There is a corner of the health care industry where rancor is rare, the chance to banish illness beckons just a few mouse clicks away and talk revolves around venture deals, not voluminous budget deficits.
Welcome to the realm of Internet-enabled health apps. Politicians and profit-seeking entrepreneurs alike enthuse about the benefits of “liberating data” – the catch-phrase of U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park – to enable it to move from government databases to consumer-friendly uses. The potential for better information to promote better care is clear. The question that remains unanswered, however, is what role these consumer applications can play in prompting fundamental health system change.
Michael W. Painter, a physician, attorney and senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is optimistic. “We think that by harnessing this data and getting it into the hands of developers, entrepreneurs, established businesses, consumers and academia, we will unleash tremendous creativity,” Painter said. “The result will be improved and more cost efficient care, more engaged patients and discoveries that can help drive the next generation of care.”
The foundation is backing up that belief with an open checkbook. RWJF recently awarded $100,000 to Symcat, a multi-functional symptom checker for web and mobile platforms. Developed by two Johns Hopkins University medical students, the app determines a possible diagnosis far more precisely than is possible by just typing in symptoms as a list of words to be searched by “Dr. Google.” Symcat also links to quality information on different providers and can even direct users to nearby emergency care and provide an estimate of the cost.
The empowered patient, skeptical of professional authority, is not a new phenomenon: he was actually created by the American Revolution.
Reading through historian Gordon Wood’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, I came across a passage describing how national independence from the British led to an independent turn of mind in other spheres. Wood writes that Charles Nisbet, president of Pennsylvania’s Dickinson College, complained as early as 1789 that Americans were carrying their reliance on individual judgment to ridiculous extremes. He fully expected, he said, to see soon such books as “Every Man his own Lawyer,” “Every Man his own Physician,” and “Every Man his own Clergyman and Confessor.”
In fact, New York’s Medical Repository wrote in 1817 of a shortage of “professional pharmacists” at a time when they did drug-mixing and diagnostic duties. But while the Repository acknowledged the lack of professionalism might lead to some mistakes, it continued that “these mistakes would be no more than occurred in Paris, London or Edinburgh, ‘where pharmacy, as a profession, is scientific, exclusive and privileged,’” writes Wood. (Emphasis in original) What a remarkable attitude!
Around this same time, the word “statisticks” appeared for the first time in American dictionaries. However, in America, there was a growing opinion that facts could speak for themselves without expert interpretation. As one popular journal put it in 1811, “The reflections arising out of [the facts] should be left to the reader.”
Like the hero in an old-time movie, Chief Justice John Roberts metaphorically untied Obamacare from the railroad tracks and, with four of his colleagues, pulled it away from the onrushing destructive force of his right-wing colleagues in the nick of time. In doing so he also saved President Obama from political disaster.
Alas, just like in the movies, the villains will soon be back.
While the next five months will determine whether the Court ruling upholding health reform was a victory or just a reprieve, the president has been plucked from the perils of a politically ruinous headline: “Signature achievement of constitutional lawyer president declared unconstitutional.”
In doing so, the Court showed why Americans hate the other guy’s lawyer and love theirs. Roberts embraced his inner reactionary by ruling that the individual mandate did not meet the requirements of the Commerce Clause — even though virtually all respected conservative jurists believe it does, and the conservative Heritage Foundation clearly believed it did when proposing the idea under a Republican president.
However, the Court avoided what would look like a political decision overturning the entire law by ruling that the penalty for not buying health insurance was a constitutionally permitted tax. Which made the law constitutional. Game. Set. Match. (Well, unless you were a poor person counting on an expansion of Medicaid. But if you’re poor, you should be used to losing.)
Don’t you love clever lawyers? At least when they’re on your side?
While it’s comforting to just blame the GOP for the unhappiness with health reform threatening the president’s re-election, the truth is that Barack Obama repeatedly botched, bungled and bobbled the health reform message. There were three big mistakes:
The Passionless Play
While Candidate Obama proclaimed a passionate moral commitment to fix American health care, President Obama delved into legislative details.
When a Baptist minister at a nationally televised town hall asked in mid-2009 whether reform would cause his benefits to be taxed due to “government taking over health care,” Candidate Obama might have replied that 22,000 of the minister’s neighbors die each year because they lack any benefits at all. Instead, President Obama’s three-part reply recapped his plans for tax code fairness.
While Republicans railed about mythical “death panels,” and angry Tea Party demonstrators held signs showing Obama with a Hitler moustache, the president opted to leave emotion to his opponents. The former grassroots organizer who inspired a million people of all ages and ethnicities to flock to Washington for his inauguration never once tried to mobilize ordinary Americans to demand a basic right available in all other industrialized nations. In fact, he hasn’t even mobilized the nearly 50 million uninsured, who have no more favorable opinion about the new law than those with health insurance!
“We are now contemplating, Heaven save the mark, a bill that would tax the well for the benefit of the ill.”
That’s not a quote from oral arguments at the Supreme Court over the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act or from one of the earnest conservatives demonstrating against it outside. It’s actually the beginning of an editorial in the Aug. 15, 1949 issue of The New York State Journal of Medicine denouncing the pernicious effects of health insurance. To be clear: not government-mandated health insurance, but all third-party health insurance.
I wrote about that editorial in a July 16, 2009 blog entitled, “GOP to Uninsured: Drop Dead.” My blog was prompted by a Wall Street Journal op-ed the previous day from Dr. Thomas Szasz, an emeritus professor of psychiatry, who counseled readers not to confuse ethics and economics:
The idea that every life is infinitely precious and therefore everyone deserves the same kind of optimal medical care is a fine religious sentiment and moral ideal. As political and economic policy, it is vainglorious delusion….We must stop talking about “health care” as if it were some kind of collective public service, like fire protection, provided equally to everyone who needs it….If we persevere in our quixotic quest for a fetishized medical equality we will sacrifice personal freedom as its price.
This was a month before Oklahoma GOP Sen. Tom Coburn, a physician, told a sobbing, middle-aged woman that “government is not the answer” after she confessed she couldn’t afford care for her brain-injured husband. The crowd of Coburn constituents gathered to discuss health care reform applauded. And it was before Texas Rep. Ron Paul, also a physician, responded evasively when asked by moderator Wolf Blitzer at a September, 2011 GOP presidential debate what should be done about an uninsured 30-year-old working man in a coma.
The Medicare program is betting on a new course of action to curb what one medical journal has dubbed an “epidemic” of uncontrolled patient harm.
The effort is pegged to the success of a little-known entity called a “hospital engagement network” (HEN). In December, the government selected 26 HENs and charged them with preventing more than 60,000 deaths and 1.8 million injuries from so-called “hospital-acquired conditions” over the next three years. That would be the equivalent of eliminating all deaths from HIV/AIDS or homicide over the same period.
Despite those big numbers, and an initial price tag of $218 million, it’s unclear whether the HENs are adequately ambitious or still only pecking away at the patient safety problem. While this is by far the most comprehensive public or private patient safety effort ever attempted in this country, it still aims to eliminate less than half the documented, preventable patient harm.
The inspiration for these networks comes from similar collaborative projects run by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement and other groups. Dr. Donald Berwick, IHI’s founder and president, headed up the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services for two years and launched a larger Partnership for Patients that includes the HENs.
In December, the government chose a mix of national and local groups — primarily health systems and hospital organizations — to run individual HENs. Each HEN is charged with spreading safety-improvement innovations that have been proven to work in leading hospitals to others through intensive training programs and technical assistance. Although the program lasts three years, initial HEN contracts are for two years, with an “option year” dependent upon performance.
You can’t get much cooler than HealthTap: slick Silicon Valley start-up, social media darling, savvy and successful backers. But when you closely examine the service HealthTap actually provides, the money and good looks fall away. Like in the fable about “the emperor’s new clothes,” behind the buzz, there’s nothing there.
OK, maybe one thing: a really risky way to get medical advice.
Here’s how a Feb. 4 New York Times article described the company’s website:
[U]sers post questions and doctors post brief answers. The service is free, and the doctors aren’t paid. Instead, they engage in gamelike competitions, earning points and climbing numbered levels. They can also receive nonmonetary awards — many of them whimsically named, like the “It’s Not Brain Surgery” prize, earned for answering 21 questions at the site.
Fellow physicians can show that they concur with the advice offered by clicking “Agree,” and users can show their appreciation with a “Thank” button.
So far, so good. But there’s more. The professional credentials of the physician answering your question, such as a board-certified specialty, are not available on the site. Instead, you get a crowdsourced “reputation level” built up by accumulating HealthTap awards, by clicks of approval from other doctors and by other measurable activities at the site.
Spend some time with the Society for Medical Decision Making, and “shared decisions” starts to seem less a clinical ideal and more an offshoot of picking a monthly cell phone plan. The fine line between “motivating” and “manipulating” behavior (albeit sometimes unintentionally) starts to blur.
At the group’s recent annual meeting in Chicago, the differing sensibilities of medical and marketplace ethics were in plain view on a panel entitled (with a nod to the Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein behavioral economics best-seller), “From a Nudge to a Shove: How Big a Role for Shared Decision Making?”
Peter Ubel, a physician and a professor of marketing and public policy at Duke University, told how some free-market theorists have defined away, “overweight.” Since people know what causes them to put on pounds, goes this reasoning, the weight they are must be the weight they rationally decided to be. (Shades of Dr. Pangloss!)
Unfortunately, eating decisions are not purely rational. Eat in a large group, said Ubel, and lingering at lunch could boost your calorie count by 25 percent. Choose the large plate at the buffet table over the small one and bump up calories another 25 percent. Our brains even seek out the bad: give us two identical crackers, but label one as having a more “unhealthy fat,” and we’ll consistently pick it over the healthier-labeled cracker in a taste test.
The way that Michael Long and Sandeep Green Vaswami want to change hospital care may well rank as both the most commonsensical and most hopeless health reform proposal ever. The real question is whether they can show the same tenacity in pursuing their goal as an elderly Jewish woman from Munster, Ind., who has invested nearly two decades in a similar effort.
What the two men are advocating is simple: hospitals should offer the same level of professional staffing and patient care on weekends as during the rest of the week. They should do this, the two men write in the Health Affairs blog, because trying to cram seven days of care into five leads to a cascade of problems that harm and even kill patients. It also costs a lot of money.
That’s the commonsense part. The hopeless part is that Long and Vaswami, both affiliated with the Institute for Healthcare Optimization, seem to believe that doctors, nurses and hospital execs will read their article and then spontaneously volunteer to work the weekend shift.
American hospitals are complex entities, but at heart they remain the doctor’s workshop, dependent upon the goodwill of physicians who admit and care for patients. Maintaining that goodwill requires treading carefully. For instance, telling a neurosurgeon, “You’re working Wednesday through Sunday this week” would rank high on the list of what a friend of mine calls a “career-limiting event.”
Long and Vaswami are aware they’re tampering with long-standing tradition, but as justification they offer a disturbing catalog of the effect of care controlled by the calendar.
To begin with, bunching scheduled admissions in midweek often overwhelms the staff, leading to “significant” increased risk of patient death or admission to the Intensive Care Unit. Filled beds force emergency rooms to discharge patients to “inappropriate care locations,” with the hospital relying on specialized teams to ride to the rescue “when patients deteriorate because of inadequate care.” At the same time, “medically appropriate transfers … may also be delayed or rejected.”
And that’s when hospitals are operating normally. Patients admitted over the weekend face an increased risk “because critical diagnostic or therapeutic modalities are not available,” while patients staying over the weekend experience “delays at best and deterioration in clinical condition at worst.”
When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich announced his bid for the GOP presidential nomination, I found myself singing a few bars from Night Moves, Bob Seger’s hard-driving tribute to teenage hormones: “I used her, she used me/But neither one cared./We were gettin’ our share.”
No, this isn’t one more commentary on the Georgia Republican’s checkered marital past. I’m referring to a different relationship, the one between Gingrich and the health policy community. A critical component of the climb back to prominence for a man who inspired nearly as much distrust in his own party as in the opposition was proving he could work harmoniously with those holding differing views on an important policy issue — how to reform U.S. health care.
Gingrich succeeded so well that some of the policy recommendations he was touting just a few years ago bear a close resemblance to Obama administration actions that Gingrich now denounces as leading us to “a centralized health care dictatorship.”
The romance between Gingrich and the health wonks, and Gingrich’s makeover as a leader with ideas as much substantive as political, began after the appearance of his 2003 book, Saving Lives & Saving Money. The book gave credibility and visibility to a set of ideas being talked about in the health policy world about using information technology to improve medical care.Continue reading…