, it locks this often ambiguous term down into its apparently final form, and in so doing formally launches the era of herd medicine.

Until now, efforts at covert healthcare rationing have been aimed mainly at coercing individual physicians to surreptitiously withhold certain medical services at the bedside. Mainly, doctors were to accomplish this withholding of care simply by failing to inform patients of all their medical options, or perhaps more commonly, by painting certain medical options in an unfavorable light (so that, while they were, in fact, offered, they were offered in such a way that the patient would almost certainly turn them down).

What the Central Authority has learned, over the past 15 years, is that this style of covert rationing simply doesn’t work. It still leaves medical decisions up to individual doctors and individual patients, who have apparently continued to act against the best interests of the collective despite all the coercion that has been brought to bear. The end result has been unremittingly bad – healthcare costs have continued to rise at multiples of both the GDP and the general level of inflation. It has become obvious to the Central Authority that, in order to set the matter right, all healthcare decisions will have to be made centrally, from the top down.

Accordingly, during the first decade of the New Millennium we saw a steadily rising emphasis on “guidelines.” Guidelines are not intrinsically a bad thing, and indeed, when properly used can be greatly beneficial to both doctors and patients. But in a relatively gradual process, guidelines came to be spoken of as more than merely guidelines – that is, as more than helpful considerations which doctors ought to take into serious account when deciding what’s best for an individual patient. Instead, guidelines have become directives for definite action.

In 2010, the Obamacare legislation took the concept of “guidelines” a giant step forward, and essentially rendered it a crime for doctors to “violate” guidelines, which are now to be handed down by federally-appointed panels of experts. As if to emphasize this new paradigm, the Department of Justice a year ago began a secretive investigation of an unknown number of electrophysiologists, for alleged violations of guidelines for using implantable defibrillators. We do not know if any criminal charges will be brought (and because the particular aspect of those guidelines which doctors have allegedly violated were based on rather flimsy evidence, perhaps not), but during the past year American electrophysiologists have certainly been intimidated into reducing the number of implantable defibrillators they offer to their patients. (And so, whether any charges come out of this “investigation” or not, mission accomplished!)

Dear Reader, how do you suppose some of these electrophysiologists must feel, after failing to offer implantable defibrillators to their patients who they believe have clear-cut indications for the device, knowing that by failing to offer this treatment their patients may very well (and very predictably) suffer sudden death? At least a few doctors, DrRich warrants, are probably feeling very guilty about it.

And here is the real import of the updated Ethics Manual. It aims to assuage the guilty conscience of physicians who follow handed-down guidelines to the letter, even against their better medical judgment, instead of tailoring the application of those guidelines to the benefit of their individual patients (which, DrRich feels compelled to remind his readers, was the original but now archaic intention of “guidelines.”) Doctors who had been feeling badly because they were preserving their own skin at the cost of their patients’ can now take heart. They are not behaving selfishly at all, the New Ethics assures them. They are in fact acting for the greater good of the collective – and therefore they are obeying a higher principle of ethics than those outmoded principles mentioned in the Hippocratic Oath.

While herd medicine was made the law of the land by Obamacare, until now it was still technically unethical. The ACP’s new Ethics Manual repairs that uncomfortable discrepancy, using, of course, what has become the traditional methodology. (That is, when it becomes  difficult or impossible to adhere to ethical precepts, change them.)

For those who missed it, the relevant passage of the new Ethics Manual states that physicians have an ethical obligation to “practice effective and efficient health care and to use health care resources responsibly. Parsimonious care that utilizes the most efficient means to diagnose a condition and treat a patient respects the need to use resources wisely. . .”

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel offers the midrash on this passage, in his editorial which accompanied the publication of the new Ethics Manual. Emanuel rhapsodizes that it is “truly remarkable” that an “authoritative medical body [is] using such words as ‘efficient’ and ‘parsimonious’ – and without ‘qualifications’ – to describe the ideal physician’s practices.” Dr. Emanuel notes further that to fulfill this new ethical obligation toward efficiency and parsimony, the Ethics Manual specifies that doctors should act based on “the best available evidence in the biomedical literature, including data on the cost-effectiveness of different clinical approaches.”

And that, readers, is the key, for it specifies how doctors, in pursuit of the new ethics, are to act. They are to follow the “best evidence,” in particular, the best evidence on “cost-effectiveness.”

In the past, when doctors were exhorted to practice cost-effectively, the term was used as a general admonition to not be wasteful. But here, in this formal ethics document (as in the Obamacare legislation), it has now become a term of art. “Cost-effective” now has a specific meaning. It is cost-effectiveness as determined by “best evidence,” and since any body of clinical evidence will inevitably have conflicts, and since doctors cannot be expected (or permitted) to determine for themselves which evidence is best in every clinical situation, Dr. Emanuel is talking about the “best evidence” which will be determined by one of his panels of experts.

Therefore, the ACP’s new Ethics Manual stipulates that it is now an ethical obligation for doctors to follow expert-produced guidelines to the letter.

But in the real world, there is no single “best” determination of cost-effectiveness. This is because any determination of cost-effectiveness depends entirely on who is making the assessment. For instance, when DrRich was deciding whether to buy a smoke alarm to protect himself and his family from dying in a fiery inferno, he judged it to be cost-effective to do so. For a mere $20, DrRich was able to protect himself and his family from death or injury, in the unlikely event that a fire should occur in his home. A bargain to be sure, and at least by DrRich’s lights it was highly cost-effective (if only for the peace of mind it brought him).

But if the purchase of fire alarms was covered under Obamacare (and why should it not be, since fire-related injury is certainly a medical problem, which produces a burden for our healthcare system), then the cost effectiveness calculation would look very different. For while fire alarms indeed save lives, they do so at an exorbitant cost – likely more than a million dollars per life-year saved. Clearly, from the perspective of the collective, the purchase of fire alarms ought to be made illegal, and owning one a crime.

And the only reason it’s not a crime is that such Fire Protection Appliances have not (yet) been designated as being subject to the rulings of the US Preventive Services Task Force.

It is axiomatic, therefore, that the assessment of the cost-effectiveness of any product or service will depend on which party of interest is doing the assessment. And often, what might very well be considered cost-effective by an individual might just as well be considered criminally cost-ineffective by the collective.

And so we have the situation, under both Obamacare and now under the new code of medical ethics, in which doctors are obligated to practice medicine cost-effectively, and the kind of cost-effectiveness being referred to is decidedly NOT the kind that applies to individuals. It’s the kind that applies to the collective.

Those assembling the GOD panels (Government Operatives Deliberating) – the panels which will determine the most cost-effective way to practice medicine, and which will distribute rules down to American physicians for deciding who gets what, when and how – tell us that what’s good for the herd is certainly what’s good for the individual. Indeed, this is the precise message of Dr. Hood, president of the ACP.

For the majority of Farmer Emanuel’s beef cattle, this may very well be the case. But for the unfortunate beeves who will turn out to have a fatal allergy to the antibiotic, and who could have been saved with a little extra effort aimed at optimizing the results for every individual, well, not so much. (Progressives like Keynes have been known to justify such results by noting that whatever we do has limited significance for individuals, since, in the end we individuals – like the beef cattle – are all dead anyway.)

Until last week American physicians were ethically obligated to optimize their medical care for every individual, as difficult and dangerous as it has become for doctors to do so in recent years.  No doubt some of them will be relieved to know that their ethical obligations now have been formally changed, to comport with the requirements of their masters, and the facts on the ground.

So open wide and say Moo.

The ACP Further Elaborates On “Parsimonious Medical Care”

DrRich | January 9th, 2012 - 10:21 am

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On the same day that DrRich published his post about the American College of Physicians’ new Ethics Manual, Rob Stein of NPR’s Health Blog did the same thing. In his post, Mr. Stein took particular notice of the ACP’s admonition to physicians that, in order to practice medicine ethically, they must practice parsimoniously.

DrRich flatters himself to believe that he may be the one who called Mr. Stein’s attention to this remarkable terminology. Mr. Stein had contacted DrRich just prior to the New Year’s holiday for his reaction to the new Ethics Manual – and DrRich responded with a lengthy e-mail containing a substantial riff on the ACP’s usage of “parsimonious” (a riff that was not dissimilar to the one appearing here on the CRB a few days later).

In any case, whether DrRich had anything to do with his focus or not, Mr. Stein (being a reporter instead of a mere ranter) actually interviewed several persons of interest regarding this curious terminology. Dr. Scott Gottlieb of the American Enterprise Institute and Daniel Callahan of the Hastings Center appeared sympathetic to DrRich’s take on “parsimonious,” that is, that this word, at best, carries some very negative connotations under any circumstance, but particularly when it is used in the context of providing healthcare to people who need it. (DrRich himself was not mentioned in the NPR article. This undoubtedly shows good judgment on the part of Mr. Stein, who has his reputation to think of.)

The most interesting response to Mr. Stein’s questions on “parsimonious” was offered by Dr. Virginia Hood, current president of the ACP. She strongly defended the use of the word, saying, “Parsimonious is a good word in the sense that it means that you use only what’s necessary. I don’t see a particular problem with that. Maybe it has some connotations where people think frugality or being parsimonious is the same as being mean or inadequate. But I don’t think that is the real meaning of that word.”

So the mystery raised by DrRich in his last post is apparently resolved. When the ACP says “parsimonious” it turns out they are not referring at all to the “theory of parsimony” (or Occam’s Razor), the theory which states that when there is more than one explanation for a series of observations, one must always default to the simplest available explanation. It seems a shame that this is not what the ACP was referring to. While it would have been terribly misguided for the ACP to make an unqualified demand that doctors apply the theory of parsimony to all questions that arise in medical practice, at least they would have seemed somewhat sophisticated in doing so. For many academic papers have been written about the theory of parsimony, and some of them border on the esoteric.

But astoundingly, that’s apparently not what the ACP meant at all. It turns out that what they meant was, in fact, parsimonious. Dr. Hood purports to believe that “the real meaning of the word” is “efficient.” But she should know that it is not. According to Roget’s II New Thesaurus, parsimonious is “ungenerously or pettily reluctant to spend money.” Webster’s New World Dictionary gives “stinginess, extreme frugality.” Other sources DrRich has found list similar definitions, such as: excessively unwilling to spend, penny-pinching, miserly, sparing, grasping, tight, close, niggardly, illiberal, mean, avaricious, covetous, rapacious and tight-assed. Only one source even mentioned the word “efficient,” and it was the 15th or 16th meaning. The dictionaries make it clear that being “parsimonious” is not a thing to be admired.

Students of philosophy, religion, and psychology have known, at least since Dante, that a vice is a virtue carried to extremes. The vice of lust is a perversion of the virtue of love. Servility is a perversion of humility. Recklessness is a perversion of courage.

And parsimony (or miserliness, or stinginess, or any of the many synonyms that exist for this very common vice) is a perversion of thrift. We do not celebrate the addled stalker because his vice is rooted in a perverted form of love. We ought not celebrate parsimony because, despite its perversion into something awful, it is based on efficiency.

Notwithstanding Dr. Hood’s protests to the contrary, when the ACP admonishes physicians, as a matter of ethics, to provide healthcare parsimoniously, that is not a good thing.

While Dr. Hood may herself not be a lexicographer, DrRich thinks we can be fairly certain that, for a document like the ACP’s Ethics Manual, before final publication each and every word is carefully parsed, analyzed and considered by a number of astute and highly educated individuals. Indeed, one notes that the lead author of this document is an attorney, and attorneys are notorious for understanding every nuance of every word they allow into written documents. One would assume that this is especially true for a word which is so important to the message that it is being placed in a special call-out box, so nobody will miss it. It is simply not believable that “parsimonious” – which describes a well-known vice – managed to slip into this document inadvertently as a synonym for “efficient,” as Dr. Hood suggests. That explanation, of all the possible explanations, is simply not credible.

So perhaps Dr. Hood misspoke, and “parsimonious” really was referring to the theory of parsimony after all, and she either did not realize this (not being a lexicographer), or simply forgot. The only other credible explanation, which Dr. Hood indignantly denies, is that the ACP actually does mean for doctors to practice medicine parsimoniously – with all its negative connotations – and that her present dissembling is merely dissembling.

As it happens, DrRich has a brief history with Dr. Hood. Two years ago, the Covert Rationing Blog and the ACP Advocate Blog were both named as finalists for a Medical Weblog award in the category of Health Policy and Medical Ethics. So DrRich suddenly found himself in an ethics competition with the very organization that had published the notorious “New Physician Charter on Medical Professionalism,” and thus had destroyed the very foundation of medical ethics.  He could not resist the opportunity to publicly challenge the ACP, under the spotlight (and protection) of the Medical Weblog competition, to an open debate on medical ethics.

You can read all about the ensuing exchange here. What may be of some interest for our present purposes is that it was Dr. Hood herself – at the time the Chairperson of the ACP’s Committee on Ethics, Professionalism, and Human Rights – who finally drafted the ACP’s public response to DrRich. And interestingly, in her response (which was heavy on condescension but light on logic) Dr. Hood invoked the need for parsimonious care. So the ACP’s use of this word was not a momentary oversight; instead it has been rolling off their collective tongues for years, as a descriptor for what they consider to be the ideal approach to the practice of medicine.

Another aspect of that Medical Weblog competition between DrRich and the ACP is more to the point at hand, namely, the interesting manner in which the ACP finally beat DrRich out for the award. The way the competition works is that a short list of finalists is determined by a committee of judges, and then for two weeks anyone who is interested can vote for their blog of choice. The voting system allows only one vote per IP address (so if 20 people all vote from their computers tied into a company network, only one vote is counted). During the voting period, a running tally of results is shown to anyone who cares to see it.

Clearly, given the public spectacle DrRich had made regarding the righteousness (or lack of it) of the ACP’s stance on medical ethics, it would have been deeply embarrassing for the ACP to lose this medical ethics contest. So it was probably troubling to that organization when DrRich mounted a substantial lead early on, and held that lead for two weeks, right up until the last three hours before the voting ended, which, as it happened, occurred at midnight on Sunday, February 14. Then, late on Valentine’s night, when most normal people were with their loved ones doing, well, Valentiney things, apparently a large number of ACP members spontaneously rousted themselves from their activities, logged on to their computers, and voted for the ACP – just enough of them to overtake DrRich, and then to maintain a steady 10 – 20 vote lead for the remaining hour or two of the voting period.

DrRich is not relating this story because he is bitter, nor is he complaining. (This blog won the Medical Weblog award the following year, so there is nothing for DrRich to complain about.) Rather, he was and is deeply amused by these events, and he relates this story for a very pertinent reason – namely, for the purpose of illustrating the shortcomings of the “theory of parsimony.”

For what are the possible explanations for the ACP’s stunning last minute victory? One explanation is that, in the waning moments of Valentine’s Day, members of the ACP finally got around to voting. This is of course possible. These are internal medicine specialists, and many of them are the guys (and girls) you knew in college who looked forward to football Saturdays because the library would always be so much quieter. So it is indeed possible that the ACP membership had entered into their iPhones, weeks earlier, a reminder to vote for the ACP at 11:59 PM on Sunday, February 14. Perhaps they figured they would be logged on to their computers at that moment anyway, reading the latest research on the complement cascade.

Another possible explanation is that someone affiliated with the ACP, realizing how deeply embarrassing it would be to lose an ethics contest to a pain in the ass like DrRich, figured out a way to defeat the voting system’s firewall, and to enter the precise number of votes they needed at the last minute in order to gain a victory and save face. We have seen examples in electoral politics, over and over again and perhaps as recently as last Tuesday night in Iowa, that in close contests it is best to withhold a bolus of the votes you control until the last minute, when you know just how many votes you need.

DrRich is not accusing the ACP of anything, of course, as he has no direct proof that they behaved badly – just a series of observations that have more than one possible explanation. But he admits to finding it delicious that a straightforward application of the theory of parsimony – always choosing the simplest explanation for a series of observations – leads us to the conclusion that agents of the ACP apparently cheated in order to win an ETHICS contest.*

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*If they actually did this, of course, some would say it would indicate that the ACP has disqualified itself from ever establishing ethical rules for anyone.  But actually, it would simply be another illustration of utilitarian ethics, where important ends always justify whatever means are necessary to achieve it.

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Since we know beyond doubt that the ACP would never have done such a thing, and that the ACP won that competition fair and square, DrRich has therefore just demonstrated that applying the theory of parsimony, after all, will often enough lead to incorrect conclusions, and therefore the ACP ought not demand that doctors apply it as a matter of course in all questions of life and death.

So either way, whether the ACP’s use of the word “parsimonious” was supposed to indicate that doctors ought to be stingy and miserly in delivering medical care, or whether they were obligating doctors to always apply Occam’s Razor to medical decisionmaking, delivering parsimonious medical care is a very bad idea, and certainly ought not to be an ethical mandate for physicians.

The leadership of the ACP ought to know this. Indeed, Occam’s Razor suggests that they do know this, which would be the simplest explanation for why, when challenged on their choice of the word “parsimonious,” they insist that they mean the one thing that makes no sense whatsoever.

A Parsimonious Exegesis Of The ACP’s New Ethics Manual

DrRich | January 3rd, 2012 - 8:38 am

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The American College of Physicians published the Sixth Edition of its Physicians Ethics Manual yesterday. Regular readers may find it surprising to hear DrRich say that there is little objectionable in it, and actually much to admire – that is, when it is considered as it is written, as a stand-alone document.

But of course, when it comes to statements of medical ethics in the New Millennium, one cannot rely on the face value of the written word. For the purpose of the modern medical ethicist is to supply a plausible justification for the covert rationing of healthcare. That is, they need to make it ethically justifiable (if not ethically mandatory) for doctors to ration their patients’ healthcare at the bedside. Because statements of medical ethics cannot just come out and say that, ethicists must compose these statements quite artfully, so that when somebody (like DrRich) calls them on it, they can indignantly deny any such thing.

Therefore, DrRich submits, an accurate interpretation of the ACP’s New Ethics Manual requires an exegesis – that is, it requires that we go beneath the actual words, that we explore the derivation of this text, in order to discover its true underlying meaning. Fortunately, this process will be pretty straightforward, and will not require us to have a working knowledge of Latin, Greek or Hebrew. Plain English will do, as long as we keep the true aim of the modern medical ethicist in mind.

Accordingly, we need to begin this exercise by reminding ourselves of what that true aim is. This was probably stated most clearly in a quote DrRich has used before, by Dr. Berwick and his co-author Dr. Troyen Brennan (another ACP ethics maven) in their 1995 book, “New Rules.” To wit: “Today, this isolated relationship [between doctor and patient] is no longer tenable or possible. . . Traditional medical ethics, based on the doctor-patient dyad, must be reformulated to fit the new mold of the delivery of health care. . . The primary function of regulation in health care. . .is to constrain decentralized individualized decision making.”

That is, the primary aim of the new medical ethics is to get doctors to stop focusing on the specific, unique needs of their individual patients, and instead to focus on what is best for society – which means acceding to centralized, collectivized decision making (the opposite of the decentralized, individualized decision making which the ethicists are pledged to constrain). For doctors to do so, of course, will utterly violate the primary ethical precept which the profession has followed for more than two millennia, and so, obviously, if only for the sake of appearance, will require some revision of those ethical precepts to accommodate the new reality.

And that is the program of the modern medical ethicist.

They have been at this for a long time (at least since the early 1990s), and the Sixth Edition of the ACP Ethics Manual – despite its largely benign language and even occasional retrograde pledges to the needs of the individual patient – advances the true aims of the medical ethicists to a new level. DrRich will provide three lines of evidence to support this contention.

First,

in its section on “Professionalism,” the new Ethics Manual defers specifically to a foundational document written by the ACP and published in 2002 entitled, “Medical Professionalism in the New Millennium: A Physician Charter.” That Charter, which DrRich has critiqued in detail, established a new ethical precept which physicians must now follow – and to which they must give equal weight to their ancient duty to the best interests of their patient. That new precept is to social justice – to a just distribution of healthcare resources.

To understand the real import of this new ethical precept – which is introduced in the Charter in a determinedly bland manner – we must do a brief exegesis of the Charter itself. Notably, the first sentence of the Charter, which attempts to explain just why such a new charter on medical professionalism is needed in the first place, says, “Physicians today are experiencing frustration as changes in the health care delivery systems in virtually all industrialized countries threaten the very nature and values of medical professionalism.”

While this sentence obviously expresses the utter frustration doctors were feeling at being coerced – at the time mainly by health insurers – to withhold expensive but potentially useful healthcare services from their patients, the document itself never spells this out. Indeed, after this passionate opening sentence, no reference to any particular frustration is made again. Rather the document immediately retreats into a bland prose, and one looks in vain for the authors to spell out the cause of the dire frustration that demands a restatement of medical professionalism.

But even though the document seems strangely reticent to say what frustration produced the very impetus for its creation, we can rely on the fact that the document must be designed to cure this mysterious frustration (whatever it is), and further, that the only substantial change in the document was an addition to the code of medical ethics, adding the requirement that physicians work for social justice. Making social justice an ethical mandate for individual physicians, one can only surmise, might help relieve some of the guilt (and some of the frustration) physicians feel when they are forced to engage in bedside rationing against their patients.

The blandness of the Charter is intentional, and was added at the last minute to “soften” the blow. In an ACP policy conference held in the summer of 2001, a much more inflammatory draft of this new Charter was presented to the membership for discussion. That penultimate version made the actual intent of the document far more explicit. It said that when making decisions regarding individual patients, doctors must “be aware that the decisions they make about individual patients have an impact on the resources available to others.”  In other words, it explicitly instructed bedside rationing. To the dismay of the ethicists who had presented the draft, several ACP members at that conference reacted quite negatively to it. (Who knew that doctors still gave so much weight to ancient, outdated ethical precepts?) Because of the uproar, the language of the document was softened before its official publication. While its import remained entirely unchanged, the document was “blanded-up.” In particular, the sentence explicitly spelling out just what the authors meant by “social justice” was removed. In making their final revision, however, the authors of the Charter managed to overlook the passionate tone of that (suddenly incongruent) opening sentence, and thus left an everlasting clue as to what the document was really intended to do.

To summarize, by the turn of the millennium doctors were being coerced to withhold healthcare from their patients at the bedside, and thus to violate their time-honored primary professional directive. The intent of the 2002 Charter on medical professionalism was to repair the problem (i.e., to cure the “frustration”), not by confronting the forces of evil doing the coercion, but rather, by simply changing medical ethics to make bedside rationing OK. And that’s just what the document did, though only after careful re-editing to make this radical change to medical ethics sound as benign as possible.

By explicitly endorsing the 2002 Charter on medical professionalism, the Sixth Edition of the ACP Ethics Manual thereby endorses healthcare rationing at the bedside – but it does so quietly, at arm’s length, so as not to stir up unwanted passions.

Second,

the publication of the new Ethics Manual is accompanied by an editorial written by Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, a celebrated medical ethicist, the brother of Rahm, and a special advisor on health policy to the White House. It is widely believed that Dr. Emanuel will have a lot to say about which medical experts are going to be appointed to Obamacare’s GOD panels (Government Operatives Deliberating) – the panels that will establish the formal “guidelines” to determine which patients will get what, when and how, “guidelines” which doctors will have to follow in every particular, or be subject to fines, loss of profession, and imprisonment.

It is therefore instructive that Dr. Emanuel is effusive in his praise of this new ACP Ethics Manual. He is especially delighted that the authors have placed a statement into a special “call-out” box, so nobody can miss it, demanding that physicians, as an ethical duty owed to society, must practice efficient, parsimonious, and cost-effective healthcare.

Emanuel notes that “These positions on efficiency, parsimony, and cost-effectiveness constitute an important shift, if not in ethics then in emphasis.” Dr. Emanuel need not dissemble. It’s a shift in ethics all right – just look at the title of the document.

In other words, dear reader, we have Dr. Emanuel, one of the Supreme Beings who will be directing the GOD panels, declaring that, thanks to the new ACP Ethics Manual, doctors have now fully accepted the proposition that it is a matter of medical ethics for “cost-effectiveness” – as determined by panels of hand-picked experts – to decide whether their patient will receive a potentially beneficial medical service.

(Judging from Dr. Emanuel’s reaction to their work product, if any of the authors of this new Ethics Manual had hoped their participation might serve as their audition for one of the GOD panels, it appears their strategy might work out just fine.)

Third,

the Ethics Manual contains the injunction that doctors practice medicine “parsimoniously.”  While Dr. Emanuel is enamored by and delighted with this word, DrRich finds it at least a little disturbing.

One might speculate that by this word the ACP’s medical ethicists mean to say that doctors ought to arrive at a care plan by applying the “theory of parsimony,” best known as Occam’s Razor. If so, they are urging doctors to error.

The theory of parsimony says that when a series of observations has more than one plausible explanation, the simplest of the available explanations should be considered the “best.” This method usually works quite well when one is devising a theory to explain some phenomenon whose explanation is not a matter of dire urgency. So, for instance, any cave man from the Paleolithic Age who was fond of Occam’s Razor would have concluded, from available observational data, that the sun revolves around the earth. This conclusion was wrong, but little harm was done by it. And when it became important for us to get the movements of the heavenly bodies right (for instance, when we decided to send men to the moon), we first took care to collect additional observational data (just to make sure), and thereby we discovered just in time (a mere few hundred years before launch) that, for a million years or so, our original conclusion had been mistaken.

But Occam’s Razor is less well suited for making medical decisions, that is, in cases where current clinical evidence is consistent with more than one explanation. Here, it is likely that with some effort a discoverable, definitive, correct answer could be achieved, and it is at least possible that always choosing the “simplest” possible explanation would lead the doctor to take action (or more likely, to withhold medical services) that would cause the patient to suffer harm. Sometimes the theory of parsimony can be applied to good effect in the practice of medicine; other times it will be a disaster. Deciding when to use it is a matter of medical judgment and medical experience, best decided locally by a specific doctor on behalf of a specific patient.

The theory of parsimony clearly should not be applied as a matter of course to all medical questions, perhaps not even in most medical questions. So it would seem a shame for the ACP’s Ethics Manual to decree (“without qualifiers,” as Dr. Emanuel approvingly notes) that as a matter of medical ethics, doctors must always do so.

But perhaps the authors were not referring to the “theory of parsimony” at all. Perhaps they were just using “parsimonious” as a synonym for “efficient.” If this is the case, their error was more along the lines of a Freudian slip. For “efficient” and “parsimonious” are simply not good synonyms. Better synonyms for parsimonious would include:

  • excessively unwilling to spend,
  • ungenerous,
  • penurious,
  • penny-pinching,
  • miserly,
  • sparing,
  • grasping,
  • tight,
  • close,
  • niggardly,
  • illiberal,
  • mean,
  • avaricious,
  • covetous, or
  • tight-assed.

Efficient is to parsimonious as fondness is to lust, or as a gentle spring rain is to a deadly deluge. They may be in the same genus, but are of entirely different species.

Since the real synonyms for parsimonious are all quite descriptive of bedside healthcare rationing, DrRich submits that this carefully chosen and strongly praised word is every bit as appropriate to the occasion as Dr. Emanuel indicates. This is EXACTLY how our Central Authority wants doctors to practice medicine – parsimoniously.

In conclusion,

the wording of the new ACP Ethics Manual itself may be, with a few notable exceptions, inoffensive. But when we take the time to explore the derivation of this text, when we consider it in light of the overarching program of modern medical ethicists, and in light of the interpretations now being assigned to it by agents of the Central Authority, it is not difficult to discover its true meaning and its true significance. This document helps establish an ethical mandate for doctors to follow centralized clinical directives to the letter, and doctors who fail to comply will be guilty not only of some legalistic violation of “guidelines,” but also of behaving unethically. And almost anyone will tell you that unethical doctors are the lowest form of life; for them no punishment is too harsh, and the tiniest mercy is too kind.

This, of course, is just what we should have expected.