Peter Ubel

In the New York Times on Thursday, October 17, Topher Spiro wrote an important op-ed expressing why we need to hold onto the medical device tax that helps pay for parts of the Affordable Care Act. Spiro backs up his argument by pointing out how profitable the device industry is. To his argument I would also add the fact that this will provide the industry with more paying customers. Certainly it can afford to pay the taxes.

But I diverge from Spiro on a proposal he floated near the end of his piece:

“To complement these efforts, the new Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute [PCORI], a non-governmental body created by the Affordable Care Act, should pay for research that compares the effectiveness of devices so physicians can make informed choices. (Three years into its existence, the institute has initiated few, if any, studies of medical devices.”

Listen to me PCORI. Don’t follow this advice, unless you plan not to survive to celebrate your fourth birthday.

Consider what happened to the Agency for Healthcare Policy Research (AHCPR), when it tried to help physicians figure out the best way to treat low back pain. AHCPR was created as a stand-alone research institute, akin to the NIH, but one that would focus not on the basic science of treating disease, but instead on evaluating how well existing treatments worked.

Continue reading “Why PCORI Should Be Very Wary of Studying Medical Devices”

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I am very fortunate to have never been sued. That is not necessarily because of my amazing ability as a physician. I always practiced in Veterans Affairs medical centers, where my status as a federal employee meant I would not get sued by my patients. I also had an incredibly appreciative patient population.

But I know that most of my physician peers have been sued, successfully or unsuccessfully, at least once in their careers. And I know that these lawsuits take an emotional toll upon them. To make matters worse, malpractice lawsuits have a nagging tendency to drag themselves out for months upon months. Consider this figure, from a study led by an economist at the RAND Corporation. It shows that malpractice claims related to temporary injuries take a median of a year to resolve, while those dealing with fatalities or permanent injuries take a median of 18 months.

Continue reading “Malpractice Claims Feel Endless Because…They Are.”

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In August of 2009, Sarah Palin claimed that the health legislation being crafted by Democrats at the time would create a “death panel,” in which government bureaucrats would decide whether disabled and elderly patients are “worthy of healthcare.”  Despite being debunked by fact-checkers and mainstream media outlets, this myth has persisted, with almost half of Americans stating recently that they believe the Affordable Care Act (ACA) creates such a panel.

The death panel myth killed neither the ACA nor Obama’s reelection bid.  But persistence of this myth could threaten the Obama administration’s efforts to implement the law, because many of its most controversial features are scheduled to be implemented over the next few years. Why is the death panel myth so hard to shake and why is its persistence relevant to the unfolding of Obamacare?

In part, the myth is hard to shake because most people have a very poor understanding of the complex law.  The ACA tries to increase access to health insurance through a bewildering combination of Medicaid expansions, private insurance subsidies, health insurance exchanges, and the infamous health insurance mandate.  It attempts to improve healthcare quality through things such as reimbursement reforms and promotion of electronic medical records.  And it encourages the formation of more efficient healthcare organizations, with inscrutable names like “accountable care organizations” and “medical homes”.

The myth is also likely to persist because the law calls for the establishment of a 15 person committee– the independent payment advisory board (or IPAB)–which is given the job of recommending cost-saving measures to the Secretary of Health and Human Services if Medicare expenses rise too quickly.  The IPAB will consist of independent healthcare experts who are forbidden, by law, from proposing changes that will affect Medicare coverage or quality.

Continue reading “The Independent Payment Advisory Board: Why It Is So Difficult to Kill the Death Panel Myth”

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Gun rights advocates are correct: a well armed principal might have reduced the death toll from the tragic elementary school shootings in Connecticut last week.

Gun carrying citizens might also have been able to take down the shooters in Aurora and Virginia Tech. To most people, after all, guns are about self-defense, not about committing crimes. As the old saying goes: “There has never been a mass shooting at a gun show.”

On the other hand, gun control advocates are correct to point out that mentally disturbed people like Adam Lanza would not be able to commit massacres if they were prevented from getting their hands on high-powered, semiautomatic weapons. They are also correct to point out that Americans have staggeringly easy access to weapons that far exceed what any sportsmanlike hunter would use during deer season.

In other words, figuring out what to do in the wake of the Connecticut massacre means recognizing the truth in both of these views. It means considering the possibility that the answer to reducing gun violence is a matter of both having more guns and less.

To understand what I mean by “both more and less,” I offer two analogies: a straightforward one about airport security, and a more unexpected one about breast cancer screening.

Continue reading “A Well-Armed and Regulated Citizenry, Led by Heavily-Armed Teachers in Body Armor …”

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Somewhere near where you live, a couple will discover this week that they are infertile and that if they want biological children of their own, they are going to need in vitro fertilization (or IVF).  According to treatment protocol, the woman will need to take powerful medicines to ramp up her production of fertilizable eggs.  One monthly cycle of this treatment will run around $12,000.  But most couples require more than one cycle to achieve their goal of carrying a child to term.  In other words, this couple could easily be looking at a bill exceeding $30,000 or $40,000.

And did I mention that this money could all come out of their own pockets?

Because not all insurance companies pay for in vitro fertilization.

No worry though.  Their infertility physician informs them about a company he has worked with that specializes in infertility loans.  He even offers to have his office staff help the couple fill out the necessary paperwork.  Thanks to this assistance, the couple secures the loan and, with luck, will soon be rewarded with a healthy baby.

Continue reading “Are In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) Clinics Scamming Customers?”

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If Americans judged the quality of hospital care the way Newsweek judges high schools, we would soon be inundated with “charter hospitals” that only treat healthy patients.

As reported in The New York Times, thirty-seven of Newsweek’s top 50 high schools have selective admission standards, thereby enrolling the cream of the eighth grade crop. That means that when these high scoring eighth graders reach eleventh grade, they’ll be high scoring eleventh graders, helping the school move up the Newsweek rankings. These selective admission schools simply have to avoid screwing up their talented students.

That’s no way to determine how good a school is. The measure of a good education should be to assess how well students did in that school compared to how they would have been predicted to do if they had gone to other schools.

Imagine two liver transplant programs, one whose patients experience 90% survival in the year following their transplant and the other whose patients experience only a 75% survival rate. Based on that information, the former hospital looks like the place to go when your liver fails. But aren’t you curious about the kind of patients that receive care in these two hospitals? Wouldn’t you want to know whether that first hospital was padding its statistics by selectively transplanting relatively healthy patients?

Continue reading “Getting Quality Right: Exercise Due Caution When Grading Hospitals, Schools and Doctors”

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As a fan of free markets, I recognize that sometimes intelligent government regulations (not always an oxymoron!) can improve markets by requiring companies to provide consumers with information that will help them make better choices. Informed consumers, after all, are a central ingredient of a successful free market. That’s why even most libertarians support regulations that ban fraudulent advertising.

That’s also why, at first glance, the federal government seemed to be promoting better markets when it passed rules requiring chain restaurants to post calorie counts next to their menu items. Research has shown that many consumers are horribly uninformed about the number of calories in most menu options, often significantly underestimating the amount in their favorite meals. Calorie count information should help these consumers make more informed, and therefore better, decisions.

But recent push-back from groups like pizza companies raises important questions about the proper size and scope of such regulations. More importantly, this controversy should remind all of us that, when debating government regulations, we should be humble, because it is often difficult to set a proper balance between helping consumers while at the same time allowing businesses to prosper.

To understand the push-back, it helps to take a guess – your best shot – at estimating the number of calories in a large Little Caesars pizza.

Stumped? You should be. There is no right answer to this question, because there is no such thing as a generic large Little Caesars pizza. Instead, there are hundreds of possible large pizzas one could buy from this company – cheese pizzas, pepperoni and sausage pizzas, mushroom green pepper and extra sauce pizzas . . . you get the idea. The number of calories in a large Little Caesars pizza depends on how many toppings consumers choose to put on top of their pies. This variability makes it hard for Little Caesars to post calorie counts on its menu.

Continue reading “Man versus Pizza”

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Facing advanced cancer, who among us wouldn’t look to our oncologist for expert advice on whether another round of chemotherapy makes sense?  But do you know what your oncologist cares about, and can you be sure her recommendations map onto your own treatment preferences?

A recent study lead by Michael Kozminski (I was senior author) shows that American oncologists downplay the value of treatments that improve quality of life, compared to the value they place on life prolonging treatments.

In our study, we surveyed oncologists across the United States and presented them with hypothetical treatment scenarios, to see what value they placed on potential treatments for patients with advanced cancer.

In one scenario, we estimated how cost-effective a new life prolonging chemotherapy would need to be before oncologists prescribed it.  We described the chemotherapy as prolonging patients’ lives, but also explained that we had no other data on how it impacted quality of life.  On average, we found that oncologists would be willing to spend as much as $200,000 for every year of life gained by this new treatment.

Continue reading “Does Your Oncologist Care?”

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LeBron James exploded past his defender and raced towards the lane.

Serge Ibaka, the Thunder’s mountainous center, planted his feet and raised his hands straight up into the air.  LeBron ducked his left shoulder and plowed right into Ibaka, who went crashing backwards into a nearby cameraman.

Offensive foul?

Maybe if it had been the first quarter.  But given that this was the last minutes of a tightly fought game, the referees chose to restrain themselves, not wanting the game to turn on their actions.  Was this even controversial?  Not a bit.  In such situations, announcers typically applaud the non-call, intoning platitudes like “this game should be decided by the players.”

In their excellent book Scorecasting, Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Woertheim explore the psychology of sports through exhaustive and yet entertaining analyses of all kinds of topics that have fueled many a heated bar stool argument.

Are referees biased against your favorite team?  According to their analyses, they are biased against your team only if it is playing an away game.  Turns out that their unconscious desires to please fans cause referees and umpires to back away from controversial calls that will raise the crowd’s ire.

One of the most fascinating chapters in the book involves what the authors call “whistle swallowing.”  All else equal, referees and umpires avoid sins of commission over sins of omission, a preference for inactivity nicely summarized by veteran NBA referee Gary Benson: “It’s late in the game and, let’s say, there’s goal tending and you miss it.  That’s an incorrect non-call and that’s bad.  But let’s say it’s late in the game and you call goal tending on a play and the re-play shows it was an incorrect call.  That’s when you’re in a really deep mess.” Continue reading “Offensive Fouls and Defensive Medicine”

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In a new study published in JAMA, my colleagues and I found that even after accounting for productivity, women working as physician researchers at American Medical Schools are paid $13,000 less per year than their male colleagues, a difference that amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of their careers.

But does this difference stand as evidence of discrimination?

Many claims of gender inequity in pay have suffered from an apples vs. oranges problem.  For example, consider gender disparities across different careers.  Many traditional male careers, like construction work, pay better than traditionally female careers, like nursing and teaching.  It’s plausible that these disparities result, at least in part, from societal bias about how relatively important it is for men and women to make enough money to provide for their families.  However, these disparities could also result from more justifiable factors.  Maybe the physical demands of the work differ in important ways, or perhaps the marketplace is simply responding to supply and demand.

Medical experts have long noticed gender disparities in physician pay.  Traditionally male fields like neurosurgery pay substantially more than fields preferred by more women, such as general pediatrics.  If women are voluntarily choosing lower paying fields—perhaps for lifestyle reasons or maybe because they don’t value money as much as men do—then it’s arguable that we should not fret over pay disparities.  It’s America, after all, where people have the right to choose.

Continue reading “Are Female Physicians Underpaid?”

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