Tag: Book Review

Obsessive Measurement Disorder: Etiology of an Epidemic


Review of The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Z. Muller, Princeton University Press, 2018

In the introduction to The Tyranny of Metrics, Jerry Muller urges readers to type “metrics” into Google’s Ngram, a program that searches through books and other material published over the last five centuries. He tells us we will find that the use of “metrics” soared after approximately 1985. I followed his instructions and confirmed his conclusion (see graph below). We see the same pattern for two other buzzwords that activate Muller’s BS antennae – “benchmarks,” and “performance indicators.” [1]

Muller’s purpose in asking us to perform this little exercise is to set the stage for his sweeping review of the history of “metric fixation,” which he defines as an irresistible “aspiration to replace judgment based on personal experience with standardized measurement.” (p. 6) His book takes a long view – he takes us back to the turn of the last century – and a wide view – he examines the destructive impact of the measurement craze on the medical profession, schools and colleges, police departments, the armed forces, banks, businesses, charities, and foreign aid offices.

Foreign aid? Yes, even that profession. According to a long-time expert in that field, employees of government foreign aid agencies have “become infected with a very bad case of Obsessive Measurement Disorder, an intellectual dysfunction rooted in the notion that counting everything in government programs will produce better policy choices and improved management.” (p. 155)

Muller, a professor of history at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, makes it clear at the outset that measurement itself is not the problem. Measurement is helpful in developing hypotheses for further investigation, and it is essential in improving anything that is complex or requires discipline. The object of Muller’s criticism is the rampant use of crude measures of efficiency (cost and quality) to dish out rewards and punishment – bonuses and financial penalties, promotion or demotion, or greater or less market share. Measurement can be crude because it fails to adjust scores for factors outside the subject’s control, and because it measures only actions that are relatively easy to measure and ignores valuable but less visible behaviors (such as creative thinking and mentoring). The use of inaccurate measurement is not just a waste of money; it invites undesirable behavior in both the measurers and the “measurees.” The measurers receive misleading information and therefore make less effective decisions (for example, “body count” totals tell them the war in Viet Nam is going well), and the subjects of measurement game the measurements (teachers “teach to the test” and surgeons refuse to perform surgery on sicker patients who would have benefited from surgery).

What puzzles Muller, and what motivated him to write this book, is why faith in the inappropriate use of measurement persists in the face of overwhelming evidence that it doesn’t work and has toxic consequences to boot. This mulish persistence in promoting measurement that doesn’t work and often causes harm (including driving good teachers and doctors out of their professions) justifies Muller’s harsh characterization of measurement mavens with phrases like “obsession,” “fixation,” and “cult.” “[A]lthough there is a large body of scholarship in the fields of psychology and economics that call into question the premises and effectiveness of pay for measured performance, that literature seems to have done little to halt the spread of metric fixation,” he writes. “That is why I wrote this book.” (p. 13)

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The Death of Cancer: Book Review and Reflections



Some books draw you in based on a catchy title, a provocative book jacket, or familiarity with the author. For me, recollections of medical school primers written by the renowned lymphoma pioneer Vincent DeVita Jr. and my own path as an oncologist immediately attracted me to “The Death of Cancer.” I felt a connection to this book before even reading it and prepped myself for an optimistic message about how the cancer field is moving forward. Did I get what I bargained for?

Co-authored with his daughter, Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn, DeVita brings us back decades ago to when he had just started at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) under the wings of Jay Freireich and Tom Frei. At the time, he was a clinical associate and a “chemotherapist”; the field was ultimately renamed and defined as medical oncology. (Note to self: I am ecstatic the field was renamed; I would prefer to be called a medical oncologist anytime than a chemotherapist, but that’s just me). He recounts how chemotherapy was frowned upon in favor of the two preferable ways to treat cancer at the time: surgery and radiotherapy. DeVita eloquently describes how his mentors were ridiculed when they announced their pursuit to cure childhood leukemia using combination chemotherapy; their approach and determination provided him with inspiration to push his research further. He goes on to describe in a fascinating manner the way he designed the MOPP regimen, which cured many patients with Hodgkin lymphoma. He recounts events when he presented his own MOPP data, and how he was verbally attacked by radiotherapists who claimed his data were insufficient and attempts to drive them “out of business”. Even in 2018, my radiation oncology colleagues protest when medical oncologists challenge the role of radiation therapy in Hodgkin lymphoma. I have actually grown tired of attending debates between any two prominent lymphoma figures discussing whether to use radiation or not in such setting; there are better topics to argue about, like who might win the Super Bowl.

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Medicine in Denial

“Any system of care that depends on the personal knowledge and analytic capabilities of physicians cannot be trusted.”

Finally, I’ve come across a really spot-on analysis of what ails healthcare, and some proposals that have serious potential to improve healthcare for people like my patients. Come to think of it, implementing these proposals would surely improve care for all patients.

The analysis, and the proposed fixes, are detailed by Dr. Lawrence Weed and his son Lincoln Weed, in their book “Medicine in Denial.” (The quote above is from this book.)

The book is a little long, but for those who are interested in leveraging technology to make healthcare more consistent and more patient-centered, I’d say it’s a must-read and must-discuss. (I’m a bit surprised that this book doesn’t seem to have many reviews, and that Dr. Weed’s ideas are not more often cited by those advocating for digital health and patient empowerment.) In particular, the Weeds’ book provides:

  1. An excellent description and analysis of two huge fundamental problems in healthcare. One is the way we persist in relying on fallible physician minds to manage the process of evaluating, diagnosing, and managing medical problems. The other is our lack of standards for consistently documenting and organizing information related to our evaluation and management of patients. Both lead to idiosyncratic, disorganized healthcare that generally serves patients poorly, especially those who are medically complex or have multiple chronic conditions.
  2. A proposed method of using computers and technology to consistently connect patient data to medical knowledge, leading to better diagnosis and medical management.
  3. Continue reading…


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