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Friday, September 14, 2012

The rational and irrational about health care rationing

Massachusetts has a long track record of making headlines in the area of health care reform, whether or not Mitt Romney likes to talk about it.

In 2008, Massachusetts released results of its initiative requiring virtually all of its citizens to acquire health insurance. In short order, nearly three-quarters of Massachusetts' 600,000 formerly uninsured acquired health insurance, most of them private insurance that did not run up the tab for taxpayers. The use of hospitals and emergency rooms for primary care fell dramatically, translating into an annual savings of nearly $70 million.

But that's pocket change in the scheme of things, so the other shoe had to drop, and now it has. Massachusetts is back in the news, this time for passing legislation that aims to impose a cap on overall health care spending. That ambition implies, even if it doesn't quite manage to say, a very provocative word: rationing.

Health care rationing is something everyone loves to hate. Images of sweet, little old ladies being shoved out the doors of ERs that have met some quota readily populate our macabre fantasies.

But laying aside such melodrama, here is the stark reality: Health care is, always was, and always will be rationed. However much people hate the idea, it's a fact, not a choice. The only choice we have is to ration it rationally, or irrationally. At present, we ration it, and everything it affects, irrationally.

I can tell you from a doctor's perspective exactly why this matters. Some years ago, I was volunteering as a supervisor for medical students providing outreach in a homeless shelter in New Haven, Conn. I met a woman in her early 30s who was severely limited in her activities by shortness of breath, and listened to her story.

Months earlier, she had a brief illness and spent a few days in bed. When she got better and back on her feet, she noticed she had a pain in her left calf. She thought about seeing a doctor, but had no insurance and couldn't afford to go. So she just hoped the pain would go away.

It didn't; it got worse. But she didn't seek medical attention because of cost; it simply didn't hurt enough to justify spending money she needed for food.

Until suddenly, late one night, she found herself gasping for breath with stabbing chest pain. Naturally, she wound up in the emergency room via ambulance, and then the intensive care unit. She was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in the lungs. This condition can be fatal, and in her case, nearly was.

The source of a pulmonary embolism is usually a blood clot in the leg. In this case, that's just where it came from, a blood clot causing pain in the left calf. When a clot in the leg is detected and treated early, a life-threatening pulmonary embolism is entirely preventable at fairly low cost.

This woman, a mother back then of a 3-year-old daughter, would never fully recover. Her health care costs ran to hundreds of thousands of dollars, a bill for the hospital, and by extension, the taxpayers, namely us, to pay. She had no means to pay it, and didn't ask for the care in the first place. The shelter called the ambulance.

By denying this woman access to care she needed, or public insurance that would have paid the nominal costs of early care, our system resulted in both ruined health and a much bigger bill.

Unfortunately, I can tell this tale from a personal perspective as well. Some time back, a family member, a healthy man of 32, noticed a discoloration on his skin, and saw a doctor. The doctor recommended that he go to a dermatologist. But just then, this man was leaving one job and looking for another. Naturally, that meant he was temporarily uninsured. So he decided to wait for his new job and his new insurance.

Some months later, with a new job, new insurance, and newly married, the man went to the dermatologist. He was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. It had grown since his first doctor visit, and try as they might, the surgeons could not get all of it. Following cycles of chemotherapy, the man died at age 34. Tragically irrational rationing.

In cases like this, people are paying with their lives for the gaps in our insurance system, something the health care reform of the Obama Administration at least partly addresses. There are costs to fix those gaps, yes, but there are higher costs in not doing so. A skin biopsy is a minor expense. Extensive surgery and cycles of chemotherapy are enormously expensive, to say nothing of the economic toll of a working, productive young adult becoming a debilitated and dying patient.

In a system of universal, or nearly universal health insurance such as in Massachusetts, decisions about what benefits to include for whom are decisions about the equitable distribution of a limited resource. If that is rationing, then we need to overcome our fear of the word so we can do it rationally. By design or happenstance, every limited resource is rationed. Design is better.

In the U.S. health care system, some can afford to get any procedure at any hospital, others need to take what they can get. Some doctors provide concierge service, and charge a premium for it. Any "you can have it if you can afford it" system imposes rationing, with socioeconomic status the filter. It is the inevitable, default filter in a capitalist society where you tend to get what you pay for.

That works pretty well for most commodities, but not so well for health care. As noted, failure to spend money you don't have on early and preventive care may mean later expenditures that are both much larger, and no longer optional, and someone else winds up paying. If you can't afford a car, you don't get one; if you can't afford care for a bullet wound, if you can't afford CPR, you get it anyway, and worries about who pays the bill come later.

But those costs, and worries, do come later, and somewhere in the system, we pay for them.

By favoring acute care, which can't be denied, our current system of rationing dries up the resources that might otherwise be used for both clinical preventive services and true health promotion. Fully 80% of all chronic disease could be eliminated if our society really rallied around effective strategies for tobacco avoidance, healthful eating, and routine physical activity for all. But when health care spending on the diseases that have already happened is running up the national debt, where are those investments to come from? The answer is, they tend not to come at all. And that's rationing: not spending on one thing, because you have spent on another.

Nor is this limited to health care. The higher the national expenditure on health-related costs, the fewer dollars there are for other priorities, from defense, to education, to the maintenance of infrastructure. If cutting back on defense calls the patriotism of Congress into question, then classrooms get crowded and kids are left to crumble. Apparently, it is no threat to patriotism to threaten the educational status of America's future. Whatever ...

The resources we ration may be laundered in such a way as to make the rationing invisible. Those little old ladies never actually do get shoved out the ER door, or if ever that does happen, it's both illegal and a scandal that makes headlines. But our kids may well wind up in overcrowded classrooms with outdated textbooks, because the money ran out. That, too, is rationing.

Massachusetts has thus embraced nothing other than the inevitable in proposing that health care costs be capped. Colleagues and I went further in a program we called EMBRACE, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2009. We actually suggested a rational approach to rationing. For any hope of ever moving in that direction, we have to "embrace" the reality of limited resources and stop wincing every time we hear the word. All finite resources run out, and all resources are finite. We have to stop running away from this fundamental reality, and deal with it. No little old ladies waiting in the ER need be harmed in the process.

The more we spend on acute care, the less we spend on prevention. But also, the less we spend on other things that matter, like books for our kids in school. The less we spend on books, and teachers, the lower the literacy rate. The less our literacy, the less our society is able to read the writing on the wall.

Right there, in bold lettering for those who can read it, is the time-honored message that rationing is inevitable. Whether rational, or irrational, however, remains a choice we can make. Here's hoping the experiment in Massachusetts may help show us how to make it wisely and well. Minimally, here's hoping it helps us stop running from the only reality we've got.

David L. Katz, MD, FACP, MPH, FACPM, is an internationally renowned authority on nutrition, weight management, and the prevention of chronic disease, and an internationally recognized leader in integrative medicine and patient-centered care. He is a board certified specialist in both Internal Medicine, and Preventive Medicine/Public Health, and Associate Professor (adjunct) in Public Health Practice at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is the Director and founder (1998) of Yale University's Prevention Research Center; Director and founder of the Integrative Medicine Center at Griffin Hospital (2000) in Derby, Conn.; founder and president of the non-profit Turn the Tide Foundation; and formerly the Director of Medical Studies in Public Health at the Yale School of Medicine for eight years. This post originally appeared on his blog at The Huffington Post.

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Blog log

Members of the American College of Physicians contribute posts from their own sites to ACP Internistand ACP Hospitalist. Contributors include:

Albert Fuchs, MD
Albert Fuchs, MD, FACP, graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine, where he also did his internal medicine training. Certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine, Dr. Fuchs spent three years as a full-time faculty member at UCLA School of Medicine before opening his private practice in Beverly Hills in 2000.

And Thus, It Begins
Amanda Xi, ACP Medical Student Member, is a first-year medical student at the OUWB School of Medicine, charter class of 2015, in Rochester, Mich., from which she which chronicles her journey through medical training from day 1 of medical school.

Auscultation
Ira S. Nash, MD, FACP, is the senior vice president and executive director of the North Shore-LIJ Medical Group, and a professor of Cardiology and Population Health at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. He is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Cardiovascular Diseases and was in the private practice of cardiology before joining the full-time faculty of Massachusetts General Hospital.

Zackary Berger
Zackary Berger, MD, ACP Member, is a primary care doctor and general internist in the Division of General Internal Medicine at Johns Hopkins. His research interests include doctor-patient communication, bioethics, and systematic reviews.

Controversies in Hospital Infection Prevention
Run by three ACP Fellows, this blog ponders vexing issues in infection prevention and control, inside and outside the hospital. Daniel J Diekema, MD, FACP, practices infectious diseases, clinical microbiology, and hospital epidemiology in Iowa City, Iowa, splitting time between seeing patients with infectious diseases, diagnosing infections in the microbiology laboratory, and trying to prevent infections in the hospital. Michael B. Edmond, MD, FACP, is a hospital epidemiologist in Richmond, Va., with a focus on understanding why infections occur in the hospital and ways to prevent these infections, and sees patients in the inpatient and outpatient settings. Eli N. Perencevich, MD, ACP Member, is an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist in Iowa City, Iowa, who studies methods to halt the spread of resistant bacteria in our hospitals (including novel ways to get everyone to wash their hands).

db's Medical Rants
Robert M. Centor, MD, FACP, contributes short essays contemplating medicine and the health care system.

Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member
Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing physician in Massachusetts. He has published numerous articles in clinical medicine, covering a wide range of specialty areas including; pulmonology, cardiology, endocrinology, hematology, and infectious disease. He has also authored chapters in the prestigious "5-Minute Clinical Consult" medical textbook. His other clinical interests include quality improvement, hospital safety, hospital utilization, and the use of technology in health care.

DrDialogue
Juliet K. Mavromatis, MD, FACP, provides a conversation about health topics for patients and health professionals.

Dr. Mintz' Blog
Matthew Mintz, MD, FACP, has practiced internal medicine for more than a decade and is an Associate Professor of Medicine at an academic medical center on the East Coast. His time is split between teaching medical students and residents, and caring for patients.

Everything Health
Toni Brayer, MD, FACP, blogs about the rapid changes in science, medicine, health and healing in the 21st century.

FutureDocs
Vineet Arora, MD, FACP, is Associate Program Director for the Internal Medicine Residency and Assistant Dean of Scholarship & Discovery at the Pritzker School of Medicine for the University of Chicago. Her education and research focus is on resident duty hours, patient handoffs, medical professionalism, and quality of hospital care. She is also an academic hospitalist.

Glass Hospital
John H. Schumann, MD, FACP, provides transparency on the workings of medical practice and the complexities of hospital care, illuminates the emotional and cognitive aspects of caregiving and decision-making from the perspective of an active primary care physician, and offers behind-the-scenes portraits of hospital sanctums and the people who inhabit them.

Gut Check
Ryan Madanick, MD, ACP Member, is a gastroenterologist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, and the Program Director for the GI & Hepatology Fellowship Program. He specializes in diseases of the esophagus, with a strong interest in the diagnosis and treatment of patients who have difficult-to-manage esophageal problems such as refractory GERD, heartburn, and chest pain.

I'm dok
Mike Aref, MD, PhD, FACP, is an academic hospitalist with an interest in basic and clinical science and education, with interests in noninvasive monitoring and diagnostic testing using novel bedside imaging modalities, diagnostic reasoning, medical informatics, new medical education modalities, pre-code/code management, palliative care, patient-physician communication, quality improvement, and quantitative biomedical imaging.

Informatics Professor
William Hersh, MD, FACP, Professor and Chair, Department of Medical Informatics & Clinical Epidemiology, Oregon Health & Science University, posts his thoughts on various topics related to biomedical and health informatics.

David Katz, MD
David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACP, is an internationally renowned authority on nutrition, weight management, and the prevention of chronic disease, and an internationally recognized leader in integrative medicine and patient-centered care.

Just Oncology
Richard Just, MD, ACP Member, has 36 years in clinical practice of hematology and medical oncology. His blog is a joint publication with Gregg Masters, MPH.

KevinMD
Kevin Pho, MD, ACP Member, offers one of the Web's definitive sites for influential health commentary.

MD Whistleblower
Michael Kirsch, MD, FACP, addresses the joys and challenges of medical practice, including controversies in the doctor-patient relationship, medical ethics and measuring medical quality. When he's not writing, he's performing colonoscopies.

Medical Lessons
Elaine Schattner, MD, FACP, shares her ideas on education, ethics in medicine, health care news and culture. Her views on medicine are informed by her past experiences in caring for patients, as a researcher in cancer immunology, and as a patient who's had breast cancer.

Mired in MedEd
Alexander M. Djuricich, MD, FACP, is the Associate Dean for Continuing Medical Education (CME), and a Program Director in Medicine-Pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, where he blogs about medical education.

More Musings
Rob Lamberts, MD, ACP Member, a med-peds and general practice internist, returns with "volume 2" of his personal musings about medicine, life, armadillos and Sasquatch at More Musings (of a Distractible Kind).

Prescriptions
David M. Sack, MD, FACP, practices general gastroenterology at a small community hospital in Connecticut. His blog is a series of musings on medicine, medical care, the health care system and medical ethics, in no particular order.

Reflections of a Grady Doctor
Kimberly Manning, MD, FACP, reflects on the personal side of being a doctor in a community hospital in Atlanta.

The Blog of Paul Sufka
Paul Sufka, MD, ACP Member, is a board certified rheumatologist in St. Paul, Minn. He was a chief resident in internal medicine with the University of Minnesota and then completed his fellowship training in rheumatology in June 2011 at the University of Minnesota Department of Rheumatology. His interests include the use of technology in medicine.

Technology in (Medical) Education
Neil Mehta, MBBS, MS, FACP, is interested in use of technology in education, social media and networking, practice management and evidence-based medicine tools, personal information and knowledge management.

Peter A. Lipson, MD
Peter A. Lipson, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing internist and teaching physician in Southeast Michigan. The blog, which has been around in various forms since 2007, offers musings on the intersection of science, medicine, and culture.

Why is American Health Care So Expensive?
Janice Boughton, MD, FACP, practiced internal medicine for 20 years before adopting a career in hospital and primary care medicine as a locum tenens physician. She lives in Idaho when not traveling.

World's Best Site
Daniel Ginsberg, MD, FACP, is an internal medicine physician who has avidly applied computers to medicine since 1986, when he first wrote medically oriented computer programs. He is in practice in Tacoma, Washington.

Other blogs of note:

American Journal of Medicine
Also known as the Green Journal, the American Journal of Medicine publishes original clinical articles of interest to physicians in internal medicine and its subspecialities, both in academia and community-based practice.

Clinical Correlations
A collaborative medical blog started by Neil Shapiro, MD, ACP Member, associate program director at New York University Medical Center's internal medicine residency program. Faculty, residents and students contribute case studies, mystery quizzes, news, commentary and more.

Interact MD
Michael Benjamin, MD, ACP member, doesn't accept industry money so he can create an independent, clinician-reviewed space on the Internet for physicians to report and comment on the medical news of the day.

PLoS Blog
The Public Library of Science's open access materials include a blog.

White Coat Rants
One of the most popular anonymous blogs written by an emergency room physician.

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