OP-ED

OP-ED

Is It Possible That All Healthcare Needs to Know We All Learned In Kindergarten?

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US Healthcare is sick and getting sicker, and while its chaotic complexity suggests to many that it will need to fail big before it can be rebuilt, some simple rules may help to get it back on track. As this the time of year when many of us prepare to send our children on grandchildren off to school in the hopes that they will learn what they need to succeed, I thought we could revisit the lessons of Kindergarten and their application to healthcare. The following list, initially from “ALL I REALLY NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED IN KINDERGARTEN” by Robert Fulghum.  has been adapted (read ‘man-handled’) for applicability to US healthcare. You’ll find the original list here:  http://www.robertfulghum.com/

  • Share everything – In healthcare, this means share ALL the data, all the information, all the acquired wisdom. Interoperable systems are essential. Price transparency is the right side of history. Automated, coordinated, connected systems are essential.  Healthcare is too much of a team sport not to share all that we know, so that we can quickly understand what works, what doesn’t, and what it’s all going to cost.
  • Play fair – It isn’t fair when decisions are made without a person’s input.  It isn’t fair that a patient should bear the risks, the pain, the scars and the costs without having unfettered access to all the relevant information. Shared decision making is part of playing fair in a world where healthcare is meant to happen for patients and with patients, but not to patients.
  • Put things back where you found them. Except for things like an infected appendix or a malignant growth, this continues to make great sense.  And as we go about transforming healthcare, we must recognize that wholesale, sweeping changes are easier to envision than execute.  While progress requires change those changes that align with / enhance / expedite existing workflows will be easiest to achieve.

Abortion Should Not Imperil Health Care Reform

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MelissaReed resized

The House vote to establish near-universal health-care coverage came at a steep cost to women. That cost, issued as an amendment by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), eliminates abortion coverage by private insurance companies even when women are paying for all or most of the premium.

Stupak’s amendment is a cynical attempt to push an anti-choice agenda that imperils badly needed reform. His amendment restricts women’s access to abortion coverage in the private health insurance market as well as in a “public option,” undermining the ability of women to purchase private health plans that cover abortion. It reaches much further than the Hyde Amendment, which has prohibited public funding of abortion in most instances since 1977.

Chinese Research: Not Quite the Juggernaut?

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A perennial topic around here has been the state of scientific research in China (and other up-and-coming nations). There’s no doubt that the number of scientific publications from China has been increasing (be sure to read the comments to that post; there’s more to it than I made of it). But many of these papers, on closer inspection, are junk, and are published in junk journals of no impact whatsoever. Mind you, that’s not an exclusively Chinese problem – Sturgeon’s Law is hard to get away from, and there’s a lot of mediocre (and worse than mediocre) stuff coming out of every country’s scientific enterprise.

But what about patents? The last couple of years have seen many people predicting that China would soon be leading the world in patent applications as well, which can be the occasion for pride or hand-wringing, depending on your own orientation. But there’s a third response: derision. And that’s what Anil Gupta and Haiyan Wang provide in the Wall Street Journal. They think that most of these filings are junk:

No Country for Old Smokers

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flying cadeucii“Traditionally, doctors used to be called in when needed. But this is now changing. Increasingly it is the doctor who calls the person in by issuing an invitation. Healthy people are asked to visit the surgery for a ‘check-up’, or ‘screening’, when their computerized records show they are ‘due’. Non-attendance is known as ‘non-compliance’, indicating an element of recklessness and irresponsibility.”

Petr Skrabanek. The Death of Humane Medicine and Rise of Coercive Healthism.

If CMS endorses MEDCAC’s recommendations regarding low dose screening CT for lung cancer, we may see a coverage scenario that might be mistaken for an episode of Saturday Night Live.

What Experts in Law and Medicine Have to Say About the Cost of Drugs

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Pharmaceutical drug costs impinge heavily on consumers’ consciousness, often on a monthly basis, and have become such a stress on the public that they came up repeatedly among both major parties during the U.S. presidential campaign–and remain a bipartisan rallying cry. A good deal of the recent conference named Health Law Year in P/Review, at the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, covered issues with a bearing on drug costs. It’s interesting to take the academic expertise from that conference–and combine it with a bit of common sense–to see which narratives about drug costs hold up.

The Industry Narrative

In defending the ever-growing cost of drugs, the pharmaceutical industry can’t roll out a single, intuitive explanation. Rather, their justification breaks down into many independent but interacting parts. We have to tease these apart before examining their validity.

Community Health Centers Are Essential to a Safety Net

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Steve FindlaySince we are in a political season, I’ll begin with one of the candidate’s positions on a facet of healthcare: Hillary wants to double funding for Community Health Centers (CHCs) over the next decade.

Is that a good or bad thing?  If you’re inclined to think that’s good, please read on; I’ll reinforce your views.  If your impulses are in the opposite direction….well, I hope you’ll still read on; I’ll hope to convince you.

By the way, I could find no mention by Trump of CHCs—no surprise there.

The role CHCs play in healthcare has gone largely unheralded for years, eclipsed by sexier health policy topics and debates.  But that role has expanded in recent years and become more important than you might think.  And not incidentally, CHCs have had broad bipartisan support for many years.

The Untimely Death of Long-Term Health Insurance

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The Administration’s decision to pull the plug on long-term health insurance in the new healthcare law (so-called Community Living Assistance Services and Support or, as it was known by healthcare insiders, CLASS) offers an important lesson.

As written, the law had three incompatible parts.

First, it required beneficiaries to receive at least $50 a day if they had a long-term illness or disability (to pay a caregiver or provide other forms of maintenance). That $50 was an absolute minimum. No flexibility on the downside.

Second, insurance premiums had to fully cover these costs. In budget-speak, the program was to be self-financing. Given the minimum benefit, that meant fairly hefty premiums.

Third, unlike the rest of the healthcare law, enrollment was to be voluntary. But given the fairly hefty premiums, the only people likely to sign up would know they’d need the benefit because they had or were prone to certain long-term illnesses or disabilities. Healthier people probably wouldn’t enroll.

Yet if the healthier didn’t enroll, the program would have to be financed entirely by the relatively unhealthy — which meant premiums would have to be even higher. So high, in fact, that even the relatively unhealthy wouldn’t be able to afford it.

End of story. End of program.

Rethinking IMS Health v. Sorrell: Privacy as a First Amendment Value

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Today the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in IMS Health v. Sorrell. The case pits medical data giant IMS Health (and some other plaintiffs) against the state of Vermont, which restricted the distribution of certain “physician-identified” medical data if the doctors who generated the data failed to affirmatively permit its distribution.* I have contributed to an amicus brief submitted on behalf of the New England Journal of Medicine regarding the case, and I agree with the views expressed by brief co-author David Orentlicher in his excellent article Prescription Data Mining and the Protection of Patients’ Interests. I think he, Sean Flynn, and Kevin Outterson have, in various venues, made a compelling case for Vermont’s restrictions. But I think it is easy to “miss the forest for the trees” in this complex case, and want to make some points below about its stakes.**

Privacy Promotes Freedom of Expression

Privacy has repeatedly been subordinated to other, competing values. Priscilla Regan chronicles how efficiency has trumped privacy in U.S. legislative contexts. In campaign finance and citizen petition cases, democracy has trumped the right of donors and signers to keep their identities secret. Numerous tech law commentators chronicle a tension between privacy and innovation. And now Sorrell is billed as a case pitting privacy against the First Amendment.

There is an old tension between privacy and the First Amendment, best crystallized in Eugene Volokh’s effort to characterize privacy protections as the troubling right to stop others from speaking about you. Neil Richards has dissected the flaws in Volokh’s Lochneresque effort to reduce the complex societal dynamics of fair data practices to Hohfeldian trump cards held by individuals and corporations. Societies reasonably conclude that certain types of data shouldn’t influence certain types of decisions all the time. And courts have acquiesced, allowing much “of the vast universe of speech [to] remain[] untouched (and thus unprotected) by the First Amendment.”

What the SNAP Cuts Actually Mean

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Last week House Republicans voted to cut benefits to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, slashing $39 billion in benefits over the next ten years in a vote of 217 to 210. All members of the Democratic caucus voted against the bill, which would affect 4 million people.

In June, fiscal conservatives squashed the Farm Bill that would have cut spending by $20 billion over ten years after determining the decrease was too meager. This new bill is their response to that. If successful, half of the cuts will put a stop to food aid after three months to people between 18 and 50 with no minors living with them if they are unable to find work, a move that makes little sense.

Poverty and health are inextricably linked, and food security plays a central role in this. Not only does poverty affect a family’s ability to buy food, it prevents them from buying healthy food. In the United States, lower income individuals are more likely to be obese, putting a strain on the healthcare system. Currently, beneficiaries of SNAP are eligible for SNAP-Ed, a nutrition education program designed to promote healthy eating on a limited budget. It is unclear how these cuts will affect SNAP-Ed.

African-Americans, no strangers to health inequalities, will be disproportionately affected by this change if successful. A new study shows that 90 percent of African-Americans benefitted from food stamps at one point or another in their lives. One in four African-American households faces food insecurity, and make up about 23% of all SNAP recipients.

Scope of Practice: Playing at the Top of My License?

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flying cadeuciiThe Institute of Medicine in 2010 famously recommended that nurses should be encouraged to practice “to the full extent of their education and training.”Often, you’ll hear people advocate that every healthcare worker should “practice at the top of their license”.

What this concept is supposed to mean, I think, is that anyone with clinical skills should use them effectively and not spend time on tasks that can be done by someone with fewer skills, presumably at lower cost.

So I would like to know, please, when I’ll get to practice at the top of my license?

As a physician who specializes in anesthesiology at a big-city medical center, I take care of critically ill patients all the time.

Yet I spend a lot of time performing tasks that could be done by someone with far less training.

Though I’m no industrial engineer, I did an informal “workflow analysis” on my activities the other morning before my first patient entered the operating room to have surgery.

I arrived in the operating room at 6:45 a.m., which is not what most people would consider a civilized hour, but I had a lot to do before we could begin surgery at 7:15.

First, I looked around for a suction canister, attached it to the anesthesia machine, and hooked up suction tubing. This is a very important piece of equipment, as it may be necessary to suction secretions from a patient’s airway. It should take only moments to set up a functioning suction canister, but if one isn’t available in the operating room, you have to leave the room and scrounge for it elsewhere in a storage cabinet or case cart.

This isn’t an activity that requires an MD degree. An eight-year-old child could do it competently after being shown once.