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.