BY KIM BELLARD
Last year I used some of Alfred North Whitehead’s pithy quotations to talk about healthcare, starting with the provocative “It is the business of the future to be dangerous.” I want to revisit another of his quotations that I’d like to spend more time on: “The silly question is the first intimation of some totally new development.”
I can’t promise that I even have intimations of what the totally new developments are going to be, but if any industry lends itself to asking “silly” questions about it, it is healthcare. Hopefully I can at least spark some thought and discussion.
In no particular order:
Why do we prefer to spend money on care when people are no longer healthy than we do on keeping them healthy?
The U.S. healthcare system well known for being exorbitantly expensive while delivering rather mediocre results. Everyone laments it but we keep throwing more money into the system that is producing these results.
We’d be smarter to invest in upstream spending. Like making sure people get enough to eat, with foods that are good for us. We’d rather spend money on diabetes or obesity drugs rather than addressing the root causes of each disease. Or like making sure the water we drink, the air we breathe, the things we eat, aren’t polluted (how many toxins or microplastics have you ingested today?). Not to mention reducing poverty, improving education, or fixing social media.
We know the kinds of things we should do, we say we want to do them, but we lack the political will to achieve them and the infrastructure to ensure them. So we end up paying for our neglect through our ever-more expensive healthcare system. That’s silly.
Why is everything in healthcare so expensive?
BY MIKE MAGEE
All eyes were on Wisconsin – not last week, but in 1847. That’s when Wisconsin newspaperman and editor of the Racine Argus, Marshall Mason Strong, let loose in a speech on the disturbing trend to allow women the right to buy and sell property. It seems the state had caught the bug from their neighbor, Michigan, which was considering loosening coverture laws.
“Coverture” is a word you may not know, but should. It was a series of laws derived from British Common Law that “held that no female person had a legal identity.” As legal historian Lawrence Friedman explained, “Essentially husband and wife were one flesh; but the man was the owner of that flesh.” From birth to death, women were held in check economically. A female child was linked by law to father’s entitlements. If she was lucky enough to be married, she lived off the legal largesse of her husband. They were one by virtue of marriage, but that one was the husband, as signified by taking his last name.
The practice derived from British law. Women were held in matrimonial bondage in England with the aid of ecclesiastical courts and the officiating presence and oversight of an Episcopalian clergyman. This meant control over getting married as well as well as the capacity to escape a marriage marred by abuse or desertion. Not that there was much call for divorce. Britain was a divorceless society. The richy rich occasionally could be freed by a special act of Parliament. But this was exceedingly rare. Between 1800 and 1836, there were less than 10 divorces granted per year in England. For the unhappy rest, it was adultery or desertion.
The divorceless society held for the first half of the 19th century in most of the states below the Mason-Dixon line, with South Carolina being the most restrictive. But every New England state had a general divorce law before 1800, as did New York, New Jersey and Tennessee. “Grounds” (which varied from state to state) were presented in an ordinary lawsuit by the innocent party.
Demand for divorce grew as America grew in the first half of the 19th century. With mobility came hardship and “odious abuse’, and increasing recognition that “a divorceless state is not necessarily a state without adultery, prostitution and fornication. It is certainly not a place where there are no drunken, abusive husbands.” And then there was the issue of property rights and its ties to economic growth in this still young nation.
America was rich in land, which rapidly translated into a fast-expanding smallholder middle-class. Relationships could shift on a dime, resulting in property disputes and threats to the legitimacy of children and one’s heirs. The numbers of land owners, fueled by westward expansion were enormous, and each had a stake in society. When push came to shove, economics won out over Puritan instincts – but not without a fight.
BY MIKE MAGEE
Former President Donald Trump’s indictment this morning reinforces most Americans’ belief that “No man is above the law.” But few of us have taken the time to explore what that statement means when it comes to building a healthy nation, and why we believe it.
How do you create a healthy nation?
This is at once a very simple and a very complex question. It is at the heart of successful and failed nation building.
It applies equally to a self-assessment of our approach to rebuilding Germany and Japan as part of the Marshall Plan after WW II, and to our own struggles with autonomy and disparity in America where our very beginnings were (and continue to be) marred by a history of enslavement of blacks, forced migration and cultural destruction of Native Americans, and subjugation of women.
The law, a blend of agreed upon rules, regulations and boundaries, arose in layers over time, and reflected the communities where they emerged. Our own American legal system, on which we relied to launch this nation-building exercise in 1776, is dynamic and continues to evolve to this day.
As legal historian Lawrence Friedman wrote, “Despite a strong dash of history and idiosyncrasies, the strongest ingredient in American law at any given time is the present – current emotions, real economic interests, and concrete political groups.” It is then “a study of social development unfolding through time…”
When building a nation, some countries like France and Germany, relied on written codified rules, statutes or “rational instruments” on which they leaned to create order and to base decisions. But our laws, upon which this nation was built, if they have a basis, were descendant from British law.
BY KIM BELLARD
In light of the recent open letter from AI leaders for a moratorium on AI development, I’m declaring a temporary moratorium on writing about it too, although I doubt either one will last long (and this week’s title is, if you hadn’t noticed, an homage to Harlan Ellison’s classic dystopian AI short story). Instead, this week I want to write about plants. Specifically, the new research that suggests that plants can, in their own way, scream.
Bear with me.
To be fair, the researchers don’t use the word “scream;” they talk about “ultrasonic airborne sounds,” but just about every account of the research I saw used the more provocative term. It has long been known that plants are far from passive, responding to stimuli in their environment with changes in color, smell, and shape, but these researchers “show that stressed plants emit airborne sounds that can be recorded from a distance and classified.” Moreover, they posit: “These informative sounds may also be detectable by other organisms.”
It should make you wonder what your houseplant is saying about you when you forget to water it or get a cat.
They basically tortured – what else would you call it? – plants with a variety of stresses, then used machine learning (damn – I guess I am writing about AI after all) to classify, with up to 70% accuracy, different categories of responses, such as too much water versus too little. Even plants that have been cut, and thus are dying, can still produce the sounds, at least for short periods. They speculate that other plants, as well as insects, may be able to “hear” and respond to the sounds.
BY MIKE MAGEE
As we enter a new and potentially historic week, with a former President doing his best to reignite a Civil War in our nation, we do well to take a breath and reread James Madison’s words from Federalist No. 51. But first, a few words of history.
When it came to checks and balances in this new national experiment in self governance, the Founders, while establishing three co-equal branches, left one of those branches the task of defining by practice its own power and influence.
The new Constitution in 1787 awarded one branch, the elected Congress, the daunting power to impeach, convict and remove representatives or appointed federal officials for due cause up to the President himself. But it also empowered a second branch, the Executive, through its President, veto power to check legislative excesses and the privilege of initiating appointments to the federal judiciary. Only the third branch of the government, the Judiciary, was left deliberately “elastic,” destined to grow into “the triangle of power.”
Thirteen years later, on February 17, 1801, Congress was forced to break a tie in the Electoral College vote, resolving a Constitutional crisis and declaring a victor in one of “the most acrimonious presidential campaigns” in U.S. history. Thomas Jefferson was awarded the victory, and John Adams acquiesced and was sent packing a month later. But two days before he departed, Adams unloaded multiple appointments of circuit justices and justices of the peace which the U.S. Senate quickly confirmed on March 3rd. In the rush, Adam’s Secretary of State, John Marshall (soon to become Chief Justice Marshall of the Supreme Court under President Jefferson) didn’t have time to complete a final necessary step, delivering the commissions, to some of the appointees.
BY HANS DUVEFELT
I have written many times about how I have made a better diagnosis than the doctor who saw my patient in the emergency room. That doesn’t mean I’m smarter or even that I have a better batting average. I don’t know how often it is the other way around, but I do know that sometimes I’m wrong about what causes my patient’s symptoms.
We all work under certain pressures, from overbooked clinic schedules to overfilled emergency room waiting areas, from “poor historians” (patients who can’t describe their symptoms or their timeline very well) to our own mental fatigue after many hours on the job.
My purpose in writing about these cases is to show how disease, the enemy in clinical practice if you will, can present and evolve in ways that can fool any one of us. We simply can’t evaluate every symptom to its absolute fullest. That would clog “the system” and leave many patients entirely without care. So we formulate the most reasonable diagnosis and treatment plan we can and tell the patient or their caregiver that they will need followup, especially if symptoms change or get worse.
Martha is a group home resident with intellectual disabilities, who once underwent a drastic change in her behavior and self care skills. She even seemed a bit lethargic. A big workup in the emergency room could only demonstrate one abnormality: Her head CT showed a massive sinus infection. She got antibiotics and perked up with a ten day course of antibiotics.
A month later, her condition deteriorated again. It was on the weekend. This time she had a mild cough. Her chest X-ray showed double sided pneumonia. She got antibiotics again and started to feel better.
BY KIM BELLARD
Let’s be honest: we’re going to have AI physicians.
Now, that prediction comes with a few caveats. It’s not going to be this year, and maybe not even in this decade. We may not call them “physicians,” but, rather, may think of them as a new category entirely. AI will almost certainly first follow its current path of become assistive technology, for human clinicians and even patients. We’re going to continue to struggle to fit them into existing regulatory boxes, like clinical decision support software or medical devices, until those boxes prove to be the wrong shape and size for how AI capabilities develop.
But, even given all that, we are going to end up with AI physicians. They’re going to be capable of listening to patients’ symptoms, of evaluating patient history and clinical indicators, and of both determining likely diagnosis and suggested treatments. With their robot underlings, or other smart devices, they’ll even be capable of performing many/most of those treatments.
We’re going to wonder how we ever got along without them.
Many people claim to not be ready for this. The Pew Research Center recently found that 60% of Americans would be uncomfortable if their physician even relied on AI for their care, and were more worried that health care professionals would adopt AI technologies too fast rather than too slow.
Still, though, two-thirds of the respondents already admit that they’d want AI to be used in their skin cancer screening, and one has to believe that as more people understand the kinds of things AI is already assisting with, much less the things it will soon help with, the more open they’ll be.
People claim to value the patient-physician relationship, but what we really want is to be healthy. AI will be able to help us with that.
BY ANISH KOKA
If there was any doubt the academic research enterprise is completely broken, we have an absolute train wreck of a study in one of the many specialty journals of the Journal of the American Medical Association — JAMA Health.
I had no idea the journal even existed until today, but I now know to approach the words printed in this journal to the words printed in supermarket tabloids. You should too!
The paper that was brought to my attention is one that purports to examine the deleterious health effects of Long COVID. A sizable group of intellectuals who are still socially distancing and wearing n95s live in fear of a syndrome that persists long after a person recovers from COVID. There are any number of papers that argue a variety of putative mechanisms for how an acute COVID infection may result in long term health concerns. This particular piece of research that is amplified by the usual credentialed suspects on social media found “increased rates of adverse outcomes over a 1-year period for a PCC (post-COVID conditions) cohort surviving the acute phase of illness.”
In this case PCC (Post-COVID conditions), is the stand-in for Long COVID, and leading commentators use this paper to explicitly state that heart attacks, strokes and other major adverse outcomes doubled in people post-COVID at 1 year…
It is a crazy statement, and anyone regurgitating this has no business commenting on any scientific papers. Let me explain why.
In order to find out about the potential ravages of long COVID researchers need to be able to compare outcomes between those who were infected with COVID and now have long covid to those who were never infected with COVID. At this point finding a large enough group of people that never had covid is impossible, because everyone in the world will have been infected with COVID many, many times. It’s also really hard to define the nebulous long COVID because a study after study finds no clear objective markers of the disease.
BY HANS DUVEFELT
You don’t really need a medical degree to know how to follow an immunization schedule, to recommend a colonoscopy, or order a screening mammogram (as long as, in this country, there is a standing order – in some places, mass screenings are done outside the primary care system).
You also don’t really need a medical degree to enter data into an EMR.
And when you decide to order a test, how many of the EMR “workflow” steps really require your expertise? I mean, borrowing from my iPhone, you could say “order a CBC” and facial recognition could document that you are the ordering physician. Really!
And you don’t really need a medical degree to, as I put it, open and sort the (electronic) mail; an eye doctor’s report comes in and if the patient is a diabetic, I have to forward it to my nurse for logging, and if not a diabetic, just sign off on it. And don’t imagine there is time in our day, evening or weekend to actually read the whole report. Patient A saw their eye doctor – check. Next…
Primary care in this country is pathetically arcane and inefficient. And we have a shortage of primary care physicians, they say. If we could all practice at the top of our license, perhaps not. It’s time to reimagine, reinvent, reinvigorate!
Hans Duvefelt is a physician, author, and writer of “A Country Doctor Writes.”
BY MIKE MAGEE
Health entrepreneurs today tend to give themselves very high grades, and seem surprised when their creations fall short of expectations due to a disconnect with funders or regulators with legal authority. But Medicine isn’t fair, and genius is not that common.
What other conclusion can you draw from the thousands of references and citations featuring Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush and his wild ideas on how to heroically treat Yellow Fever in 1793, but likely never heard of Dr. John Henry Rauch. The former signed the Declaration of Independence but directly or indirectly contributed to many an unpleasant death. The latter saved millions and helped the AMA and the AAMC find their way out of their post-Civil War professional wilderness.
Dr. Rauch’s career, its’ span and breadth, is startling and could well serve as a yardstick for medical imagineers today. Born in Lebanon, PA in 1828, he received his Medical Degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and then opened a practice in Burlington, Iowa. He was there in 1850 for the birthing of the Iowa State Medical Society, and with their encouragement published (just five years after Iowa achieved statehood) the epic “Medical and Economic Botany of Iowa” listing 516 species, fully 23% of the known flora of the state today.
Two decades later, he was onsite in Chicago from October 8-10, 1871, when 3.3 square miles of Chicago burned to the ground taking 300 souls with it, and managed the emergency medical aftermath for the city. By then he was all too familiar with conflagration and disaster, having earned the imprimatur of lieutenant-colonel from the Union Army as assistant medical-director of the famed Army of Virginia during the Civil War.