A Socratic dialog on health care reform (VIII)

While on his way to barter for health insurance through the Athenian health care exchange in the Agora, the philosopher Socrates has a chance encounter with Hippocrates, the father of medicine.

Hippocrates: Socrates, my dear fellow! Good day to you. But to what business are you hastening at such an early hour? And, I might add, with such a limp?

Socrates: Good morning, Hippocrates. Were it not for your timely greeting, I might have passed you by. I make haste to join the line of my fellow citizens who stand outside the newly formed healthcare exchange in the Agora. Finally, after years of waiting, we can sign up for affordable health insurance! I can hardly wait to compare the options, for alas! — as of late I have been plagued by this painful hip and fear the need of an artificial replacement.

Hippo: Ah, good Socrates, how sorry I am to hear of your woes! And yet, I fear that your painful hip may be the least of your worries in this healthcare debacle.

Soc: Whatever do you mean, Hippocrates? Are there not enough willing surgeons to go around?

Hippo: Of surgeons there are plenty, Socrates.

Soc: What then? Do you refer to the lack of affordable plans in the healthcare exchange?

Hippo: No, Socrates. A review shows that there are plenty of plans from which to choose. Moreover, with the increased competition, the premiums have dropped appreciably.

Soc: This is good news indeed! But tell me, Hippocrates, what are these concerns which you harbor in your heart?

Hippo: Have you not heard the latest news from the Senate floor, Hippocrates? There are those in the Congress who have plotted to derail the Affordable Care Act. If they have their way, the entire enterprise could come undone.

Soc: But what is this? Tell me more, Hippocrates!

Hippo: A small select group of representatives from the more conservative quarters have vowed to postpone the implementation of the Affordable Care Act for at least another year.

Soc: How can they orchestrate such a thing? Is the ACA not now the law of the land?

Hippo: To be sure, good Socrates, it is. But this select group has tied the postponement of the ACA to the budget bill now before the Senate. Because of their ridiculous amendment the Senate has refused to pass the legislation required to fund the government, the result of which being that all non-essential governmental employees are to be furloughed without pay indefinitely.

Soc: What? To jettison the funding of the Athenian government merely to undercut the implementation of a law on the books! But that is an outrage!

Hippo: (sadly nodding his head) To be sure, to be sure, good Socrates. But I am told that there is little which can be done to remedy the situation. The conservative party has closed ranks, despite the fact that there are many among its members who lament this action.

Soc: Such behavior is outrageous and unbecoming of statesmen!

Hippo: Alas, Socrates, there are few statesmen left in our time. Plato has informed me that this plot has been years in the making, for no other reason than to discredit the president and his program.

Soc: It would appear that politics is alive and well in our Athenian economy.

Hippo: Indeed, the Athenian Times reports that the current budget brinkmanship is just the latest development in a well-financed, broad-based assault on the health law. It gives one pause to wonder at the extent to which our politicians will go to rescind it, even if that means not funding the government and refusing to raise the debt ceiling, which would all but ensure a global Athenian default.

Soc: How small the problem of pain in my hip appears in comparison! Perhaps the mad hatters in the party of tea should consider hemlock.

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The new norm

I’ve known this mother for a long time. Far from wet behind the ears, she’s raised four other children, mostly on her own after her divorce several years ago. She’s never been one to run to the office for every sneeze and sniffle. If she brings one of her children in to be evaluated, it’s usually for a good reason. more»

Interested readers can peruse my latest JAAPA Musings blog post, newly published in the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants.

Humane Medicine — Just passing through

I watch them go — a new family I will most likely never see again. They’ve played by the rules, but got burned by the system. Lose your job, lose your health insurance, lose your doctor. more»

Interested readers can now access my latest Humane Medicine columnTransitional Medicine: Patients who are just passing through — recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants.

“Notes from a Healer” — Frustrated

These are the days of pediatric practice that try clinicians’ souls.  more»

My latest installment of Notes from a Healer — Frustrated — is now online, newly published in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine.

The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine is an online journal fostering discussion about the culture of medicine, medical care, and experiences of illness. Interested readers can access a list of editorial board members and regular contributors here.

A Socratic dialog on health care reform (VII)

Socrates pays Hippocrates another visit to discuss the latest political rumblings concerning the health care reform legislation.

Hippocrates: Good day, Socrates. I see that you walk with the step of a healthy man these days. I trust the former injury to your foot is now well healed.

Socrates: To be sure, my good friend and physician. Once again I find myself healed well, if not well-heeled. (chuckles to himself) But tell me, Hippocrates, what do you make of the recent resurgence of heated political debate in the Senate concerning our newly passed health care law?

Hippo: Ah, my good Socrates, know you not that the opposition has sworn to dismantle the law even before it is enacted? For they have sworn an oath to have it annulled before the legislative session is brought to a close.

Soc: By whose authority?

Hippo: By the mandate of the voters in the mid-term elections of last fall. The opposition is claiming victory on the basis of the mandate for change.

Soc: But I was of the understanding that the law contained many desirable provisions to enhance the coverage of health care for the citizens of Athens—forbidding third-party payers to deny coverage for preexisting conditions, guaranteeing the portability of coverage, removing the provision for lifetime caps on payments for care, and so on.

Hippo: What you say is true, my friend. But those of the opposition argue that the law is unconstitutional because it mandates coverage for all citizens—

Soc: (breaking in) Excuse me, Hippocrates, but is that not a good and desirable thing, to have coverage for all our citizens?

Hippo: To be sure, it is—but in this instance the law mandates that coverage be purchased by individual citizens if they have no provision for coverage from their employer.

Soc: I was under the impression that universal coverage was to be enacted as a right of every Athenian citizen.

Hippo: Alas, the single payer option was defeated in the preliminary debate. The lobbyists for the health insurance industry made certain of that through the influence of much silver coin in the pockets of the politicians. Likewise, the sorcerers bought their influence to insure that the price of pharmaceuticals could not be negotiated in the Agora.

Soc: It seems as though that which began as a good and noble idea has been degraded through bribes, trickery and quiet whisperings behind the scenes.

Hippo: Legislation is crafted much in the same way as sausage, good Socrates. In each instance the process is best left undisclosed to prevent a sudden surge of nausea and queasiness of the stomach.

Soc: Tell me, Hippocrates; is there no way to retain the noble points of the law while discarding the undesirable tenets?

Hippo: Undesirable to whom, Socrates? To those with influence and power? They will see the entire piece of legislation rescinded before compromising on these points. In the end we live in an era where the winner takes all in politics.

Soc: But our Athenian government is based on the premise of democratic rule. Ultimately, the people decide their common weal.

Hippo: Have you not heard that our supreme court has ruled that the multimillion drachmae corporations must be considered as bona fide entities having a political voice? A fist full of drachmae speaks louder than the jingle of pennies in a purse.

Soc: Then our democracy—

Hippo: Is but an oligarchy, my dear Socrates. Or better stated, a plutocracy in which the great wealth of the few controls the destiny of the many.

Soc: And what of the middle class, those of the artesian guilds and such?

Hippo: Alas, Socrates, they continue to disappear from the Athenian social strata. The gap has widened between those who have and those who have not.

Soc: What! Is there no political solution to this dilemma, Hippocrates?

Hippo: Perhaps, Socrates. You should pose that question to your old student and politico, Plato. He might be able to offer a feasible plan. I’m told he spends his days engaged in drafting a treatise that deals with such issues. He calls it The Republic.

Soc: Indeed, he has written “the price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.”

In and out of medical practice

At the age of 46, disillusioned with modern medical practice, Dr. Margaret Kozel decided to end her 17-year-career in primary care pediatrics. She cites some of her reasons in her blog post, Confessions of a worn-out pediatrician.

“Our system of paying for health care and the stresses on today’s families were pitting my best medical judgment for the child against all the other worries and desires of the parents,” Dr. Kozel writes. “The economics of health care trickled down into my exam room, into the conversation between doctor and patient, distorting the relationship.”

High on her list of complaints are the inequalities inherent in our American healthcare system. Those who need pediatric care the most—poor and underinsured children—are the least likely to access it. And in those cases where health care is available, third-party payers dictate standard of care, sometimes with substandard results.

“Private insurance companies decide who gets paid for what, so pediatricians treat serious mental illness with little psychiatric training, use nebulous tools to diagnose attention deficit disorders, and valiantly tilt at the windmill of childhood obesity not because we can do this most effectively, but because we are the only professionals who can get paid to do so.”

“At the other end of the treatment spectrum, free market forces often urge us to over-intervene with minor illness, where less really would be more.”

“Clinical truth has only grown more obscure since my medical school days,” Dr. Kozel muses in a separate NYT Well blog post. “Today, as we take on the hard work of health care reform, doctors continue to work under an avalanche of pharmaceutical marketing, malpractice threats and shortsighted health insurance strategies.”

“In an age when public health issues like obesity are what pose the greatest threats to our children, pediatricians will need to move out of the confines of the fee-for-service exam room to advocate for effective healthcare policy in the wider community.”

Dr. Kozel has fleshed out her career in and out of medicine in her book, The Color of Atmosphere. Interested readers can glean much of her sentiments from an online video interview here.

Despite her misgivings, Dr. Kozel maintains a positive outlook for the role of pediatric healthcare in the future.

“I believe our society will eventually see the economic sense and moral imperative of universal health care coverage, paving the way for healthcare to be designed by health professionals, and to be viewed as a right and a responsibility, rather than a commodity to be purchased. I believe that pediatrics can evolve, too, in a way that will truly meet our society’s health needs.”

Follow Dr. Kozel’s opinions on these and related issues at Barkingdoc’s Blog.

Memes and the evolution of medical practice

A meme is “a postulated unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena.” The British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins postulated this concept in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena in evolutionary terms. Susan Blackmore, the British psycho-theorist, further developed Dawkins’ theory and believes that we are moving toward a new form of meme, the teme, which is spread by the technology we’ve created.

If we consider for the moment that memes do indeed exist (and their existence is far from certain), we could postulate that medical memes propagate through the medical community via medical journals, lectures and mentors. Published research eventually generates new approaches to the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Much contemporary medical research in the U.S.A. is underwritten by the pharmaceutical industry.

Nowadays, children routinely take medication for chronic conditions such as allergic disease, asthma, ADHD, depression, diabetes, gastroesophageal reflux and hypercholesterolemia. A spate of recent articles documents that 1 in 4 children covered by health insurance took some form of prescription medication in 2009. Annual spending for prescription drugs in children increased by 10.8 percent the same year, and the price of branded prescription drugs increased by 9.2 percent. Clearly, someone besides the patient is benefiting enormously from these trends in medical practice.

As a clinician who has worked on the front lines in ambulatory pediatrics for 30 years, I can vouch that these statistics seem to be supported by what I have observed over the past decade. The sheer number of children who take daily prescription medication for chronic conditions is astounding; and in my opinion these numbers will only escalate exponentially.

What drives these trends? Are clinicians becoming more astute at recognizing and diagnosing these conditions in children? Are the conditions themselves growing at an alarming rate secondary to cultural influences such as high fat diets, readily accessible food, over consumption of calories, unlimited access to TV and video games? Are parents themselves at fault, seemingly unable or unavailable to rear children with their best interests in mind?

Although any or all of these factors could potentially contribute to these disturbing trends, might medical memes—those ideas which seem to infiltrate medical practice and become acceptable norms—also play a role here? Are we clinicians too quick to reach for the prescription pad at the expense of taking time to offer wise counsel to our patients?

Some memes may replicate effectively even when they prove detrimental to the welfare of their hosts. According to Dawkins, “systems of self-replicating ideas can quickly accumulate their own agenda and behaviors,” which ultimately might prove to be good or ill for society, culture and the population at large.

Perhaps the medical profession needs to examine itself and take a closer look at what drives contemporary medical practice. In the meme, that might be a good thing.