I find it fascinating how our brains have this propensity to latch on to what is at the margins at the expense of seeing the bulk of what sits in the center. This peripheral only vision is in part responsible for our obscene healthcare expenditures and underwhelming results.
I have blogged ad nauseam about the drivers of early mortality in the US. In one post I reproduced a pie chart from the Rand Corporation, wherein they show explicitly that a mere 10% of all premature deaths in the US can be attributed to being unable to access medical care. The other 90% is split nearly evenly between behavioral, social-environmental and genetic factors, of which 60%, the non-genetic drivers, can be modified. Yet instead of investing the bulk of our resources in this big bucket of behavioral-environmental-social modification, we put 97% of all healthcare dollars towards medical interventions. This investment can at best produce marginal improvements in premature deaths, since the biggest causes of the effect in question are being all but ignored.
A couple of other striking examples of this marginal magical thinking have surfaced in a few recent stories covered with gusto in the press. One of the bigger ones is the obesity epidemic (oh, yes, you bet it was intended), and its causes. This New York Times piece with its magnetic headline “Central Heating May Be Making Us Fat” entertains the possibility that because of the more liberal use of heat in our homes we are no longer engaging our brown fat, which is a furnace for burning calories. And this is all well and good and fascinating, in a rounding out sort of a way.
I want to digress from our recent focus on methods and talk a bit about conflict of interest (COI for short). There has been a lot in the press lately about doctors taking money from the biopharmaceutical manufacturers, and doctors inserting unnecessary hardware into patients’ hearts and spines. All of this has been happening against the background of a low hum of an ongoing discussion of what constitutes a COI, how much is too much and for what (for example, can a doc who takes research and education dollars from a manufacturer with an interest in anticoagulation sit on a committee that develops the guidelines for prevention of thromboembolic disease?), and how to mitigate these ubiquitous and pesky COIs.
In some ways watching this discussion has been amusing, while in others it has been downright sad. Medical journals, while insisting that advertising money is OK to take (presumably because the editorial and marketing offices are separated by some sort of a fire wall), though professional societies should not be able to take this tainted education money. Professional societies, on the other hand, are running away from the accusations by tightening their continuing medical education (CME) criteria and scrambling to replace the lavish budgets derived from pharma to develop their coveted evidence-based practice guidelines. And while all the pots are calling all the kettles black, academic researchers are being barred from collaborating with the industry on research projects, and industry researchers are being precluded from presenting their data at professional society meetings. While all the time the public is being whipped into lather about these alleged systematic transgressions, and forced to cheer for the ensuing retribution.