Social Justice and the Doctor-Patient Relationship: A Debate

DrRich | January 25th, 2013 - 10:41 am

I interrupt this well-deserved (if I do say so myself) hiatus in my blogging career – during which I have remained busy doing other important stuff – to post this link to a debate in which I participated recently.

This Oxford-rules debate took place on November 28 at the George Washington University School of Medicine, and was sponsored by the Benjamin Rush Society.  The resolution being debated was, “The Requirements of Social Justice are in Conflict with the Requirements of an Ethical Doctor-Patient Relationship.”  I and my debate partner (Dr. Lee Hieb, past president of the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons), braved the strikingly Progressive atmosphere of the GWU campus to argue the affirmative.

The debate was spirited, and I think Dr. Hieb and I more than held our own.  I thank the Benjamin Rush Society, and especially Dr. Beth Haynes (Executive Director of the BRS) and Dr. Bruce Shaver (chapter leader of the GWU chapter) for asking me to participate.

This YouTube video of the entire proceedings is almost an hour and a half long. If you are interested in seeing my major contribution, which lasted for only 8 minutes, fast forward to the 29:30 minute mark.

 

Some Advice About Salt

DrRich | February 21st, 2012 - 4:31 pm

Podcast:

In a previous post, DrRich explained to his loyal readers why the Central Authority’s recent assault on salt is, at best, premature.

Our leaders, of course, insist that the benefits of a universal sodium restriction, applied to each and every American citizen, is more than merely an extraordinarily healthful idea – it is settled science. And anyone who says otherwise is the moral equivalent of a Holocaust Denier (or worse, a Global Warming Denier).

DrRich’s earlier post argued that the available data falls far short of supporting a universal sodium restriction, and suggested that the government is embarking on yet another experiment to be perpetrated upon the population at large, much like Our Leaders’ earlier unfortunate experiments with low-fat diets, and adding trans-fats to most of our processed foods. Since that earlier post, several new scientific studies have been published which lend support to DrRich’s qualms about a universal salt restriction, and which suggest that, indeed, low salt intakes are likely to be quite dangerous to a substantial minority of people.

However, we are now in a new era of herd medicine. And a universal sodium restriction illustrates the very nature of herd medicine. Our Central Authority calculates that a universal sodium restriction is likely to add up to a better overall collective outcome. And if 10-20% of the people suffer because of this policy, that’s not really relevant. It’s the overall outcome that is dispositive.

And people who complain about this are just being troublemakers.

Because a sodium restriction is settled science, new data (unless it is supportive data), by definition, is not allowed into the discussion. Indeed, by definition, the discussion is over. And those people and organizations who have petitioned the government to reconsider its universal sodium restriction policy, citing lots of scientific evidence to show why this policy is at best unproven and quite likely dangerous to the public, are just identifying themselves as some of the people with whom DrRich will be doing morning jumping jacks when he is finally assigned to his reeducation camp.

And so, realizing that it is pointless, DrRich will not rail any further against the government’s policy on salt restriction. Instead, he will undertake the task of providing useful advice to his readers, aimed at helping them to cope with the inevitable changes that are coming to the foods they eat – and perhaps, helping them to get enough sodium in their diets to avoid early death.

First, DrRich urges his readers to notice that purchasing bags of salt, even in large quantities, is not yet illegal – and indeed there is, as yet, no special “salt surcharge” or “salt tax” added to the purchase price. Further, DrRich reminds his readers that salt is famous for being storable for very long periods of time. So stock up while you can. Ten to 15 years of salt in your cupboard will likely take you up to the point where total societal collapse, Greek-style, will make the amount of salt in your diet the least of your worries.

As a simple precaution, however, when you buy your bags of salt you should not use your credit card or your debit card, and by no means should you allow your friendly neighborhood grocer to tabulate your purchase in the grocery’s rewards program. Use cash. (Indeed, since your future healthcare may very well depend on your long-term compliance with various dietary directives, you should probably begin purchasing only fruits and vegetables with any of these non-cash alternatives.)

If you keep your salt purchases to under $20 cash at a time, odds are you will not trigger official scrutiny.

Second, a week or two ago the CDC released an extremely helpful report which lists the 10 food categories which contribute most of the sodium consumption to the American diet.

These include:

- bread and rolls,
- cold cuts/cured meats,
- pizza,
- poultry,
- soups,
- sandwiches,
- cheese,
- pasta mixed dishes,
- meat mixed dishes,
- savory snacks.

These delightful culinary treats, the CDC warns us, are deadly due to their salt content. The Agency further indicates that strong government action is necessary, and is coming, to remove these dangerous products from the grocer’s shelves. (And the CDC, DrRich reminds his readers, is a government agency, and therefore is one of the manifold voices of the Central Authority. We must take its pronouncements seriously.)

So once again, stock up while you can. Some of these foodstuffs can be purchased in jars and cans, and will keep for years. Dried pasta and savory snacks also store quite well. Other items on this list can be bought and frozen. And of course, you can buy a bread maker, which, utilizing the bags of salt you have on hand, can furnish you with all the sodium-laden bread you are likely to need.  And once again, use cash.

DrRich sincerely thanks the government for providing this helpful list of essential foodstuffs which it is targeting for obliteration.

Third, when we are stocking up for the shortages which the government has now pledged to create, it is inevitable that we will misjudge on the necessary quantities. We may find, for instance, that we have way too many Cheetos on hand, and not enough linguini. This means we had better be prepared to barter with our neighbors.

Since it is relatively unlikely that American greenbacks, by that time, will be valued enough to induce your neighbor to part with irreplaceable cans of chicken noodle soup, DrRich humbly suggests that you begin laying up a few dozen cartons of cigarettes. If you travel to any socialist country, you will find that cigarettes are the universal currency, and can get you just about whatever you need.

Finally, even if you do not believe that owning salt or salty foods is about to become at least a misdemeanor, or that we are about to become a barter economy, you should still find the government’s Salt Target List helpful. The companies that make this stuff are about to come upon very hard times. So scour your investment portfolio before it is too late, and make the necessary adjustments.

DrRich, as always, is pleased to be of assistance.

Addendum To Prior Post – I Rest My Case

DrRich | February 10th, 2012 - 12:42 pm

During the time DrRich was composing and recording his prior post – published moments ago – President Obama announced his “compromise” to the dust-up with Catholics over mandated contraception/abortion/sterilization services.

DrRich asks his readers to note that the President’s solution to this problem preserves the one and only thing that he truly needs his original directive to accomplish – namely, to assure that women will receive these newly mandated medical services without paying for them.  This is the one point he cannot abandon.

Case Closed.

Why Angering Catholics Makes Sense For Obama

DrRich | February 10th, 2012 - 12:05 pm

Podcast:

President Obama unleashed a firestorm when he ordered HHS to issue a directive requiring all organizations providing health insurance to their employees to cover contraception, “morning after” pills, and sterilization procedures.  This directive has stunned the American Catholic leadership, whose support for the Obamacare legislation (they tell us) was predicated on assurances that healthcare reform would never require Catholic institutions to violate their fundamental principles. The bishops, and many American Catholics, feel betrayed.

Some bishops feel personally betrayed. New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan met in the Oval Office with the President in November to discuss this very issue, and was assured by Obama’s own lips that the administration was committed to protecting the church’s principles. This new directive, Archbishop Dolan now says plaintively, “seems to be at odds with the very assurances that he gave me.” (This is as close as an Archbishop may come, when speaking of the President, to saying, “He lied to me.”)

Progressives (who innately dislike organized religion because a) religions find a higher authority than the enlightened leadership the Progressives propose to create for us, and b) religion stresses individual conscience and individual salvation over collective priorities), tend to be delighted with the new rule, which puts the principles of religious belief into their proper place. Their only reservation about this directive is that the backlash might be politically disadvantageous at this particular moment.

And indeed, that backlash promises to be formidable. Catholics are outraged. Despite the fact that Catholics (Progressives assure us) use birth control with as much enthusiasm as anyone else, they find it quite disturbing that the government is willing to direct their Church to pay for something which the Church (whatever the behavior of its members may be) considers a sin. Whatever else this directive may be, it is clearly an attack on religious freedom. Leaders of other religions – evangelicals, Mormons, Jews – have also expressed outrage at the President’s directive, and organized American religions of all types are mounting a campaign to have this rule reversed.

Senator Rubio and other members of Congress find in this directive a constitutional crisis in the making, and are introducing legislation to prevent the government from mandating that religious organizations violate their religious principles.

It is said that Vice President Biden, a Catholic, urged the President not to issue this directive. And several Democrat members of Congress, sensing growing political repercussions, have pleaded with the President to reverse himself on this issue. There is no telling what the President – who has proven remarkably willing to reverse himself on even his most heartfelt promises – will end up doing. But for now he is holding firm. Catholics will have up to a year to “phase in” their capitulation on their religious beliefs, but they still must capitulate.

The most interesting question, to DrRich at least, is: Why did President Obama choose, in an election year, to issue this directive, which he knew without any doubt, from Archbishop Dolan himself if not from other sources, would create huge problems with American Catholics? Catholics make up 27% of the electorate, and almost 50% of American Catholics are of the Hispanic variety, a group which, it is said, tends to take its Catholicism far more seriously than your average non-Hispanic Catholic. The president can ill afford to lose a substantial degree of support from Catholics, or especially, Hispanics. It also should have been plain to him that this directive would raise the specter of the government trampling on religious freedoms for people of all faiths – and with everything else going on, why would he want to add this issue to the mix in an election year? Finally, he had to know that his new rule would (yet again) call into question the degree of respect he has for the American Constitution as it is written.

Despite the fact that he is being cheered on by true Progressives (even causing Ms. Maddow to gleefully invoke, once again, her Amish Bus Driver Rule), the President’s directive, in net, is shaping up to become a major political liability for him, and in a critical election year to boot. And it would have been easy for President Obama – a very smart man – to see this ahead of time. Issuing this directive at this juncture makes no sense politically.

So why did he do it?

The reason DrRich is compelled, once again, to tear himself away from the fascinating re-write of his textbook of electrophysiology, to the point that he finds himself posting more often during his blogging sabbatical than during normal times, is that nobody in the media seems to have figured out the correct answer to this question. And it is important to know the correct answer, because it tells us a lot about the battle that is really shaping up.

The President did not issue this politically counterproductive directive because it was necessary for the health of American women. (One set of healthcare services American women have plenty of access to, regardless of their income levels, is birth control and abortion services. That, after all, is why we taxpayers fund Planned Parenthood.) So to imply, as some have done, that without this directive American women would be falling dead on the streets is just absurd.

Nor did he issue it in order to further weaken religious freedom, or to further undermine the Constitution as our founders gave it to us. These features of his directive, DrRich submits, are merely useful side benefits, and would not have been compelling enough to jeopardize his re-election.

The reason President Obama issued this directive was not to undermine religious or constitutional principles, but rather, to establish new principles of his own that are critical both to Obamacare and to the overarching Progressive agenda.

DrRich has pointed out many times that the real battle we will face as Obamacare is being rolled out is the battle over whether American citizens will retain individual freedom sufficient to be permitted to spend their own money on their own healthcare. Indeed, DrRich has written a series of posts that spells all this out in painful detail. If you need to know why limiting individual prerogatives is so critically important to Progressives, and why Obamacare must be the vehicle for establishing these limitations, simply read the first post in that series.

DrRich understands how paranoid this all sounds at first glance. To see the truth of it, one must take several glances, and observe, over time, the actual behavior of Progressives in the wild.

DrRich hereby asserts that this new directive – which various commentators insist protects the health of women, or undermines religious freedom, or tears down Constitutional guarantees – actually was issued in order to establish, once and for all, the essential set of foundational principles for Obamacare, to wit:

1) The government will determine what constitutes healthcare and what does not.
2) If the government says it’s healthcare, every insurance product must cover it.
3) If it’s not covered by insurance, thou shalt not have access to it.

The first two of these principles are pretty obvious, and constitute, in fact, the overt meaning of the President’s directive. The government has determined that contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization constitute essential healthcare services, and therefore all employers must cover them, whatever their religious beliefs or other sensibilities may be.

But if you listen carefully to the arguments being made by supporters of the new directive, you will hear them saying that it’s critical that women have access to these services, as Jay Carney, the President’s Press Secretary avers, without paying for them themselves.

And that’s what the whole fight comes down to. Women must be provided these services without paying for them.

Progressives pretend they mean by this that many, many women are going without these services today because they cannot afford them, and so we must make sure the services are provided for them free of charge. But of all medical services that exist today, access to birth control and abortion are likely the ones which are most accessible to women of all socioeconomic backgrounds. And if there are women whose financial status still precludes receiving these services (among whom are most likely not the women gainfully employed by Catholic institutions), surely the President can imagine remedies for this situation that do not require taking the kind of extraordinary political risk he has just taken.

No. Women must be provided these services without paying for them NOT because there are so many women going without them today due to the cost to them. Rather, women must be provided these services without paying for them because we cannot allow women (or any patient) to pay for these services (or any service the Central Authority classifies as “healthcare”) out of their own pockets.

All healthcare services must be covered by all insurance products – regardless of which institutions provide those insurance products – precisely because nobody can be permitted to pay for healthcare outside the sanctioned insurance product.

This is the principle which is being established by the President’s new directive. This principle, so critical to Obamacare and to the Progressive agenda, is a principle worth fighting for. None of the other explanations offered by proponents or opponents of the President’s action make any sense. Establishing this critical principle is the only thing that justifies the huge political risk the President is now taking.

And now, retreating back to the far simpler task of explaining the intricacies of cardiac electrophysiology to novices, DrRich helpfully and humbly reminds his readers: I told you so.

We Interrupt This Hiatus For A Special Message

DrRich | February 7th, 2012 - 2:57 pm

As readers can imagine, few things could interrupt my temporary break from blogging – a break in which I have lost myself in the pleasures of figuring out how best to explain to novice readers the differences between the effective, relative and functional refractory periods of cardiac Purkinje fibers, and a host of other fascinating electrophysiologic arcana. With one’s brain wrapped around delights such as that, blogging fades to a barely remembered romp through some distant dreamscape.

One of the few things that could bring me back from these nether regions to the Covert Rationing Blog, if only for a moment, has happened. The esteemed Dr. Robert Centor, affectionately known as DB in the medical blogosphere, has made a comment on one of my posts, and it is a comment that deserves serious consideration. Further, I find I cannot give his comment appropriate justice by simply answering it with another comment. It requires more.

So, we interrupt this hiatus from blogging in order to give the kind of thoughtful response DB’s comment deserves.

I have been a reader of DB’s blog for several years – substantially longer than the nearly five years I have been writing the CRB. I consider DB to be the voice of internal medicine as it should be practiced. DB is a master of cutting through the fluff to get at the root of what is ailing the practice of medicine today. He has substantially influenced my thinking over the years, and many of DB’s writings have validated (in my mind, at least) certain of my syntheses of some key problems regarding the present state of medical practice. Indeed, out of sheer respect for DB I have dropped in this post the rather haughty 3rd person approach I traditionally use herein.

At one time I was a relatively frequent commenter on DB’s blog, and the exchanges that ensued between us have been some of the highlights of my blogging career (such as it is). But two years ago I stopped posting comments on DB’s Medical Rants, and I stopped making any reference here to DB or his blog. I did so for one simple reason.

It was two years ago that I had my public dust-up with the ACP over the issue of medical ethics. It was a dust-up that drew the notice and disapprobation of some individuals quite well placed within the ACP leadership. Knowing that DB is a member of the ACP’s Board of Regents, I feared that if I continued acting as if I were one of his “blogging buddies” it might reflect poorly on him. The ACP (an organization of which I was a proud member for over 25 years, quitting only when they published their New Medical Ethics in 2002) badly needs voices like DB’s. Indeed, the fact that they value his voice gives me hope. So, out of respect for him, and in consideration of what I guessed were his best interests, I stopped interacting with DB and his blog altogether, though I have remained a regular reader. I realize that, realistically, what I may do or not do almost certainly has no effect whatsoever on DB’s relationship with the ACP, but it was something I felt I needed to do.

In any case, that self-imposed avoidance has now been made moot by DB himself.

In his comment DB takes exception to one (or more likely, several) of my recent posts. I will reproduce his entire comment here:

“First, I admit to bias as a member of the ACP Board of Regents.

DrRich (whom I like and admire) has used a technique that we all use. He has established a straw man and beat that straw man into submission.

ACP advocates strongly for high-value, cost-conscious care (HVCCC). In fact a recent Annals article – Appropriate Use of Screening and Diagnostic Tests to Foster High-Value, Cost-Conscious Care – http://www.annals.org/content/156/2/147.abstract – very explicitly attacks low value high cost care.

Advocating for HVCCC does not mean advocating for rationing based on cost alone.

As DrRich always states, we have covert rationing and we believe that rationing has no relation to value.

ACP has challenged all physicians to avoid medications and tests that do not have high value. How is that “herd medicine”?

Please review the recommendations in the recent Annals article and tell us where we have developed recommendations for cost reasons only.

I admire your debating skills, but in my opinion you are not addressing the same question that we are addressing. I speak from clinical experience. I see too many tests ordered that cannot help the patient. I see too many treatments that cost too much without a clear advantage over less expensive treatments.

We should strive for high value care for all our patients. We should eschew low value expensive care for most patients (of course one can construct exceptions to this generalization). Let’s not let hyperbole confuse the issue. We cannot afford unnecessary expenses. We challenge you to define unnecessary. I think you can.”

I believe DB has misunderstood my main argument. This is not his fault. I have been accused more than once of being somewhat obtuse. So let me state it very explicitly:

1) It has been determined that individualized decision making by doctors and patients is the problem, and to resolve this problem clinical decisions need to be centralized.*
2) Obamacare renders much individualized decision making illegal, and establishes formal mechanisms for centralized decision making.
3) The ACP’s New Medical Ethics, whether by intention or not, has allowed agents of the Central Authority to argue that individualized decision making is unethical.
4) Centralized decision making will likely yield better results for the collective, better results for the “average” patients, but suboptimal results for people on the wrong side of the distribution curve – and terrible results for people on the tail of the curve. DB himself has written about this tail.

____

* From the book “New Rules,” by Berwick and Brennan:

“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.”

____

There is nothing in my argument that says physicians should avoid attempting to practice high-value medicine. Obviously, they should. There is nothing in this argument that says it is wrong or counterproductive for the ACP (or other professional organizations) to devise publications, guidelines, opinions, or any other kind of aid to assist doctors in making appropriate clinical decisions that will minimize waste for society and harm to their patients. Doing these things is good for the healthcare system and for mankind.

What is wrong is a system that says that centrally-generated clinical “guidelines” must be followed to the letter by all doctors for all patients under all circumstances, and that failing to do so is both illegal and unethical.

The document to which DB refers me – an attempt by the ACP to assign values to certain clinical services – is a good one, and I am sure clinicians should find it helpful. I can’t help but believe that he sent me to this particular document because it explicitly calls out implantable defibrillators (the development of which played a significant role in my professional career) as a high-value medical service. That’s very nice.

But this fact leads me to use, as an example of what I’m talking about, the abuse of ICD guidelines by the Central Authority. A year ago an article appeared in JAMA complaining that 22% of ICD implants did not meet the guidelines. That number (which seems about right to me, if guidelines were being treated as just that) was widely castigated as evidence that doctors were engaging in widespread abuse of this expensive medical device. This was followed, 2 weeks later, by an announcement that the Department of Justice was conducting an investigation of guideline violations by ICD implanters. As a first step in this investigation, the DOJ elicited the cooperation of the Heart Rhythm Society – the professional organization of electrophysiologists – and the HRS let out that it was effectively gagged from further comment or action on behalf of its members for the duration of the investigation.

The specific part of the ICD guidelines that produced the majority of the “violations” was not that ICDs were being used in people who did not really need them. Rather, it was that ICDs were being implanted earlier than the Feds preferred for people who, everyone agreed, should have an ICD. That is, implanters were not waiting the full mandated 4 – 6 weeks after a heart attack, or after heart failure was diagnosed, before implanting ICDs in some of their patients. Two points about this: First, there are clearly individuals who should receive their ICDs within the first month of a heart attack or heart failure diagnosis, despite what the guidelines say. (For instance, if the patient also has an indication for a pacemaker – not an uncommon thing – following the guidelines would require first implanting a pacemaker, then, a few weeks later, doing a second invasive procedure to replace it with an ICD). Second, the clinical evidence supporting this 4 – 6 week waiting period is based on two fundamentally flawed studies, and constituted the weakest part of the clinical evidence regarding ICDs, and while it is now apparently considered settled science if not gospel, it was originally considered highly controversial when the guidelines first appeared.

We don’t know what the results of the DOJ’s investigation will be. Perhaps nothing will come of it and no electrophysiologists will go to jail this time.

Here’s what we do know:

- Doctors are expected to follow clinical guidelines to the letter, with every patient, whether it makes sense for an individual or not.
- Doctors who are not following centralized guidelines to the letter are behaving illegally, and the DOJ – that’s the DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE people, and not HHS or Medicare – will investigate, and at least threaten criminal prosecution.
- Doctors who are not following centralized guidelines to the letter are behaving unethically. (Go back and re-read the commentary from the press and from other physicians, especially physicians who strongly support Obamacare’s centralized decision making, about the ethics of these ICD-guideline-violators.)
- Such legal and ethical intimidation will prevent doctors from “violating” guidelines for their individual patients who are a standard deviation or two away from the mean, and who clearly need an exception.

That’s my argument. The activities of the ACP, vis a vis establishing helpful studies of the relative clinical value of various clinical actions, or even guidelines for clinical practice (if treated as actual guidelines), are to be lauded and not criticized, and I so laud them.

The ACP has not instituted herd medicine, nor advocated it explicitly, to my knowledge. My only criticism of the ACP has to do with their altering the precepts of medical ethics to make it ethically compatible for doctors to go along with herd medicine. The Central Authority on its own volition has taken it the rest of the way – to where it’s unethical NOT to go along with heard medicine. This “adjustment” of medical ethics is just what the Central Authority needed in order to validate its policy of centralized decision making, and the ACP provided it. The glee on the part of the government’s agents in response to the ACP’s New Ethics is palpable.

I still find this a sad, sad thing for the profession, and especially for patients. I also find it very sad for the ACP itself which, by producing the kind of helpful resources to which DB has referred us, would continue to be a great force for good – were it not for this one very basic, very fundamental, very critical, and therefore utterly tragic flaw.

Whatever Happened To Managed Care?

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

Podcast:


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.*

_____

*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.

_____

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.

Let Us Shun the Obese This Holiday Season

DrRich | December 20th, 2011 - 7:54 am

Podcast:

In the tradition of “Yes, Virginia, &c.,” DrRich once again reprises his classic holiday message.

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‘Tis once again that time of year when we Americans gather together with our extended families and friends to celebrate the Season. It is a time for catching up – renewing acquaintances and making new ones, sharing in good news and commiserating in bad, welcoming our new arrivals and mourning our losses. It is a time for giving thanks, counting our blessings, and putting our sundry individual problems into perspective. Indeed, it is perhaps most importantly a time for each of us to remind ourselves that – despite the trials and tribulations that may cause us to become relatively self-absorbed in our daily lives – we are all part of something much greater than ourselves.

So, in a way, it’s a shame we must now cull out our obese relatives and friends, and disinvite them from these joyful and fortifying reunions.

It’s not something we should do lightly, as the obese are people, too. They enjoy the holiday gatherings as much as anyone else (more, some would say, given the abundance of sugary foodstuffs which are typically provided there). But alas, excluding the obese is now something we must do – for our own sake, of course, but more importantly, for the sake of our social networks, and indeed, for America itself. For, to allow the obese to continue participating in our traditional seasonal gatherings is something we now know (as DrRich will shortly explain) to be simply too dangerous and too counterproductive to our collective interests. We can no longer permit it.

Before demonstrating why, DrRich ought to digress for just a moment to address the burning question many of his kindly and generous readers must already be asking, namely, What about Diversity?

On the surface at least, it would seem that the exulted goals of Diversity – the uber virtue, from which all the other, more subsidiary virtues must necessarily spring – would be well-served by our including the entire panoply of body types in our holiday celebrations, from the very thin to the very fat. Must we really exclude from our table our obese family and friends, whom we know and may love, while at the same time, in the name of Diversity, welcome into our collective bosom, say, self-declared Islamist terrorists who openly aim to kill us?

In a word, yes.

For the terrorist, as much a danger to our persons as he or she may pose, is merely a fervent adherent to a minority (and therefore oppressed) religious sect, whose fundamental beliefs (though they center around the utter destruction of Western Civilization) we may not legitimately place ourselves in a position to judge, and therefore, whose tolerance by us, and proximity to us, greatly enriches our appreciation of the wondrous diversity of the human experience.

In contrast, obese people are just fat.

They have no redeeming qualities whatsoever which ought to merit their protection under the beneficent umbrella of Diversity. In this way, fat people resemble Sarah-Palin-lovers, global warming skeptics, tea party fanatics (at least 40% of whom, by the way, are overweight or obese, judging from photos of their rallies), and other groups of narrow-minded or otherwise inferior people the benign tolerance of whom would quite obviously do material harm to the true goals of Diversity. But the obese pose a greater threat to us than even these other unworthies do.

And unfortunately, as we approach that charitable season in which our natural inclination would be to temporarily overlook the sins of our obese friends and relatives, to allow ourselves to fraternize with these individuals – even if only for a few brief hours during this one time of year – is to place ourselves, our non-obese loved ones, and our nation itself, in immediate and immeasurable peril.

This sad fact came to light just a few years ago when a landmark study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine proving that obesity is contagious. Merely having fat friends (and not necessarily living with or near them, or even interacting with them regularly, but merely enumerating them among your friends at a distance) can make you fat as well.

The study came from the studios of the famous Drs. Christakis and Fowler, who have embraced a software package, comprehensible only to themselves, that churns out complex images of “social networks,” from which they can derive all manner of heretofore unimagined associations. These academic stars have turned their shop into a veritable factory of peer-reviewed publications, thereby solidifying their scholarly reputations and (doubtless, now that they have done so much good for the anti-obesity movement) their ability to secure NIH grants, and other favors from government agencies.

Using data from the venerable Framingham database, these pioneers combed through old records for information about the body weight, relatives, and social contacts of individuals who were enrolled in this famous study. They then used their esoteric computer modeling software to create various “animations” depicting the evolving social relationships of the subjects, and the development of obesity, over time.

To summarize their findings: A person is 57% more likely to be come obese if a friend becomes obese, even if that friend lives hundreds of miles away. (This finding is really quite remarkable, considering that the only other natural force that acts on bodies instantaneously and at a distance is gravity. This newly discovered force that produces obesity at a distance – shall we call it “obevity?” – will have to be incorporated, with great difficulty no doubt, into the Grand Unification Theory now being sought by physicists everywhere.) The same effect was not seen when close neighbors became obese, or even (to such a great extent) when family members became obese. Furthermore, if the friendship is mutual (that is, if the fat person considers you a friend in addition to you considering the fat person a friend), the odds of your becoming obese triples. And even worse, this study shows that, even if you wisely avoid the company of fat people yourself (in an attempt to remain acceptably svelte), fat people who are acquainted with your acquaintances may still have an impact on your BMI. That is, obesity is a contagion that tends to spread throughout the social network.

So clearly, if anyone within a given social network associates with fat people, then ultimately nobody in that network is safe.

(Here is an animation the authors have provided, to show a time-lapsed view of how obesity spreads. If this doesn’t convince you, nothing will.)

Now, to be sure, there have been critics of this study – individuals, DrRich thinks, who are nearly as dangerous as the obese themselves. Since this issue is so critically important, please allow DrRich a few brief paragraphs to debunk the debunkers.

Some have complained about this landmark study because the list of “friends” employed by the authors was determined decades after the fact, from administrative records that had been used in the Framingham study for follow-up purposes, in which subjects had been asked to list relatives and a “close friend” who would know their whereabouts at all times. Critics claim that somebody who can reliably provide your contact information may be a good friend; but perhaps not. Perhaps subjects were simply more inclined to give the name of a fat person as a round-the-clock contact. After all, it’s always easier to get ahold of an obese person who, being slothful, is likely to be parked in front of his TV, popping chocolates and munching chips, than it is to contact somebody who’s thin, and is likely to be out and about, probably jogging. The researchers, in other words, were not operating from a list of BFFs, but instead from a list of acquaintences judged by the subjects at the time to be most likely available by telephone. (The subjects, remember, had been enrolled long before the era of cell phones.) So, critics insist, the baseline assumption made in this study – that the researchers actually knew who the subjects’ close friends were – is highly suspect.

To which DrRich replies: These critics likely have fat friends, and are probably even fat themselves, and thus their complaints can be dismissed with a definitive, “Bunk!”

Moving on, critics have also complained because the kind of computer modeling used in this study is not for mere mortals to understand, and therefore amounts to a black box. And indeed, DrRich must admit that the authors’ description of their statistical maneuverings is enough to make your head spin – replete as they are with the running of numerous simulations, using differing assumptions along with a quite unembarrassed manipulation of all the variables (almost as if they were seeking the “right” combination of factors to yield the desired answer, reminiscent of the scientific techniques revealed in the emails of those global warming experts). Critics go on to complain that there are only a handful of humans who claim to understand this kind of complex computer modeling, the results of which, therefore, resemble “received knowledge,” akin to what the medieval clergy used to dole out to the unwashed masses, when most people were illiterate and there were no Bibles in the vernacular.

Bunk again, says DrRich. While the computer modeling used here is indeed unfamiliar to physicians, it is very familiar to a few theoretical economists, who have used similar modelings for years in the attempt to predict the behavior of markets within social networks. DrRich even found a formal critique of the Christakis/Fowler analysis, written by two such economists (Ethan Cohen-Cole from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, and Jason M. Fletcher of Yale University). And while this pair of economists, in fact, concluded that Christakis/Fowler bollixed-up their analysis of obesity to such a great extent that their conclusions are completely illegitimate, DrRich counters with this query to said economists: If you know so much about computer models, how’d your investments do during the big crash in ’08? Eh?

Finally, critics say, all the reports appearing in the popular media (which often have included provocative quotes provided by Christakis and/or Fowler themselves), seem to have exaggerated the conclusions of the study way beyond what the published study actually says. For instance, all media reports stress the general contagious nature of obesity. But when one reads the study itself, one finds that the highly-publicized ability of obesity to “spread” from friend to friend actually did not hold up for the following combinations of friends: man-woman, woman-man, and woman-woman. It only reached statistical significance when both friends were men. So while the results of this study have been mercilessly generalized, in fact only one real finding was actually suggested by this data. If either you are a woman or your friend is a woman, then your friend’s obesity is not contagious to you – even if you buy the results of this study.

To this criticism DrRich responds thusly: Having fat friends makes you fat, OK? So get over it. If you choose to believe only the details of the study, instead of its spirit (as clearly expressed by the media and by the public utterances of its authors), then go ahead and enjoy your obese female friends, and see where that gets you.

The real beauty of this study is that, since it comes from a completely unique database that will never be duplicated, the data we have is the only data we’re ever going to get. So, the quibbling of the critics aside, the very best study ever conducted or that ever will be conducted on this issue shows definitively – to the satisfaction of the people that matter – that obesity is contagious.

Since the obese are rapidly becoming the witches of the 21st century, we are obligated to do everything in our power to stop them while we can. (DrRich points out that burning witches is an evil act only if you don’t believe that witches are real. If you, supported by all the respected authorities of the day, believe that real witches are present in the community, and that they indeed are capable of producing extreme harm to innocent individuals, surreptitiously and at a great distance – kind of like the obese – then burning them is at least reasonable, if not the only responsible thing to do.)

DrRich of course is not advocating burning fat people at the stake. He is already on record as saying that committing such an act would be a crime against the environment, just based on the carbon emissions alone.

But, my goodness, why would you befriend a fat person – let alone invite one into your home for a holiday supper – when doing so will put you and your family, all the way down to the second-and-even-third-degree acquaintances in your social network, at grave risk? Until the day comes when our leaders develop the courage to do what needs to be done about the menace of obesity – perhaps gathering up all the fat people and concentrating them, say, in special camps – we must do our bit to keep them from contaminating our own social networks.

As our President says, our new healthcare reforms, to be successful, will rely utterly on the straightforward and unprejudiced application of the very best medical science available, rather than on emotions, on biased opinions, or on unsupported traditions.

Until our leaders grow the teabags to begin following their own advice, let us regular folks do what needs to be done in our own homes, especially during this very special holiday season.

May God bless you and keep you – thin.

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DrRich wishes his readers a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year – whatever their BMIs – and will return here to the CRB shortly after the holidays.