OP-ED

OP-ED

The Law of Diminishing Returns of Ethicism

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Many allege that the FIRST trial, which randomized surgical residencies to strict versus flexible adherence to duty hour restrictions, was unethical because patients weren’t consented for the trial and, as this was an experiment, in the true sense of the word, consent was mandatory. The objection is best summarized by an epizeuxis in a Tweet from Alice Dreger, a writer, medical historian, and a courageous and tireless defender of intellectual freedom.

It’s important understanding what the FIRST (Flexibility In duty hour Requirements for Surgical Trainees) trial did and didn’t show. It showed neither that working 120 hours a week has better outcomes than working 80 hours a week, nor the opposite. Neither did the trial, despite being a non-inferiority trial, show that working 100 hours was as safe as working 60 hours a week. The trial showed that violating duty hour restrictions didn’t worsen outcomes. The trial was neither designed nor powered to specify the degree to which the violation of duty hours was safe. This key point can be missed. To be fair, neither the trialists, nor the editorials about the trial, claimed so.

The Coming DRexit

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Brexit was a British version of “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” a famous line from the film “Network.” Brits were fed up with intrusive and nonsensical regulations from the European Union, including whether eggs could be sold by the dozen — really important stuff affecting the lives and well-being of our neighbors across the pond.

“Frexit” may be the next iteration, as one of the leading French presidential candidates, Marine Le Pen, promises voters a referendum to leave the E.U. Donald Trump’s election to the presidency is the American version, in which voters chose to leave behind the political and media Establishment and favored a new direction.

Now, in medicine, a similar movement is called “DRexit,” as described by Dr. Niran Al-Agba, a pediatrician in Washington State, who wrote about this in a blog post — and it may be pushing physicians away from stifling bureaucracies of government-run health care. Endless rules, regulations, and mandates are turning physicians from healers into robots and transforming the medical clinic into the post office or the Department of Motor Vehicles.

A Doctor’s Dilemma: A Case of Two Right Answers

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Imagine you are a doctor running a clinic in a primarily lower-income neighborhood, where many of your patients are recent immigrants from different parts of the world. You are granted a fixed annual budget of $100,000 through your local public health department, and it is unlikely that you can obtain additional funding later in the year. Traditionally, you have used your entire budget for the past several years, which usually lasts from January until December. This allows you to care for all of the few thousand patients who come to you for treatment throughout the year.

One day in January, a frightened, thin young man appears to the clinic with a folder of medical records. He is accompanied by his aunt, who explains to you that he has recently traveled from El Salvador, where he was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer that, if untreated, will result in his death within 6 months. After further inquiry, you determine that his cancer is treatable, but will require $50,000 of your budget to save his life. What do you do?

Thinking Through the Moral Dilemma

The ethical dilemma in this case is one that physicians and public health practitioners confront often, particularly in very low-resource settings: the care of the individual versus the equitable distribution of resources to the society at large. For this case, treating this single patient means that there will not be enough money to treat all of the other patients who come to the clinic over the course of the year. In economic terms, we might say that his care is not cost-effective because for the same amount invested in supplying the clinic, we could prevent many more deaths or disability adjusted life years (DALYs) for a greater number of patients. However, allowing a patient to die of a treatable condition feels wrong on many levels.

Thinking through this further, we must look closely at our values as a country and a health system: thanks to EMTALA, we ensure that no patient will ever be allowed to die of an emergency condition while in a hospital; thus, we value saving people from imminent, preventable death.

How Trump Can Kill the Cancer In Obamacare Without Congress

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Cancer is a devious and devastating disease. All it takes are a few bad cells to grow uncontrollably, first destroying organs, then an entire person. It can also lie dormant for years after supposedly being cured, then at some moment awaken from its remission slumber to resume its search-and-destroy mission. Even if cancer is controlled, it can still leave its victim in a weakened or debilitated condition, a shadow of its former robust self.

What if the Affordable Care Act, affectionately known as Obamacare, was unintentionally infected with cancer back in 2010 when it was voted into law? What if the cancer could be reactivated at any time? After all, we had to “pass the bill to find out what’s in it” according to one of its proponents. Surprise, the dormant cancer is already in the law.

Ideally, cancer is removed from the body entirely. A true cure. For Obamacare, this would mean repealing the bill entirely. Despite campaign promises of repeal, legislatively, this is a nonstarter. This is worth a brief review as many think a simple repeal bill from the House is possible.

Price Transparency and All Its Very Large Warts

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Transparency – including price, quality, and effectiveness of medical services is a vital component to lowering costs and improving outcomes.  However, it is imperative transparency go hand-in-hand with financial incentives for patients and consumers; otherwise the quest will be in vain.  The single best way of reducing costs while not worsening health outcomes is to redistribute resources from less cost-effective health services to more cost-effective ones.  Americans are extremely uncomfortable with the idea of making decisions based on cost but we must become fluent in the language of cost and more comfortable making decisions based on price information for healthcare expenditures to stabilize. 

Legislators in more than 30 states have proposed legislation to promote price transparency, with most efforts focused around publishing average or median prices for hospital services. Some states already have price transparency policies in place. California requires hospitals to give patients cost estimates for the 25 most common outpatient procedures. Texas requires providers to disclose price information to patients upon request. Ohio passed price transparency legislation last year; however a lawsuit filed by the Ohio Hospital Association has delayed implementation.  The cost of a knee replacement is $15,500 at the Surgery Center of Oklahoma, whereas the national average is $49,500

Healthcare Economics: Why This Stuff Doesn’t Actually Work The Way You Think It Does

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This is a letter I sent to Gary Cohn, appointed by President Trump to head the National Economic Council and, among other things, come up with a plan for reforming healthcare. Formerly president of Goldman Sachs, Cohn may be a wizard at finance, but healthcare economics are wildly different and famously opaque. So I thought I would help him out.]

Subject: A brief on healthcare economics. (8 minutes)

 o Why healthcare economics are different.

 o Why the ACA is failing.

 o What would work.

Who I am (credentials): Independent healthcare author and analyst since Jimmy Carter’s administration. Speaker, consultant across the industry at all levels, including insurers, hospitals, device manufacturers, employers, Veterans, pharma, World Health Organization, Department of Defense. Look me up: ImagineWhatIf.com. Books on Amazon.

Core problem:
 The core problem in healthcare reform is the actual cost of medical care.

o Healthcare in the U.S. by any measure costs about twice what it should.
o Medical prices are completely disconnected from the cost of production.
o Few medical providers even know the true cost of ownership of their products.
o By a number of analyses at least one third of that (well over $1 trillion this year) is waste, paying for things that we don’t need and that don’t help.
o Solving just the federal part of this would completely wipe out the deficit.

Trying to “take care of everybody” will always be impossible politically and economically as long as healthcare costs twice what it should and wastes trillions of dollars.

Solvable: This is a solvable problem. Change the relationship of the sector to its true customers by shifting the payment structure, prompting business model innovation. Stop paying for waste, and $1 trillion/year in unneeded overtreatment will disappear. Prices will drop to something like a true market price. This will not happen overnight, but it could happen over five years with vigorous implementation.

Why does it cost so much?

No price signals: The structure of the U.S. healthcare market since the early 1980s has made it opaque to price signals. Customers in healthcare ask a different question than customers in most markets. Whether hospitals (as customers of suppliers) or individuals needing an operation, healthcare customers mostly don’t ask, “Can we afford it?” Or even, “What’s the best value for the money?” They ask, “Is it covered? Can we get reimbursed for this?” And the reimbursement or coverage is set by complex non-market mechanisms that in most parts of the market are themselves opaque to the customer. So there is no real customer and no real price signal in most relationships throughout the market.

Drug Price Debate Could Stall, Unless Consumers Get Engaged

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It’s still unclear whether Congress or the Trump administration will try to tackle the prescription drug price/cost issue this year.  Amid ACA repeal and replace, and possible Medicaid and Medicare reform fights, it seems a stretch.   

In recent weeks, Trump has also changed his tune on the subject.  Soaring prescription prices were a populist rallying cry at his campaign stops pre-election and then pre-inauguration. (“They’re getting away with murder,” he bellowed, referring to drug companies.)

But, fitting a post-inauguration pattern, Trump softened his message after a get-together with pharmaceutical executives on Jan. 31.  He mentioned increasing competition and “bidding wars” as a way to bring prices down—whatever that means. 

Is DRexit Next?

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Sean MacStiofain said “most revolutions are caused… by the stupidity and brutality of governments.” Regulation without legitimacy, predictability and fairness always leads to backlash instead of compliance.

Here’s a prediction for you: If something is not done to stop MACRA implementation, more physicians will opt-out of Medicare and Medicaid than is fathomable.

Once DRexit begins, there will be no turning back.

The Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015 (MACRA) is destructive to the physician patient relationship because it prevents physicians from prioritizing patient care. MACRA supporters like to point out this legislation was passed with bipartisan support; in reality, it was passed simultaneously with repeal of the Sustainable Growth Rate Formula.

The Policymaker’s Guide to Options For Replacing the Cadillac Tax

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As policymakers debate repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act (ACA or “Obamacare”), disagreement remains over how to address the ACA’s “Cadillac tax.” Rather than repealing the 40 percent tax on high-cost insurance plans outright, many advocates of “repeal and replace” have proposed replacing it with a limit on the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored health insurance (ESI). Doing so would be a wise choice, and limiting the ESI exclusion would both generate significant revenue to pay for an ACA replacement and help to limit the overall growth of health care spending. In this piece, we discuss some of the options available for replacement. 

The Public Health Enemy at the Gate

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President Donald Trump  keeps getting kicked around in court when challenges are brought against his ban on travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations. Trump says he wants to halt the flow of people who might be planning attacks. What we cannot forget is that the kind of attack he has in mind is not confined to bombs and shootings. Trump is terrified that immigrants bring diseases with them. If racism fails, public health will likely afford Trump the rationale he seeks for making it difficult for those he does not like to enter our country.

The president is a self-described germaphobe. He has doubts about vaccines. He likely does not wake up every day to thrill at the latest advances in science. This is a president who might possibly let an infectious disease do what he has so far not been able to accomplish by impugning the country or religion of immigrants he doesn’t like: provide the basis for a ban.

The threat of a pandemic is yet another avenue he could possibly embrace to create a Fortress America. He might demand more walls, quarantine stations at airports and one-way tickets home for every potential human vector — including the frail, kids and pregnant women. No one who is sick, might be sick or who can be smeared as the source of Americans getting sick would get in.

Pandemic flu, Zika, yellow fever, West Nile and a host of other maladies are likely to keep popping up over the next four years. The news media are great at stoking fear about all of them. Public officials are ill-prepared to know what to do about any of them.