I saw a gentleman in my office recently. He was having severe pain radiating from his lower back, down to his calf.
I was about to describe my plan to him when he interrupted me saying, “I know, Doc, I am overweight. I know that this would just get better if I lost the weight.” He hung his head down as he spoke and fought off tears.
He was clearly morbidly obese, so in one sense he was right on; his health would be much better if he would lose the pounds. On the other hand, I don’t know of any studies that say obesity is a risk factor to ruptured vertebral discs. Besides, he was in significant pain, and a lecture about his weight was not in my agenda. I wanted to make sure he did not need surgery, and make him stop hurting.
This whole episode really bothered me. He was so used to being lectured about his obesity that he wanted to get to the guilt trip before I brought it to him. He was living in shame. Everything was due to his obesity, and his obesity was due to his lack of self-control and poor character. After all, losing weight is as simple as exercise and dietary restraint, right?
Perhaps I am too easy on people, but I don’t like to lecture people on things they already know. I don’t like to say the obvious: “You need to lose weight.” Obese people are rarely under the impression that it is perfectly fine that they are overweight. They rarely are surprised to hear a person saying that their weight is at the root of many of their problems. Obese people are the new pariahs in our culture; it used to be smokers, but now it is the overweight.
Last year Priceline founder Jay Walker bought TEDMED –a conference that licenses the TED style and brand but is separately owned from its famous cousin. While there was some fun controversy about the sale, Walker made two key decisions. First he moved the conference from San Diego to Washington D.C. to try to get it more central to the health policy debate, and second he initiated a set of 50 Great Challenges from which the community voted a top 20. These are things like tackling the obesity crisis, getting transparency in medical research, training next generation of leaders and more.
Much of the fun and high production value entertainment from previous years stayed, but there was a new sense of urgency in the air concerning making changes from a top down and bottom up level in the way policy works for science and technology. There was rather less information technology than in years past and more emphasis on things like training of physicians, food policy, and basic science.
Like TED there’s a strong sense of celebrity at TEDMED with entrepreneurs like Walker and buddy AOL founder Steve Case on hand, mixing with newscaster Katie Couric and volleyball pro Gabby Reece. There’s also an interesting (and we hear not cheap) sponsorship model with the exhibit hall being more about zones for discussion rather than tradeshow demos. We like Philips sleep discussion and Booz Allen Hamilton’s discussion area.
One of the most common ideas in the whole healthcare financing discussion is a moral one. Why, people say, should my taxes and my healthcare premiums go to take care of the huge medical problems of people who don’t take care of themselves? As one commenter on THCB put it: “…self inflicted injuries to not be covered at all, ideally. If someone drinks their liver away I don’t think we should all have to buy them a new one. Same for smoking.”
This is a common idea, one that seems logical and right on the surface. But there are four assumptions built into it, all four of which have problems:
1) That the “self-inflicted injuries” that people commonly identify (smoking, drinking, other addictions, obesity) actually are major predictors of cost.
2) That we can clearly differentiate “self-inflicted injuries” from other medical problems
3) That to the extent that they are actually “self-inflicted,” the patient could just stop doing them if they just had enough gumption, or enough something.
4) That if our goal is to cut unnecessary medical costs, refusing medical coverage would cut costs.
But each of these four is problematic.
1) The best predictors of medical costs are not smoking, drinking, or obesity, but depression and stress. (“Association Between Health Risks and Medical Expenditures“) So trying to dis-insure “self-inflicted injuries” might miss the target of lowering healthcare costs.
2) Trying to decide what is “self-inflicted” and what is not presents a major problem. A friend has a lifelong condition that gives him excruciating pain. He has struggled manfully (and successfully) against addiction to booze and painkillers to ameliorate his pain. He has always felt bitter toward his father because his father was addicted to booze and painkillers. He recently realized that his condition is genetic, and guessing from some symptoms he observed, realized that his father was fighting the same excruciating pain. His attitude toward his late father changed instantly.
We performed three related field experiments at a single fast-food restaurant to determine whether these reported sentiments could be translated into a strategy to alter calorie consumption. All of the experiments addressed three important elements of eating behavior.
First, do people spontaneously request smaller portions—that is, even if smaller portions are not specifically noted as an option on a menu or signage? Second, do people accept explicit spoken offers to take smaller portions in order to reduce calories? Third, does taking a smaller portion of one meal component lead to indulgence in other meal components, so that the calorie “savings” from downsizing are immediately lost?
Each experiment addressed an additional question. In experiment 1, we explored whether offering a nominal (twenty-five-cent) discount for downsizing would result in more customers’ accepting the offer than offering no discount. In experiment 2, we examined whether offering an opportunity to accept a smaller portion would be more effective than providing calorie labels in encouraging moderation. In experiment 3, we investigated whether downsizing appealed only to customers who would otherwise have thrown away uneaten food, thereby affecting calories ordered but not calories consumed.
Let’s start with experiment 1. First, they measured how many customers would spontaneously request a smaller portion of a high-calorie, high-starch side dish. Not surprisingly, only 1% did. But if customers were asked, on the other hand, one third accepted the offer, regardless of whether a discount was offered. What’s more, those that did downsize did not compensate by up-sizing any other portions of the meal. Those that downsized ordered significantly fewer calories, 100 fewer on average. Continue reading…
Hopefully this information will help provide greater motivation for people struggling with obesity since sometimes it takes more than a simple understanding of health and self interest to sufficiently motivate people to take action. But it also raises questions about the reasons for average lower pay.Continue reading…
There is increasing evidence that the quality of our homes and cities is a critical determinant of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and lung conditions. As urbanization and economic change occur globally, whether we live in a house free of dust in a city with open parks and traffic regulations, or in a dusty tenement building next to a major road, seems critically correlated with our likelihood for having shortened life expectancy, poor nutrition, heart disease and lung problems. In this week’s blog post, we look at some of the mechanisms relating the “built environment”—our human-made surroundings of daily living—to the risk of illness. We ask the question: can we do for our hearts and lungs what the Bauhaus movement did for functional design?
Indoor air quality
If Dwell Magazine had a feature edition on designing a healthy home, they’d have to tackle the major issue of indoor air quality. Much research on the built environment’s impact on health was revealed through a series of studies on asthma among children living in low-income public housing units in the United States. Poor indoor air quality resulting from dust and dirt in public housing units was a major cause of emergency room visits during the 1980’s and 90’s among these children, leading to new programs for housing quality checks and maintenance, which we featured in a previous post.Continue reading…
Q:What’s going on with the farm bill? Any chance for improving it?
A: I wish your question had an easier answer. The farm bill has to be American special-interest politics at its worst.
As Stacy Finz has been reporting in the main news and Business sections of The Chronicle, the failure of the recent super-deficit reduction plan also brought an end to a secret committee process for writing a new farm bill. Now Congress must follow its usual legislative procedures. The farm bill is again open for debate.
Advocacy is much in order. The farm bill is so enormous, covers so many programs, costs so much money and is so deeply irrational that no one brain – certainly not mine – can make sense of the whole thing.
It is all trees, no forest. The current bill, passed in 2008, is 663 pages of mind-numbing details about programs – hundreds of them – each with its own constituency and lobbyists.
The farm bill was designed originally to protect farmers against weather and other risks. But it grew piecemeal to include programs dealing with matters such as conservation, forestry, biofuels, organic production and international food aid.
In the olden days, doctors would travel from house to house when community members fell ill. Now, we usually expect patients to come to our office-based clinics. The modern model of care is certainly more efficient for us as physicians. But it’s also a barrier for patients to receive medicine; the highest-risk people usually make it to our clinics after being discharged from their first or second hospitalization, well after high blood pressure or diabetes has already taken its toll on their bodies. Our latest research suggests that we can statistically predict which people are most likely to end up having chronic diseases five or ten years from now. We can pinpoint these people right down to which house they live in. Such predictive models present a new opportunity to prevent disease before it becomes costly or deadly. In this week’s post, we look at a new idea for community-based disease prevention in medicine: the geographical mapping of chronic disease risks, and preemptive visits of healthcare workers to households where people are likely to become ill in the future.
The physician Jeffrey Brenner became famous for piloting a model of healthcare that would attempt to simultaneously improve services while reducing healthcare costs in his city of Camden, New Jersey. His model, recently profiled in Atul Gawande’s popular New Yorker article “The Hot Spotters”, was based on a simple observation: that sick people with poorly-treated diseases tend to be clustered in certain parts of the city.
If there’s one thing everyone in Washington can agree on it’s that prevention is good. And that’s about as far as the agreement goes.
As for the rest of it – who is responsible for prevention, how to define prevention, what is the government’s role in prevention, how much to spend on prevention and when to spend it – is not so clear, and wrapped up in the bitter politics (and difficult economics) of the day.
Then, there’s the question of the Prevention and Public Health Fund created by the Affordable Care Act to enable states and communities to try to prevent illness and promote longer, healthier lives. To backers of the law, the fund is an engine for public health, community transformation, and a pivotal part of the effort to create a “health care” system instead of a “sick care” system.
To foes, it’s a “slush fund”, a $13.8 billion monument to everything they don’t like about the 2010 legislation. It’s $13.8 billion that could easily end up on one of the deficit-cutting chopping blocks.