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.

One Response to “We Interrupt This Hiatus For A Special Message”

  1. J. Bentham says:

    “It is the greatest good to the greatest number of people which is the measure of right and wrong.”

    - Jeremy Bentham, founder of Utilitarianism

    “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,
    or the one.”

    - Captain Spock, USS Enterprise NCC-1701

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