Saturday, August 16, 2014

Delmar Boulevard, Geo-mapping, and the Social Determinants of Health


The social determinants of health are those factors that affect people’s health status that are the result of the social situation in which they find themselves. Thus, in the well-known graphic from Healthy People 2010 (dropped, for some reason, from Healthy People 2020), which I have reproduced several times, they complement the other determinants such as the biological (genetics), but are represented in most of the other areas. Physical environment and socioeconomic environment, certainly, but even “behaviors” are affected by the circumstances into which one is born and lives. So is biology, actually, as we learn more about genetic coding predisposing some people to addictive behaviors. Certainly it is not all volitional or evidence of weak character.

The social determinants of health can be partially enumerated, and include adequate housing (including sufficient heat in the winter), adequate food, education, and also a reasonable amount of nurturing
and support from your family. In short, they are “the rest of life”, outside and often ignored by the healthcare system. Camara Phyllis Jones, in her wonderful “cliff analogy” (which I have also reproduced before) creates a metaphor in which medical care services are provided for those who need them (or “fall into them”) along a cliff face, while the social determinants of health are represented by how far a person, or a group of people, lives from that cliff face. As such, it illustrates the degree of protection that we all have from falling off that cliff, more for some and less for others.[1]

One of the clearest ways to show the impact of these determinants is by a technique called “geo-mapping” in which certain characteristics (income, educational level, gang violence, drug use, number of grocery stores or liquor stores, public transportation routes, whatever you can think of) are laid over maps of a city, town, or region. We have seen these portrayed on TV or in the newspapers as national and state maps for political events (such as what areas voted for who), but they can also be very useful for understanding the different challenges faces by people living in different areas. The work of Steven Woolf and his colleagues at Virginia Commonwealth University has greatly contributed to this work; in addition to their incredibly useful County Health Calculator, has produced graphs that can be found on the Robert Wood Johnson Commission for a Healthier America site that show how life expectancy can vary dramatically in different neighborhoods, as in the map displayed of the Washington, DC area, mapped along Metro lines for greater effect, or the one of my area, Kansas City, Missouri (which doesn’t have a Metro!)

A recent contribution to this field has been made by Melody S. Goodman and Keon L. Gilbert, of Washington University in St. Louis, who mapped the dramatic differences across Delmar Boulevard in that city, in “Divided cities lead to differences in health”. Their graphic shows the disparities in education, income, and housing value, and, unsurprising, racial composition, on either side of Delmar. This work was covered in a BBC documentary. Dr. Goodman, speaking to a symposium from her alma mater, the Harvard School of Public Health, is quoted as saying “Your zip code is a better predictor of your health than your genetic code.”

This is a pretty sad commentary, given not only the incredible amount of money that has been spent on unraveling the genetic code but the amount of faith and expectation that we have been convinced to have in how this new genetic knowledge will facilitate our health. By knowing what we are at risk for, genetically, the argument goes, science can work on “cures” that target the specific genes. This is a topic for a different discussion, but in brief one problem is that the most common diseases we suffer from are not the result of a single gene abnormality. It is probable that, at least in the short-to-medium term, knowledge of our genetics will be more likely to lead to higher life insurance rates than cures of our diseases. The more profound issue, however, is that there is evidence from the social determinants of health, from the work of Woolf and Goodman and many others, that we do not address the causes of ill health even when we know what they are.


Why is this so? Why is there such great resistance to understanding, believing, that investment in housing, education, jobs, and opportunities will have a much greater impact on people’s health than more and more money spent on high-tech medical care (and, of course, profit for not only the providers, but the drug and device companies and middleman insurance companies)? It is in part because we hope (and, when we are more privileged, expect) that we will be the beneficiaries. And it is also because we choose to believe that those who do not have the benefits we have (of money, education, family) somehow “deserve” it because of character flaws.

The issue of “fault” is articulately addressed by Nicholas Kristof in a New York Times Op-Ed on August 10, 2014, “Is a hard life inherited?” Kristof argues that it is, not genetically but because the circumstances to which one is born and in which one grows up, the presence of caring parents who read to you rather than beat you, who take care of you instead of abusing drugs, as well as adequate food and housing make a tremendous difference in how you turn out.

Indeed, another major study by Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander, to be published in his “life’s work”, “The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and Transition to Adulthood”, and covered on NPR, confirms this. Alexander and his colleagues tracked nearly 800 children for more than 20 years, and found that those from less privileged backgrounds with lower incomes and less supportive families did worse. Only 33 of the children moved from the low income to the high income bracket. Problems with drugs and alcohol were more prevalent among white males than other groups, but they did better financially anyway. Some people, rarely, overcome the deck being stacked against them, but most of those who do well after being born with relative privilege would likely not be among them had they been in the same situation.  Kristof writes:

ONE delusion common among America’s successful people is that they triumphed just because of hard work and intelligence. In fact, their big break came when they were conceived in middle-class American families who loved them, read them stories, and nurtured them with Little League sports, library cards and music lessons. They were programmed for success by the time they were zygotes. Yet many are oblivious of their own advantages, and of other people’s disadvantages. The result is a meanspiritedness in the political world or, at best, a lack of empathy toward those struggling…

That lack of empathy leads to a lack of action; we are willing to accept people living in conditions that we would never accept for our family and neighbors, not only across the globe but across town, or even across a street. From the point of view of health, our priorities and investments are misplaced when we do not address the social determinants of health as well as cures for disease. When we do not try to change the known factors of zip code that impact our health as we investigate those of the genetic code.

If there are to be “cures” that come from our understanding of genetics, there is every reason to expect that they will be one more thing that is available to the people on the south side of Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis long before they are to those on the north side of the street.





[1] Jones CP, Jones CY, Perry GS, “Addressing the social determinants of children’s health: a cliff analogy”, Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 2009Nov;20(4):supplement pp 1-12. DOI: 10.1353/hpu.0.0228

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Kansas only state to increase number of uninsured: A how NOT to do it strategy

The title of Alan Bavley’s article, “Kansas is only state to see an increase in its uninsured rate, survey says”, (Kansas City Star, August 5, 2014) kind of says it all. It could be seen as a victory by some. Four years after the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), aimed at expanding health coverage to more Americans by a combination of strategies including the creation of both state-run and federally-run (for those states that chose not to run their own) insurance exchanges to match people seeking coverage with insurance companies and subsidizing premiums for the moderately low-income, and expanding Medicaid for the very low-income, Kansas has succeeded in actually reducing the number of people covered!

The adult uninsured rate in Kansas rose from 12.5 percent last year to 17.6 percent during the first half of this year, giving the state the seventh-highest rate in the nation, according to data collected as part of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index…. in other states uninsured rates declined or remained unchanged. Kansas was the only state with a statistically significant increase in the percentage of uninsured residents.

One could construct a fantasy out of whole cloth demonstrating how this proves why the opponents of the ACA were right all along; that it is not increasing health care coverage because it is evil and socialist, and that the increased costs for some people, along with cuts in the number of employed folks because of policies that do not always support “job creators” (read: very rich people) have decreased our employer-based insured group. Of course, that would be incorrect, but I expect to see it anyway.

In fact, those governing my state have worked very hard to make this happen. Governor Brownback and most of the state legislature are strong opponents of Obamacare, and have done what they could to make it not succeed. When the Supreme Court ruling allowed states to opt out of expanding Medicaid, Kansas did so, eliminating the very poor (under 133% of poverty) from the method the law intended for them to receive coverage. Kansas also chose not to develop a state-run insurance exchange and pu up as many obstacles as it could to the federally-run one. One of two Court of Appeals decisions (discussed in this blog in ACA: Where are we? And where should we go?, July 27, 2014) ruled that subsidies could be available only to enrollees in state-run exchanges (which Kansas doesn’t have); it hasn’t gone into effect yet, because another district’s Court ruled the other way, so we will have to wait for the Supreme Court to decide, but if it is upheld would bolster the number of Kansans not getting insurance.

But a decrease in the number of insured? The only one? Surely that is a notable accomplishment. How did we pull that off? “’It’s eye-popping. Kansas really sticks out,’ said Dan Witters, research director for the Well-Being Index, an ongoing national poll that surveys people’s health, relationships and finances.” For starters, it could, possibly, not be exactly true, but a data anomaly of the survey somehow. This is basically the position of the state’s Insurance Commissioner, Sandy Praeger, who said

…the number “appears to be an anomaly that needs more review. To have the uninsured jump that much in one year would be unprecedented.” The uninsured numbers in Kansas have hovered around 12 to 13 percent for many years, Praeger said, adding, “We will try to find out where the discrepancy is.”
This is worth noting, as Praeger is one of the few honest, trustworthy, and non-ideological members of state government in Kansas. Note that she does not claim that it is a liberal lie, or that it is a good thing, but just that it is inconsistent with previous data and she will try to find out why there is a discrepancy. If that is the reason, I’m sure she will.

But there are reasons to think that the numbers may not be inaccurate, even if they turn out not to be quite as bad as this survey indicates. Since the election of Governor Brownback in 2010, and with the support of the legislature, taxes in Kansas have been slashed, particularly income tax rates on high-income people and corporations and business taxes. The motivation was a profound belief in supply-side economics, that tax cuts would stimulate job growth.  Unfortunately, it has not. Job growth in Kansas has been more sluggish than in the country as a whole, and the state is facing enormous deficits. Cuts in spending have been dramatic, but the problem is, in fact, on the supply side – not enough tax revenue.  People don’t have jobs, and thus often don’t have enough income to qualify themselves for the exchanges, even if subsidies are allowed by SCOTUS to continue. The state has a very large number of undocumented workers (and most are indeed working, or in families of people working) who would not be eligible for coverage by any part of ACA, and can only get it if their employers pay for it. Which many do not.

While many states with Republican governors have pursued many of the same tacks as Kansas, including limiting the impact of ACA and cutting taxes, Kansas has been in many ways a test case for these strategies, even more than Wisconsin, because of its strong Republican tradition. Americans for Prosperity has a very strong political and financial influence in the state, and it is heavily financed by the Koch brothers whose Koch Industries is based in Wichita, Kansas (where Charles Koch still lives). Cutting taxes for the wealthy and corporations, and blocking any opposition to fossil fuel expansion, is the cornerstone of state politics, not ensuring the health or well-being of its residents.

In a larger sense, however, this is more than a story about Kansas. It may be the only state with a statistically significant increase in uninsured in the last year, but it is far from the state with the largest percentage of uninsured. Many other states that have not expanded Medicaid, and cut social services, have similar situations. Sadly, of course, many of these states (particularly in the southeast) started pretty far down, much worse than Kansas did, and have dug themselves deeper in the hole. The real story, I think, is in the states that, despite being southern and conservative, have chosen to expand Medicaid, and have seen real benefit for their people.

The Gallup poll found that the 10 states with the largest reductions in uninsured rates this year had all expanded their Medicaid programs and had either created their own exchanges or partnered with the federal government on an exchange. Arkansas saw the steepest decline, from 22.5 percent uninsured in 2013 to 12.4 percent this year. Kentucky was second with a decline from 20.4 percent uninsured to 11.9 percent.


Good policies can actually help. The state with the actual highest rate of uninsured people is Texas. “Look out, Texas,” Governor Brownback stated in announcing his original tax cuts, “here comes Kansas!”  He was talking about job growth, which we haven’t achieved, but we are making much more progress on denying people access to healthcare coverage.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

ACA: Where are we? And where should we go?

I am finished writing the book, as yet untitled, that I have been working on during my sabbatical, which accounts for the sparse number of blog posts. This is not to say that the book is anywhere near ready to be published; I am sure it will need more revisions.
However, it does mean that I am likely to be posting to the blog more frequently, as I find things that inspire me to write.
Thanks for your patience!
Josh

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been law since 2010, and was supposed to have been fully implemented this year in 2014, although as is clear many of its provisions have not yet been. The most important has been the failure of about half our states to implement the expansion of Medicaid, which was the mechanism through which the law intended to cover all those poor (incomes under 133% of the federal poverty level) who are currently ineligible for Medicaid (most of those now receiving it are poor children and their mothers, although the majority of dollars are spent on nursing home care). This is legal as a result of the Supreme Court decision that was important because it made the rest of the law legal; this is, I think, of faint solace to those poor people who live in my state of Kansas and the others who have failed to expand Medicaid despite the fact that the federal government would have paid 100% of the cost for 4 years, then 90%.

The newest court actions that affect ACA are two Court of Appeals decisions which say, basically, opposite things about the subsidies that support the premiums of people making above 133% of poverty but less than allows them to pay the full amount.[1] One court decided that people living in states that ran their own exchanges were eligible for the subsidies, but that those who were in federally-administered exchanges were not. The other appeals court decided that both were. Of course, those states that have federally-administered exchanges are those with governors and legislatures who oppose ACA completely; they include all those who did not expand Medicaid plus many more (about 36 altogether). This suggests some political agenda; the interpretation of Congressional intent rather than parsing the words, has historically been the basis for such court decisions. It also will mean that the cases will go to the Supreme Court, sometimes known as SCOTUS, but now appropriately called COCUHL (Court of Citizens United and Hobby Lobby), where it will be amazing if a conscious, careful, legal approach supersedes politics. The decision to basically gut the Hobby Lobby decisions one remaining protection only a day after it was announced bodes ill. The Republicans in Congress have decided to sue President Obama for not implementing portions of the ACA, which, as Timothy Egan of the NY Times points out, “…they have tried to repeal more than 50 times.”[2]

What has the Republicans so flustered that they have taken to self-contradictory actions is, in fact, the success of the ACA at achieving many of its goals. These are summarized in another NY Times op-ed, by Paul Krugman, titled “Obamacare fails to fail”.[3] There has been a huge surge in enrollment, and while indeed some people are paying more (largely healthy young people who are low risk for high-cost illness, thus previously had lower premiums), most people (including 74% of Republicans) are happy with their current premiums. In addition to the early wins (preventing insurance companies from not covering those with pre-existing conditions, allowing young people to stay on their parents’ insurance until they are 26), we now add over 6 million people who are newly covered, and can access health care. Despite decisions such as Hobby Lobby, most women will now get contraceptive coverage without a copayment. It is a good thing. This is why opponents (mainly ideological) are trying any trick that they can to limit its effectiveness, including the two biggest addressed above—not expanding Medicare and trying to block subsidies for those on the federal exchanges. That is to say, trying to limit health insurance coverage to our less-affluent citizens.

But ACA, even if it came through all the court decisions unscathed, is not a solution. It doesn’t cover those who are not citizens, even though they live here. It is a gift to insurance companies, who still get to charge high rates and make enormous profits, but now have the federal government paying the premiums. Therefore, it will not really save cost. Don’t get me wrong – I am not advocating that we provide less of the health care people need to save money (although I do advocating not providing “health care” that will not help or even harm people just because someone can make money on it). I am saying that the huge profits guaranteed for insurers, and other components of our system who make profit, make it excessively costly. It costs us way more per capita, for poorer health outcomes, than do the healthcare systems of other developed countries. The latest edition of “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall”, published in 2014 by the Commonwealth Fund demonstrates this clearly; in comparing 11 wealthy countries the US ranks #11 overall, and #11 in 3 of the 5 areas examined (Efficiency, Equity), and Healthy Lives), #5 in Quality, and #9 in Access. It achieves this less-than-mediocre performance by spending (2011) $8508 per capita, while the other 10 countries spent from $3182 (New Zealand) to $5669 (Norway).[4]


The problem is not that our system is not working, but that it is. Paul Batalden is famous for saying “every system is perfectly designed to get the results that it gets”, and ours is. The results that we get are relatively poor health outcomes on a population basis, large numbers of people excluded from health care coverage (even after ACA), many people getting unnecessary care because someone can make a profit on it, and the bizarre concept that there are not only people who are preferable to provide care for (because of their wealth or insurance status) but even diseases that it is preferable to provide care for (because the profit margin is better). Our system is not designed for people’s health; it is designed so that some (providers, insurers, drug companies, etc.) can make profit. It gets the results it is designed to get.

But that is unacceptable. We need a health system designed to maximize the health of our people. All our people. And we need it yesterday.








[1] Goodnough A, Ruling on Health Care Subsidies Puts Coverage at Risk, NY Times 7/23/14, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/24/us/politics/court-ruling-on-health-care-subsidies-risks-loss-of-coverage.html
[2] Egan, T, “Ambulance Chaser in the House”, NY Times, 7/26/14, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/26/opinion/timothy-egan-Congresss-Next-Big-Idea-Sue-Obama.html
[3][3] Krugman P, “Obamacare fails to fail”, NY Times, 7/13/14. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/14/opinion/paul-krugman-obamacare-fails-to-fail.html
[4] Karen Davis, Kristof Stremikis, David Squires, and Cathy Schoen, Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: How the Performance of the U.S. Health Care System Compares Internationally, 2014 Update, The Commonwealth Fund, June 2014. http://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/fund-reports/2014/jun/mirror-mirror

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The screening pelvic examination: not annual, not ever

The Dispute Over Annual Pelvic Exams, an editorial in the New York Times July 3, 2014, highlights an issue about which I have written before, including Primary Care Contributes More than Money...., June 2, 2013 and President Bush's stent: inappropriate screening and care for the rich, nothing for the poor, September 7, 2013. The Times has also had articles on the same subject, notably Questioning the pelvic exam, by Jane BrodyApril 29, 2013. The impetus was a recent guideline recommendation from the American College of Physicians (ACP), the specialty society for internal medicine physicians, that recommended against doing this test on an annual basis.[1]

This examination is not to be confused  with the Pap smear screening test for cervical cancer (although it regularly is). The Pap smear involves obtaining cells for cytological examination from the cervix by means of a spatula and/or small brush. The Pap smear is not perfect, but it is probably the best of the cancer screening tests available to us; the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends them in women 21-65 years of age every 3 years. The pelvic exam, the part where the doctor puts her/his hands inside a woman and feels around, is often done in conjunction with the collection of the Pap, thus the basis for the confusion among many women. It is not recommended by USPSTF at all, at any frequency[2], but the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends it on an annual basis.

I have long been a teacher of family medicine, and for many years have told my students and residents that there was no indication for this examination, at any frequency, for screening. I do this despite the fact that I know they are taught to do so on their OB-Gyn clerkships and rotations, and not because I believe I am more experienced in providing women’s reproductive health care than are the OB-Gyns. I can, however, read the evidence. By definition screening occurs in asymptomatic people; should a woman present with symptoms referable to the pelvic region (for example, pain, bleeding or discharge) the examination may be indicated. However, in the absence of symptoms it is a screening test, and should not be done because there is nothing that it can screen for. Years ago, an argument for doing it was screening for ovarian cancer, but many studies have demonstrated that it is not effective for this purpose, because by the time an ovarian cancer can be felt by the examiner, it is very far gone. These are essentially the same reasons that USPSTF and ACP recommend against it.

And, yet, ACOG, as noted, continues to recommend it (”Annual pelvic examination of patients 21 years of age or older is recommended by the College.”). The Times editorial notes that
…the gynecologists group argues that the “clinical experiences” of gynecologists, while not “evidence-based,” demonstrate that annual pelvic exams are useful in detecting problems like incontinence and sexual dysfunction and in establishing a dialogue with patients about a wide range of health issues.

This defense ranges from the indefensible (that it is not evidence based) to the absurd (that it is the way to find problems like incontinence and sexual dysfunction). If a woman has incontinence or sexual dysfunction, she knows it and the way to discover it is not by a pelvic exam, but by asking her. Clearly, the same is true of “establishing a dialogue with patients about a wide range of health issues.” I strongly doubt that most women would feel that having the doctor put his/her hands inside her vagina is the best way to open such a dialogue!

Why, then, would ACOG continue to recommend it? Long ago, when I was in medical school and residency, almost all OB-Gyns were men, and lack of empathy could be a possibility, but this is far from the case now or in recent decades. There is also the fact that such an examination, as a procedure, is reimbursed at a much higher rate than simply talking to a patient. This is true also for family physicians and other primary care providers (such as general internists, which explains the ACP’s interest in the issue), but for OB-Gyns it is a much greater percentage of their practice and thus their income. It is hard to break with tradition, to change the way that you have always been taught, and it is probably harder when there is a concrete disincentive (loss of income) for changing.

But women, and all people, need to be able to trust that their doctors are recommending and doing procedures, particularly invasive and uncomfortable procedures like the pelvic examination, only when they are indicated by the evidence. They need to have confidence that those physicians are not motivated, consciously or not, by a conflict of interest (e.g., financial gain). One step is for physicians to honestly look at the evidence, and avoid prioritizing their anecdotal experience over that evidence.

More profoundly, however, our society, our health care system, needs to eliminate perverse incentives for doing “more” even when it is not indicated, still less when it is also unpleasant for the patient (like a pelvic exam), and least of all when it is also dangerous (as other procedures are). Physicians should be paid for maintaining and increasing the health of their patients, not for “doing things”. If talking to the patient about “a wide range of health issues”, including but not limited to incontinence and sexual dysfunction, is the right way to find out about these problems, and if it takes a long time, then this is what needs to be reimbursed, not a procedure.

We are currently a long way from this sort of reimbursement, for spending the time needed to provide the best health care for a person. It is good that ACP has added its voice to recommending against screening pelvic examinations, but it is unsurprising that doctors do what they are paid to do. We need system change.


[1] Qaseem A, et al, “Screening Pelvic Examination in Adult Women: A Clinical Practice Guideline From the American College of Physicians”, Annals of Internal Medicine 2014;161(1):67-72. doi:10.7326/M14-0701.
[2] http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf12/ovarian/ovarcancerrs.htm 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Treatments that don't cure the disease; we are spending money on the wrong things

In “Heralded treatments often fail to live up to their promise” (Kansas City Star, May 17, 2014), Alan Bavley, writing with Scott Canon, continues to demonstrate that he is one of the excellent health journalists – excellent journalists – in the US, along with Elisabeth Rosenthal of the New York Times. The common practice in the news media (and, thanks to a typo, “medica”) is to hype the new, exciting, dramatic, expensive, and hard to believe even though you want to. In politics, we often see the media acting as flaks for the government, the rich, and the powerful (sometimes, of course, these can be in conflict). Bavley and Rosenthal  and their ilk actually do investigative journalism, trying to the best of their ability to find out the truth rather than to reprint press releases.

The article begins with a review of a surgical procedure that was designed to control high blood pressure (hypertension) without drugs, by cutting some of the nerves to the kidneys. It made sense, it was seen as a big breakthrough (“The potential benefit was huge,” said a cardiologist). Unfortunately, when actually subjected to appropriate scientific study, it didn’t work. Or, rather, it worked just as well as placebo, a sham surgical procedure. The same cardiologist remarks ““This could be considered the biggest disappointment in cardiology of this century, but “the medical community went about it right.” 

Science worked. Unfortunately, the authors add,
“If only that were always the case. A combination of industry marketing, overly eager doctors, demanding patients and news media ready to cheer on anything that sounds like a breakthrough is popularizing many drugs, surgeries and other treatments long before they’re adequately tested. Far too often, they’re ultimately proved ineffective, no better than older, cheaper therapies, or even hazardous. Billions of dollars are wasted and tens of millions of patients are put at risk”

Yup. They go on to cite the Vioxx scandal, in which Merck concealed evidence of its biggest-selling drug causing an increase in heart disease. But that was taken off the market; many other unproven (or worse, proven to be ineffective) treatments are not. They talk about arthroscopic knee surgery, still often being done for conditions for which it has been shown to be no more effective than a sham procedure. They discuss surgical robots, costing upwards of $1.5 million, and proton-beam radiation treatments (those babies, the machines, really cost a lot!) for which the evidence of effectiveness compared to more standard and much cheaper treatment is mixed, at best. But hey, if you’re a hospital, and the competition has robots and proton-beam accelerators, who’s going to come to you if you don’t have one? Poor people? Heaven forfend!

And it is all about getting the advantage on the competition to make more money. A good argument can, and should, be made that competition in hospitals helps no one. That if there were an expensive item that there were an actual medical need for one of in the community, there should be one, not one at every hospital. But that would presume that the goal of the health system was to increase the health of the American people at the lowest effective cost. It isn’t. It’s to make money. If I can get your patients to come to me instead, it is seen as a victory (from a competitive business sense). It is really a loss for the health of our people and the pocketbooks of us all.

It is particularly depressing because that money is not buying us health. If you still harbored the belief that “we have the best health care system in the world”, it’s time to acknowledge that you are wrong (although we forgive you given the hype!). We should all know how expensive our health care system is, that we spend way more than any of the other developed countries (members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD). The attached graph, from Steven Woolf, MD, PhD, who was a plenary speaker at the recent Society of Teachers of Family Medicine Annual Conference, shows a comparison of spending and life expectancy for the OECD countries. That’s the US way off to the right, spending more than anyone by far, but having a life expectancy close to the Czech Republic. Better than Mexico, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Turkey, but at enormously greater cost!

Woolf was the lead author of the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) recent report “Shorter Lives, Poorer Health” , which presents depressing, but unfortunately accurate, data on our health status. We are among the “leaders” in death rates from communicable and non-communicable diseases and from injuries. Only for a few causes are our death rates better than the average. Our life expectancy at birth is worse than any of the 17 comparison countries for men, and second worst for women. Our probability of survival to age 50 is lower than any of 21 comparison countries. At any age until 75, we are never better than 15 out of 17 in terms of life expectancy. We do have better survival rates once we reach age 75, but there is no information on how much of that is keeping people alive despite poor quality of life.

Want more? In case you think it is only the minority populations (although that would be part of our population), non-Hispanic whites rank no higher than 16 of 17 at any age below 55. And the only portion of our population for whom mortality rates have risen is non-Hispanic whites with less than 12 years of education. From 2005-2009, the US had the highest infant mortality rate of the 17 countries and the 31st highest in the OECD. Non-Hispanic whites and mothers with 16+ years of education also have higher infant mortality rates than those in other countries. Among the 17 peer countries, mortality from transport accidents decreased by 42% in the OECD between 1995 and 2009, but by only 11% in the US. The same trends hold for child and adolescent health – and ill-health and mortality.

And then there are the areas where we really shine, particularly health issues related to guns.
  • In 2007, 69% of US homicides (73% of homicides before age 50) involved firearms, compared with 26% in peer countries.
  • A 2003 study found that the US homicide rate was 7 times higher (the rate of firearm homicides was 20 times higher) than in 22 OECD countries.
  • Although US suicide rates were lower than in those countries, firearm suicide rates were 6 times higher.

We have the highest child poverty rates in the OECD, our preschool enrollment is below most countries, and the ratio of social services spending to medical spending is below almost all other OECD countries.

This is insanity. We are spending enormous amounts of money, but we are spending it so that our hospitals can compete with each other, so that we can deliver the most expensive and high-tech care whether it benefits people’s health or not, and we then do not have any money left to do the things that would really enhance health: expanding education, creating jobs, decreasing poverty, ensuring that people had homes and enough to eat.

Not to mention the guns.


Thursday, May 1, 2014

Quality health outcomes depend upon the Social Determinants of Health

On the heels of the publication by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) of how much money Medicare paid to individual physicians (discussed on this blog in Medicare payments to doctors: the big issue is the underpayment for primary care, April 9, 2014), we have revelations of inequity in Federal payments to health providers. A panel of the National Quality Forum (NQF), convened by the Administration to look at this issue, has determined  that payments for “quality of care” to hospitals under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) tend to reward those hospitals caring for higher-income patients and penalize those who care for the poor (Robert Pear, “Health law’s pay policy is skewed, panel finds”, New York Times, April 27, 2014). This cannot be the way we want to go, and thankfully that is the conclusion reached by the panel. It is, however, the NQF that developed these 600 or so quality indicators, and has not recommended adjusting them for the socioeconomic status of the patients that a hospital cares for (although it does adjust for severity of illness).

What is happening is that the measures of quality of care are largely not measures of what is done for patients in the hospital, but how they do after – are they readmitted shortly after discharge, are the diseases for which they are being cared for under better control or not, do they get follow-up care. The fact is that for a variety of reasons including money, education, transportation, and competing demands, poor people do not do as well as better-off people, even controlling for the quality of care that they receive when they are hospitalized. A number of panel members comment on this in the Times article, including NQF president Christine Cassel, who says “Factors far outside the control of a doctor or hospital — patients’ income, housing, education, even race — can significantly affect patient health, health care and providers’ performance scores,” and panel member Steven H. Lipstein, CEO of BJC HealthCare in St. Louis who adds “The administration’s current policy on adjustments for socioeconomic status are quite inadvertently exacerbating disparities in access to medical care for poor people who live in isolated neighborhoods. I’m sure that’s not what President Obama intended with the Affordable Care Act.”

These comments are true, but the thrust of the NQF’s comments was the unfairness to the hospitals. This is important as far as it goes – it is outrageous to pay extra money for “quality of care” to hospitals that care for the privileged and penalize those that care for the underserved. Many of the members of the panel and other commenters quoted by Mr. Pear focus on academic teaching hospitals, which indeed care for a disproportionate share of poor people; however, public hospitals (in those areas where they exist) are even more affected. But what is more important is how this issue illustrates the power of what are called the “social determinants of health”, the situation that people live in before they access medical care, and after they are discharged, have on health outcomes.

Health advocate and policy expert Kip Sullivan is more pointed in his comments on Don McCanne’s “Quote of the Day” for April 28, 2014. “The notion that doctors and hospitals are screwing up and will behave if they are subjected to punishment and reward by third parties is not new. The Code of Hammurabi (1750 BC) subjected Mesopotamian doctors to a combination of reward (more shekels) and punishment (cutting off of doctors' hands)…But even Hammurabi didn’t recommend punishing the patients.”  If hospitals that care for poor people are effectively financially penalized for doing so, they will (at best) be further financially challenged in providing that care, and at worst will do their best to not care for the poor to the extent that they can.

Why would the NQF and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) take such a position, one that seems both unfair and even mean? One might be tempted to suggest that rewarding the “haves” and punishing the “have nots” is what is usually done by government policy, but we would hope that, given its rhetoric on health care – and the creation of the ACA in the first place – the Obama administration would not be guilty of such intent. We get some better idea from Kate Goodrich, the director of quality measurement programs at the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who is quoted in Mr. Pear’s article as saying “We do not want to hold hospitals to different standards of care simply because they treat a large number of low-socioeconomic-status patients. Our position has always been not to risk-adjust for socioeconomic status within our measures because of concern about masking disparities, and potentially rewarding providers who provide a lower level of care for minorities or poor patients.”

Now, this sounds almost noble, like a values-based response to critics such as those on the NQF’s panel. However, the clear and obvious flaw in such logic is that hospitals have the power to change the lives of these patients in such a way as to decrease their risk for poor outcomes to be equal to, or better, than, those of higher socioeconomic status. They don’t, and to the extent that they could do more work in the community to help this situation, it would cost more money, so it is absurd that they be financially penalized. Dollars spent by government on health care should first and foremost be required to be spent on health, not on making money for providers (doctors or hospitals) who can by virtue of their location (and possibly other strategies) avoid taking care of the neediest. Hospitals should be judged and reimbursed on the quality of care that they deliver, equitably and without prejudice with regard to socioeconomic status, but cannot reasonably be judged on outcomes which depend on factors far outside the control of those hospitals.

The real issue is that people who are poor have a lot more to contend with than the services delivered as health care. It is not uncommon for our hospital to be treating a person with a bone infection made worse by their diabetes who needs 6 weeks of IV antibiotics. This can be delivered by a home health care agency, and most insurance will pay for it. But it becomes a problem if the person does not have insurance. And is even more complicated when they do not have a home. These people stay in the hospital, at exorbitant cost, for the whole duration of treatment. But would our quality measures be better if we only cared for those with homes and insurance? Would the hospital make more? Of course, as Mr. Sullivan points out, while the hospitals lose financially, ultimately it is the patients who suffer.

The social determinants of health are well-portrayed in the “cliff analogy” developed by Dr. Camara Jones and her colleagues,[1] and discussed in my blog of September 12, 2010, “Social Determinants, Personal Responsibility, and Health System Outcomes”. The care given by hospitals occurs at the bottom of the cliff, after people have fallen, but their risk, both before arriving at the hospital and in returning home, is that they are living so close to the cliff face; their housing is poor, their neighborhoods are dangerous and polluted, their schools do not educate, and food is often scarce and not nutritious.  In their study comparing health costs in the US and Europe, Elizabeth Bradley and colleagues discovered that while the US spends far more on “health care”, if you add in basic social service spending, the difference decreases, but that the US spends most of its combined health-and-social-service spending on medical care.[2] (Discussed in a New York Times op-ed, “To fix health care, help the poor” by Bradley and Lauren Taylor, and in my blog “To improve health the US must spend more on social services”, November 18, 2011.)

It is understandable that, given the political climate in Washington and state capitals and the flak that they took for ACA, the Obama administration does not want to put major effort into addressing the social determinants of health by developing programs to meet the core needs of poor people in our country, to prevent them from getting sick, to give them access to meaningful post-hospital care, to have health workers in communities, punish polluters, decrease crime, and limit health risks. Understandable, but not OK. And in the meantime, on this narrower issue, it obviously requires adjusting for socioeconomic risks for hospitals caring for the poor when their quality incentive payments are calculated.

But sometime soon we are going to have to address the core problems.



[1] Jones CP, Jones CY, Perry GS, “Addressing the social determinants of children’s health: a cliff analogy”, Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 2009Nov;20(4):supplement pp 1-12. DOI: 10.1353/hpu.0.0228. Slides available on line at http://www.csg.org/knowledgecenter/docs/health/CamaraJones.pdf.
[2] Bradley EH, Elkins BR, Herrin J, Elbel B.,Health and social services expenditures: associations with health outcomes, BMJ Qual Saf. 2011 Oct;20(10):826-31. Epub 2011 Mar 29

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Index to Medicine and Social Justice Blog, Year 5, Dec 2012-Nov 2013

Primary Care

Dec 23, 2012: Does AAMC have an answer for the primary care shortage? No.

Feb 8, 2013: Creating more family doctors: should we shorten medical school? How?

Mar 19, 2013: Can you be "too strong" for family medicine?

Jun 2, 2013: Primary Care Contributes More than Money....

Oct 13, 2013: The role of Primary Care in improving health: In the US and around the world

Oct 26, 2013: Why do students not choose primary care?

 

Health Reform

Feb 2, 2013: Kansas, Medicaid expansion, and human rights

Apr 21, 2013: Payments for surgical complications: With a scalpel or a meat ax?

May 5, 2013: Medicaid Expansion: Do we care for people or not?

May 26, 2013: Medicaid expansion will leave out many of the poorest: What is wrong with this picture?

Jun 16, 2013: "Call the Midwife": If Britain could afford to create a National Health Service after WWII, we can now!

Jul 21, 2013: Changes in the RUC: None.. How come we let a bunch of self-interested doctors decide what they get paid?

Aug 4, 2013: Why poor people choose ERs: we need a system designed to meet everyone’s needs

Sep 29, 2013: What can we really expect from ObamaCare? A lot, actually.

Nov 17, 2013: Dead Man Walking: People still die from lack of health insurance

 

Health Research and Evidence

Dec 8, 2013: More on mammography: just because you don't like the results doesn't make research junk science

Jan 12, 2013: Mental Illness and Guns: A public health perspective

Jan 19, 2013: Weight and class: who is obese and why should we care?

Jan 26, 2013: The flu is a virus!

Apr 7, 2013: Research on disparities/inequities, in practices and communities needs much greater funding

Apr 14, 2013: Premature babies and informed consent: we need to do it right

Sep 7, 2013: President Bush's stent: inappropriate screening and care for the rich, nothing for the poor

 

Medical Education

Feb 8, 2013: Creating more family doctors: should we shorten medical school? How?

Mar 19, 2013: Can you be "too strong" for family medicine?

Jul 7, 2013: Why don't graduate medical education programs produce the doctors America needs?

Oct 26, 2013: Why do students not choose primary care?

Nov 3, 2013: Should Medical School last 3 years? If so, which 3?


The Health System and Social Justice

May 19, 2013: Keeping immigrants and all of us healthy is a social task

Jun 16, 2013: "Call the Midwife": If Britain could afford to create a National Health Service after WWII, we can now!

Jun 22, 2013: Moving to Recovery By Design (guesy post by Robert Bowman, MD)

Jan 5, 2013: When is the doctor not needed? And who should take their place?

Feb 16, 2013: Creating team based care: are non-physician providers more effectively used in primary or subspecialty care?

Feb 23, 2013: Corruption and Scandal in the NHS: What happens when you introduce private incentives to public services

Mar 2, 2013: Squeezing the needy: a truly flawed financing system for healthcare

Jul 14, 2013: The State of US Health: improved over 20 years, but not nearly enough

Jul 28, 2013: The high cost of US health care: it's not the colonoscopies, it's the profit

Aug 4, 2013: Why poor people choose ERs: we need a system designed to meet everyone’s needs

Aug 10, 2013: Insufficient outrage: is health care about helping people or enriching providers?

Aug 17, 2013: Status Syndrome: an important determinant of health (guest post by Linda French, MD)

Sep 7, 2013: President Bush's stent: inappropriate screening and care for the rich, nothing for the poor

Oct 6, 2013: Critical access hospitals: Worth subsidizing to help save rural America

Nov 10, 2013: Does quality of care vary by insurance status? Even Medicare? Is that OK?

Nov 17, 2013: Dead Man Walking: People still die from lack of health insurance

Nov 23, 2013: Outliers, Hotspotting, and the Social Determinants of Health


Providers, Values, and Health

Aug 10, 2013: Insufficient outrage: is health care about helping people or enriching providers?

Aug 25, 2013: Physicians' role in controlling health costs: do no financial harm

Sep 1, 2013: Rand Paul on health policy: small brain and no heart

Sep 15, 2013: Competition vs. Coordination in health care: remember the patient!

Sep 22, 2013: Controlling the cost of health care by doing the right thing

Oct 20, 2013: The cost of medical care: bundling tests and blaming the victim

Nov 10, 2013: Does quality of care vary by insurance status? Even Medicare? Is that OK?

 

Other

Apr 26, 2013: Matthew Freeman Lecture and Awards, 2013





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