OP-ED

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It is reassuring that in a country which produced HL Mencken, Homer Simpson and Mark Twain, reports of death of satire have been grossly exaggerated.

Recently, the faculty at Harvard were up in arms because their new health plan involves copayments and deductibles. With ninety cents to the dollar covered, the plan is generous by national standards, and would be rated “platinum” in Obamacare’s exchanges. It’s not as if the professors were placed on Medicaid to show solidarity with the poor.

Increased out-of-pocket contribution is the trend post health care reform. That same reform which many Harvard professors supported and some designed. This is why their revolt, an Orwellian political satire, has spread schadenfreude amongst conservatives who are enjoying Gore Vidal’s favorite words in the English Language: “I told you so.” Continue reading “Healthcare’s Reform Pareto Trap”

flying cadeuciiAlthough you may not realize it, your doctor is a monopoly. Yes, you can see someone else, but not without difficulty. And if you wanted a second opinion, how far would you go? In part, through insurance coverage, in part based on a desire for convenience, healthcare is generally a local monopoly. However, that may be about to change.

I’m a radiologist, an expert in medical imaging. When I started my career in 1997, I’d show up for work and it was just me and my films. The exams presented to me were a mix of imaging- CT, MRI, ultrasound, plain X-Rays- all captured, presented and stored on film. By 2000, the film was gone. Just about everything I did was done on a computer.

I was an early proponent for this technology (also know as PACS for Picture Archiving and Communications Systems). It allowed my group to work faster and smarter. However through a series of steps (consolidation, specialization and finally commoditization/globalization) technology broke up the local monopoly many radiology groups enjoyed. Similar to Instagram, PACS allowed medical images to be seen instantly by anyone anywhere. And now, based on improvements in technology, I’m expecting similar changes for the rest of healthcare.

Consolidation

Tele-radiology first emerged in hospitals when computers began to be used to optimize the daily workload. At the beginning of my career, several doctors divided work for the day into piles. Each person did his or her allotment with no real help from peers. With the transition to digital, work became a common pile that was shared among physicians in the same hospital. Faster doctors filled downtime gaps reading more cases, resulting in improved overall efficiency.

Continue reading “How Technology Will Disrupt Your Doctor’s Monopoly”

Screen Shot 2015-02-02 at 1.08.19 AMAn article in this week’s New York Times called Will This Treatment Help Me?  There’s a Statistic for that highlights the disconnect between the risks (and risk reductions) that epidemiologists, researchers, guideline writers, the pharmaceutical industry, and policy wonks think are significant and the risks (and risk reductions) patients intuitively think are significant enough to warrant treatment.

The authors, bloggers at The Incidental Economist, begin the article with a sobering look at the number needed to treat (NNT).  For the primary prevention of myocardial infarction (MI), if 2000 people with a 10% or higher risk of MI in the next 10 years take aspirin for 2 years, one MI will be prevented.  1999 people will have gotten no benefit from aspirin, and four will have an MI in spite of taking aspirin.  Aspirin, a very good drug on all accounts, is far from a panacea, and this from a man (me) who takes it in spite of falling far below the risk threshold at which it is recommended.

One problem with NNT is that for patients it is a gratuitous numerical transformation of a simple number that anybody could understand (the absolute risk reduction  - “your risk of stroke is reduced 3% by taking coumadin“), into a more abstract one (the NNT – “if we treat 33 people with coumadin, we prevent one stroke among them”) that requires retransformation into examples that people can understand, as shown in pictograms in the NYT article.  A person trying to understand stroke prevention with coumadin could care less about the other 32 people his doctor is treating with coumadin, he is interested in himself.  And his risk is reduced 3%.  So why do we even use the NNT, why not just use ARR?

Continue reading “The Therapeutic Paradox: What’s Right for the Population May Not Be Right for the Patient”

Leslie Kernisan new headshotSix years ago, just after arriving in Baltimore for a winter conference, I fell sick with fever and a bad sore throat.

After a night of feeling awful, I went looking for help. I found it at a Minute Clinic in a CVS near the hotel. I was seen right away by a friendly NP who did a rapid strep test, and prescribed me medication. I picked up my medication at the pharmacy there. The visit cost something like $85, and took maybe 30 minutes. They gave me forms to submit to my California insurance. And I was well enough to present my research as planned by day 3 of the conference.

Fast forward to this year. After feeling a bit blah on a Monday evening, I developed a sore throat, headache, and fever overnight.

I figured it was a winter viral pharyngitis, rearranged my schedule, and planned to make it an “easy day.” Usually a low-key day plus a good night’s sleep does the trick for me.

But not with this bug.

Continue reading “A Tale of Two Sore Throats: On Retail Clinics and Urgent Care”

One of the pleasantly surprising announcements President Obama made during his 2015 State of the Union address was “a new Precision Medicine Initiative to bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes.”

Given precision medicine’s potential to solve many outstanding health care issues and lower costs without compromising clinical quality and performance, the President’s proposal is a welcome initiative. Many of the challenges we face practicing symptom-focused intuitive medicine could be overcome by turning toward precision medicine, a process of precisely diagnosing and targeting disease.

However, announcing the initiative is one thing. As with all policy discussions, the devil is in the details – and there are three details specifically that could make the difference between political rhetoric and a policy that truly improves the health of American citizens. Continue reading “Three Recommendations for President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative”

flying cadeuciiThere are no winners in the fee-for-service game.

It’s time to toss the whole business-as-usual model — for your own good and the good of your customers.

The emerging Default Model of health care — the “consumer-directed” insured fee-for-service model in which health plans compete to lower premiums by bargaining providers into narrow networks — not only does not work for health care’s customers, it cannot work. This is not because we are doing it wrong or being sloppy. By its very nature the Default Model must continually fail to bring our customers what they want and desperately need. Ultimately it cannot bring you, the providers, what you want and need.

Take a dive with me into the real-world game-theory mechanics of the health care economy, and you will see why. It’s time to rebuild the fundamental business models of health care.

Continue reading “Dump the Business Model”

Invaders From Mars

Just over a half-century ago, in the mid-50s, at the height of our paranoia about communists and the Soviet Union, a boy sees a flying saucer land in the distance.  No one else sees the event.  The occupants of the mysterious spacecraft prove to be invaders from Mars.  Their strategy is to capture people, one-by-one, and to perform brain surgery on them whereby  an electrode controlling device is placed in the victims’ brains rendering them  pawn
s of the invaders, though they retain the superficial appearance of human beings.  The only clue to recognizing one of these unfortunate robots is to look for the telltale antenna at the base of the hairline in the back of the neck.

In order to understand the profound meaning of the Invaders from Mars, you have to know a little neurology.

There are really two people within each of us, a fact that reflects the two almost mirror image cerebral hemispheres, each responsible for the opposite side of the body and extra-personal space.  Put simply, damage to the left hemisphere will cause paralysis and loss of sensation on the right side of the body, including loss of perception from the right side of the world.

This loss of perception is more profound than simple blindness.  If reflects the fact that anything that the brain does not record is actually not there.  We live, after all, in virtual reality. What our brains do not sense is, for us, not there.  Do the following experiment.  What is behind your head?  Not what you imagine might be there or what you think you remember is there.  What is actually there?  Is it black, white, striped?  Try to describe it.  You don’t have the words, because what is there is nothing, and nothing has no color, texture or shape.  Is there an antenna at the base of your hairline?  You couldn’t possible know, could you?

Continue reading “Invaders from Mars with Commentary from Robert Burns”

Dear White People Poster

The latest Gallup and Healthways poll doesn’t phrase it this way, but its findings that the Affordable Care Act “appears to be meeting its goal of reducing the percentage of Americans without health insurance” is more evidence Obamacare is good for white people.

In an interview with National Public Radio at the end of last year, President Obama was asked whether he and the Democrats had lost support among white voters. He denied it, comparing his share of the white vote favorably to that John Kerry in 2004 and pointing to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as a program that benefited working-class white voters without many realizing it. I’d written much the same thing about Obamacare in a THCB blog post a couple of weeks before the 2012 presidential election. But as with other issues related to race, it’s a topic that the president has only reluctantly discussed, even when good policy is also good politics.

In response to NPR questions about race, Obama noted that some of the biggest beneficiaries of the ACA live in places like “Mitch McConnell’s state,” home to relatively few blacks or Hispanics. Coincidentally, a front page story in the print New York Times documented Kentucky’s experience with the law – which, the president wryly noted, Kentuckians do not call “Obamacare” – the same day the NPR interview aired.

Continue reading “More Evidence Obamacare is Good For White People”

flying cadeuciiInfluential RAND researcher Soren Mattke had this to say in support of Al Lewis and Vik Khanna’s latest post on the Wellness story “Would the Real Professor Katherine Baicker Please Stand Up?

“Gentlemen. Great post. Like you, I am disappointed that researchers of the caliber of Kate Baicker and David Cutler do not respond to the mounting debate about their paper. They should defend or disown their work rather than hope that the debate goes away.

In my mind, their paper is a product typical of high-end academic research. Two brilliant professors spot a gap in the evidence on a hot policy topic and decide to go after it. But the actual work gets done by a graduate student in his cubicle without windows or guidance, and then hastily published.

Then the problem arises that the paper becomes hugely influential and people start having a closer look. For our paper on the PepsiCo program, we reviewed in detail the seven publications that Baicker and colleagues called “high quality evidence”. We found that five of those analyzed programs that operated over 20 years ago and most of them had severe methodologic flaws. (John P. Caloyeras, Hangsheng Liu, Ellen Exum, Megan Broderick and Soeren Mattke. Managing Manifest Diseases, But Not Health Risks, Saved PepsiCo Money Over Seven Years. Health Affairs, 33, no.1 (2014):124-131)

Unfortunately, many defenders of the industry continue to take the Baicker paper at face value, while closely scrutinizing or ignoring more nuanced and scientifically sound findings.

So I herewith support your motion!

flying cadeuciiM.I.T. economist Jonathan Gruber, whom his colleagues in the profession hold in very high esteem for his prowess in economic analysis, recently appeared before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Gruber was called to explain several caustic remarks he had offered on tortured language and provisions in the Affordable Care Act (the ACA) that allegedly were designed to fool American voters into accepting the ACA.

Many of these linguistic contortions, however, were designed not so much to fool voters, but to force the Congressional Budget Office into scoring taxes as something else. But Gruber did call the American public “stupid” enough to be misled by such linguistic tricks and by other measures in the ACA — for example, taxing health insurers knowing full well that insurers would pass the tax on to the insured.

During the hearing, Gruber apologized profusely and on multiple occasions for his remarks. Although at least some economists apparently see no warrant for such an apology, I believe it was appropriate, as in hindsight Gruber does as well. “Stupid” is entirely the wrong word in this context; Gruber should have said “ignorant” instead. Continue reading “Rethinking The Gruber Controversy: Americans Aren’t Stupid, But They’re Often Ignorant — And Why”

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