By WYNNE ARMAND and CHRISTIAN MEWALDT
It shouldn’t be controversial to say that promoting the well-being of patients and our community should be at the core of our decisions in health care — even when competing factors exist. Yet we have grown increasingly uncomfortable to realize that we’ve been investing in companies whose products — including fossil fuels — are at the crux of diseases we treat.
In 2018 alone, fossil fuel combustion-produced particulate matter was responsible for an estimated 9 million deaths worldwide, according to a recent publication by researchers from Harvard University and the Universities of Birmingham and Leicester in the United Kingdom. Other health effects are extensive, including increased cardiovascular disease and respiratory illnesses, especially in small children. Fossil fuels are also widely considered a primary driver of climate change, and their combustion contributes to the increased numbers of record heat waves and heat-related deaths, as many US communities are facing this summer.
Our hospitals, as tax-exempt nonprofits, provide us retirement plans in the form of 403(b)s, financial accounts similar to 401(k)s that are offered by for-profit companies. As employees who are eligible for benefits, we are typically automatically enrolled in the retirement savings plan, with contribution limits determined by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Recently, we learned that by the end of 2020, of the $35 trillion in US retirement assets, $1.2 trillion were invested in these 403(b) plans, according to Investment Company Institute, the trade association for investment companies.
With healthcare representing the largest sector of employers in the US, with nearly 7 million employees at hospitals alone, our employers should provide us with options for retirement funds that do not contain fossil fuel investments that ultimately undermine our duty to patients. While retirement finances aren’t our focus during our workdays, the effects of our collective $1.2 trillion investment do appear in clinical settings.
The default choice at our institution, like many, is a target-date fund composed of “passive investments”, i.e. indexed stocks and bonds that rebalance as the employee’s retirement date nears. Most also offer pre-screened mutual funds chosen by the employer’s investment committee, or allow participants to transition retirement funds into a brokerage account to self-manage investments. To choose an alternative investment strategy requires financial know-how and effort, so, unsurprisingly, most of us invest in the default. The largest, most-used are the Vanguard Target Retirement Index Funds, which have an estimated $292 billion invested in fossil fuel companies.
Massachusetts passed a massive medical cost control bill in 2012, a “Hail Mary” effort to make health-care more affordable in the nation’s most expensive medical market. The problems of the Massachusetts’ law offer invaluable lessons for the nation’s health-care struggles.
Driven in part by a Boston Globe investigation that exposed the likely collusion of the Partners Healthcare hospital system (including several Harvard Medical School teaching hospitals) with Blue Cross/Blue Shield, the largest healthcare insurer in the state, the law marked the biggest health reform since Romneycare in 2006. While most agree Massachusetts needed cost controls, there’s no evidence that the 2012 law has accomplished its goal—and these same failed policies have been folded into the national Affordable Care Act.
Romneycare, Massachusetts’ universal health-care law, already lacked effective rules to control the rapid growth of state medical costs. That, paired with the Boston Globe’s exposure of the likely collusion between Partners Healthcare, the largest hospital system in New England, and Blue Cross Blue Shield to raise health care payments to hospitals and doctors by as much as 75 percent, led to passage of a hefty, 349-page cost-control law in 2012. The legislation included a dizzying number of committees, an uncoordinated “cost containment” process, and dubious quality-of-care policies, like “pay-for-performance,” a program that pays doctors bonuses for meeting certain quality standards, like measuring blood pressure. These incentives might make sense in economic theory, but have failed repeatedly in well controlled studies. They’ve even created perverse enticements, such as some doctors avoiding sicker patients. The cost control law also encouraged widespread use of expensive electronic health records, even though there’s no evidence that they save any money.
- Is it ethical for health policy researchers to claim that a Medicare ACO reduced “spending” by 2 percent if the reduction was not statistically significant?
- Is it ethical for them to do so if they made no effort to measure the cost to the ACO of generating the alleged 2 percent savings nor the cost to Medicare of giving half the savings to the ACO?
- Does it matter that the researchers work for the flagship hospital within the ACO that was the subject of their study?
- Does it matter that the ACO and the flagship hospital are part of a huge hospital-clinic chain that claims its numerous acquisitions over the last quarter-century constitute not mere empire-building but rather “clinical integration” that will lower costs, and the paper lends credence to that argument?
- Is it ethical for editors to publish such a paper? Is it ethical to do so with a title on the cover that shouts, “How one ACO bent the cost curve”?
These questions were raised by the publication of a paper by John Hsu et al. about the Pioneer ACO run by Partners HealthCare System, a large Boston hospital-clinic chain, in the May 2017 edition of Health Affairs. Of the eight authors of the paper, all but two teach at Harvard Medical School and all but two are employed by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Partners’ flagship hospital and Harvard’s largest teaching hospital. 
On a recent evening at Harvard Medical School, the Primary Care Innovation Challenge and Pitch-Off ,sponsored by WellPoint’s American Resident Project, brought together six finalists, primary care luminaries and trainees, and a host of hangers-on and camp followers for a couple of hours of demos and discussions. The tenor of the evening, which was in many ways a pep rally for primary care – not that there’s anything wrong with that — was best captured by the rhetorical question posed by Asaf Bitton to the primary care practitioners and trainees in the hall, “Are you going to be a playwright or a critic?”
The hoots and hollers in response made clear that these are not your grandfather’s primary care docs. The call to action was echoed by many of the speakers, notably community organizer turned primary care physician Andrew Morris Singer and Dennis Dimitri, both advocating for, well, advocating for primary care. Bitton’s opening also included the exhortation that proved to be predictive of the winner of the top honors from among the six pitches: Innovation in primary care is not about the technology; it needs to enable better human care.
As the instigators of the OpenNotes initiative, we are thrilled that OpenNotes is being adopted by the VA. Prompted by Dr. Kernisan’s thoughtful post , the ensuing lively discussion, and our experiment with 100 primary care physicians and 20,000 of their patients ), we thought it useful to offer some observations drawing both on our experiences as clinicians and on ongoing conversations with clinicians and patients.
First and foremost, we don’t have “answers” for Dr. Kernisan. Our hope is to contribute to new approaches to these sticky questions over time. And, remember that patients’ right to review their records is by no means new. Since 1996, virtually all patients have had the right to access their full medical records. What’s new is that OpenNotes takes down barriers such as filling out forms and charging per page, while actively inviting far more patients to exercise this right in an easier and accessible way.
We think of open visit notes as a new medicine, designed like all therapies to help more than it hurts. But every medicine is inevitably accompanied by relative and absolute contraindications, and it’s useful to remember that it’s up to the medical and patient community to learn to take a medicine wisely as it becomes more widely available. A few specific thoughts:
Dementia and diminished physical capacity:
When a clinician notices symptoms or signs of dementia, chances are the patient and/or family has already been worrying about this for some time. Is it safe for the patient to live alone? What about driving? How and when could things get worse? They may actually be relieved when the doctor brings up these topics and articulates the issues in a note. Moreover, their worst fears may prove unfounded, and reading that in a note can be reassuring. But we need to consider the words we write so we don’t rush to label a condition as “Alzheimer’s.” Being descriptive is often better and more helpful than assigning one word definitions. In itself, OpenNotes reminds the health professional to choose words wisely. That doesn’t have to mean more work, but we believe it can certainly mean better notes that can be more easily understood by the patient. We urge colleagues to stay away from “The patient denies…,” or “refuses,” or “is SOB.”
Abuse or diversion of drugs, possible substance abuse, or unhealthy alcohol use:
These subjects are always tough, and what to write down has been an issue for clinicians long before they worried about open records. Over the course of our experiment in primary care, we have heard stories from patients about changing their attitudes and behavior after reading a note and “seeing in black and white” what their doctors were most worried about. Though substance abuse may seem like a particularly sensitive topic, at least one doctor in our study is convinced that some of his patients in trouble with drugs or medications did better as a result of reading his notes. And while some patients may reject our spoken (or unspoken) thoughts that we document in notes, experience to date makes us believe that more patients will be helped than hurt, and that it is worth the tradeoff.