Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Health Care - Looking at Some Numbers

This year we will spend roughly $2.6 trillion on health care in the United States, $8,000 per capita, twice as much as any other country spends.  Because our health care system is inefficient, variable in quality, and disorganized, by many measures it produces what can only charitably be characterized as mediocre outcomes compared with many other countries that spend far less.

Five federal organizations largely oversee the health care system, each has its own budget and the discretion and power to affect how health care dollars are spent.  The National Institutes of Health is the research arm and acts as the conduit to put new findings into practice.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deals with public health issues such as infectious diseases.  The Agency for Health Care and Quality and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services focus on the organization, delivery and financing of the system.  The Food and Drug Administration has oversight of medical devices and drugs.  Each of these organizations is highly politicized and as a result subject to the lobbying efforts of a diverse set of constituencies on both sides of almost any relevant issue.    

An examination of how the $2.6 billion is allocated shows that approximately 20% is for physicians services, 30% goes to hospitals, 10% for medication, and 7% is spent on administrative expenses, with the remainder going to long term care, government health activities and other ancillary health care programs  So fifty percent of the health care costs are accounted for by physician and hospital charges.

In 1970, there were approximately 330,000 licensed physicians in the country, the population was 208 million and we spent about 7% of the GDP on health care. Thirty years later, by the year 2000 the population had increased to 282 million - an approximately 35% increase - there were 700,000 physicians - a 109% increase - and health care costs were 13% of GDP.  In the last ten years, the population has grown by 10% to 310 million, there are now almost 1 million physicians, a 42% increase, and we are spending 17% of the GDP on health care.    

These data are consistent with the claim that physicians in the United States are paid on average twice that in Western Europe and Japan. It turns out to be also is true for medical administrators.  This is in part due to the concentration of physicians in high tech specialties as contrasted with primary care doctors where the former report average incomes in several specialties of over $1 million/year  The uneven distribution of physicians throughout the country, with wide variation in the ratio of physicians to population from state to state and between cities and rural areas, contributes to variability in medical costs.  One factor stands out in determining the location of medical practitioners; namely the ability to pay for medical care as evidenced by per-capita income of the people of the community.  Where a community is financially able to support physicians, medical practices are established. 

In order to rationalize our expenditures on medical care it is necessary to recognize that it is a unique commodity.  The consumer recognizes they don't have the capacity to critically judge the quality or value of care they receive, sometimes even after the fact.  Historically, physicians had complete control of the process; from judging a patient's need for service to the timing and conditions under which to provide it .  Now, in some cases these decisions are being shared with third party payers.

Since matters of life and death are involved, patients believe only one physician should be vested with the authority to provide care.  There is enormous resistance from patients to the idea of permitting any other agency to be injected into this process and they are often reluctant to consider a different provider which they would do if the forces of economic supply and demand were operating - as they do in almost every other business transaction.  The conditions surrounding the delivery of medical care are unlike those which characterize ordinary economic phenomena because the commodity itself is often priceless. The inherent inequality between the patient and the physician contaminates the entire transaction.  The notion of informed consent is at best only a shadow or outline of a patient's understanding of the essentials of the transaction.   Perhaps the most important change that would affect how we spend fifty percent of our health care budget is to correct this imbalance. 



Tuesday, September 27, 2011

From Overweight to Obese

Based on current trends, unless there are major changes in our eating habits and level of physical activities, half of the adults in the United States will be obese by the year 2030,  If you are currently overweight, the probability is extremely high that in time you will become obese - where overweight is defined as a body mass index, BMI, over 25 and obese as over 30   If a child is overweight, the probability that child will be obese as an adult is close to one hundred percent. 

The endless advertisements, television commercials and self-help diet books are evidence of the absence of an easy fix.  The problem is already contributing significantly to the increasing incidence and costs associated with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and osteoarthritis.   

If anyone had a cure for this problem, the vast diet industry would go the way of buggy whip manufacturing.  It turns out the common weight-loss wisdom of reducing intake by about 500 calories a day will result in slow and steady weight loss of about a pound per week is flawed.   That rule doesn't take into account the way the body adapts to changes in diet.  As anyone who has lost weight will tell you, as their weight went down, if they wanted to maintain their reduced weight or lose more they had to consume still fewer calories.  If you are accustomed to taking in 2000 calories a day and after losing weight need only 1750 to maintain your lower weight, you will feel hungry; if you take in 2000, you won't feel hungry but you will re-accumulate the weight you worked so hard to lose.

Taking a realistic period of time for weight loss into account, it appears that for an average overweight adult a reduction in caloric intake of about 15 calories a day will lead to an eventual bodyweight change of about 2 pounds  - with half of the weight change being achieved in about 1 year, while 95% of the weight loss will take about 3 years.  Like so many fundamental characteristics of biological systems, genuine weight loss is a slow orderly process.   
Although we don't understand all the underlying mechanisms, most diets have reduced effects over time because the body adjusts to them.  This has been shown to be true for Slim, Nutri Systems, Weight Watchers,  the Atkins diet, the grapefruit diet, and even the water diet   The exception to this rule seems to be a diet based on portion control.   Although there are no controlled trials of the strategy of limiting portion size, it appears that those who select this route for weight control decrease the size of their portions as they lose weight. 

The principles of weight loss seem to be deceptively simple.  If you take in more calories than you burn, you will inevitably gain weight - take in less and lose weight.  However there are some interesting nuances to this equation.  To burn some calories requires more energy output than others.   It turns out the number of calories burned given the same activity is also variable - not only from one person to another but even in the same person at different times.  If you have a very efficient metabolism, you will burn fewer calories for a given level of activity and the efficiency of metabolism varies within the same person.   To complicate matters further, it appears that metabolic efficiency increases with increasing age.  This helps explain why as we age we need fewer calories for weight maintenance.  If as you age you maintain a constant caloric intake, you will gain weight even if you maintain the same level of activity.   There are many other complex interactions that contribute to the increasing prevalence of obesity and its associated maladies. 

Although not based on a controlled trial, it seems the best investment for anyone trying to control their weight is a good scale.  It turns out those who simply weigh themselves every day when they get up in the morning, control their weight better than any other group.  Whether the object is weight maintenance or loss, this seems to reenforce their goal and results in their adjusting food intake and their level of physical activity.        


Sunday, September 25, 2011

Medical Advocate - A Viable Plan B

The ongoing transformation of medical care from a cottage industry to  a corporate business model has had many unfortunate effects on the doctor-patient relationship.  Perhaps the most striking change is the amount of time physicians are able to spend with their patients.   The average American spends approximately 30 minutes a year with a primary care physician the average duration of a visit to a specialist in internal medicine lasts about 20 minutes
In addition to time-limited visits, the increased difficulty in getting timely appointments and the increased likelihood of seeing an assistant, a family practice nurse or physician’s assistant rather than the doctor, are some of the other effects of the limitations on allowable charges reimbursed by medical insurance carriers.

These changes restrict the patient’s ability to discuss the full spectrum of options concerning their condition with their physician.  This is perhaps the most alarming change for the patient, many of whom may have too little information about their diagnosis to make intelligent decisions about how, by whom and where they should be treated.  In hopes of filling in the gaps in their knowledge base, patients turn to family and friends and many now turn to the internet.  The available data for any disease on the web is astonishing.  A variety of sites can be accessed and some offer live chats or email contact with physicians who will provide information for a fee. 

The question is what ability does the patient have to judge the quality of the information they are getting?  When Andy Grove, co-founder of Intel Corporation, and Michael Milken, infamous billionaire, bond trader now philanthropist, were told they had prostate cancer, they each retained at considerable cost a number of experts who counseled them on the advantages and disadvantages of various treatment options.  Each personally paid the experts for exhaustive studies and after lengthy discussions chose the course of action they concluded was best for them.  This is a superb example of informed consent. 
Another reaction to restricted access to physicians is the burgeoning of concierge medicine. 
Those who choose this route sign on to a subscription program with a physician which guarantees access but does not cover the fees for care.   The cost of an annual subscription can be as high as $2,500.  The services provided, which are billed separately, range from consultation and advice, to direct care, to the facilitation of referrals to physicians and institutions for treatment. 

Many patients realize that there can be great differences in the outcomes of treatment for many diseases and that they need help to identify the best provider, the right institution, and the best treatment option.  The considerable expense attached to the method Andy Grove and Michael Milken used has led to the development of medical advocacy programs.  These programs go a long way towards overcoming limited access to physicians and provide the time for a thorough discussion of these important issues. 

A specific example of the role of medical advocate is the issue of physician referrals.  The reason a physician chooses to refer a patient to a particular specialist can be as a result of many factors, some of which may conflict with the “best” choice.  Referring physicians often select a colleague who will, in turn, refer patients to them.  Some physicians are highly motivated to limit their referrals to people in their own institution and it’s rarely true that the “best”  specialists are all at the same institution. 

The medical advocate is a neutral party with no hidden agenda or conflicting loyalty.  Objectivity is demanded in the patient-advocate relationship, uncontaminated by parochial concerns.  When faced with complex, important and challenging medical decisions, patients should consider a medical advocate as a potential valuable resource.   The medical ombudsman programs many hospitals have created for their patients who need support dealing with complaints and problems while in the hospital, confirms the need for a dedicated patient advocate to act as an intermediary for the patient in navigating the medical maze.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Medicine and the Media - Once Again

The accuracy of medical news stories included in almost every nightly network news broadcast is questionable.  The recent suggestion that the blood test for c-reactive protein, CRP, should be requested by everyone over forty as a screening test for blood vessel disease that could lead to a heart attack is the insignia of a 90-second news report glossing over the complexity of an issue and misleads by presenting, as fact, speculation and unproven hypotheses.  

It is true that high blood pressure and obesity are risk factors for heart disease, heart attack and stroke.   Although the association of two things is not proof of causality, there is a great deal of literature supporting the hypothesis that lowering blood pressure reduces the risk of a heart attack, and diet and exercise appear to have a similar effect.  It's not clear that the same is true for CRP.  Much work has to be done to validate any claim that lowering an elevated CRP will reduce a patient’s risk of heart disease.  There haven't been any studies that establish how you can reliably reduce an elevated level of CRP.  Some life style changes have been suggested but none has been rigorously tested and proven to be effective.

I hope Brian Williams doesn’t think I am picking on him.   But the story he and his colleague Dr. Nancy Snyderman recently presented on screening for disease ignored some very important points that were not even mentioned in the story. Testing for disease in healthy individuals who have no symptoms or history suggesting an increased risk for the disease under study is known as population screening.  If a disease is relatively rare and you screen everyone, the vast majority will be negative and the cost per case identified can be staggeringly high.  Since no test is accurate 100% of the time, a certain number of individuals who do not have the disease will have a positive test result and a certain number who have the disease will have a negative test result.  The false positive and false negative rates of any test are crucial to the decision to use it as a screening test.  

 Those with no disease who test positive - the false positives - will undergo further testing which may be expensive and could involve the risk of significant complications.  The false negative individual will be reassured and not pursue additional testing when, in fact, they have the disease or risk of the disease in question.

I realize this is complicated statistical stuff.  But for the men who are reading this, consider the example of the dilemma of screening for prostate cancer using the blood test for prostate specific antigen, PSA.      Simply summarized, how many men who have been found to have an elevated PSA have undergone a prostate biopsy because of an elevated PSA and been found not to have prostate cancer?  These biopsies are not without risk and are quite expensive - involving a urologist’s fee for doing the procedure, a pathologist’s fees for reviewing the microscopic slides of the tissue biopsied and the laboratory charges associated with the processing of the specimen.   Furthermore, it is not reassuring to learn that many men who have PSA results within normal limits actually have prostate cancer.   The rationale for screening for prostate cancer is the high fatality rate among men who are found to have the disease and the relatively high frequency of the disease.  But since watchful waiting is one of the accepted options for men found to have prostate cancer, it's important to evaluate the strategy for screening in each individual patient in light of exactly what would be done based on the test results.

With apologies to Mr. Williams, I present this discussion to demonstrate how misleading it is to attempt to inform the public about a complex issue sandwiched between advertisements for the treatment of  bladder control and erectile dysfunction. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Medicine and Politics

The heated political arguments about the vaccination of children to prevent oral and genital cancers have become so charged that any thoughtful discussion of the potential risks and benefits of the vaccine now appears to be out of the question.  When the manufacturer of the vaccine initiated lobbying efforts to make the vaccine a requirement for school registration and enrollment, the objections became so widespread and vehement that those efforts were abandoned.  However, the substantive issues and questions are too important.  They should not be crowded out by the din being created by the politically motivated on both sides of the issue.  

Almost forty years ago the human papilloma virus, HPV, was found to cause a sexually transmitted disease.  In 1985, epidemiological studies linked the virus to gential cancers of the cervix and vulva.  Subsequently it turned out there are more than 50 different strains of this virus with some 10 of them considered oncogenic - associated with an increased risk of cancer; with 2 strains - HPV 16 and HPV 18 - accounting for 70% of all cases of cervical cancer.   In the last 3 decades, these oncogenic strains of HPV have also been shown to be causally related to cancers of the oral cavity, vulva, vagina, anus, rectum and penis.

Five years ago, a vaccine to protect against the effects of 4 of the oncogenic strains of the HPV most strongly associated with the increased risk of cancer was approved by the Food and Drug Administration  The vaccination protocol involves 3 inoculations given over a 6 month period at a total cost of approximately $400.  To be effective the vaccine must be given before HPV infection, so the FDA recommends vaccination before adolescence and the onset of sexual activity. Although the current suggested regimen for vaccination is for girls and boys beginning as early as 9 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention less than a third of the original target group of adolescent girls have received 3 doses of the vaccine.
Because the vaccine only protects against 4 oncogenic strains of   HPV virus, girls and women still require screening for the disease with a Pap smear, the current gold standard for detection of precancerous lesions and cancers of the cervix, and/or a test for the presence of HPV virus.  There are additional methods available to detect precancerous lesions in females and males which are office procedures that can be performed without anesthesia.   The essential point is that current screening programs will have to be continued in those who are vaccinated.

There is no way of knowing what the long-term effects of administering HPV vaccine are in young children.  Historically, data about other vaccines is not reassuring.  The Salk polio vaccine was grown in monkey kidney cells which later were found to be contaminated with another virus not identified before the vaccine had been administered to millions of children.  Sixty years later, there are still debates about what the potential effects of that occult virus might be  In the Second World War, yellow fever vaccine was administered to military troops being sent to regions where yellow fever was endemic.  It wasn't until long after the war was over we learned the egg-grown yellow fever vaccine was contaminated with an avian virus.  Several studies were launched in the late fifties attempting to determine if the military personnel who received the yellow fever vaccine had suffered any significant diseases which could potentially be attributable to the contaminating virus, but logistic obstacles prevented completion of those investigations.

There is still a great deal of work that needs be done to evaluate this new HPV vaccine. We don't know if it results in lifelong immunity for those vaccinated.  We don't know if there is significant variability in development of effective immunity to the vaccine.  The unknown risks of the HPV vaccine deserve thorough discussion since it is a very costly intervention which does not eliminate the need for customary follow-up surveillance of the disease it is being administered to prevent.  The cancers it does prevent all have precursors which are readily diagnosable and treatable, thereby removing the risk of cancer.    While a valid argument can be made that the use of HPV vaccine is justified in third world countries where Pap smear screening and elimination of the premalignant lesions is not readily available, it is reasonable to ask if other strategies may be more appropriate for young girls and boys in the United States which will not expose them to potential unidentified and significant health risks.    

Medicine and the Media

You cannot watch the network evening news and not be impressed with the pervasive advertisements for prescription medicines.  After an almost incomprehensible rapid fire detailing of cautions about potential adverse side effects, each advertisement ends urging you to ask your doctor if it is the right drug for you. Every year since direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertising was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the mid 1980s, spending by the pharmaceutical industry for such advertising on television and in the print media has increased substantially.  The idea that extraordinarily large sums of money are spent bringing to your attention a product you can get only by convincing an intermediary - your doctor -  to write a prescription is cause for concern.  Think about it.  If you are successful you have to wonder why it took your intervention to get it.  What does your doctor not know that you learned by watching Brian Williams?  You've got to wonder what else your doctor doesn't know!  What about all those threatening warnings?  Does your doctor know about them?  What about the warnings of the interactions with other medicines?  Does your doctor remember what other medications he/she has given you?  What about the ones other doctors prescribed for you?  The next time you are handed a prescription you asked for yourself - contemplate just how much thought went into the decision to give it to you.

It is a wise idea to avoid drugs that have recently been approved by the FDA.  The drug studies that pharmaceutical companies submit to the FDA seeking approval to bring them to market are not designed to detect infrequently occurring, adverse effects.  It is only after a drug is in wide use that most potentially serious and even fatal reactions are revealed.  The following caution appears in every print drug advertisement.   You are encouraged to report negative side effects of prescription drugs to the FDA.  Visit or call 1-800-FDA-1088.

The fact that there is no existing structure for the establishment of the necessary data base to identify serious adverse drug reactions and it's left to physicians and patients to generate the relevant information is frightening.  To put this in perspective, Avandia, a drug for the treatment of diabetes was initially marketed in 1999.  In 2006, it had $2.2 billion in sales.  In 2010, only after repeated warnings of an increase in the risk of heart attack, stroke, congestive heart failure, liver failure, macular edema that seriously affected vision and death in patients taking the drug, did the FDA take action to restrict prescribing this drug.   Some new drugs after their release are found to be so dangerous the FDA requires what is called a black box warning be issued to physicians (referring to the black border around the warning label)  Let me assure you a black box warning really gets your attention.  I have never written a prescription for a drug after such an alarm has been sounded.  Many physicians are reluctant to prescribe drugs that are new to the market just because of the risk of the unknown.  You should be as cautious.  Always ask your doctor about the important details for any medication being prescribed.

This caution extends even more emphatically to medical devices.  Under FDA rules, many devices are approved without extensive testing in patients or without the requirement that the producers track their performance after being put into use.  The current furor over all-metal hip implants - those with metal on metal joint contact  - may be currently found on the front page of your newspaper.  It turns out that although hip implants typically lasted for up to fifteen years, significant problems have been found in a number of patients who had these particular devices surgically implanted. In many patients, there has been fracturing of the metal surfaces of the replacement joint which while apparently not life threatening can cause pain and other debilitating symptoms, resulting in the need to re-operate to remove the implant with all of the attendant risks of surgery.  

Every medicine or medical device has the potential of causing adverse reactions, some of which can be very serious and even life threatening.  Since there is no early warning system in place designed to identify the potential danger of drugs or medical devices and recognizing all the short comings in the processes involved in bringing them to market, to minimize your risks you must ask the right questions and carefully consider the answers you get.  Only in this way can you assess the chances of having to deal with an untoward event.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

What this is all about....

I am a retired surgeon.  Do I miss the practice of medicine?  I miss something that doesn't exist anymore.  What we have now is Corporate Medicine.  Think about it....if you are a pregnant woman today in urban America, you have less than a 50% chance your baby will be delivered by your obstetrician; if you are about to undergo an operation on your heart - lung - intestine - bladder - ovary - you have approximately a 0% chance of having your stitches removed by your surgeon. If you are hospitalized, there is a very good chance you will be cared for by a hospitalist.  Hospitalists are physicians employed by hospitals. They frequently work 12-hour shifts and are often limited by local regulation to three 12 hour shifts a week.  This means it will take 5 different doctors to cover the 14 shifts in a 7 day period. Think of the chances for confusion and misinterpretation of information as the patient is handed off from one physician to another.  Shift mentality has also taken over the practice of out patient medical care.  Call your doctor after 5pm or at the weekend or on a holiday - the chances your call will be returned by your doctor are estimated to be on average less than 1 in 4!  This is corporate medicine at work - the managed care organization; the physician organization; the hospital-run organization; all balancing the clinical and financial aspects of medicine, and not necessarily for the patient's advantage.
The cottage industry of medical practice, where the doctor-patient relationship was the cornerstone of the medical care establishment, no longer exists.  Health care - formerly know as medical care - is now a technologically complex sector of our economy accounting for close to 20% of our GDP.  The explosive growth of the health care industry - with diagnostic testing that can cost thousands of dollars, procedures that can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and courses of medications costing hundreds of thousands of dollars - has severely compromised and undermined the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship.
The claim that we have the best medical care system in the world is not surprising - we spend more per capita on medical care than any other country.  While it is true there is the potential to get the best care in the world here, for a significant number of Americans this care is not available or accessible.  Our infant and maternal mortality rates are not even close to the top of the list among nations    
and an investigation carried out by the Hearst media corporation in 2009 reported there were about 200,000 deaths attributable to preventable medical mistakes and infections These are just two indices of less than best care.
The primary policy driver for medical insurance companies is cost.  I have read the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare, and I am concerned that a mechanism for extending that same bottom-line consideration will be inserted into government funded medical care under the guise of quality of life indices.  These practices have yet to be defined, but many members of congress have not even read this legislation or examined its intended and potential unintended consequences.
My point is that the practice of medicine has been contaminated by policies that are not in the patient's best interest.  There are good - better - best approaches to the care of the sick.  I am going to write about what you can do to ensure you find the right provider, learn what your options are, and select the appropriate approach to get the best outcome when you have to deal with our health care system; as well as major issues confronting our health care system today.