Whatever Happened To Managed Care?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Herd Medicine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So open wide and say Moo.

The ACP Further Elaborates On “Parsimonious Medical Care”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let Us Shun the Obese This Holiday Season

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

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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.

______
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.

DrRich Explains The Right To Healthcare

DrRich | August 22nd, 2011 - 7:09 am

Podcast:

If we are ever to gain control of our healthcare spending, which is a necessity if we are going to avoid an economic catastrophe during the next couple of decades, we have to come to some agreement, as a society, on a few essential questions.  Chief among these questions is whether healthcare is something we must consider to be a right for all Americans.

The question of whether healthcare is a right has become a very contentious one. One side passionately declares that of course it is a right, as healthcare is so critically important that how could it be otherwise? And the other side, with equal conviction, asserts that nothing can be a right that creates an involuntary burden on another.

That is, advocates on either side of the argument maintain their respective positions as being axiomatic, as primary and irreducible truths – which does not allow much room for discussion or debate. So instead of dispassionate discussion, we get vituperation. For, when one’s opponent denies an axiomatic truth, he declares himself to be beneath contempt, and unworthy of any degree of respect.

Regular readers will know that DrRich is a peacemaker.  Accordingly, he will attempt an apology for each of these mutually exclusive, fundamentally principled positions. He will follow this by a description of the pragmatic (as opposed to principled) position on the matter taken by our current leaders. Then finally, humble as ever, he will offer the “real” answer to the question of whether healthcare is a right.

The Conservative Position

Conservatives (and in most matters, DrRich is among this lot) think of “rights” in terms of “natural rights,” that is, in terms of rights which accrue to every person by virtue of the fact that they are members of the human race. Natural rights are generally considered to descend from the Creator (as the Declaration of Independence explicitly says), or at the very least from the inherent nature of the universe, and thus are not subject to addition or subtraction by any human authority – such as by governments.

Because natural rights are granted equally to every human, it follows that there is no such thing as a right that imposes obligations or limitations on the natural rights of others.

A right to healthcare would most certainly require an abridgement of the rights of others, and so there can be no right to healthcare.

The Progressive Position

Most Progressives do not explicitly deny the existence of natural rights, because doing so would cause them embarrassment when they assert their own inherent and unalterable “truths” (such as the superiority of “diversity” over all other human virtues). However, at their core Progressives do not (and cannot) actually subscribe to natural rights, since the Progressive program virtually requires a Central Authority to assign and distribute and enforce various differential “rights” to various groups, in order to achieve social justice.  And achieving social justice is the central requirement for Progressives to reach their ultimate goal of a perfect society.

To Progressives, creating healthcare equality among all Americans is critical to social justice. And so, it becomes axiomatic for them that healthcare must be a right.

It becomes immediately evident that any such “rights” granted under the Progressive program will necessarily create involuntary obligations upon at least some individuals. So it is likewise immediately evident that any “right” for Progressives will fundamentally violate the essence of a “right” for Conservatives.

This impasse, which occurs at the very first step of the discussion, is what prevents Conservatives and Progressives from engaging in any fruitful discussion of whether healthcare ought to be a right.

The Practical Position (The BOSS Rule)

Our current leaders have taken a more practical position on the question of a right to healthcare. They rely on the fact that “rights” are often bequeathed not because of some overarching principle (as with Conservative or Progressive thought), but rather, because of issues of practicality – or more straightforwardly, because the sovereign authority has the desire and the power to do so. They point out that throughout human history innumerable “rights” have been promulgated by the expediency of raw power.

We need only consider, during the course of human events, such widely acknowledged rights as the exceptional rights of the aristocracy (especially the divine rights of kings), the unique rights of the clergy, or the special rights of the Politburo (or the Congress).  The fact is that all of these rights clearly imposed more-or-less oppressive obligations on, and limited the individual rights of, the people. But that is not the least matter of concern. Rights become rights because the exigent authority has the desire to create them, and the capacity to exert violence wherever necessary to enforce them.

In this light, one might say that healthcare is a right in America simply because of the BOSS rule (Because Obama Says So). If Obama says healthcare is a right (and he has said so, many times), and has the raw power to back it up, then, by God, healthcare is a right.

The Correct Position

It is easy to see why the “healthcare is a right” debate has become so contentious – people mean entirely different things when they use the word “right.” A right to a Conservative is a natural phenomenon, awarded equally to all people and fundamentally unalterable by human hands. A right to a Progressive is an essential social construct, enumerated by enlightened leaders, which is necessary to further the principle of social justice. And to some non-ideologues a right is whatever the sovereign authority says it is.

To DrRich, none of these constructs are useful to solving our current problem of healthcare spending.

The Conservative position – that because healthcare cannot possibly be a natural right, therefore there is no right to healthcare – not only seems callous to a large segment of Americans, but (as DrRich will shortly demonstrate) is wrong. The Progressive and Practical positions – that healthcare is a right either because it is necessary to further the supreme cause of social justice, or simply because the Central Authority decrees it to be so – leave us in an untenable position when it comes to reducing healthcare spending.

That untenable position occurs because, when a “right to healthcare” is bestowed by the government, under either the Progressive program or the BOSS rule, that right is open-ended. It immediately takes on the characteristics of an entitlement, a grant bestowed on individuals by society because of the group to which they have been assigned (such as: citizens, residents, people over 65 years of age, a particular racial or ethnic group, etc.) That entitlement is to “healthcare” – that is, for whatever we can get the authorities (by whatever political maneuvering we choose to engage) to agree that “healthcare” includes, whether it is well-baby checks, artificial hearts, chemotherapy, extravagant end-of-life care, hair transplants, or cosmetic surgery. A right like this – an entitlement – is rarely taken away, or even limited, once granted. Entitlements are soon seen by their recipients (and by the vested interests that quickly spring up to defend those entitlements, such as the bureaucracy that regulates them, the companies that supply the products for them, and the healthcare professionals that administer them) as something that is owed forever, as a natural, God-given right, which can always be expanded, but never ever restricted.

DrRich, therefore, finds all these positions on a right to healthcare to be unhelpful. For this reason DrRich proposes a new position on a right to healthcare, a position which he humbly calls the Correct Position.

To wit: all Americans have an implied contractual right to healthcare. We have this right because we have long since entered into a contract under which, in exchange for implied considerations, we’re all paying for it.

Under the present healthcare system, a system we have devised over the past six decades through our duly elected representatives, every person living in the United States is sharing in the cost of healthcare for every person who receives healthcare. Since every American, in one or more ways, is paying for the healthcare of every American who receives it, every American has a just claim – a contractual right – to their fair share of that healthcare.

Let us list some of the ways in which Americans all share in the cost of all healthcare:

1) Anyone receiving a paycheck is subject to payroll deductions to pay for Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor.
2) Anyone paying income tax is paying higher tax rates to offset tax-deductible health insurance premiums purchased by businesses for their employees. (That is, employer-provided health insurance is subsidized by the taxpayer.)
3) Anyone buying products in the U.S. is paying higher prices to cover the healthcare costs of American businesses.
4) Anyone living in America is sharing in the massive societal burden we are creating by allowing healthcare spending to be passed off to future generations, by way of the national debt.

These costs, and more, are borne by everybody living in the U.S. And since all Americans are paying the cost of all healthcare – even the cost of so-called “private” health insurance – we all have a right, in the form a consideration under a contract, to claim some of that healthcare for ourselves. To deny this fact would void the contract.

It is important to note that this argument for a right to healthcare is fundamentally different from the arguments typically given. This contractual right is not “granted” to an individual by a beneficent society because of some inherent characteristic of the recipient, but rather, it exists solely because the individual is party to a social contract, created by the peoples’ representatives, under which healthcare is a consideration given in return for certain obligations the individual makes to society. Those obligations would include paying for the publicly-funded healthcare through taxes, and subjecting oneself to whatever limits to publicly-funded healthcare such a system requires in order to maintain societal integrity.

It is critical to understand that this kind of contractual right to healthcare enables us, legally end ethically, to set necessary limits on what we mean by healthcare. The “right” to healthcare is a contractual right, and not a natural right or an ethical requirement.  So, under that contract,  as in any contract between consenting parties, we have a duty to specify the limits of our mutual obligations, that is, to specify what we mean by “healthcare.” Furthermore, we have a duty to specify what we mean by “healthcare” in such a way that fulfilling the contract does not bring about national bankruptcy or otherwise cause societal destruction.

There would no longer be an obligation to provide individuals with every manner of available healthcare under all circumstances, but only to provide individuals with that level of healthcare which is provided as a public benefit to all other individuals, under the terms of the social contract. (An entitlement to healthcare, in contrast, traditionally is an open-ended promise in which “healthcare” comprises anything and everything one might think has any possibility of restoring every bit of health.)

To summarize, as DrRich sees it we have already created a contractual obligation to provide publicly-funded healthcare to all individuals, by virtue of the fact that we have burdened every individual in America with the cost of healthcare for anyone who is now receiving it. In contrast to the Conservative position, DrRich’s formulation recognizes a right that truly exists, by virtue of a contract that is unarguably in force, and that has been enacted over a long period of time through the offices of the people’s elected representatives. And unlike the Progressive position, DrRich’s formulation does not entrap us into an open-ended obligation to pay for all “healthcare,” however our collective sentiments may entice us to define that term.

We might as well own up to our responsibilities by openly recognizing : a) the universally-shared payments we all make to the cost of American healthcare: b) the right of all Americans to the considerations that arise from this universally-shared burden; and c) that it is right and proper for us to establish clear limits to the obligations borne by all the parties, as we must do with any legitimate contract.

The open recognition of this contractual right to healthcare will finally give us the framework we need for a public discussion on setting necessary limits on publicly-subsidized healthcare spending.

And this, DrRich most humbly submits, is the correct answer to whether healthcare is a right.

A Revered Ethicist Argues For Restricting Direct-Pay Practices

DrRich | August 11th, 2011 - 5:30 pm

Podcast:

DrRich, in his last post, attempted to show why a direct-pay medical practice is the only remaining pathway by which PCPs may preserve the classic doctor-patient relationship, and for patients to assure themselves that they are working with a doctor who at least has the prerogative to actually place their individual interests first, above all those other powerful, ruthless, contrary interests, which are striving to control the behaviors of their doctors.

He attempted to show this by making an argument founded in the principles of medical ethics.

As it happens, one of today’s best-known medical ethicists, at about the same time, was telling doctors just the opposite. Arthur Caplan, at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics, published this advice for doctors at Medscape.com. Here is the meat of Dr. Caplan’s admonition:

“No matter how you look at it, if you allow providers to buy out, you are going to leave other patients with lower-quality care, and you are going to burden the remaining primary care practitioners (who don’t take the concierge route) with more work.”

DrRich has two comments.

First, this argument against direct-pay practices is based solely on the goal of social justice.

DrRich has not been shy about expressing his disdain for the views of your typical, modern medical ethicist. Most of these individuals today embrace the utilitarian camp of medical ethics, wherein formerly revered niceties based on ethical precepts (like the classic doctor-patient relationship) must take a back seat to the goals of social justice. And where social justice is concerned the ends justify the means.

Achieving “social justice,” of course, always and inherently requires a powerful Central Authority which has the muscle to make sure that all of the benefits of life are distributed in a just and fair way. What is just and fair, of course, is to be determined by groups of sanctioned experts, a sort of expert class with guns. These will determine who gets what, when and how.

So once again a member of the group of sanctioned experts, who will determine how things are to be, comes right out and tells us: a doctor who embraces the kind of medical practice where a doctor’s only responsibility is to the needs of his/her patient is behaving unethically.

Second, DrRich calls your attention to the most interesting and revealing phrase uttered by Dr. Caplan: “If you allow practitioners to buy out. . .”

What Dr. Caplan is saying is that doctors must not be allowed to establish direct pay practices. It must not be left to them. We must prevent them from doing so. That is, it must be made illegal.

He is laying out a formal ethical argument for doing what DrRich has been warning his readers, over and over again, the Progressives are bound and determined to do: to make it illegal to sell medical services directly to individuals, and for individuals to purchase medical services with their own money. You can only get your healthcare when, how and from whom the Central Authority says.

The message won’t get much more explicit than this, dear readers. DrRich begs you to take heed before it is too late.