Categories

Category: Public Health

Health Care Needs A Hero

By MIKE MAGEE

Health care needs its heroes.

I came to that conclusion this week through a roundabout route.

First I read Maureen Dowd’s interview entitled “Dara Khosrowshahi, Dad of Silicon Valley”, in which she, with some affection, gives the reader a look behind the scenes at the personal life of the current Uber CEO. At one point, Dowd shares her conversation with Dara’s 20-year-old daughter, Chloe, a Brown student, who wants us to know her father was a seriously good dad. In support of this belief, she reports that “When she was little, her father – a fan of Joseph Campbell…would concoct children’s stories set in faraway kingdoms…”

This, of course, forced me to acknowledge that I didn’t know who Joseph Campbell was. Bill Moyers came to the rescue. His June 21, 1988 interview titled “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth — ‘The Hero’s Adventure’”, begins with a clip from Star Wars where Darth Vader says to Luke, “Join me, and I will complete your training.” And Luke replies, “I’ll never join you!” Darth Vader then laments, “If you only knew the power of the dark side.” Moyers asked Campbell to comment.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: He (Darth Vader) isn’t thinking, or living in terms of humanity, he’s living in terms of a system. And this is the threat to our lives; we all face it, we all operate in our society in relation to a system. Now, is the system going to eat you up and relieve you of your humanity, or are you going to be able to use the system to human purposes.

BILL MOYERS: So perhaps the hero lurks in each one of us, when we don’t know it.

By then, I was aware that Joseph Campbell, who died in 1987 at the age 83, was a professor of literature and comparative mythology at Sarah Lawrence College. His famous 1949 book,  “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” made the case that, despite varying cultures and religions, the hero’s story of departure, initiation, and return, is remarkably consistent and defines “the hero’s quest.” His knowledge of this quest gained him a large following that included George Lucas who was a close friend and has said that Star Wars was largely influenced by Campbell’s scholarship.

Whether health care or technology, unfettered capitalism is more than adept at breeding predatory systems that beg for redemption.  Author Emily Chang spoke to this predilection in her 2018 book, “Brotopia”, describing Silicon Valley types as “secretive, orgiastic, and dark.” Dara Kharowshaki’s  CEO predecessor at Uber, Travis Kalanick, was labeled one of the worst. When Dara took over, New York Times technology expert, Mike Issac asked in 2019, “Can this rational, charming chief without the edge, ego, or cult following of wacky founders succeed in today’s insane economy?”

Continue reading…

Biden Should Extend a “Public Option” as a Message to “Health Care Royalists”

By MIKE MAGEE

In this world of political theatrics, with Democratic legislators from Texas forced into exodus to preserve voters’ rights, and Tucker Carlson rantings about Rep. Eric Swalwell riding shirtless on a camel in Qatar streaming relentlessly, Americans can be excused if they missed a substantive and historic news event last week.

On Friday, July 9th, President Biden signed a far-reaching executive order intended to fuel social and economic reform, and in the process created a potential super-highway sized corridor for programs like universal healthcare. In the President’s view, the enemy of the common man in pursuit of a “fair deal” is not lack of competition but “favoritism.”

To understand the far-reaching implications of this subtle shift in emphasis, let’s review a bit of history. It is easy to forget that this nation was the byproduct of British induced tyranny and economic favoritism. In 1773, citizens of Boston decided they had had enough, and dumped a shipment of tea, owned by the British East India Company, into the Boston Harbor. This action was more an act of practical necessity than politics. The company was simply one of many “favorites” (organizations and individuals) that “got along by going along” with their British controllers.  In lacking a free hand to compete in a free market, the horizons for our budding patriots and their families were indefinitely curtailed.

Large power differentials not only threatened them as individuals but also the proper functioning of the new representative government that would emerge after the American Revolution. Let’s recall that only white male property owners over 21(excluding Catholics and Jews) had the right to vote at our nation’s inception.

Over the following two centuries, power imbalances have taken on a number of forms. For example, during the industrial revolution, corporate mega-powers earned the designation “trusts”, and the enmity of legislators like Senator John Sherman of Ohio, who as Chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, led the enactment of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.

He defined a “trust” as a group of businesses that collude or merge to form a monopoly. To Sen. Sherman, J.D. Rockefeller, the head of Standard Oil, was no better than a monarch. “If we will not endure a king as political power, we should not endure a king over the production, transportation and sale of any of the necessities of life”, he said.   The law itself stated “[e]very contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, is declared to be illegal.”

Continue reading…

Bias, Before First Breath

How structural racism and implicit bias impact America’s babies, even prior to birth

By ELLIE STANG

Becoming a new mother in America is more dangerous for some mothers than it should be. Each year, 700 women die in childbirth or from pregnancy-related causes in the United States, the highest number of any developed nation. 

Health inequities in America mean that overwhelmingly, Black women and their infants are the ones impacted: Black mothers are 243% more likely to die from pregnancy than white ones. These discrepancies are wide ranging: American Indian and Alaska Native women are also 2x more likely to experience an adverse outcome as compared to  their white counterparts. Too many of our mothers are dying of preventable causes. The CDC estimates that 70% of maternal deaths are avoidable – which helps underscore the urgent need to create tangible change. 

Recent forces have helped shine a long overdue spotlight on the Black maternal mortality crisis in America. In April, the Biden Administration released a proclamation during Black Maternal Health Week, and planned legislative changes to address implicit bias in healthcare and apply funding where it is truly needed. Congress is fielding the “Momnibus” bill, which would fund grassroots organizations at the community level, actively establish bias training programs, and fill gaps created by social determinants of health (SDOH). Late last year, the HHS released an action plan to reduce maternal mortality and adverse outcomes by 50% in five years.

It is heartening to see action finally being taken: our mothers deserve more. At the same time, while we champion standardized and equal access to care for all of our mothers, we cannot overlook the newest cry in the room: the infant’s. Even before drawing her first breath, a baby girl’s future will be irrevocably shaped by structural racism and socioeconomic factors way beyond her control. 

That’s why, to address health inequities, we must begin with our babies. Despite great advances in NICU technology and managed healthcare, infant mortality is on the rise – and it disproportionately affects Black babies. Today, black infants are twice as likely to die as their white counterparts

Continue reading…

Make Some Microbe Friends

By KIM BELLARD

It’s the coolest story I’ve seen in the past few days: The New York Times reported how an Italian  museum cleaned its priceless Michelangelo sculptures with an army of bacteria.  As Jason Horowitz wrote, “restorers and scientists quietly unleashed microbes with good taste and an enormous appetite on the marbles, intentionally turning the chapel into a bacterial smorgasbord.”

And you just want to kill them all with your hand sanitizers and anti-bacterial soaps. 

The Medici Chapel in Florence had the good fortune to be blessed with an abundance of works by Michelangelo, but the bad fortune to have had centuries of various kinds of grime building up on them.  In particular, over time the corpse of one Medici “…seeped into Michelangelo’s marble, the chapel’s experts said, creating deep stains, button-shaped deformations…”

This is, I assume, why they tell you not to touch the art.

Scientists picked a bacteria — Serratia ficaria SH7, in case you’re taking notes – that ate the undesired grime without also eating the underlying marble.   It wasn’t hazardous to humans either and didn’t create spores that might go elsewhere.  “It’s better for our health,” one of the art restorers told NYT.  “For the environment, and the works of art.”

The technique was a success, allowing the sculptures to look like they did centuries ago. 

Using such bacteria to clean art has been around for at a decade, and not just for sculptures.  Perhaps more surprising is bacteria isn’t just cleaning art, it’s also creating it; the American Society for Microbiology hosts an annual Agar Art Contest

If you’re impressed by that, researchers are teaching bacteria to read, or at least to recognize letters.  That’s not all they might learn to do.  “For example, the framework and algorithm in our study can be used to facilitate the design of living therapeutics, such as targeted drug release systems based on engineered probiotic bacteria systems,” the researchers say.   

The thing is, we not only don’t know what microbes do, or could do, but we have only a vague understanding how they surround us.  That’s starting to change.  We’ve known for some time that each of us has a unique microbiome (including mycobiome!).  What we didn’t realize until recently was that each urban area has its own microbiome as well. 

Continue reading…

A Timex Healthcare System

By KIM BELLARD

Those of us of a certain age remember the Timex slogan that bragged about its watches’ durability: “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.”  A recent article about our military, of all things, made me wish we had a healthcare system that prized that kind of durability. 

I can never resist analogies between the U.S. healthcare system and the U.S. military system.  They’re both huge, they’re both wildly expensive, they both rely on a combination of high tech and front-line people, and they both protect us from threats.  In some ways, both are the best in the world, and, in other ways, both have weaknesses that are embarrassing. And, as I wrote last year, both are often still fighting the wrong wars. 

The article is by national security expert JC Herz on the Atlantic Council’s website: A plea to the Pentagon: Don’t sacrifice resilience on the altar of innovation.   Boy, that sure applies to healthcare too. 

Ms. Herz notes how Americans love innovation, but:

This mythos informs a narrative that what is valuable is The New—the upgrade to something bigger, badder, and sexier…What the United States needs to reinvigorate its defense base, compete with China, and win the global economy must be more innovation.

Except the United States does not suffer from a lack of innovation; it suffers from a lack of resilience.

Continue reading…

Healthcare’s Million Dollar Blocks

By KIM BELLARD

Since I first heard about them, I have been fascinated, and dismayed, by the concept of “million dollar blocks.”  For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it doesn’t refer to, say, Beverly Hills,  Chicago’s Gold Coast, or Manhattan’s Hudson Yards — areas where the wealthy congregate.  No, it refers to city blocks for which society spends over a million dollars annually to incarcerate residents of that block.

I, of course, have to think about the healthcare parallels.

The concept dates back many years, credited to Eric Cadora, now at Justice Mapping, and Laura Kurgan, a professor of architecture at Columbia University, where she is the Director of the Center for Spatial Research (CSR).  The power of the concept is to use data visualization to illustrate the problem. 

Here, for example, is CSR’s map of Brooklyn for prison spending:

CSR describes the findings as follows:

The maps suggest that the criminal justice system has become the predominant government institution in these communities and that public investment in this system has resulted in significant costs to other elements of our civic infrastructure — education, housing, health, and family. Prisons and jails form the distant exostructure of many American cities today.

Continue reading…

Time to Reboot “Medicare-For-All”

By MIKE MAGEE

In the fog of the Covid pandemic, many are wondering what ever happened to prior vocal support for universal coverage and Medicare-for-All. Expect those issues to regain prominence in the coming months. A bit of recent history helps explain why.

The January 6th insurrection, followed by the past weeks two mass shootings, have served to remind our citizens that we must address a range of issues while continuing to confront the pandemic threat.

Modern civilized societies rely on a double-armed approach to maintain order, peace and security. The first arm is laws. But laws are of little value without even and unbiased enforcement.

The second guardrail of civility is culture. MIT professor Edgar Schein described it this way: “Culture has three layers: the artifacts of a culture — our symbols and signs; its espoused values — the things we say we believe; and, most important, its underlying assumptions — the way things really are.”

In the Senate chamber this week, and in Republican controlled state houses across the nation, Americans witnessed a colossal collision of reality and ideals in the form of new Jim Crow laws to suppress minority voting rights, and refusal to address gun violence.  In the wake of a constant stream of racial animus and mass shootings, this lethal epidemic demands a response as well.

Were these the only flashing alerts signaling danger ahead, that would be enough to cause sleepless nights. But unenforced or unevenly enforced laws, and value dissonance in America, do not occur in isolation, but are supported by an even more erosive underpinning – greed-induced economic inequality.

Continue reading…

You Can’t “Elon Musk” Healthcare

By SOFIA NOORI

On January 26th, Philadelphia discovered that the 22-year-old organizer of its largest COVID-19 vaccination site, Andrei Doroshin, had turned away elderly members of the Philadelphia community from their vaccine appointments. Instead, he pocketed extra vaccine vials to administer to 4 friends and girlfriend. An RN witnessed the event and reported it to authorities. 

Local news reporters quickly discovered that this incident was just the tip of the iceberg for Doroshin. A Drexel University graduate student with no experience in healthcare, Doroshin had enlisted his college friends to organize a group that would go on to win one of the biggest vaccination contracts from the city of Philadelphia. He told his friends that “this is a wholly Elon Musk, shoot-for-the-heaven type of thing,” and that “we’re going to be millionaires.” His organization had also amended its privacy policy allowing for patient data to be sold, administered large numbers of vaccines to people ineligible to receive the vaccine yet, and threw Philadelphia’s COVID vaccination program into chaos

For the people in the back: One can’t simply “Elon Musk” healthcare. We have seen this too many times – a privileged young upstart with little experience believes that s/he can transform healthcare and make millions – or billions – doing so. Examples abound: we only have to look a couple years into the past to remember Elizabeth Holmes, the Stanford dropout who founded Theranos and misrepresented its technology, or to Outcome Health, whose former CEO Rishi Shah defrauded investors by overinflating business metrics. If “move fast and break things” works in other sectors, many reason, why won’t it work in the 4 trillion dollar industry of healthcare? 

Healthcare is simply not the kind of business where one can shoot a rocket into the sky and accept the risk that it might explode. Simply put, this is people’s lives we’re dealing with. But a deeper layer involves trust in the medical establishment. U.S. healthcare is already marred by multiple grave issues: a complex bureaucracy, serious health inequities, and astronomical costs that can bankrupt a person in just one hospitalization. The trust that people have in U.S. healthcare has steadily dropped over the years. Further, the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S. government’s bungled response to it has only sowed further distrust, especially among marginalized and minoritized communities

Continue reading…

Restorative Justice: Don’t Presume “We’re Better Than This”

By MIKE MAGEE

“We’re better than this” is the common refrain heard from many political leaders following the deadly assault on our democracy on January 6th. We hear empty appeals for blind appeasement from the likes of Kevin McCarthy in the interest of “bringing our country together.” But for those of us who study medical history, pursuing this course takes our nation in exactly the wrong direction.

Rather, the model we must follow is the model of Germany in 1945, or South Africa in 1995. In both cases, strict legal and public accountability (retributive justice) were married with fundamental expansion of universal social services to rebuild confidence and trust in their government’s ability to assure safety and security, and an equal playing field for all of their citizens (restorative justice).

In sorting through the legacy of Hitler’s regime in Germany, the Allied forces established the International Military Tribunal.  One of the series of trials, opened on November 19, 1945 in the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, delved into egregious examples of medical criminality, including Nazi experimentation on human subjects. These trials are often cited as an example of “retributive justice.” Of 23 defendants, 7 were hanged, 7 acquitted, and the rest given sentences of from 10 years to life in prison.

These judgments were conducted under the direction of U.S. judges and prosecutors and fully compliant with U.S. standards of criminal procedure. Yet another 25 years would pass before any of the 10 agreed-upon medical ethics research standards were integrated into US trial law.

Continue reading…

A War on Science is a War on Us

By KIM BELLARD

We’re in the midst of a major U.S. election, as well as hearings on a Supreme Court vacancy, so people are thinking about litmus tests and single issue voters – the most typical of which is whether someone is “pro-life” or “pro-choice.”  Well, I’m a single issue person too; my litmus test is whether someone believes in evolution. 

I’m pro-science, and these are scary times.

Within the last week there have been editorials in Scientific American, The New England Journal of Medicine, and Nature – all respected, normally nonpartisan, scientific publications – taking the current Administration to task for its coronavirus response.   Each, in its own way, accuses the Administration of letting politics, not science, drive its response. 

SA urges voters to “think about voting to protect science instead of destroying it.”  They cite, among other examples, Columbia Law School’s Silencing Science Tracker, which “tracks government attempts to restrict or prohibit scientific research, education or discussion, or the publication or use of scientific information, since the November 2016 election.”  Their count is over 450 by now, across a broad range of topics in numerous federal agencies on a variety of topics.   

The SA authors declare:

Science, built on facts and evidence-based analysis, is fundamental to a safe and fair America. Upholding science is not a Democratic or Republican issue.

Similarly, NEJM fears:

Our current leaders have undercut trust in science and in government,4 causing damage that will certainly outlast them. Instead of relying on expertise, the administration has turned to uninformed “opinion leaders” and charlatans who obscure the truth and facilitate the promulgation of outright lies.

Jeff Tollefson, in Nature, warns:

As he seeks re-election on 3 November, Trump’s actions in the face of COVID-19 are just one example of the damage he has inflicted on science and its institutions over the past four years, with repercussions for lives and livelihoods. 

Continue reading…

Registration

Forgotten Password?