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Tag: Saurabh Jha

Doctor Paul Revere Fails to Light the Fire

Paul Revere
Writing in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) Dr. Daniel F. Craviotto Jr. an orthopedist, made a plea to physicians to declare independence from third parties and emancipate themselves from servitude to payers, mandates and electronic health records (EHR).

As rants go, this was a first class rant. But its effect was that of a Charles de Gaulle’s whisper to Vichy France rather than a Churchillian oratory at the finest hour.

The article went viral (it has been tweeted nearly 3000 times), though with little virulence. And it is not WSJ’s paywall to blame.

The author might have assumed that most the healthcare community in general and physicians in particular wish to be free from regulations. I have serious doubts that this assumption is correct in the aggregate. The relationship between regulators and physicians is more complex and symbiotic than it first appears.

Some physicians believe in bureaucracy. Rationalism will march us out of our healthcare wilderness. This belief in scientific managerialism, faith in technocracy, is the new theism. The rationale of the new theists is that regulations fail not because they are inherently useless but because there are so few of them, and even fewer that are actually smart.

Like the first religions started with polytheism, the new believers want more agencies, more alphabet soups, more gods.

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It’s Raining Cataracts, Hallelujah

flying cadeuciiCMS released new data, shrouded thus far in needless secrecy: how much it pays individual physicians.

Unlike the Shroud of Turin, no one will question its authenticity. But authenticity doesn’t guarantee the data won’t intrigue, confuse, anger, perplex, confound and burn a few innocents at the stakes. That is before we conclude that more research is needed, or more colloquially stated, we still don’t have a clue.

Medicare bounty hunters, the modern day witch finders, are licking their lips for their share of the looted spoils. Academic researchers will be dissecting both wings of the bell-shaped curve of variation in payment to set the next battle between good and evil. But all eyes (pun intended) are upon Florida; specifically one particular provider.

The provider, an ophthalmologist, (you can look up the name) billed CMS for $21 million.

CMS paid ophthalmologists $ 5.6 billion. That’s more than the GDP of Burundi. CMS paid over a billion dollars for treatment of macular degeneration with Lucentis (Genentech).

Take a deep breath now. The treatment of one organ in over 65 year old American citizens is equal to the GDP of one African nation. Gini would have turned beetroot with embarrassment.

Diabolical? Scandalous? Shocking? Surprising?

None of the above, actually. If you think about it.

As we age, and age we do thanks to our lives being constantly “saved” by prevention, regulation and cures, arteries harden, brain atrophies and bones thin. And eyesight falters. Lens fog. Macula degenerates, reducing central vision making it difficult to read.

As we age, we consume more medical services. Yes, take that as an economic truism. And no, I’m not applying for membership of the Death Panel.

Here’s the thing. It’s nice to be able to see when you’re 75. It’s also nice to see when 85, and damn essential when 90.

Otherwise you might trip over the walking stick, fracture the neck of the femur, develop a clot in the deep veins, then a clot in the pulmonary arteries, then a raging pneumonia in ICU, followed by septic shock and a cardiac arrest. Then perhaps you may rest in peace. But not before a few interns have fractured half a dozen ribs during a well-intentioned but hopelessly misguided cardiopulmonary resuscitation that family members lobbied for to assuage their guilt for never visiting you in your nursing home.

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The Note Taker’s Dilemma

The year is 2020, or sometime in the future when the healthcare system is better, much better. Patients have access to their medical notes, are encouraged to read the notes regularly and ask physicians relevant questions. This is to facilitate patient-centered participatory medicine (PCPM), previously known as shared decision making. In fact, note reading by patients is now a quality metric for CMS.

The CEO of the Cheesecake Hospital Conglomeration, one of the hospital oligopolies, has set up a Bureau for Transparency and Protection of Patients from Complex Medical Terminology. The goal is to risk manage troublesome medical writing that could result in poor satisfaction scores, complaint or a lawsuit.

Mr. Upright (MU) is the Inquisitor General for the bureau. He has called the author (SJ), a repeat offender, to his office to discuss elements of his medical record keeping.

Disclaimer: Any resemblance to future events is purely coincidental. The narration is merely a reflection of the author’s paranoid affect and a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories.

MU: Dr. Jha, you’ve been summoned because your open medical notes do not meet the standards for empathy and compassionate care and seem devoid of a reflection on the complex interplay between social determinants of health.

SJ: Has a patient complained?

MU: No. But that’s what the bureau is trying to prevent. We protect patients from physicians. Actually, we protect physicians from their most dangerous enemy: themselves.

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Mixing Politics and Science Is Injurious to Public Health

If Obama’s nominee for the position of Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, is not endorsed by the Senate because Senate Democrats from conservative states are too scared to vote for him for fear of losing votes from a population, egged on by the National Rifle Association (NRA), that passionately supports firearms, the first words that come to mind are ‘unfortunate,’ ‘tragic’ and ‘daft,’ although not in that particular order.

Words that do not come to mind are ‘surprising’ or ‘unprecedented.’  This is the natural result of decades of actively encouraging science to mix with politics.

In an ideal world, or I should say reasonable world, noting that perfection is not a pre-requisite to being reasonable, it would scant matter what Murthy thought about firearms.

He would be judged on his (impeccable) credentials, (unmistakable) leadership, and (imaginative) entrepreneurship not to mention his gumption in standing up for what he believes.

It would, of course, be utterly naïve to believe that in the real world his politics do not matter.

I doubt Murthy would have advanced so precociously, let alone been nominated for the position of Surgeon General, if he were a second amendment absolutist, an implacable limited government advocate or had written extensively about the role of free market in healthcare, all things else being equal.

We applaud him for standing up for his convictions not just because of his standing up but for the nature of his convictions.

This is not to suggest that Murthy’s worldview is expedient. There’s no reason to doubt its sincerity. It’s to suggest that a certain weltanschauung is incompatible with progress in academia and beyond.

That’s because despite living in an age of unprecedented reason we have been unable to render unto science what is unto science and render unto politics what is unto politics, a distinction our species has made little progress in making in the last two thousand years.

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In Defense of the Defense of Mammograms

To the two certainties of life, death and taxes, add another two: mammograms and controversy surrounding mammograms.

The Canadian National Breast Screening Study (CNBSS) has reported results of its long term follow-up in the BMJ: no survival benefit of screening mammograms.

To paraphrase Yogi Berra “it’s mammography all over again.”

Is the science settled then?

No.

Before I wade further it’s important to understand what is implied by “settling the science.”

Einstein said “no amount of experimentation can prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”In physical sciences a theory need only be disproven once for it to be cast aside. Heliocentricity cannot coexist with Ptolemy’s universe. The statement “all swans are white” is disproven by a single black swan.

What do we do with the studies that showed survival benefit of screening mammograms? Why does the CNBSS not close the debate over mammograms, like Galileo did with celestial egocentricity?

The simple and simplistic answer is because there are powerful advocacy groups, special interests; the pink-industrial complex who have a vested interest in undermining the science.

But that lends to conspiratorial thinking. Special interests cannot undermine Maxwell’s equations or Faraday’s laws just because they do not like them.

The testability of Maxwell’s equations is inherently different from verifying that screening mammograms increase life expectancy. We must acknowledge two types of science; the former, physical science, a hard science; the latter, a hybrid of biology and epidemiology, soft science.

Soft science is a misnomer. There is nothing soft about performing a randomized controlled trial (RCT), the methodological gold standard; in ensuring factors that falsely augment or attenuate impact of screening mammograms are evenly distributed, data reliably collected, cause of death accurately recorded and correctly inferred. But the human factor and all its inevitable foibles are unavoidable in soft sciences.

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Ode to the Fat Man

Here is a sweeping generalization: When doctors write for the lay public they tend towards tiresome self-flagellation.

Samuel Shem’s House of God is an exception; a refreshing read.

Perhaps he wrote for physicians so he wrote with such open face honesty.

In today’s politically correct world, Shem would have been castigated as an ageist for his brilliant acronym, GOMER (Get out of My Emergency Room), for peri-ninety year olds with advanced dementia who are skirting that narrow zone between St. Peter’s Gate and fractured ribs post-CPR.

Time for a pronouncement for medical students: There are two things you must do before starting your internship. Pass your USMLEs and read House of God.

I have read Shem’s classic twice. I remember the Rules of House of God more reliably than I recall the names of the carpal bones.

My first read was a few days in to my internship in elderly care medicine. The hospital was a rickety establishment in Britain’s National Health Service, not quite the Best Medical School that Shem described. But I seemed to share the same clinical experiences as Roy Basch, Shem’s Gomer-phobic protagonist.

There was a deluge of Gomers on New Year’s Eve; the old practice of granny dumping. I had to justify admission by finding nitrates in their urine for suspected urinary tract infection (grandson attending New Year’s bash still does not have an ICD code), or the vaguest T wave changes on EKG (unstable angina is a useful bet in a 90 year old).

If medical taxonomy could not be clinically justified there was always “acopia.”

Shem was remarkably prescient.

Take rule 13:
“The delivery of good medical care is to do as much nothing as possible.”  This was before physicians were inserting stents through rock hard femoral arteries to give patients an aggregate of two extra hours of survival.

Basch’s elderly patients would do the best precisely because his caring was the least aggressive. He would occasionally forget to prepare them with laxatives for a barium enema, saving them from dehydration and its cascade.

If Shem realized in the seventies that nothing was more futile than an investigation leading to a futile treatment, God knows what he would have written today.

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The Conservative’s Faustian Fear

Avik Roy has done the unthinkable. In a recent op-ed title he used “conservative’s case” and “universal healthcare” in the same sentence. And bridged these disparate words by the preposition for.

Spoiler alert: Roy has asked Republicans to embrace universal healthcare.

The Twitterverse is abuzz. An angry Gary P. Jackson, a self-affirmed conservative, tweeted:

“there is NEVER a conservative case for Marxism….especially Universal healthcare.”

Stated differently, universal healthcare is the worst form of Marxism except for all other forms of Marxism.

Thus far Roy has not been asked to produce his birth certificate, which is just as well. Roy, a prolific Forbes columnist and a scholar at the Manhattan Institute, was healthcare policy adviser to Mitt Romney. He is not a cheerleader of the Affordable Care Act.

There are things one may disagree with Roy. However, his short treatise, How Medicaid Fails the Poor, was impressive, as it deftly dealt with Medicaid’s structural problems. That a right-of-center policy analyst would write a book with that title is one of the many ironies I am now accustomed to encountering (the other delicious irony was the love of Cadillac health plans by unions).

In The Washington Examiner and National Review Online, Roy urges conservatives to acknowledge and embrace universal healthcare, in no uncertain terms:

“…[conservatives] have to agree that universal coverage is a morally worthy goal.”

The arguments put forward by Roy are pure common sense. No one objects to public education as “socialized education.”  If conservatives are afraid that universal healthcare means big government, government is already heavily involved in healthcare.

And not just Medicare, which a certain tea party placard asked the government to keep its hands off!
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One Libertarian’s Dilemma: Genetic Testing or the FDA

An advantage astrologers have over genetic testing is that the prediction of astrologers are personally verifiable. An astrologer once emphatically stated that I had no chance of a career in international cricket or Bollywood. So far both claims have turned out to be remarkably accurate.

How does one personally verify a “12.5 %” increased chance of lung cancer, the sort of number the vendor for genetic testing 23andMe produces? If one develops lung cancer how would one know that the chances were indeed 12.5 %, not 6.25 % or 25 %?

We die only once. Whether one ends up with lung cancer or doesn’t, the veracity of the claim can be made only empirically. Meaning we need to see how many develop lung cancer out of 10, 000 people just like us.

Yet there is an element of scientific precision in the number, augmented by the decimal point. And it is precisely because genetic testing tends towards science not metaphysics that it falls within the dominion of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). FDA does not regulate palm readers.

FDA has asked 23andMe to stop sales of its genomic testing.

As a libertarian seeped in the Austrian school of Economics, I am generally disposed against regulations. I also share the sentiments of the monetarist Milton Friedman that the true costs of the FDA must also include the treatment opportunities foregone in their lengthy review process.

So it hurts me to be somewhat sympathetic of FDA’s stance on 23andMe, even as I think an outright ban was a tad harsh.

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How Can Patients on Medicaid Possibly Be Worse Off than Those Who Don’t Have Insurance?

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” said Carl Sagan.

The claim that health insurance improves health outcomes is hardly ground breaking. Studying whether insurance affects health status is like wondering whether three meals a day lead to a higher muscle mass than total starvation.

Well that’s what I thought. Until I read the study on Oregon’s Medicaid program by Baicker and colleagues in the NEJM earlier this year and, more recently, Avik Roy’s short treatise “How Medicaid Fails the Poor”.

Baicker et al found that Medicaid enrollees fared no better in terms of health outcomes than those without insurance. That is, no insurance no difference.

The study is an exemplar of policy research laced with regression equations, control of known confounders and clear separation of variables. There is only so much rigor social science can achieve compared to the physical sciences. Yet this is about as good a study as is possible.

The one thing the study did not lack was sample size. It’s useful to bear in mind sample size. Large effects do not need a large sample size to show statistical significance. Conversely, if study with a large sample size does not show even a modest effect, it means that the effect probably does not exist.

There are several interpretations of the Medicaid study, interpretations inevitably shaped by one’s political inclination. The ever consistent Paul Krugman, consistent in his Samsonian defense of government programs against philistines and pagans, extolled critics of Medicaid as “nuts” and asked, presumably rhetorically, “Medicaid is cheaper than private insurance. So where is the downside?”

Unlike Krugman I am not a Nobel laureate and am about as likely to win a Nobel Prize as I am of playing the next James Bond, so it’s possible that I am missing something blatantly obvious.  Could the downside of a government program paying physicians, on average 52 cents, and as low as 29 cents, for every dollar paid by private insurance in a multiple payer system be access?

Indeed, it’s darn impossible for patients on Medicaid to see a new physician.  As Avik Roy explains “…massive fallacy at the heart of Medicaid….It’s the idea that health insurance equals healthcare”.

But wait. It gets better.

I am accustomed to US healthcare throwing more plot twisters than Hercule Poirot’s sleuth work. But one I least expected was that patients on Medicaid do worse than patients with no insurance (risk-adjusted, almost). I am not going to be that remorseless logician, which John Maynard Keynes warned us about, who starting with one mistake can end up in Bedlam, and argue that if you are for Medicaid that is morally equivalent to sanctioning mass murder. Rather, I ask how it is possible that possessing Medicaid makes you worse off than no insurance whatsoever.

To some extent this may artifactually appear so because poverty correlates with ill health, and studies that show Medicaid patients faring worse than uninsured, cannot totally control for social determinants of health.

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Healthism: The New Puritanism

Here is a thought experiment. Assume that every hour you run you extend your life by an hour.

I have chosen a one-to-one ratio between the increase in longevity from running and the time running because higher ratios lead to the immortality paradox. Lazarus aside, the all-cause mortality for Homo sapiens is 100 % and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

This arithmetic means that at one point you will literally be running for your life: your life being extended precisely by the time spent running. But ignore this logical fallacy.

You run an hour every day for 40 years. Your life is extended by 1.67 years. Your costs are a new pair of running shoes every three months, which might even be covered at zero co-payment by insurance if USPSTF gave running a grade A or B recommendation.

A back of the envelope calculation, assuming the shoes cost $ 80, yields cost per life year of roughly $7664. There is, of course, more nuance. I am not including injuries that may result from running. I am not discounting time: I am assuming we value an hour now the same as an hour 40 years from now.

I am also not factoring the costs avoided of treating late stage cardiovascular disease, which must be balanced against the additional social security checks that the individual will draw because of living longer, not to mention the costs of treating diseases of extended longevity such as cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease, recurrent falls.

But please continue to indulge my approximation. The point is not precision of economic calculations but a principle.

$7664 for an additional life year. Compared to the benchmark of $50, 000 per quality-adjusted life year that’s a bargain!

Was it worth it then?

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