The Preventive Medicine Con

Well, the first details of the long awaited health care plan are now coming out, and the Internet is abuzz with shock and awe about many of its aspects, particularly its high cost, the undermining of private health insurance policies, and the complexity of its administration, manifested in a host of new bureaucratic agencies to bring the joys of government health care into every nook and cranny of your pitiful and meaningless life.

One big-picture aspect of this huge transformation in American health care which seems to be receiving little or no attention is its heavy emphasis on preventive medicine. We have been hearing for some time about how preventive medicine will save substantial sums of money and thereby make the overall health care system far less costly. Of course, such rhetoric has an enormous appeal at a surface level — after all, if you can prevent diseases, you certainly don’t need to spend money to cure them.

Who could argue with this?

But this innocent-sounding, simplistic Trojan horse will prove deadly for American health care, and end up empowering the bureaucrats and politicians who will, in fact, gain the most from this change in direction.

When we talk about preventive medicine, we are generally speaking of two general areas: the screening and early detection of diseases, and lifestyle changes and therapy to reduce long-term medical risk. Screening and early detection of diseases is appealing concept, but devilishly difficult in practice. The idea sounds wonderful: do a simple, inexpensive test; detect the disease earlier, when it is simpler and less expensive to treat; and you will be healthier in the future, requiring far fewer health resources. The problem lies, as I have discussed elsewhere, in the malignant mathematics and sickening statistics of applying medical screening to large populations. Simply put, no screening test is perfect, and all such tests generate both false positives — telling you that you have a disease, when you do not — and false negatives — telling you you’re fine when you really have the disease. Even with an extraordinarily accurate test the problem lies in applying it to large populations. If you have a cancer screening test with a 1% false positive rate (an extraordinarily low number in the screening business), and have a disease which occurs in one patient out of every 10,000, applying the test to 10,000 patients will generate 100 false alarms (false positives) for every patient with the disease. These false positives all require additional testing or procedures to determine whether in fact the abnormal test really means you have the disease. And herein lies the economic trap: you will in fact spend an extraordinary amount of money on patients without the disease for every patient detected who does have the disease. This phenomenon has been well demonstrated in almost every study of screening — to wit: screening actually increases rather than reduces medical costs.

Of course many simple screening tests and procedures are used every day in medicine. When you go to the doctor, your blood pressure is checked, your cholesterol is measured, you stand on the scale and are weighed, and asked whether or not you smoke. If your blood pressure is high, you will likely be started on medication, and it is also likely that you will need to stay on this medication indefinitely. If your cholesterol is elevated, will be encouraged to exercise, make dietary changes, and lose weight (most of which you won’t do), but will also likely will be started on cholesterol-reducing medication, likely for the long-term. Of course, we recognize that this is appropriate for the reduction of risk from high blood pressure or high cholesterol. What may not be recognized, is that many people with high blood pressure or high cholesterol, unrecognized and untreated, may not have significant problems from these disorders for many years, if ever.

Suppose that 100 people with high cholesterol levels take statins, a common treatment for high cholesterol. Of them, about 93 wouldn’t have had heart attacks even if they had not taking the medication. Five people, on the other hand, will have heart attacks despite taking the statin. Only the remaining two out of the original 100 avoided a heart attack by taking the daily pills. In the end, 100 people needed to be treated to avoid two heart attacks during the study period --so, the number of people who must get the treatment for a single person to benefit is 50. This is known as the “number needed to treat” — and is a common way in which health researchers determine the cost and effectiveness of preventive therapy. Ideally, we will get better at selecting those patients at the front end who actually will benefit from taking the drug, and therefore avoid administering it in those who ultimately will not need it. But such health forecasting is far, far from perfect, and there will always be a need to treat patients perceived to be at risk even though time will ultimately find them not to be at risk at all. The human organism in health and disease is far too complex to eliminate this reality.

Problems such as these arise in every aspect of preventive medicine. It also goes without saying that implementing lifestyle changes, such as weight reduction, regular exercise, smoking cessation, and dietary modifications, is largely a fool’s pursuit. We humans love our addictions, and rarely overcome them even when they threaten our health and well-being.

The myth of the economic benefits of preventive medicine dies hard, however, and the pending changes in the health care system are placing a very large bet on this loser’s hand. The systemic manifestation of this crap shoot is the glorification and indemnification of primary care as the solution to all of our health care woes, economic or otherwise. Although the final details of the pending reforms of health care are still far from complete, it is clear that there will be a heavy emphasis on steering patients toward primary care physicians and away from specialists.

Health care bean counters have long known that care delivered by specialists is more expensive then that delivered by primary care physicians. It is the specialist who performs the expensive surgeries, procedures, and diagnostic studies which cost the government and health insurers a substantial percentage of their total outlays. When viewed from an economist’s standpoint, it makes perfect sense to reduce the utilization of more expensive specialty care, and increase the utilization of less costly primary care. Although the details remain to be fleshed out, it appears that there will be a substantial increase in reimbursement to primary care physicians, and reduction in reimbursement to specialists by eliminating higher payments for consultations, procedures, and surgeries. These changes are already beginning to be implemented in Medicare, even prior to passage of any large healthcare reform legislation. There are plans to bundle payments for chronic disease management, paying the primary care physicians who manage them higher rates, most likely on a fixed payment schedule designed to motivate physicians to reduce costs and improve outcomes.

Like most great ideas arising from the government, this is a day late and a dollar short.

The insurance industry came up with this idea over a decade ago, and implemented it in systems extensively, using the tools of capitation (bulk payments to physicians upfront for future care) and the gatekeeper model (having the primary care physician who receives such bulk payments control referrals to specialists, with a strong financial incentive not to send them there).

Many of you may recall how popular these programs were. What you may not have noticed is that virtually all insurers have dropped them.

There were a host of difficulties with this approach to medicine. First of all, it put the physician in a position of conflict of interest, by giving him or her a financial incentive not to order additional tests or make referrals to expensive specialists. While this incentive would obviously reduce unnecessary tests and referrals, it also gave the physician an economic incentive to defer or eliminate such tests and referrals, when in fact they were in the patient’s best interest. Simply put, your doctor made more money if he did not order your CAT scan, even if a CAT scan had a strong medical indication.

These policies led to no small amount of disgruntlement among patients covered under such plans. It became clear that patients could not get to see specialists when they needed them, because their physician or their insurance company refused to allow them. Even when the system worked as ideally designed — preventing referrals for unproven experimental or unnecessary treatments — patients nevertheless demanded these treatments, and often resorted to heart-rending media exposés on how the evil insurance companies had refused to pay for their experimental treatment for cancer. In one sense, this approach did work as intended: by restricting access to care, particularly specialist referrals and expensive diagnostic testing, HMOs and other similar insurance schemes did in fact reduce substantially the rise in medical costs. But they did so by rationing — and thereby sealed their own fate when this became enormously unpopular among patients, and (of course) exploited by politicians. Although some remnants of this system remain intact, particularly preauthorization for specialist referrals, certain procedures, and diagnostic imaging studies, the coercive restrictions in place during the height of this trend have greatly mitigated. Those restrictions which remain are still the most common source of discontent among patients and physicians, as insurance companies continue to refuse payment for medical services recommended by their physicians, or require onerous paperwork for their authorization.

As you can imagine, primary care physicians, who have been lobbying for higher reimbursement rates for many years (and not unreasonably so) find many aspects of a new financial emphasis on primary care to be attractive.

They should be careful what they wish for.

One of the deadliest traps of bundled payments such as capitation was the problem of medical outliers. Getting a payment every month for your entire patient population, to manage all their care, is a great deal if all your patients are healthy, as they cost you very little, and you get to keep the difference. The problem arises when your practice involves a large number of patients whose care is very expensive. Your lump sum payment begins to look very small when a large number of your patients require costly hospitalization, surgery, expensive medical therapy or drugs — the payment for which is coming out of your own pocket. This reality created an entire consulting industry to analyze patient populations versus capitation rates, with the goal of reducing the physicians exposure to such potentially disastrous financial consequences. Physicians and their consultants got very good at selecting populations of healthier patients — which often excluded those patients who needed medical care the most. Physicians who got burned on this difficult calculus often ended up terminating their relationship with specific insurance carriers, resulting in large numbers of patients abruptly losing their physicians, and forced to hunt around for new physicians who would accept their insurance.

For these and a host of other reasons such insurance models have largely died an ignominious and well-deserved death. but their rotting corpses are being raised to life again. The Undead will walk the earth, this time with even greater powers granted them the federal government.

With private insurers, physicians and physician groups at least have the option of terminating their contracts with insurance carriers whose reimbursements or capitation rates were insufficient to cover the risks of the patient populations they covered. With universal health care, especially one predominantly or exclusively provided by the government, this escape route will no longer be available. The primary care physician who finds his reimbursement improved for managing chronic diseases will also find himself burdened by a blizzard of additional paperwork to document that the “quality” of his care meets government standards — whether such standards are realistic, or even in the patient’s best interest. Furthermore, if such reimbursements do not cover the inevitable increase in management overhead, there will simply be no place else to turn. One cannot fire the federal government when they are the only source of payment for the medical services you provide. The only option available to physicians will be to opt out of medicine altogether — and you may anticipate the increasing numbers of physicians will do exactly this. Universal health insurance is not the same as universal health access — a lesson we are about to learn painfully if we continue down this path. A seat at the Captain’s table on the Titanic seems propitious until the chairs start sliding toward the bow of the sinking ship.

But there is another aspect to this heavy emphasis on primary care which has received virtually no attention. Although certainly not without problems and potential abuses, the simple fact remains that America’s specialist-intensive health care system is in fact the driving force behind its technologically advanced benefits. Simply put, we are not living longer, healthier lives because we have beloved family doctors who hold our hands and listen to our complaints. The huge advances in medicine in the past 50 years have occurred in large part because of the specialization of medicine. The extraordinary complexity of contemporary medicine has made its mastery by any one type of physician utterly impossible. Even the brightest internist or family practice physician cannot be master of all of the complex aspects of cardiology, surgery, oncology, or the management of increasingly-challenging infectious diseases. Certainly good physicians in primary care are well-versed in many of these areas, at some level, but it has long since been unrealistic to expect primary care providers to be masters of such vast and ever increasing knowledge and complexity in the different realms of specialty medicine. This is not to denigrate in any way the importance of primary care physicians, most of whom are highly accomplished at the health maintenance of large numbers of patients — a skill which has contributed greatly to our improved quality of life and longer lifespans. But our system provides the enormous benefits in high quality and longer, healthier lives because the primary care physician has a very deep bench of specialists at his beck and call.

At some point even the most skilled and capable primary care physician will encounter complex, difficult, or intractable problems which he or she simply is not trained or skilled to manage. Specialty care is indeed expensive — and it is expensive in no small part because the patients who need such care have more difficult or complex medical problems, which simply cannot be best treated without the expertise of specialists.

As our system increasingly steers patients away from such specialty care for economic reasons, it will do so at significant cost in a variety of realms. Much of the advanced medical innovation, which has given us longer and better lives, has arisen out of specialty care, and it is inevitable that significant restrictions on such care will blunt and slow such medical advances. But there are costs hidden in such an approach which will also become apparent with such an unbalanced emphasis. When we, through financial coercion, force primary care physicians to assume the care of increasingly complex patients for which they have neither the training nor depth of experience to manage, such care will inevitably end up being inferior in quality — and likely will end up in the long run, being far more costly. Without access to specialty support, primary care physicians tend to fall back on using more expensive medications, diagnostic studies, and therapies, sometimes inappropriately. The unusual skin condition, which can be promptly diagnosed and appropriately treated in a few visits to the dermatologist, may instead be treated with an increasing array of expensive and ineffective therapies or drugs by primary care providers who are unwilling or unable to avail themselves of specialty consultation and treatment. The insurance companies learned this long ago, and it was one of the factors motivating them to dismantle the gatekeeper model.

The enormous push toward primary care and preventive medicine embodied in the currently-envisioned transformation of the health care system being pushed through by Congress will be doomed to fail, brought down by the flawed premises upon which it is based. But it will, in one important regard, prove successful to those who are currently pushing its implementation. The system as currently designed, with its emphasis on primary care and preventive medicine, will not improve quality or reduce costs, but will give government a far greater degree of control over physicians and the nature of the care they provide. Increasingly it will be the government, and not the physician, who dictates what care you will receive, which specialists you will see (if any), and whether the medically appropriate care which you need will meet its financial standards for return on investment. As Obama has promised us, we will all be asked to “take the pain pill” rather than undergo the surgery we need and which will improve our lives.

It likely is too late to stop the perfect storm of health care reform, given the current makeup of our Congress and Administration. Be prepared for a brave new world in medicine.

And don’t be surprised if it is not to your liking.

UPDATE: Massachusetts, in deep do-do from their universal coverage, is treading this same hoary path: Massachussetts Health Plan Pushes for Capitation Megan McArdle spells out the problems nicely. Take-away quote: “This is why ‘paying for health rather than procedures’ never pans out.”

The Children Whom Reason Scorns

Several weeks ago, Washington State logged a solitary but grim statistic: the first assisted suicide under a new law enacted by initiative last November. It seems fitting, therefore, to re-post the following essay, written some five years ago, occasioned by the decision in the Netherlands to legalize euthanasia for children. It is, I fear, a harbinger of things to come, far closer to home.

 
You Also Bear the BurdenIn the years following the Great War, a sense of doom and panic settled over Germany. Long concerned about a declining birth rate, the country faced the loss of 2 million of its fine young men in the war, the crushing burden of an economy devastated by war and the Great Depression, further compounded by the economic body blow of reparations and the loss of the German colonies imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. Many worried that the Nordic race itself was threatened with extinction.

The burgeoning new sciences of psychology, genetics, and medicine provided a glimmer of hope in this darkness. An intense fascination developed with strengthening and improving the nation through Volksgesundheit–public health. Many physicians and scientists promoted “racial hygiene” – better known today as eugenics. The Germans were hardly alone in this interest – 26 states in the U.S. had forced sterilization laws for criminals and the mentally ill during this period; Ohio debated legalized euthanasia in the 20’s; and even Oliver Wendall Holmes, in Buck v. Bell, famously upheld forced sterilization with the quote: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough!” But Germany’s dire circumstances and its robust scientific and university resources proved a most fertile ground for this philosophy.

These novel ideas percolated rapidly through the social and educational systems steeped in Hegelian deterministic philosophy and social Darwinism. Long lines formed to view exhibits on heredity and genetics, and scientific research, conferences, and publication on topics of race and eugenics were legion. The emphasis was often on the great burden which the chronically ill and mentally and physically deformed placed on a struggling society striving to achieve its historical destiny. In a high school biology textbook – pictured above – a muscular German youth bears two such societal misfits on a barbell, with the exhortation, “You Are Sharing the Load!–a hereditarily-ill person costs 50,000 Reichsmarks by the time they reach 60.” Math textbooks tested students on how many new housing units could be built with the money saved by elimination of long-term care needs. Parents often chose euthanasia for their disabled offspring, rather than face the societal scorn and ostracization of raising a mentally or physically impaired child. This widespread public endorsement and pseudo-scientific support for eugenics set the stage for its wholesale adoption — with horrific consequences — when the Nazi party took power.
Continue reading “The Children Whom Reason Scorns”

A Life Not Long

Last week, President Obama removed virtually all restrictions on fetal stem cell research, claiming a triumph of science over “ideology.” The hope, of course, is that science may find new ways to prolong and improve our lives, now that the shackles of moral restraint, humility, and ethics have been removed. It seemed fitting, therefore, to repost this older essay, pondering whether the “victories” which science now has in store for us will be indeed Pyrrhic.

 
sunset

A link from Glenn Reynolds hooked into something I’ve been ruminating on in recent days: the endless pursuit of longer life.

Here’s the question I’ve been pondering: is it an absolute good to be continually striving for a longer life span? Such a question may seem a bit odd coming from a physician, whose mission it is to restore and maintain health and prolong life. But the article which Glenn linked to, describing the striking changes in health and longevity of our present age, seemingly presents this achievement as an absolute good, and thereby left me a tad uneasy — perhaps because I find myself increasingly ambivalent about this unceasing pursuit of longer life.

Of course, long life and good health have always been considered blessings, as indeed they are. But long life in particular seems to have become a goal unto itself — and from where I stand is most decidedly a mixed blessing.

Many of the most difficult health problems with which we battle, which drain our resources struggling to overcome, are largely a function of our longer life spans. Pick a problem: cancer, heart disease, dementia, crippling arthritis, stroke — all of these increase significantly with age, and can result in profound physical and mental disability. In many cases, we are living longer, but doing so restricted by physical or mental limitations which make such a longer life burdensome both to ourselves and to others. Is it a positive good to live to age 90, spending the last 10 or more years with dementia, not knowing who you are nor recognizing your own friends or family? Is it a positive good to be kept alive by aggressive medical therapy for heart failure or emphysema, yet barely able to function physically? Is it worthwhile undergoing highly toxic chemotherapy or disfiguring surgery to cure cancer, thereby sparing a life then severely impaired by the treatment which saved that life?

These questions, in some way, cut to the very heart of what it means to be human. Is our humanity enriched simply by living longer? Does longer life automatically imply more happiness–or are we simply adding years of pain, disability, unhappiness, burden? The breathlessness with which authors often speak of greater longevity, or the cure or solution to these intractable health problems, seems to imply a naive optimism, both from the standpoint of likely outcomes, and from the assumption that a vastly longer life will be a vastly better life. Ignored in such rosy projections are key elements of the human condition — those of moral fiber and spiritual health, those of character and spirit. For we who live longer in such an idyllic world may not live better: we may indeed live far worse. Should we somehow master these illnesses which cripple us in our old age, and thereby live beyond our years, will we then encounter new, even more frightening illnesses and disabilities? And what of the spirit? Will a man who lives longer thereby have a longer opportunity to do good, or rather to do evil? Will longevity increase our wisdom, or augment our depravity? Will we, like Dorian Gray, awake to find our ageless beauty but a shell for our monstrous souls?

Such ruminations bring to mind a friend, a good man who died young. Matt was a physician, a tall, lanky lad with sharp bony features and deep, intense eyes. He was possessed of a brilliant mind, a superb physician, but left his mark on life not solely through medicine nor merely by intellect. A convert to Christianity as a young adult, Matt embraced his new faith with a passion and province rarely seen. His medical practice became a mission field. His flame burned so brightly it was uncomfortable to draw near: he was as likely to diagnose your festering spiritual condition as your daunting medical illness — and had no compunction about drilling to the core of what he perceived to be the root of the problem. Such men make you uneasy, for they sweep away the veneer of polite correction and diplomatic encouragement which we physicians are trained to deliver. Like some gifted surgeon of the soul, he cast sharp shadows rather than soft blurs, brandishing his brilliant insight on your now-naked condition. The polished conventions of medicine were never his strength — a characteristic which endeared him not at all to many in his profession. But his patients — those who could endure his honesty and strength of character — were passionate in their devotion to him, personally and professionally. For he was a man of extraordinary compassion and generosity, seeing countless patients at no charge, giving generously of his time and finances far beyond the modest means earned from his always-struggling practice.

The call I received from another friend, a general surgeon, requesting an assist at his surgery, was an unsettling one: Matt had developed a growth in his left adrenal gland. His surgery went deftly, with much confidence that the lesion had been fully excised. The pathology proved otherwise: Matt had an extremely rare, highly aggressive form of adrenal cancer. Fewer than 100 cases had been reported worldwide, and there was no known successful treatment. Nevertheless, as much for his wife and two boys as for himself, he underwent highly toxic chemotherapy, which sapped his strength and left him enfeebled. In spite of this, the tumor grew rapidly, causing extreme pain and rapid deterioration, bulging like some loathsome demon seeking to burst forth from his frail body. I saw him regularly, although in retrospect not nearly often enough, and never heard him complain; his waning energies were spent with his family, and he never lost the intense flame of faith. Indeed, as his weakened body increasingly became no more than life support for his cancer, wasting him physically and leaving him pale and sallow, there grew in him a spirit so remarkable that one was drawn to him despite the natural repulsion of watching death’s demonic march.

Matt died at age 38, alert and joyful to the end. His funeral was a most remarkable event: at an age in life where most would be happy to have sufficient friends to bear one’s casket, his funeral service at a large church was filled to overflowing — thousands of friends, patients, and professional peers paying their respects in a ceremony far more celebration than mourning. There was an open time for testimony — and such a time it was, as one after another took to the lectern to speak through tears of how Matt had touched their lives; of services rendered, small and large, unknown before that day; of funny anecdotes and sad remembrances which left not one soul of that large crowd untouched or unmoved.

A journey such as his casts critical light on our mindless pursuit of life lived only to live long. In Matt’s short life he brought more good into the world, touched more people, changed more lives, than I could ever hope to do were I to live a century more. It boils down to purpose: mere years are no substitute for a life lived with passion, striving for some goal greater than self, with transcendent purpose multiplying and compounding each waking moment. This is a life well-lived, whether long or short, whether weakened or well.

Like all, I trust, I hope to live life long, and seek a journey lived in good health and sound mind. But even more — far more indeed — do I desire that those days yet remaining — be they long or short — be rich in purpose, wise in time spent, and graced by love.

Assisted Suicide: Coming to a State Near You

I hope to have more to say on the issue of euthanasia and assisted suicide in the near future. In the meantime, I highly recommend this article by Herbert Hendin, M.D. Dr. Hendin’s book, Seduced by Death: Doctors, Patients, and Assisted Suicide, is an excellent resource on the topic, the result of extensive research and multiple interviews taken while studying euthanasia practices in the Netherlands. This article provides a nice summary of his research and experience, which builds a solid case against euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.

Washington has recently become the second state to pass an assisted suicide initiative, and, legislating from the bench, a Montana judge has ruled that man has right to assisted suicide.

This movement is on a roll, and you will want to be informed about why this is such a ghastly public policy trend.

A few highlights from the article:

Concern over charges of abuse led the Dutch government to undertake studies of the practice in 1990, 1995 and in 2001 in which physicians’ anonymity was protected and they were given immunity for anything they revealed. Violations of the guidelines then became evident. Half of Dutch doctors feel free to suggest euthanasia to their patients, which compromises the voluntariness of the process. Fifty percent of cases were not reported, which made regulation impossible. The most alarming concern has been the documentation of several thousand cases a year in which patients who have not given their consent have their lives ended by physicians. A quarter of physicians stated that they “terminated the lives of patients without an explicit request” from the patient. Another third of the physicians could conceive of doing so.

An illustration of a case presented to me as requiring euthanasia without consent involved a Dutch nun who was dying painfully of cancer. Her physician felt her religion prevented her from agreeing to euthanasia so he felt both justified and compassionate in ending her life without telling her he was doing so. Practicing assisted suicide and euthanasia appears to encourage physicians to think they know best who should live and who should die, an attitude that leads them to make such decisions without consulting patients–a practice that has no legal sanction in the Netherlands or anywhere else.

Assisted-suicide laws are always framed as being “compassionate” — appealing to the universal fear of dying a prolonged and painful death. Yet the unintended consequences of giving physicians the unrestricted power of life and death are often anything but:

Compassion is not always involved. In one documented case, a patient with disseminated breast cancer who had rejected the possibility of euthanasia had her life ended because, in the physician’s words: “It could have taken another week before she died. I just needed this bed.”

He also extensively studied Oregon’s experience with assisted suicide — the legislation which served as the model for Washington’s law — and found plenty of problems here as well:

Oregon physicians have been given authority without being in a position to exercise it responsibly. They are expected to inform patients that alternatives are possible without being required to be knowledgeable enough to present those alternatives in a meaningful way, or to consult with someone who is. They are expected to evaluate patient decision-making capacity and judgment without a requirement for psychiatric expertise or consultation. They are expected to make decisions about voluntariness without having to see those close to the patient who may be exerting a variety of pressures, from subtle to coercive. They are expected to do all of this without necessarily knowing the patient for longer than 15 days. Since physicians cannot be held responsible for wrongful deaths if they have acted in good faith, substandard medical practice is encouraged, physicians are protected from the con-sequences, and patients are left unprotected while believing they have acquired a new right.

The idea of assisted suicide has enormous allure in a culture of self-gratification and increasingly-shallow moral and ethical principles. Don’t be surprised when it comes your way — be prepared.

Revolution of the Soul

In the past several days, through the lens of my profession, I have been given a rather stark and disturbing vision of our current cultural revolution. It is, it seems, a revolution every bit as pervasive and transformational — and destructive — as China’s Cultural Revolution of the 60s — and indeed may be but a different manifestation of a global transformation which transpired in those very same decades in the West. Ideas have consequences, as they say, and we are watching them bear fruit before our very eyes in a slow-motion train wreck which seems now to be accelerating at a disturbing rate.

Exhibit 1: Phyllis Chesler’s recent piece, “Every hospital patient has a story“, at PajamasMedia. It is a piece to be read to completion, including its lengthy comment section. Therein she details a recent experience during a hospital stay for a hip replacement, with a rather remarkable litany of rudeness, neglect, indifference, and suffering sustained at the hands of her healers, at an upscale New York hospital. Her story is shocking enough, and revelatory; the comments provide even further insight, running the expected gamut of such a piece in the New Media. There are those simply shocked; those sharing similar horror stories; those relaying far better experiences in contrast; those defending doctors and nurses, those attacking them. There is the obligate wackjob who blames the AMA, and the usual finger-pointing: not enough nurses, too much paperwork, inadequate pay scales to draw quality; the evil insurance companies and the government. All mostly true, to greater or lesser degree — but all missing the core dysfunction by a wide mark. At the final period of her post, one comes away with a sense of hopeless, feeling out of control and angry, despairing that such a situation may be even a part of our reality (and not knowing how large a part it may be), yet at a loss to prevent its malignant progression through our remaining hospitals which may have been spared to date, the encroachment of such a toxic stew of callousness, indifference, and coldness. There seems, in the end, little cause for optimism.

Exhibit 2: It is late, nearly 9 P.M., seeing a final consult at the end of a punishing call day, in the ICU. The patient, chronologically young yet physiologically Methuselan, lies in his bed, oxygen mask affixed to his face by heavy straps, bleeding, as he has for months, from a tumor in his kidney. He would not survive surgery, nor even radiological intervention to stem the hemorrhage by strangling its arterial lifeline. He is, furthermore, in the parlance of modern medicine, “non-compliant”: refusing treatments and diagnostic studies; rude and abusive to nurses and physicians alike; demanding to go home though unlikely to survive there for any significant length of time.

The nurse — young, competent, smart, hard-working, the very best of the modern nursing profession — apprises me of his situation, closing with this knockout punch: “You know, we just passed that initiative — you know, the suicide one. He’d be an excellent candidate.”

She wasn’t joking.

Taken a bit off guard, I responded that it is most unwise to give physicians the power to kill you, for we will become very good at it, and impossible to stop once we are.

She continued: “No, I would love to work for a Dr. Kevorkian. Be an Angel of Death, you know?”

“I know”, I muttered under my breath, as she ran off to another bedside, competently and with great efficiency, to adjust some ventilator or fine-tune some dopamine drip. And hopefully do nothing more.

These vignettes in modern medicine are really not about medicine at all. They are in truth about a culture which has lost its compassion. Our calloused and cynical society has become a raging river fed by a thousand foul and fetid streams. We have, by turns, taught our children that ethics are situational and values neutral; taught our women that compassion and service are signs of weakness, that they must become hard and heartless like the men they hate; taught our men that success and the respect of others comes not through character and integrity but through callousness, cynicism, and greed; and taught ourselves that we are a law unto ourselves, the sole and final arbiter of what is right and what is good.

We have, in our post-modern and post-Christian culture, inexorably and irrevocably turned from our roots in Christian morality and worldview, which was the foundation and font of that which we now know — or used to know — as Western Civilization. Yes, we have preserved the tinsel and the trappings, the gilded and glittering exterior of a decaying sarcophagus, where we speak self-righteously of rights while denying their origin in the divine spark within the human spirit, made in the image of God; where we bray about liberty, but are enslaved to its bejeweled impostor, the damsel of decadence and libertinism; where compassion is naught but another government program to address the consequences of our own aberrant and irresponsible behavior, duly justified, rationalized, and denied. Others must pay so that I may play, you know.

This toxic stew of self-centered callousness has percolated into every pore of our society. In health care, the effects are universal and pernicious. Patients demand perfection, trusting the wisdom of a web browser over the experience of a physician — then running to their attorney to redress every poor outcome which their disease or their destructive lifestyles have helped bring about. Physicians, hardened and cynical from countless battles with corrupt insurance companies, lawyers, and Stalinist government regulation, forget that they exist solely to serve the patient with compassion and self-sacrifice, and that financial recompense is secondary to healing and empathy. Nurses have in large measure become administrators, made ever more remote from their patients by mountains of paperwork and impossible nurse-to-patient ratios, their patient-critical tasks delegated to underlings poorly trained and ill-treated. Hospital administrators are MBAs, with no interest or clue about what constitutes good health care, and are indifferent so long as their departments are profitable and their marketing wizards successful as they trumpet “Care with Compassion” in TV ads, radio, and muzac on hold.

The list could go on far longer, but the theme is clear: we have as a culture become utterly self-focused, trusting no one, demanding our rights while neglecting our responsibilities, seeking to be profitable rather than professional. We have abandoned the responsibility to be patient and caring of others, forgiving of human shortcomings and humble about the limits of our abilities — a responsibility not merely of those in health care but of human beings in civil society. We have, through the dubious gift of extraordinary technological advances, industrialized our profession, and replaced a sacred covenant of commitment to the patient’s best — and its corollary of the patient’s trust in the integrity and motives of physicians and nurses — with the cold legality of contract medicine. Small wonder we are treated as fungible commodities in doctors’ offices and hospital beds. Small wonder we will be euthanized when we have exhausted our compassion quotient, dispatched by highly efficient providers delivering “Death with Dignity.”

This utter self-obsession and cynical callousness is by no means limited to health care. We long for “bipartisanship” in government (by which we hope for reasoned men of principle to come together for the good of those they represent), but get instead the blood-lust of modern politics, where power trumps principle, money is king, and votes are bought and sold like chattel. Lawyers sue everything that breathes — and much that doesn’t — raking in billions while their “victimized clients” get pocket change they can believe in. Airlines pack in passengers like cattle, lose your bags, and toss you a bag of peanuts for your trouble. Road rage is rampant, rudeness rules, rip-offs too common to count. The coarseness in culture is extraordinary — in language, art, media, fashion, and behavior. It is revealing how shocked we find ourselves when encounter someone — regardless of the venue — who is actually pleasant, helpful, courteous, and kind; we have come to expect and tolerate far worse as a matter of course.

The revolution which started in the 60s with the “me” generation is bearing its bitter fruit — though its aging proponents will never admit it. And sadly, there’s no going back: the changes which have infiltrated and infected the culture, inoculated through education, media, entertainment, scientific rationalism, and a relentless and highly successful assault on reason and tradition, are permanent, and their consequences will only grow in magnitude.

So it’s time for a counter-revolution.

There is an alternative to our current cultural narcissism with its corrosive, calloused, destructive bent. It is not a new government program, nor a political movement; no demonstrations in the street, no marches on Washington. Its core ideology is over 2000 years old, and the foot soldiers of the revolution are already widely dispersed throughout the culture.

This revolutionary force is called Christianity, and it’s long past time to raise the banner and spring into action.

The true antidote to the nihilism and corruption of the age will be found, as it has always been, in the church. It has since its inception been a revolutionary force, transforming the hopeless and purposeless anarchy of the pagan world of its infancy by bringing light, hope and joy where there was none before.

It can happen again.

The church, of course, has to no small degree been co-opted by the culture it should have transformed. From TV evangelists preaching God-ordained health and wealth to liberal denominations rejecting the core truths of their foundation and worshiping instead the god of government and humanistic socialism; from pederast priests to episcopal sodomy, Christianity in the West has whored itself to a prosperous but decadent culture. Its salt has lost its saltiness, and it has, not surprisingly, been trampled underfoot by men.

It is time to return to our First Love. It is time once again to become light to an dark and stygian world. It is time for a revolution of the soul.

We must, first and foremost, be about grace and truth. We must begin with the truth of our calling: to be holy, transformed by the power of Christ and the work of the Spirit. We are, by nature of our new birth in Christ, His ambassadors: we are to be the face, the hands, the heart, the words, the compassion of Him who saved us.

The task is enormous, yet for each of us, the steps are small, easily achievable yet enormously powerful.

It must begin with a renewed commitment to obedience and submission to Christ, a willingness to fully subject ourselves to His will, rather than trying to bend His will to ours. It means getting serious about church attendance — not merely as a consumer but as an active participant. We need to renew our devotion to prayer, to Scripture reading, study, and memorization, to fellowship with other Christians. These are simple steps which ground us in truth, and give us access to that power which can first of all transform us, then radiate out to all around us.

Then we must act like the counter-culturists we claim to be. Be patient with those who are difficult; be generous in time and money; express gratitude to those around us (when was the last time you wrote a thank you note to your doctor, your contractor, your attorney, to the manager of the store employee who helped you?). Lose the profanity; guard your tongue. Repair broken relationships, as best you can. Be joyful in difficult times, knowing that God is at work in your life despite your difficulties. Be compassionate rather than judgmental to those whose life choices are destructive or misguided. The tattoos and piercings we ridicule are cries of desperation from those hungering for purpose and meaning.

These things will not come easily to many of us who claim to be Christians, as we have become complacent in our self-gratification and comfortable compromises, fearful of being viewed as extremist or weird, rejected and ridiculed.

Get over it.

You may just find that such renewed passion for Christ and love for others might, just might, transform your life.

And you might just find that it will change the world.

Got a better idea? Good, I didn’t think so.

Let’s get started.

The Bounty Hunter


I’ve been feeling a bit remiss (but only a bit) about my light posting of late — but hey, it’s summertime, and if Vanderleun can take a vacation, well, why not me?

But of course there’s always something which comes up, which demands some comment — such as this little blurb in the Wall Street Journal today:

Medicare Auditors Recover $700 Million in Overpayments

 
Auditors have recovered nearly $700 million in Medicare overpayments to hospitals and other medical providers in a half-dozen states under a controversial program that pays the auditing firms a portion of amounts they identify.

The program has drawn fire from health-care providers, and hospitals in particular, who call it overly aggressive and too confrontational. But the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has supported the move and is in the process of expanding it nationally.

In all, the agency’s recovery audit contractor program caught $1.03 billion of improper payments over about three years, primarily in New York, California and Florida, about $992.7 million of which was overpayments by Medicare. The audits also identified about $38 million that providers should have received but didn’t. (Three states were added toward the end of the trial program, but accounted for only a small part of the recoveries, Medicare officials said.)

The program’s expenses amounted to about 20 cents on the dollar, including $187.2 million paid to the audit firms, and medical providers successfully challenged about $60 million of overpayments identified by the auditors. In the end, about $694 million has been returned to the Medicare trust funds, the Medicare agency said. The auditors reviewed a total of $317 billion in claims.

“All in all, we’re very happy with the results,” said Tim Hill, the agency’s chief financial officer and director of its office of financial management. “It returned a lot of money to the trust fund, particularly when you think that we’re talking about three states.”

I’ll bet you’re very happy, Mr. Hill.

Now, at first glance, this would appear to one of Medicare’s already notorious fraud and abuse investigations, carried out by OIG, but no — there’s no accusation of fraud involved here, although the government is more than happy to let this implication stand.

What this involves is demanding refunds based on different interpretations of Medicare’s mind-boggling regulations. So you provide a health care service, and bill Medicare based on your best understanding of its Byzantine regulations, and get paid. Then, at some future date, a third-party auditor, hired by the Feds, reviews the claim and decides — with no input from clinicians or other health care experts — that you were paid in error. Out goes the notice, pay up or else. Of course, this is always a highly objective, impartial review — the fact that the auditor gets a hefty cut of the refund has absolutely no influence on their judgment, none whatsoever.

Of course, you have a right to appeal — on your own dime and time, hiring your lawyers and taking time off from your practice to prove to the bounty hunter that your interpretation of the regulations is the correct one, and his is wrong. If you win, you get to keep the cash you already earned — minus a small stipend for lost time and lawyers fees. So, on that disputed $35 you got for an office call, you might come out, oh, $20,000 short, give or take a few thousand. But hey: You won!! Ain’t it grand?

Of course the low rate of appeals, entirely predictable based on the above freakonomics, is seen as proof that the audits are finding real problems:

Mr. Hill pointed to the low appeal rate — about 14% of overcharges were appealed, and 4.6% of the total were overturned — as evidence that the audits succeeded. “We know that we got the right answer,” he said.

If an 800-pound gorilla wants to make love to you, it’s always best to fake an orgasm. And the luvin’ ain’t over ’till the gorilla says it’s over…

Of course, these auditors also expend large amounts of time and energy looking for cases where you were underpaid:

RACs [Recovery Audit Contracts] are authorized to review payments for the previous 4 years. The software they use is more capable of picking up overpayments than it is underpayments. This discrepancy is borne out by a CMS report showing that 97% of improper payments in fiscal year 2006 were overpayments, and only 3% were underpayments. No money has been reported as having been returned to physicians because of underpayment.

At this point, the program has been primarily focused on hospitals in a few states, but is being rolled out nationwide, and will quickly be auditing physicians and other health care providers.

I have spoken a considerable length about the maze which is our current reimbursement system. It makes perfect sense, in a way, for the Feds to do exactly this: use bounty hunters to exploit the system’s complexity and inscrutability. They will no doubt recover a bundle of money, keeping the band playing on the Titanic for a few more years.

But sooner or later there’ll be a price to be paid — and that price is access. Repeated pay cuts such as the currently stalled 10.4% Medicare fee reduction being bantered around Congress, combined with heavy-handed recovery audits such as these, will drive physicians to the exits in droves. It is already nearly impossible in our area to find a primary care physician who accepts Medicare patients; a few more years of this B.S. and you’ll likely get a pretty clean sweep: best of luck finding anyone who will see you if you have Medicare or any other Federal health insurance.

Happy hunting on your audits, Mr. Hill.

Crossing That Dark River

Often in the sturm und drang of a world gone mad, there comes, through the chaos and insanity, some brief moment of clarity. Such times pass by quickly, and are quickly forgotten — as this brief instance might have been, courtesy of my neighboring bellweather state of Oregon: (HT: Hot Air)

Last month her lung cancer, in remission for about two years, was back. After her oncologist prescribed a cancer drug that could slow the cancer growth and extend her life, [Barbara] Wagner was notified that the Oregon Health Plan wouldn \'t cover it.
 
It would cover comfort and care, including, if she chose, doctor-assisted suicide.
 
… Treatment of advanced cancer meant to prolong life, or change the course of this disease, is not covered by the Oregon Health Plan, said the unsigned letter Wagner received from LIPA, the Eugene company that administers the plan in Lane County.

Officials of LIPA and the state policy-making Health Services Commission say they \'ve not changed how they cover treatment of recurrent cancer.

But local oncologists say they \'ve seen a change and that their Oregon Health Plan patients with advanced cancer no longer get coverage for chemotherapy if it is considered comfort care.

It doesn \'t adhere to the standards of care set out in the oncology community, said Dr. John Caton, an oncologist at Willamette Valley Cancer Center.

Studies have found that chemotherapy can decrease pain and time spent in the hospital and increases quality of life, Caton said.

The Oregon Health Plan started out rationing health care in 1994.

We have, at last, arrived. The destination was never much in doubt — once the threshold of medical manslaughter had been breached, wrapped as always in comforting words of compassion and dignity, it was only a matter of time before our pragmatism trumped our principles. Once the absolute that physicians should be healers not hangmen was heaved overboard, it was inevitable that the relentless march of relativism would reach its logical port of call.

Death, after all, is expensive — the most expensive thing in life. It was not always so. In remote pasts, it was the very currency of life, short and brutal, with man’s primitive intellect sufficient solely to deal out death, not to defer it. There followed upon this time some glimmer of light and hope, wherein death’s timetable remained unfettered, but its stranglehold and certainty were tempered by a new hope and vision of humanity. We became in that time something more than mortal creatures, something extraordinary, an unspeakable treasure entombed within a fragile and decomposing frame. We became, something more than our mortal bodies; we became, something greater than our pain; we became, something whose beauty shown through even the ghastly horrors of the hour of our demise. Our prophets — then heeded — triumphantly thrust their swords through the dark heart of death: “Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?” We became, in that moment, something more than the physical, something greater than our short and brutish mortality. We became, indeed, truly human, for the very first time.

That humanity transcended and transformed all that we were and were to become, making us unique among creation not only in the foreknowledge of our death, but our transcendence of death itself. Life had meaning beyond the grave — and therefore had far more weight at the threshold of the tomb. Suffering became more than mere fate, but rather sacrifice and purification, preparation and salvation. The wholeness of the soul trumped the health of the body; death was transformed from hopeless certainty to triumphant transition.

But we knew better. We pursued the good, only to destroy the best. We set our minds to conquer death, to destroy disease, to end all pain, to become pure and perfect and permanent. We succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. The diseases which slaughtered us were themselves slayed; the illnesses which tortured and tormented us fell before us. Our lives grew long, and healthier, more comfortable, and more productive. Our newfound longevity and greater health gave rise to ever more miracles, allowing us to pour out our intemperate and precipitous riches with drunken abandon upon dreams of death defeated.

Yet on the flanks of our salient there lay waiting the forces which would strangle and surround our triumphant advance. Our supply lines grew thin; the very lifeblood of our armies of science and medicine, that which made our soldiers not machines but men, grew emaciated and hoary, flaccid and frail. We neglected the soul which sustained our science; the spirit which brought healing to medicine grew cachectic and cold.

So here we stand. We have squandered great wealth to defeat death — only to find ourselves impoverished, and turning to death itself for our answers. The succubus we sought to defeat now dominates us, for she is a lusty and insatiable whore. We have sacrificed our humanity, our compassion, our empathy, our humility in the face of a force far greater than ourselves, while forgetting the power and grace and the vision which first led us and empowered us on this grand crusade. Our weapons are now turned upon us; let the slaughter begin.

We will, no doubt, congratulate ourselves on the wealth we save. We will no doubt develop ever more ingenious and efficient means to facilitate our self-immolation while comforting ourselves with our vast knowledge and perceived compassion. Those who treasure life at its end, who find in and through its suffering and debilitation the joy of relationships, and meaning, and mercy, and grace, will become our enemies, for they will siphon off mammon much needed to mitigate the consequences of our madness.

It has been said, once, that where our treasure is, there will our heart be also. We have poured our treasure in untold measure into conquering death — finding succor in our victories, while forgetting how to die. The boatman now awaits us to carry us across that dark river — and we have insufficient moral currency to ignore his call.

Drinking the Kool-AIDS

Threat of world Aids pandemic among heterosexuals is over, report admits:

A quarter of a century after the outbreak of AIDS, the World Health Organization (WHO) has accepted that the threat of a global heterosexual pandemic has disappeared.

In the first official admission that the universal prevention strategy promoted by the major Aids organizations may have been misdirected, Kevin de Cock, the head of the WHO’s department of HIV/AIDS said there will be no generalized epidemic of AIDS in the heterosexual population outside Africa.

Dr. de Cock, an epidemiologist who has spent much of his career leading the battle against the disease, said understanding of the threat posed by the virus had changed. Whereas once it was seen as a risk to populations everywhere, it was now recognized that, outside sub-Saharan Africa, it was confined to high-risk groups including men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, and sex workers and their clients.

There was never very much evidence of the threat of AIDS to low-risk, heterosexual populations — a threat which was nevertheless widely hyped to drum up massive research and public education funding for a disease whose risk has always been extremely low in heterosexuals who did not use IV drugs or visit prostitutes.

While medical treatment of AIDS has advanced greatly — mostly through the breakthrough of protease inhibitor therapy (enormously expensive drugs with a host of serious side effects) — prevention efforts designed to change high-risk behavior have failed dismally. No surprise there — you can’t cure addictions — sexual, drug, or otherwise — with education.

But, hey, our schools taught several generations of kids to use condoms rather than study math, so it was worth it, no?

And Dr. de Cock?? Sometimes life is funnier than fiction …