Intervention

Penn State University is now embroiled in a national controversy over the ham-handed launch of its coercive and intrusive wellness program, which can cost recalcitrant employees as much as $1,200 per year for not joining.  That ignominy of being the most distasteful and coercive program, however, belongs to Blue Care Network of Michigan, which recently published results from their “voluntary” walking program designed exclusively for their obese enrollees.  The invitation to join was extended to enrollees with a body mass index (BMI, which is an unscientific, mathematically bereft proxy for health – see Keith Devlin’s excellent article ) of 30 or greater.  The program was “voluntary” as long as you were okay with paying $2,000 in added insurance premiums if you did not volunteer.

Avoiding the $2,000 price tag came with its own cost in dignity and privacy.  Enrollees agreed to either: 1) wear an electronic pedometer and connect it to their computer daily to document completion of at least 5,000 steps or, 2) join Weight Watchers or some other approved “weight cycling” program.  This princely sum is not irrelevant to most families.  In fact, it is almost exactly equal to per capita spending on food eaten at home in the US and about four percent of median US household income in 2011.  So, in a household occupied by a single adult, this will almost buy your groceries for a year, meaning that is hard to refuse, and the less money you make the more likely that resistance will prove futile.

The BCN strategy legitimizes telling people who look a certain way that they should submit to online, electronic monitoring or pay more for their insurance than people who don’t look that way.  Why would an obese person submit to this when it is entirely possible that he or she is fitter and more metabolically healthy than an normal weight unfit person who would never be condescended to this way?

More disturbing is the prospect that this is only the leading edge of life-invading monitoring by the wellness industry.  It is easy to envision sleep monitoring because you have bags under your eyes.  Or, what about wrist-worn breathalyzers to make sure you don’t go over the one or two drink limit, or sneak cigarettes after lying on your health risk appraisal that you don’t smoke?  How much electronic surveillance would you be willing to undergo on the pure guesswork that it might save someone (i.e., your employer or your health plan) money?

Continue reading “What’s Science Got to Do With It?”

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As we anticipate a new year characterized by unprecedented interest in healthcare innovation, pay particular attention to the following three emerging tensions in the space.

Tension 1: Preventive Health vs Excessive Medicalization

A core tenet of medicine is that it’s better to prevent a disease (or at least catch it early) than to treat it after it has firmly taken hold.   This is the rationale for both our interest in screening exams (such as mammography) as well as the focus on risk factor reduction (e.g. treating high blood pressure and high cholesterol to prevent heart attacks).

The problem, however, is that intervention itself carries a risk, which is sometimes well-characterized (e.g. in the case of a low-dose aspirin for some patients with a history of heart disease) but more often incompletely understood.

As both Eric Topol and Nassim Taleb have argued, there’s a powerful tendency to underestimate the risk associated with interventions.  Topol, for example, has highlighted the potential risk of using statins to treat patients who have never had heart disease (i.e. primary prevention), a danger he worries may exceed the “relatively small benefit that can be derived.”  (Other cardiologists disagree – see this piece by colleague Matt Herper).

In his new book Antifragile, Taleb focuses extensively on iatrogenics, arguing “we should not take risks with near-healthy people” though he adds “we should take a lot, a lot more, with those deemed in danger.”

Both Topol and Taleb are right that we tend to underestimate iatrogenicity in general, and often fail to factor in the small but real possibility of potential harm.

At the same time, I also worry about external experts deciding categorically what sort of risk is or isn’t “worth it” for an individual patient – a particular problem in oncology, where it now seems  fashionable to declare the possibility of a few more months of life a marginal or insignificant benefit.

Even less dramatically, a treatment benefit that some might view as trivial (for hemorrhoids, say) might be life-altering for others.  For these sufferers, a theoretical risk that some (like Taleb) find prohibitive might be worth the likelihood of symptom relief.  Ideally, this decision would ultimately belong to patients, not experts asserting to act on patients’ behalf.

Continue reading “Through a Scanner Darkly: Three Health Care Trends for 2013″

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