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.

5 Responses to “The ACP Further Elaborates On “Parsimonious Medical Care””

  1. For what it’s worth, I had the opportunity to personally witness the surge of the ACP in the ethics blog vote count, and can verify the observations described in this post. Almost one hundred votes occurred within a scant few minutes. The surge of the ACP in the final hours of the cut-off period was truly breathtaking, and it was frankly, well, almost mechanical in the manner in which the winning margin was maintained by a quite steady 10-20 votes for the final hours until the very end. However I myself attributed the ACPs victory to the strong desire of residents of American Samoa to make themselves heard on the matter of medical ethics just before dinner time (their time) on Sunday evening.

  2. pcb says:

    The last few paragraphs on this post would be hard to read if I were an ACP leader.

    Pretty impressive stuff, Dr. Rich.

  3. WithoutEyes says:

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

  4. Tim says:

    If Dr. Hood thinks “Parsimonious” means “efficient”, then she should, parsimoniously, write “efficient”.

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