Patients, Doctors and Remote Third Parties

DrRich | December 27th, 2010 - 3:02 pm


From the ominously-titled book, “New Rules,” by Donald Berwick MD and Troyen Brennan MD:

“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.”

Unfortunately, Dr. Berwick’s straightforward formulation of the appropriate role of the individual physician in our reformed healthcare system is not isolated to thinkers of the Progressive persuasion. The notion that most clinical decisions can be usefully made by a centralized authority is attractive even to some conservatives.

For example, a few years ago the noted economist Arnold Kling strongly defended the idea. “My own view is that a remote third party probably can use statistical evidence to make good recommendations for a course of treatment.”

Now, Kling is no far-left radical, pushing for centralized control of healthcare (and everything else). Indeed, he is now with the Cato Institute, and before that he taught economics at George Mason University. So he has earned his conservative and/or libertarian chops.

And to be fair, he is not really calling here for “remote third parties” to have final authority on what’s best for individual patients. Rather, he thinks patients should make that decision for themselves, weighing the recommendations of data-driven guidelines promulgated by remote experts, against the ego-toss’d recommendations from their all-too-fallible doctors, or, as Kling sarcastically refers to them, their “heroic personal saviors.” (Such sarcasm, regular readers will know, is as abhorrent to DrRich as it probably is to you.) Kling is saying: trust patients, armed with good evidence-based recommendations handed down from experts, to make the right decisions for themselves.

In concept even DrRich supports this latter notion. Indeed, a chief theme of this blog has been that doctors have been coerced into such a compromised position by the government and the insurance carriers that wise patients will no longer simply trust their doctors’ advice explicitly. As things now stand, patients who place full reliance on their doctors, assuming that they’ll get all the information they need to make good medical decisions, are putting themselves in peril. Smart patients will seek out all the information they can about their own medical conditions, so they can confirm that their doctors are indeed presenting them with all their reasonable options, and so they can more intelligently evaluate those options. And certainly, expert-endorsed guidelines would be an important part of that research.

But Kling’s remedy – that patients rely on the treatment recommendations made by expert panels as a remedy to the conflicted advice being doled out by their own doctors – is seriously flawed.

The first flaw, of course, is the idea that remote third parties, wielding evidence-based data, can make good treatment recommendations for individual patients. Evidence-based guidelines, almost by definition, are designed to improve the average outcome across a population of individuals, and are specifically designed not to optimize outcomes for each individual within that population.

Second, Kling apparently assumes that the remote third parties who are producing evidence-based treatment recommendations will be acting in a completely objective and unbiased manner. But this can never be the case. A major theme of the Covert Rationing Blog this past year has been to demonstrate that a) clinical science is probably the least exact of the sciences; b) the design and interpretation of clinical studies is inevitably attended by significant bias; and c) therefore, no matter who is producing them – whether it is medical professionals or GOD panelists (Government Operatives Deliberating) – these guidelines will always be produced with a particular agenda in mind. To assume that such agendas will be primarily – or even remotely – related to optimizing the outcomes of individual patients will often be a serious error.

Third, the idea that patients, even very intelligent patients armed with “perfect information,” can by themselves reliably sort through the morass of conflicting evidence and conflicting opinions that invariably inform any set of clinical recommendations (whether made by vaunted teams of completely objective experts from on-high, or by one’s inherently flawed, conflicted and ego-driven personal physician) is simply false. This would be the case even if the healthcare system were perfectly aligned to help patients. Which, of course, it is not. (It is aligned to affect the covert rationing of healthcare.)

Finally, while the advice patients get from their doctors is indeed biased, more and more it is biased (thanks to heavy-handed coercion) in favor of those same central authorities that are commissioning the expert panels.

As a result, patients – especially when they are sick and least able to fend for themselves – are generally incapable of negotiating the gratuitous complexities and hidden hazards laid out before them by a hostile healthcare system, a system which silently prays they will, in frustration, just go buy themselves some alternative medicine remedy, then crawl under a bush and die while contemplating their qi. Indeed, patients are as incapable of successfully navigating such a system as are accused felons of navigating a complex and hostile legal system that’s bent on sending them away for 15-20 years.

It is for this very reason that accused felons are assigned an advocate, an individual who is ethically and legally obligated to take their part, to help them navigate all the legal hazards, to do everything possible to see they are treated fairly, and that they are given every reasonable chance to prove their innocence. Lawyers, as much as we physicians might like to castigate them, are absolutely critical to a civil society.

And this is the reason why patients (according to traditional, though now quaint, medical ethics) are also supposed to have a personal advocate, an individual who is obligated to take their part, to help them navigate all the medical hazards, to do everything possible to see that they are treated fairly and that all available medical options are made open to them, and that they are given every reasonable chance of a good clinical outcome. Patients, in other words, need doctors who are devoted to the classic precepts of their profession. Such doctors, as much as Kling and others might like to diminish their importance, are also absolutely critical to a civil society.

But, as we have seen, and as has been publicly celebrated by Dr. Berwick and others, severing the classic doctor-patient relationship has been Job One under our system of covert rationing – whether that rationing is managed by insurance companies or by the government. Doctors simply cannot be allowed any longer to place their patients first. They’ve got to place the needs of their true masters first. They’ve got to keep the government and the insurers happy or they’re out of a job. They are no longer permitted to tailor clinical choices to best fit their individual patients, but they are simply to apply treatment directives as they are handed down by (from now on, government-appointed) panels of experts.

And this brings us back to Kling. DrRich of course agrees with his notion that patients ought to be armed with the high-quality information they need to determine their own medical destiny. DrRich can even agree that relying solely on the information provided by today’s doctor is generally not advisable. But DrRich cannot agree with the reason it’s not advisable. Doctors aren’t so much inherently flawed by ego and other intrinsic character flaws (at least, no more than any other group of humans), as they are operating under duress, under imposed constraints, and under external coercions that systematically and purposefully prevent them from discharging their professional obligations.

Nor can DrRich agree with Kling’s proposed solution. No centralized set of recommendations, evidence-based or not, can fix this problem for patients – especially when the expert bodies that make those recommendations are controlled by the same entities that have, with malice aforethought, killed the medical profession for the express purpose of stripping patients of their advocates, and therefore, of their medical options.

DrRich has trouble seeing a solution to this problem that is not radical. He does not see how doctors can resume their rightful place as their patients’ advocates and remain in what has become of the traditional healthcare system. Perhaps enough doctors to make a difference will leave the traditional healthcare system, shedding themselves of the third parties who now control their behavior, and re-establishing their practices (and revitalizing their profession) with a new commitment to the doctor-patient relationship. If not, then perhaps some brand new profession will establish itself (call it “personal healthcare advocates”) to fill the great void that threatens the safety of every American patient.

So yes, let individual patients weigh all the evidence and choose the healthcare option that suits them best. But unless they have a personal advocate to help them navigate the morass of biased choices – whether that advocate is their PCP like it’s supposed to be, or some new variety of professional advocate – those options will be limited to whatever healthcare is deemed best by the central planners.

A fine economist such as Dr. Kling should realize that a remote third party can no more make good recommendations for individual patients trying to survive in the rough and tumble of the healthcare system, than can a remote third party make good recommendations for individual businesses trying to compete in the rough and tumble of the marketplace. It is one thing for Progressives to hold to such a notion. It is far more disturbing to see respected conservative thinkers doing so.

6 Responses to “Patients, Doctors and Remote Third Parties”

  1. Robert V Sypher Jr says:


    Spot on and prescient as usual.
    Do you have a problem with colleagues reprinting this and distributing your essay for wide review.
    Despite suggesting your blog for review, most of my patients and fellow physicians are too self absorbed to bother to go to the website and ponder your well thought out positions.
    They would read handouts.

    Rob Sypher

    • DrRich says:


      I would be honored to have you distribute this post (or any of them). I would appreciate appropriate attributions, of course, as the CRB can use all the notice it can get.


  2. An MD says:

    Great Post!

  3. Liz says:


    We are discussing this excellent post over at Sermo, if you would like to participate. Search for “new rules.”


  4. sch says:

    To say nothing of the marked variability in the medical
    literature over time as to what is believed to be
    probably true, only later to be shown other wise.
    Current knowledge 2010 will differ from current knowledge
    2015 and 2020 in unexpected ways, and it will still not
    be clear which data point is to be preferred

  5. Doc99 says:

    To paraphrase Roger Miller, “Medicine swings like a pendulum do.” Semmelweiss’ findings defied the medical evidence of his day and he paid a terrible price for being right. Nowhere better is this pendulum effect illustrated than in Woody Allen’s “Sleeper.”

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