In the final act of Shakespeare’s Richard III, the eponymous villain king arrives on the battlefield to fight against Richmond, who will soon become Henry VII. During the battle, Richard is dismounted as his horse is killed and in a mad frenzy wades through the battlefield screaming “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Richard shows us how market value can change drastically depending on the circumstances, or your mental state, and even the most absurd exchange rate can become reasonable in a moment of crisis.
This presumably arbitrary nature of prices should be the first thing about the US healthcare market that catches the attention of any student of economics. Prices for the same procedure vary greatly between hospitals on opposite sides of the street and even then appear to have no basis in reality. Further investigation reveals many other features of the healthcare market that economics teaches us will increase transaction costs and the misallocation of resources. The prices we discussed are generally not paid by the patient, but by a third party insurer. Often the patient isn’t even able to select the insurer but is assigned one by his or her employer. What the patient thinks of the insurer’s ability as a steward of his or her premiums is irrelevant. Further, contracts between providers or pharmacies and the insurer completely hide the true price from the patient’s view. In addition, anti-competitive certificate of need laws limit competition between providers and expensive regulations compel providers to merge to compete in a nuclear arms race with the insurers, although the real victim is the patient’s wallet over which the providers and insurers fight their proxy wars. The best way to explain the US healthcare system is if you took every economic best practice and then did the opposite. How does one get out of this mess?
There is hope, hype and hysteria about artificial intelligence (AI). How will AI change how radiology is practiced? I discuss this with Stephen Borstelmann, a radiologist in Florida and a scholar in machine learning.
Listen to our discussion on the Radiology Firing Line Series, hosted by the Journal of the American College of Radiology and sponsored by Healthcare Administrative Partners.
About the author:
Saurabh Jha is a radiologist and contributing editor to THCB. He hosts the Radiology Firing Line Podcasts
A Critical Analysis of a Recent Study by Hadland and colleagues
Association studies that draw correlations between drug company-provided meals and physician prescribing behavior have become a favorite genre among advocates of greater separation between drug manufacturers and physicians. Recent studies have demonstrated correlations between acceptance of drug manufacturer payments and undesirable physician behaviors, such as increased prescription of promoted drugs. The authors of such articles are usually careful to avoid making direct claims of a cause-effect relationship since their observations are based on correlation alone. Nonetheless, such a relationship is often implied by conjecture. Further, the large number of publications in high profile journals on this subject can only be justified by concerns that such a cause-and-effect relationship exists and is widespread and nefarious. In this article, we will examine a recent paper by Hadland et al. which explores correlational data relating opioid prescribing to opioid manufacturer payments and in which the authors imply the existence of a cause-and-effect relationship.1
We propose the relationship between transactions between the private sector (e.g., meals provided, consulting payments) and prescribing habits can fall into one of three categories:
There is no cause-effect relationship between these transactions and prescribing habits. Correlative observations may merely be reflections of practice patterns, and likelihood to use a drug category.
No harm exists.
There is a demonstrable cause-effect for transactions and prescribing patterns. However, this relationship is associated with increased use of drugs that have been proven to be an improvement over the current standard.
The effect is beneficial for patients. “Beneficial marketing.”
An adverse causative effect is documented with establishment of causation. There is a possibility of patient harm.
Patient harm occurs because the wrong medication is administered and contravenes medical standards. A minor damage is done but arguably exists, if a physician prescribes a more expensive medication when a cheaper alternative exists.
Hadland et al.: Opioid Prescriptions and Manufacturer Payments to Physicians
The authors of this paper linked physician-level data from the 2014 CMS Open Payments database to 2015 opioid prescribing behavior described in the Medicare Opioid Prescribing Database. They explored the hypothesis that meals and other payments increase physician opioid prescribing by examining the association between receipt of meals and other financial benefits with the number of opioid prescriptions written. Specifically, they found the following:
How did Americans become so litigious? What is the rationale of tort? Will tort reform work? I discuss these questions with Walter Olson, senior scholar at the Cato Institute, and author of the book, Litigation Explosion.
Listen to our discussion on the Radiology Firing Line Series, hosted by the Journal of the American College of Radiology, and sponsored by Healthcare Administrative Partners.
I’ve humbly realized that doctors aren’t always indispensable. When I was three, a compounder – a doctor’s assistant – allegedly saved my life. Dehydrated from severe dysentery, I was ashen and lifeless. My blood pressure was falling and I would soon lose my pulse. I needed fluids urgently. An experienced pediatrician could not get a line into my collapsed veins. When hope seemed lost, his compounder gingerly offered to try, and got fluids inside my veins on the first attempt. My pulse and color returned and I lived to hear the tale from my mother.
So, on a recent trip to India, I was intrigued by Birju, a compounder in my ancestral village in Bihar, who the villagers revere like a doctor. After assisting a city physician for ten years, Birju had started his own practice. He has no formal training in healthcare. Even his education was partial – he left school at fourteen to help his father, who also was a compounder.
I wanted to see Birju practice his craft. So, I visited his clinic which is actually a shop. Birju sells stationery, conveniences such as shaving foam, and medications, which was just as well, as I needed Imodium to calm my angry Americanized bowel.
Poverty is known to be an important determinant of a person’s health and longevity. A person’s zip code is more relevant than genetic code. Does a physician’s zip code – that is where they were born and raised – have an effect on where they practice? Specifically, do rural born and raised physicians return to their rural roots? The story of Prashant, a physician raised in rural Bihar, India, is instructive.
When I first met Prashant, he was a second-year medical student in Patna Medical College and Hospital. Patna is the capital of Bihar, and Bihar is one of the poorest states in India.
Prashant brimmed with idealism and vigor. “I’ll practice in Purnea one day and serve the poor villagers,” he told me in broken English.
Prashant comes from a family of Bihari farmers who are also affluent landowners. He grew up near Purnea, a fourth-tier town in Bihar surrounded by villages. Visiting these villages is like stepping into a time machine – you can see people travelling by bullock carts but using mobile phones.
In the ongoing battle between radiologists and artificial intelligence, is the real risk not that computers will replace radiologists, but that radiologists will become machines? This lecture delivered at the annual meeting of the ARRS explores the evolution of radiologists, from inference to quantification, and what it means for the field.
Though the exact cost of Modicare, the government’s extension of health insurance for poor people, estimated at one lakh crore (a trillion U.S. dollars), is open for debate, what is not disputable is that the cost of insuring India’s poor won’t fall with time. A sure way of accelerating healthcare inflation, that is speeding the rate of increase of healthcare costs, is by subsidizing or paying for health insurance. Insurance is like Newton’s Second Law of Motion – the velocity keeps increasing as long as the force is applied.
Healthcare is a peculiar industry. Cars get cheaper but medical care doesn’t. The Maruti eventually became cheaper than the Ambassador, and more aesthetically pleasing than its Neanderthalic predecessor. Medical care doesn’t get cheaper because a life saved from cancer is a life waiting to be killed by another disease, which needs treating, too. Survivors of cancer get heart attacks and survivors of heart attacks get cancer, and survivors of both get dementia.
It’s like a restaurant where you can’t just pay for lunch – if you pay for lunch you have to pay for breakfast and dinner and may be a few samosas in between the meals. But unlike eating, consumption of medical care is not guarded by satiety. The insatiable medical sciences keep delivering even more expensive ways death can marginally be deferred. For example, the once dreaded stroke which leads to paralysis is now treatable. However, the treatment is not cheap and comprises clot busters, dangerous drugs with fatal side effects. Further, to treat stroke you need rapid diagnosis by modern imaging – that is you need CAT scans and radiologists. If penicillin for pneumonia is like eating at a roadside dhaba, treatment for acute stroke is fine dining at the Taj.
In the depths of winter, America was shocked by the video of a young, bruised and confused woman being discharged from a Maryland Hospital – alone into the cold night, wearing nothing but a thin hospital gown and socks. Hospital security officers dropped her at the nearby bus-stand and then briskly wheeled away the chair in which they had brought her out, deftly avoiding the questions of a concerned citizen who bore witness to this inhumane act. Most healthcare workers in the U.S., physicians and nurses, allied health professionals, and janitors alike felt a wretched sadness watching the video, recognizing as they did another sign of the sickness that ails the healthcare system today.
As our culture has become increasingly more consumeristic, healthcare has become increasingly more commercialized. A “provider interaction” has become a commodity; and hospitals have become the factories producing that commodity. This has shifted the balance of power from healthcare providers to professional managers. This change, ostensibly done to provide doctors more time to practice their art, instead has insidiously but surely changed the culture of our healthcare institutions.
The daily-lived values of our institutions have changed from the core values of medicine – caring, compassion and empathy for the patient, to more corporate values of productivity metrics and profits. What was to be a properly balanced socio-economic model for hospitals has gone tragically wrong. The goal was efficacy – efficient and effective patient-centric care. However, the disproportionate focus on efficiency, achieved by applying industrial engineering and productivity standards to patient care, has compromised effectiveness. More importantly, this has eroded the core of patient-centric care – compassion and empathy. That the CEO of the Maryland hospital insisted that the patient was provided appropriate medical care, even as he acknowledged the failure of humanity and compassion, sadly demonstrates that compassion and empathy are no longer the core values of healthcare.
Of my time arguing with doctors, 30 % is spent convincing British doctors that their American counterparts aren’t idiots, 30 % convincing American doctors that British doctors aren’t idiots, and 40 % convincing both that I’m not an idiot.
A British doctor once earnestly asked whether American physicians carry credit card reading machines inside their white coats. Myths about the NHS can be equally comical. British doctors don’t prostate every morning in deference to the NHS, like the citizens of Oceania sang to Big Brother in Orwell’s dystopia. Nor, in their daily rounds, do they calculate opportunity costs for keeping patients alive on ventilators.
Conversations such as this are vanishingly rare.
Administrator: “It’s costing an arm and leg keeping this sick baby alive – to balance the annual budget we need to stop dialyzing a granny.”
ICU doctor: “We’ll have to send poor Ethel to her grave. That’s a shame. She was beginning to grow on me.”
Health Ethicist: “Wait, let me check with National Institute of Clinical Excellence, the rationing experts, who should be relieved of intensive care first. Perhaps it should be Winston, not Ethel – because Winston is an alcoholic. We need to make rationing scientific and fair.”