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Category: OP-ED

What’s Behind the Spike in Food Allergies?

We are surrounded by evidence of the enormous impact food allergies are making in our society. The peanut butter and jelly sandwich, once a staple of elementary school lunchboxes, has been banned in numerous school districts across the country. Candy bars are required to alert consumers about any other products processed in the factories where they were made. Gluten-free diets are trumpeted by celebrities and have spawned communities of devoted followers (there’s even a “gluten-free” dating site – I’m not making this up).

However, the spectrum of food allergies is still poorly understood by the general public. The phrase “food allergy” conjures one image: a child who, after eating, say, a kiwi, becomes flushed and has trouble breathing until an Epi-pen can be administered. While certainly dangerous, that scenario represents only one aspect of what may be called modern food allergy (or the broader spectrum of food intolerance). Other, milder-appearing food allergies may exist in a larger percentage of the population than previously thought. These mild intolerances can still cause a great deal of discomfort, and when they go unrecognized, may lead to years of expensive and unnecessary testing.

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Open Season on Health Privacy in Washington DC

With Senate bill S.3530, data brokers would remove the last shreds of transparency and control that patients still have over our health data and drive healthcare costs even higher in the process. Will hospitals and the pharmaceutical industry go along?

It’s been 17 years since patients lost control over how our hospitals and insurance companies use our personal health data without any consent or a convenient accounting for disclosures. HIPAA allows so-called Covered Entities to use and sell our data without consent and, separately, often under the pretense of de-identification, through a $100 Billion network of hidden data brokers that we know don’t know about, choose, or oversee. Our data is worth $100 Billion because it helps health businesses to maximize profits and it contributes to an unknown extent to the uniquely high cost of healthcare in the US.

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On Teaching Hospitals and Conflict of Interest and Other Politically Charged Topics

How much does it matter which hospital you go to? Of course, it matters a lot – hospitals vary enormously on quality of care, and choosing the right hospital can mean the difference between life and death. The problem is that it’s hard for most people to know how to choose. Useful data on patient outcomes remain hard to find, and even though Medicare provides data on patient mortality for select conditions on their Hospital Compare website, those mortality rates are calculated and reported in ways that make nearly every hospital look average.

Some people select to receive their care at teaching hospitals. Studies in the 1990s and early 2000s found that teaching hospitals performed better, but there was also evidence that they were more expensive. As “quality” metrics exploded, teaching hospitals often found themselves on the wrong end of the performance stick with more hospital-acquired conditions and more readmissions. In nearly every national pay-for-performance scheme, they seemed to be doing worse than average, not better. In an era focused on high-value care, the narrative has increasingly become that teaching hospitals are not any better – just more expensive.

But is this true? On the one measure that matters most to patients when it comes to hospital care – whether you live or die – are teaching hospitals truly no better or possibly worse? About a year ago, that was the conversation I had with a brilliant junior colleague, Laura Burke. When we scoured the literature, we found that there had been no recent, broad-based examination of patient outcomes at teaching versus non-teaching hospitals. So we decided to take this on.

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Only Alternative Facts Can Support the Protecting Access to Care Act

In late March of this year, JAMAInternal Medicine published a study finding that the “the overall rate of [malpractice] claims paid on behalf of physicians decreased by 55.7% from 1992 to 2014.”  The finding wasn’t new.  In 2013, the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies published a study co-authored by one of us (Hyman) which found that “the per-physician rate of paid med mal claims has been dropping for 20 years and in 2012 was less than half the 1992 level.”  In fact, peer-reviewed journals in law and medicine have published lots of studies with similar results.  It is (or should be) common knowledge that claims of an ongoing liability crisis are phony.

But inconvenient facts have never stopped interest groups or politicians from making false claims about med mal litigation.  Since 1991, when Dan Quayle struck gold by asserting that the U.S. had too many lawyers, Americans have heard non-stop about “jackpot justice” in which patients who weren’t even injured win millions; about the flood of frivolous lawsuits in which doctors are sued even though they didn’t make any mistakes; about jury verdicts skyrocketing out of control; and about doctors working all their lives only to have their savings wiped out by a single malpractice suit.  All of these charges are false—you can find the evidence here, here, here, and here.  But in politics, it’s staying on message that counts; it doesn’t seem to matter whether the message is true.Continue reading…

Why Health Reform is a Risky Business for Politicians: Even Winning Can Cost You at the Polls!

In August 1989, Chicago Congressman Daniel Rostenkowski, then Chairman of the “powerful” House Ways and Means Committee, narrowly escaped an angry mob of seniors in his own district who attacked his car with umbrellas. His crime: eliminating the gaping patient financial exposure built into the Medicare program in 1965 by raising taxes on the “high income” elderly.   In November, 1989 Congress rescinded the so-called Catastrophic Coverage Act, a bipartisan reform signed into law by Ronald Reagan just sixteen months earlier.

In the spring of 1994, Bill and Hillary Clinton abandoned their famously arcane health reform plan and months later, forfeited control over Congress in the 1994 mid-term elections. Health reform was a major factor giving Newt Gingrich’s House Republicans control for the first time in forty years. Twenty five years later, Barack Obama succeeded, with huge Democratic majorities, in passing the Affordable Care Act and . . . lost control of the House less than eight months later in the largest Republican landslide since 1938, due in major part to voter backlash against “ObamaCare”.

What was the common denominator of all these political events? The answer: powerful voter retribution for tinkering with the healthcare system, successfully or not.  Why is health reform such risky business for politicians?

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Universal Coverage Means Less Care and More Money

The reported success of the Affordable Care Act (ACA or ObamaCare) is based on enrollment numbers. Millions more have “coverage.” Similarly, the predicted disasters from repeal have to do with loss of coverage. Tens of thousands of deaths will allegedly follow. Activists urge shipping repeal victims’ ashes to Congress—possibly illegal and certainly disrespectful of the loved one’s remains, which will end up in a trash dump.

Where are the statistics about the number of heart operations done on babies born with birth defects, the latest poster children? How about the number of babies saved by this surgery, and the number allowed to die without an attempt at surgery—before and after ACA? I haven’t seen them. Note that an insurance plan doesn’t do the operation. A doctor does. The insurer can, however, try to block it.

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Would the World End if We Eliminated the Deductible?

While Congress ponders a true fix for the Affordable Care Act (ACA), consider this about health coverage.

Problem #1, Can’t Use It: Healthy people, or people who don’t make a lot of money, sign up for the cheapest health insurance policy available. It gives them catastrophic coverage, protecting their family and home in the event of a big-time medical condition. But it also makes them mad. They pay a monthly fee for health insurance they can’t use until a large deductible is satisfied. For example, a person might pay $300 a month but have a $7,000 deductible. Do the math. That’s well over $10,000 before that person gets to use what they are paying for every month.

Problem #2, January Comes Too soon: Health is not an annual event. Maybe you go all year and suddenly need a bunch of medical help in December. The deductible hasn’t been reached so you pay the bill “out of pocket.” Nasty, because in January you still need medical care for the same thing, yet the deductible goes back to square one. Not nice. This makes more people mad. Solution for Problem #1 and Problem #2: eliminate all annual deductibles and replace with co-pays.

Problem #3, We Need To Build a Wall: Even by eliminating deductibles there are people who are required to pay more than they can afford. Fixing or replacing the ACA needs to build a wall of protection that limits the total amount—a percentage of income—paid by individuals or families in a calendar year—a guarantee that includes the cost of prescription drugs.

A Health Plan CEO Daydreams

Jim was at his desk, looking weary.

The last few weeks had been brutal.  Despite working twelve-hour days, he felt that he had little to show for it.  His annual board meeting was to take place the next day, and he expected it to be tense.

With a replacement bill for the ACA about to be voted on, and with Trump in the White House, the situation seemed particularly precarious.  The board members had asked him to present a contingency plan, in case things in DC didn’t go well.

As CEO of a major health insurance company, Jim was well aware that business as usual had become unsustainable in his line of work.  No matter what insurers had tried to do in the last few years—imposing onerous rules, setting high deductibles, pushing for government subsidies—prices had been going up and up.

Premiums, of course, had had to do the same but, evidently, the limit had now been reached.  The horror stories being told at town hall meetings across the country were all too real.  People were fed up, and politicians were feeling the heat.

Something needed to be done to change course, but what?  He did not have any good plan to propose to the board.

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How America Dropped the Ball on Sports Concussions

As GOP lawmakers grapple with the “replace” aspect of Obamacare and seek to overhaul the subject “nobody knew could be so complicated,” we must remember that one of the best ways to reduce spiraling healthcare costs is to improve health through preventive measures.

For instance, increased participation in youth sports would help control rising obesity and sedentary rates which are responsible for 21% of annual medical spending – a staggering $190.2 billion a year. Inactivity among youth spiked from 20% in 2014 to 37.1% in 2015. But while the NIH identifies preventing weight gain in childhood as critical to warding off lifelong obesity outcomes and playing sports as one of the strongest weapons against teen obesity, participation rates have declined nearly 10% since 2009. A number of factors have been attributed to this trend, but with the biggest losses in contact sports like football and wrestling, it’s impossible to ignore the long-standing elephant in the stadium – concussions.

Current polls show 94% of U.S. adults believe sport concussions constitute a public health concern and a full 100% of parents are affected by them. But do the risks of playing contact sports really outweigh their myriad physical, mental, and social benefits? After decades of research, why do we still not know what to do about concussions?

Eric Lindros, who retired from the NHL after suffering 6 concussions and donated millions to the cause, hit the nail on the head in lamenting the lack of tangible results and guidance from concussion research: “It seems like there are so many groups trying to do the right thing, but our voice would be stronger through consolidation. Are we sharing all the information? Let’s get people working together.”

Lindros’ frustrations are best illustrated by disagreement about what a concussion even is. Google defines it as “temporary unconsciousness caused by a blow to the head.” But only a small minority of medical “consensus statements” (of which there are more than 42) even require a loss of consciousness and most sources say indirect impacts are also sufficient to cause concussion. These differences aren’t just academic – accounting for sport concussions that did not involve loss of consciousness made the prevailing incidence rate jump from 300,000 to 1.8 – 3.6 million annually. Failure to agree on how to define the problem has created a snowball effect, contributing to inconsistent diagnostic standards and unreliable incidence and prevalence data that cannot be aggregated or compared.

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The Ketamine Papers: Science, Therapy & Transformation


The Ketamine Papers serves as an essential window into the rapidly accelerating application of the anesthetic cum party drug ketamine to individuals with disorders such as treatment-resistant depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition, the book’s release coincides with other psychedelics, MDMA (aka ‘Ecstasy’) and psilocybin, being cleared for late-phase clinical trials as therapeutic adjuncts for the treatment and – dare we say – cure of those and related disorders, a process that will still take some years. Given what seems to be an increasing explosion of interest in the use of psychedelics for everything from therapy to micro-dosing of LSD to fuel creativity, The Ketamine Papers offers a range of views into how the psychiatric and psychotherapeutic communities are putting to use what amounts, for now, as the only legal psychedelic drug left standing, and for a group of people who very much struggle and suffer, at a significant cost to themselves, their relationships, and society.

The recurrent leitmotif of The Ketamine Papers is that of stubbornly lingering psychological illness – with feelings and behaviors ranging from sadness and stuckness to suicidality – that doesn’t just happen. It is often the function of trauma, childhood and otherwise, and lack of attachment not offset by a resilience that some develop and many do not. Those statements won’t be surprising to anyone who has read the works of psychiatrists and psychologists who have rooted depression – by far the most common form of mental illness – in unresolved childhood conflicts.

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