It’s July 4th – Independence Day for those of you who remember your U.S. history. There’s already too much talk about loss of rights, political tyranny, militias, even succession, and I don’t want to wade any further into those troubled waters. But I thought I could at least try to reimagine what a Declaration of Independence might look like if it was aimed at the American healthcare system.
Science has a way of punishing humans for their arrogance.
In 1996, Dr. Michael Osterholm found himself rather lonely and isolated in medical research circles. This was the adrenaline-infused decade of blockbuster pharmaceuticals focused squarely on chronic debilitating diseases of aging.
And yet, there was Osterholm, in Congressional testimony delivering this message: “I am here to bring you the sobering and unfortunate news that our ability to detect and monitor infectious disease threats to health in this country is in serious jeopardy…For 12 of the States or territories, there is no one who is responsible for food or water-borne surveillance. You could sink the Titanic in their back yard and they would not know they had water.”
Osterholm’s choice of metaphor perhaps reflected his own frustration and inability to alter the course of the medical-industrial complex despite microbial icebergs directly ahead.
An essay in Aeon had me at the title: The Waste Age. The title was so evocative of the world we live in that I almost didn’t need to read further, but I’m glad I did, and I encourage you to do the same. Because if we don’t learn to deal with waste – and, as the author urges, design for it – our future looks pretty grim.
Happy New Year! We’re starting 2022 full of hope and renewed optimism. Oh, wait; not so much. We’re not only still in a pandemic, the Omicron variant is the most infectious one yet. Daily cases are setting new records. Our hospitals are full again. Our beleaguered healthcare workers – the ones who haven’t already thrown in the towel – are at their breaking points. Two years in, and we still don’t have enough tests. We’re in the greatest public health crisis in a century, yet our legislators are taking power away from public health officials, and their angry constituents are forcing many of those officials to quit. We have effective vaccines, but millions still refuse to take them.
The Simpsons – especially, Homer — has the right word for this: D’oh!
Not familiar with Schumpeter’s gale? You may be more familiar with the term “creative destruction.” Schumpeter’s “gale of creative destruction” is the inevitable “process of industrial mutation that continuously revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”
An article in NPJ Science of Food explains how scientists combined additive manufacturing (a.k.a, 3D printing) of food with “precision laser cooking,” which achieves a “higher degree of spatial and temporal control for food processing than conventional cooking methods.” And, oh, by the way, the color of the laser matters (e.g., red is best for browning).
Very nice, but wake me when they get to replicators…which they will. Meanwhile, other people are 3D printing not just individual houses but entire communities. It reminds me that we’ve still not quite realized how revolutionary 3D printing can and will be, including for healthcare.
The New York Timesprofiled the creation of a village in Mexico using “an 11-foot-tall three-dimensional printer.” The project, being built by New Story, a nonprofit organization focused on providing affordable housing solutions, Échale, a Mexican social housing production company, and Icon, a construction technology company, is building 500 homes. Each home takes about 24 hours to build; 200 have already been built.
We are in strange days, and they
are only going to get stranger as COVID-19 works its way further through our
society. It makes me think of Benjamin Franklin’s response when asked
what kind of nation the U.S. was going to be: “A Republic, if you
can keep it.”
The versions of that response that COVID-19 have me wondering about are: “A federal system, if we can keep it,” and, more specifically, “a healthcare system, if we can keep it.” I’ll talk about each of those in the context of the pandemic.
In times of national emergencies — think 9/11, think World Wars — we usually look to the federal government to lead. The COVID-19 pandemic has been declared a national emergency, but we’re still looking for strong federal leadership. We have the Centers for Disease Control, infectious disease experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, and a White House coronavirus task force. But real national leadership is lacking.
Healthcare today, in the broadest sense, is not a benevolent giant that wraps its powerful arms around the sick and vulnerable. It is a world of opposing forces such as Government public health ambitions and more or less unfettered market ambitions by hospitals and downright profiteering by some of the middlemen who stand between doctors and patients, such as insurers, Pharmacy Benefits Managers, EMR vendors and other technology companies.
Within healthcare there is also a growing, more or less money-focused sector of paramedicine, promoting “alternative” belief systems, some of which may be right on and showing the future direction for us all and some of which are pure quackery.
I stand by my conviction that physicians must embrace the role of guide for their patients. If we see ourselves only as instruments or tools in the service of the Government, the insurance companies or our healthcare organizations, patients are likely to mistrust our motives when we make diagnoses or recommend treatments.
The term “moral
injury” is a term originally applied to soldiers as a way to help explain
PTSD and, more recently, to physicians as a way to help explain physician burnout.
The concept is that moral injury is what can happen to people when “perpetrating,
failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held
moral beliefs and expectations.”
I think healthcare
generally has a bad case of moral injury.
Melissa Bailey, writing for Kaiser Health News, looked at moral injury from the standpoint of emergency room physicians. One physician decried how “the real priority is speed and money and not our patients’ care.” Another made a broader charge: “The health system is not set up to help patients. It’s set up to make money.” He urged that physicians seek to understand “how decisions made at the systems level impact how we care about patients” — so they can “stand up for what’s right.”
Picture, if you will, a healthcare sector that costs less, whose share of the national economy is more like it is in other advanced economies—let’s imagine 9% or 10% rather than 18% or 19%.
A big part of this drop is a vast reduction in overtreatment because non-fee-for-service payment systems are far less likely to pay for things that don’t help the patient. Another part of this drop is the greater efficiency of every procedure and process as providers get better at knowing their true costs and cutting out waste. The third major factor is that new payment systems and business models actually drive toward true value for the buyers and healthcare consumers. This includes giving a return on the investment for prevention, population health management, and building healthier communities. This incentive would reduce the large percentage of healthcare costs due to preventable and manageable diseases, trauma, and addictions.
Picture, if you
will, a healthcare sector in which prices are real, known, and reliable.
Price outliers that today may be two, three, five times the industry median
have rapidly disappeared. Prices for comparable procedures have normalized in a
narrower range well below today’s median prices. Most prices are bundled, a
single price for an entire procedure or process, in ways that can be compared
across the entire industry. Prices are guaranteed. There are no circumstances
under which a healthcare provider can decide after the fact how much to charge,
or a health insurer can decide after the fact that the procedure was not
covered, or that the unconscious heart attack victim should have been taken to
a different emergency department farther away.
well-informed, savvy healthcare consumer, with active support and incentives
from their employers and payors, who is far more willing and eager to find out what their choices are and exercise that
choice. They want the same level of service, quality, and financial choices
they get from almost every other industry. And as their financial burden
increases, so do their demands.
Picture a reversing
of consolidation, ending a providers’ ability to demand full-network
contracting with opaque price agreements—and encouraging new market entrants
capable of facilitating a yeasty market for competition. Picture growing
disintermediation and decentralization of healthcare, with buyers increasingly
able to act like real customers, picking and choosing particular services based
on price and quality.
industry whose processes are as revolutionized by new technologies
as the news industry has been, or gaming, or energy. Picture a healthcare
industry in which you simply cannot compete using yesterday’s technologies—not
just clinical technologies but data, communications, and transaction