As we look back over the past year and some of the amazing medical breakthroughs like wearable robotic devices, genomic sequencing and treatments like renal denervation that are improving people’s lives, it bears reflection on what else we could be doing better. Our world has changed more in the past century than in thousands of years of human history. We not only know more about our biology than ever before, but science and technology are unlocking the secrets of the very building blocks of our health. Somehow, in the midst of this incredible innovation, we’ve gotten fat, and not just a little. The result? Alarming rates of obesity and related chronic disease that threaten to crush us physically and financially.
But is it technology’s fault that we’ve become fat? A recent study by the Milken Institute that tied the amount an industrialized country spends on information and communication technologies directly to the obesity rates of its populations thinks so.
Most of us are guilty of a little overindulgence around the holidays but for many, overindulgence is a normal way of life. As economies transition to more sedentary, the physical movement that burned calories and kept us fit simply does not occur. Our lifestyles compound the issue — dual-income homes rely on the convenience of packaged meals, and our leisure activities have shifted to heavy “screen time” with movies, games and social media.
My job and my life intersected in a profound way when my daughter was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. Years working in mobile innovation didn’t prepare me for how personally relevant mHealth so quickly became. Her clinical trial at Stanford University, supported by the National Institutes of Health through Congress’ Special Diabetes Program, featured a world-class endocrinologist working alongside software coders, applications developers, algorithm writers, network engineers and other mobile innovators. They were all pushing together for what could be a revolution in diabetes management—the artificial pancreas.
Recently I had the opportunity to talk about my daughter’s experience and share my thoughts on how government can help encourage the next wave of mHealth innovation, when I was invited to testify before Congress on mobile innovation and health care.
America’s leadership in the mobile economy — 40,000 apps and counting in the broad mHealth category — matches America’s leadership at the cutting edge of medical technology.
Mobile devices, wireless networks and targeted applications are enabling better, more seamless and cost-effective care that empowers and informs stakeholders on both sides of the stethoscope.
The virtuous cycle of investment in the mobile ecosystem — from networks, to handsets and tablets, to applications — provides an unparalleled foundation for dramatic advances in the nation’s health and wellness. My message to Congress was to lean in and strike a reasonable and circumspect balance that both protects patient safety and privacy and propels the dramatic, mobile-fueled advances we are seeing through American medicine today.
Can the FDA ban cupcakes?
While this may seem like a silly question, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (“CSPI”) has filed a petition with the FDA urging the agency to regulate the amount of sugar (including high fructose corn syrup) in soft drinks. According to the executive director of CSPI, sugar is a “slow-acting but ruthlessly efficient bioweapon” that causes “obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.”
If soft drinks are a problem, surely cupcakes are too. A twelve-ounce can of Coca-Cola contains 39 grams of sugar. A seasonally-appropriate red velvet cupcake from Sprinkles contains 45 grams of sugar—and who can eat just one? National cupcake consumption increased 52% between 2010 and 2011, and U.S. consumers ate over 770 million cupcakes last year. Sugary soft drink consumption, on the other hand, is down 23% since 1998 and 37% since 2000.
While the FDA can’t regulate sugar as a bioweapon, it probably could regulate sugar as a food additive.
Under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, a food additive is “any substance the intended use of which results or may reasonably be expected to result—directly or indirectly—in its becoming a component or otherwise affecting the characteristics of any food.” This broad definition would include sugar. The FDA does not, however, regulate food additives that are “generally recognized as safe” (“GRAS”). Presumably the FDA considers sugar to be GRAS—for now. Continue reading…
According to a widely circulated op-ed in the New York Times by Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado with whom I don’t believe I have ever managed to agree on anything, our “fear” of fat — namely, epidemic obesity — is, in a word, absurd. Prof. Campos is the author of a book entitled The Obesity Myth, and has established something of a cottage industry for some time contending that the fuss we make about epidemic obesity is all some government-manufactured conspiracy theory, or a confabulation serving the interests of the weight-loss-pharmaceutical complex.
In this instance, the op-ed was reacting to a meta-analysis, published last week in JAMA, and itself the subject of extensive media attention, indicating that mortality rates go up as obesity gets severe, but that mild obesity and overweight are actually associated with lower overall mortality than so-called “healthy” weight. This study — debunked for important deficiencies by many leading scientists around the country, and with important limitations acknowledged by its own authors — was treated by Prof. Campos as if a third tablet on the summit of Mount Sinai.
We’ll get into the details of the meta-anlysis shortly, but first I’d like to say: Treating science like a ping-pong ball is what’s absurd, and what scares the hell out of me. Treating any one study as if its findings annihilate the gradual, hard-earned accumulation of evidence over decades is absurd, and scares the hell out of me. Iconoclasts who get lots of attention just by refuting the conventional wisdom, and who are occasionally and importantly right, but far more often wrong — are often rather absurd, and scare the hell out of me.
And so does the obesity epidemic.
Henry David Thoreau said, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”
We have hacked at healthcare costs for what seems like thousands of times, with very limited success. It is time to strike at the root. Rather than focus on reducing costs after preventable diseases have taken hold, it is time to focus attention on eliminating the disease.
Let us look at two specific examples.
1. The CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) has estimated that the cost of smoking(estimated cost of smoking-related medical expenses and loss of productivity) exceeds $167 billion annually. The CDC has also estimated that 326 billion cigarettes (combustible tobacco, to be more precise) went up in smoke in 2011. In other words, every cigarette consumed costs the nation about 50 cents; every pack, $10.
Put another way, while the smoker paid approximately $5 a pack up front, there was also an additional $10 secret surcharge — the cost of which is born by all of us (such as taxpayers, anyone who buys health insurance, even private companies who suffer from lower productivity as a result). It is as if we are telling the smoker, “I know you can’t afford to pay $15 for a pack. So we will give you $10 so you can afford to smoke.” We are not this generous even with people who don’t have one square meal a day. We spent $78 billion on food stamps, with constant pressure to bring that down further even if some people will be left without food as a result.
Twenty years ago, in order to keep presidential candidate Bill Clinton’s campaign on message, James Carville hung a sign in their “war room” that read:
- Change vs. more of the same
- The economy, stupid
- Don’t forget health care
While point number two swiftly entered the national vernacular, the other two slogans have equally influenced the U.S. political landscape, especially since 2008. Four years ago, the country was on the precipice of transformation. Meaningful change was promised, and opportunities for significant, long-lasting reforms were abundant. Americans, particularly the millennial generation, turned out in record numbers to vote, and hope for the future was palpable. America, like a patient suffering from a debilitating chronic disease, seemed finally ready to put in the time and do the hard work to get healthy before that fatal heart attack occurred. After decades of procrastination, we heeded Carville and health care system overhaul became a top priority.
Pause: The State of America’s Health
Obesity prevalence increased 137 percent over 20 years, from 11.6 percent to 27.5 percent of the population. In 2008, more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese. The medical care costs of obesity in the U.S. totaled about $147 billion in 2008 dollars.
Diabetes has almost doubled in prevalence since 1996, rising from 4.4 percent to 8.7 percent of the adult population. For children, the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes increased 21 percent from 2001-2009, while Type 1 diabetes rose 23 percent. Estimated total diabetes costs in the U.S. were $174 billion in 2007.
Asthma diagnoses grew by 4.3 million from 2001 to 2009, and 9.4 percent of children currently have asthma. Asthma costs in the U.S. grew from about $53 billion in 2002 to about $56 billion in 2007.
Developmental Disabilities prevalence increased 17.1 percent over the last 12 years. The prevalence of autism increased 289.5 percent, and the prevalence of ADHD increased 33 percent. Autism alone is estimated to cost the U.S. $137 billion per year.
If all of us were simply to make better use of our feet, our forks, and our fingers — if we were to be physically active every day, eat a nearly optimal diet, and avoid tobacco — fully 80 percent of the chronic disease burden that plagues modern society could be eliminated. Really.
Better use of feet, forks, and fingers — and just that — could reduce our personal lifetime risk for heart disease, cancer, stroke, serious respiratory disease, or diabetes by roughly 80 percent. The same behaviors could slash both the human and financial costs of chronic disease, which are putting our children’s futures and the fate of our nation in jeopardy. Feet, forks, and fingers don’t just represent behaviors we have the means to control; they represent control we have the means to exert over the behavior of our genes themselves.
Feet, forks, and fingers could reshape our personal medical destinies, and modern public health, dramatically, for the better. We have known this for decades. So why doesn’t it happen?
Because a lot stands in the way. For starters, there’s 6 million years of evolutionary biology. Throughout all of human history and before, calories were relatively scarce and hard to get, and physical activity — in the form of survival — was unavoidable. Only in the modern era have we devised a world in which physical activity is scarce and hard to get and calories are unavoidable. We are adapted to the former, and have no native defenses against the latter.
Then, there’s roughly 12,000 years of human civilization. Since the dawn of agriculture, we have been applying our large Homo sapien brains and ingenuity to the challenges of making our food supply ever more bountiful, stable, and palatable; and the demands on our muscles ever less. With the advent of modern agricultural methods and labor-saving technologies of every conception, we have succeeded beyond our wildest imaginings.
So now, we are victims of our own success. Obesity and related chronic diseases might well be called “SExS” — the “syndrome of excessive successes.”
Imagine for a moment you are suffering from an illness that makes you feel like your soul has been run over by an angry defensive lineman, a disease that interferes with your desire to sleep, eat and make love. Oh, and this illness will continue to make you feel this way for the rest of your life. How much would you be willing to pay for a treatment makes you feel normal again?
My colleagues and I posed that question to a nationally representative sample of more than 700 Americans and we discovered something troubling—people’s willingness to pay for medical interventions depends in large part on whether the illness in question is “physical” or “mental.” People are much less willing to part with money to treat mental illnesses, even after accounting for the perceived severity of those same illnesses. Our article—“What’s It Worth?”—is available online at the Journal of Psychiatric Services.
Let me tell you a bit more about our study. We described a handful of illnesses to people and asked them to tell us, in effect, how bad each one would be to experience. For instance, we describe type 2 diabetes to people, and told them that it was uncomplicated by any other medical problems. People thought that would be pretty hard on their quality of life. We also described below-the-knee amputation, and they thought that would be even worse than diabetes. We described severe blindness, which only leaves one able to distinguish shadows. People thought that one was worse than either of the first two problems.
We also described a case of moderately severe depression to people, a level bad enough to cause the victims to “feel sad and downhearted a lot of the time.” The description went on to explain that it would make people “feel like a failure” and lose interest in food and sex. Trust me, it was a thorough and devastating picture of how depression can affect people’s lives. Indeed, people thought it was horrendous, at least as bad as any of the physical illnesses we described.
Government budgets are tight during the recession, with cuts to public health budgets being announced on almost daily basis. What strategies are available to enhance revenues for public welfare programs–for the kinds of health and education expenses that won’t “pay for themselves”(at least in the short term), and therefore are often the first to get slashed in hard times? Raising tax rates among the wealthy, and introducing new taxes like a Robin Hood Tax, have been widely discussed. But some researchers have also studied entirely new revenue-generating strategies for social welfare programs that don’t rely on taxes—including a popular pay-for-performance scheme based on “social impact bonds” (SIBs).
How they work
A SIB is one of many “payment by results” plans. Just like other types of bonds (for instance, the municipal bonds we invest in to fund a local community college), SIBs involve private investors paying for a particular program that funds some social welfare operation. But SIBs are organized such that if the social welfare program is successful, there should be some net savings to the government and benefits to society.
For example, if a public health program prevents diabetes by successfully sustaining a weight loss intervention, the government should save money that would have otherwise been spent through Medicaid or Medicare on future hospitalizations caused by diabetes. As part of a SIB, the government agrees to pay a portion of these savings back to the investors who funded the weight loss program. And just like any investment, if the program fails, the investors lose money—theoretically attracting investors towards the most effective social welfare programs.Continue reading…
There have been a number of research studies published that question the value of Electronic Health Records (EHRs), particularly as it pertains to improving quality of care and ultimately outcomes. Chilmark has always viewed these reports with a certain amount of skepticism. Simple logic leads us to conclude that a properly installed (including attention to workflow and thorough training) of an enterprise software system such as an EHR will lead to a certain level of standardization in overall process flow, contribute to efficiencies and quality in care delivery and ultimately lead to better outcomes. But to date, there has been a dearth of evidence to support this logic, that is until this week.
Last week the New England Journal of Medicine published the research paper: Electronic Health Records and Quality of Diabetes Care, which provides clear evidence, albeit a little fuzzy around the edges, that physician use of an EHR significantly improves quality metrics over physicians who rely on paper-based medical record keeping processes.
The research effort took place in Cleveland as part of Better Health Greater Cleveland from July 2009 till June 2010 and included 46 practices representing some 569 providers and over 27K adults with diabetes who visited their physician at least twice during the study period. Several common quality and outcome measures were used to assess and compare EHR-based care to paper-based. On composite standards of quality, EHR-based practices performed a whooping 35% better than their paper-based counterparts. On outcome measures, which are arguably more difficult for physicians as patients’ actions or lack thereof are more integral to final outcomes, EHR-based practices still outperformed their paper-based peers by some 15%. The Table below gives a more detailed breakout.