Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Watching TV is Bad for Your Health But Sitting Still is the Culprit

Did you see the stories in the newspapers that TV watching is bad for your health? It is but probably not for the reasons you might think. Certainly being a couch potato is unhealthy and if we sit there for long periods, eating chips, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, our health will obviously take a turn for the worse. But a new study from Australian researchers observed 8800 adults for over six years and recorded the deaths from heart disease, cancer and all causes. The results were published in Circulation and showed some disturbing trends for those of us that are living in the information age. Sitting is a problem all by itself. Those who sit and watch more than four hours of TV per day are at nearly 50% greater risk of death from any cause than are those who spend less than 2 hours sitting in front of the TV. And those same people have an 80% greater risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than those with less time in front of the TV. And it’s bad for you even if you are relatively healthy, have a normal weight and exercise regularly. All that sitting is bad for your health.

Our forefathers and foremothers spent most of their days in some sort of physical activity - farming, cooking, and hunting. But we hop in our car and drive to work; walk a short distance to our office and sit down again; get up to get lunch and then sit back down before our computer. Then we sit to drive home and sit to eat dinner and sit to watch TV. It turns out that our bodies were designed to move. Not only do moving our muscle burn energy but moving our muscles affects many critical body regulatory mechanisms – such as blood sugar balance. Prolonged sitting disrupts these processes.

The moral of the study is that we need to move around. Watching TV may be OK but not if we are sitting still. And going to the gym for 45 minutes a few times per week cannot make up for all that sitting. What we all need to do is move around. Just a few steps every so often makes a difference. Walk up a few flights at work; park further from the building; make trips to the water cooler which is kept at a distance from your office. Stretch in place and do muscle contractions regularly during the course of the day. Don’t let your day be sedentary; move more, more, more.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Misconception - Primary care physicians do not deal with the expensive aspects of medical care so they can have little impact on reducing medical expenditures.

Two major reasons for cost escalation are lack of good care coordination of those with complex chronic illnesses and inadequate attention to prevention and screening. PCPs are key to both of these but they have too little time per patient and are not paid for either activity.

About 5% of all healthcare expenditures go to PCPs but they can have a major impact on the other 95%, especially with good care coordination of chronic illness and with a focus on prevention. To fix this, PCPs need to be incented [paid] to deliver care coordination for the chronically ill and good preventive care to all of their patients. This could have a very high return on investment and a huge impact on total costs. It is a logical place to begin to address the high costs of medical care in America.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Misconception– Health care is or should be a right – not a privilege and not a responsibility

During the presidential debates, Tom Brokow asked “is healthcare a right, a privilege or a responsibility?” The candidates did not answer the question but now would be a good time for Congress and the Obama Administration to balance the rights being offered as part of reform with corresponding responsibilities.
We are the only developed country that does not assure all of its citizens basic medical care insurance access – shame on us. We spend more per capita for medical care than any other developed country yet our outcomes are not the best – shame on us. We mostly use price controls to try to slow rapidly escalating costs. They not only don’t work but leave patients with less than adequate care and huge bureaucratic frustrations – not logical. All too many individuals find that they are denied coverage because of a preexisting condition when they move from one job to another or find themselves unemployed - unacceptable. As a population we have all too many adverse behaviors such obesity, lack of exercise and smoking that are leading to expensive, lifelong chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart failure – killing ourselves. And primary care physicians find that they do not have time to offer good preventive care nor care coordination to those with chronic illnesses because insurance does not pay for these essential activities, thereby resulting in more visits to specialists, more expensive prescriptions when life style changes could have been effective, more procedures and tests - all of which lead to higher total costs of care.
Howard County, Maryland has instituted a program that offers the uninsured access to primary care for a minimal fee along with specialist care given pro-bono and hospital care for no charge. But in return, each patient works with a health coach to develop a set of goals for the year such as weight control, smoking cessation, exercise enhancement or stress reduction. Patients also are expected to receive appropriate vaccines and obtain basic screening such as checks for high blood pressure. The health coach assists the patient to overcome barriers to success such as helping to find a free smoking cessation program or an inexpensive gym. Patients have been pleased with the program and responded well to the responsibility element. It is a model worth emulating.
Congress is rightly seeking to assure all of access to care regardless of ability to pay. It is not inappropriate for the tax payer to expect the individual in return to lead a reasonably healthy lifestyle as a means to not only maintain and improve health but to lessen the cost of care. Congress also plans to ban the practice of insurers excluding individuals with predisposing conditions. A reasonable expectation [responsibility] in return is that everyone participates in insurance so as to keep the risk pool large and the costs down. In another pairing of rights with responsibilities, commercial insurers and Medicare should be able to incent patients to hold down costs with premium reductions for those who do have an appropriate weight, do exercise, do not smoke, do get their vaccinations and do have screenings done.
Primary care physicians should be able to have a reasonable income without a huge patient load nor the necessity of short visit times but in return the insurer/payer should be able to expect excellent preventive services and good coordination of the care of those patients with chronic illnesses. In this model, both doctor and insurer each have their rights and each their responsibilities, resulting in better care, healthier patients and reduced total costs to the system. Government, and therefore the taxpayer, in accepting the responsibility of universal coverage for those who cannot afford it should have the right in return of a reasonably healthy lifestyle by those covered. The result is better health with lower costs over the long term.
This combination of rights and responsibilities can assure that everyone has access to care and incentives to better health. Yet, it will reduce expenditures through improved quality and eliminate many of the current frustrations with the “system.” It satisfies the legitimate arguments of those who insist that medical care is a right with the equally important argument that we all have to accept a meaningful level of responsibility for our health and its costs.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Healthcare Reform Misconception - Giving patients more control of their healthcare expenditures will lead to lower costs

It makes good sense to have all of us more involved in our healthcare decision-making and with that its payments. But individuals purchase healthcare in a manner unlike any other purchase. Patients or their loved ones do not “shop” for the best price the way they shop for a new washing machine. They shop for the best [as they understand it] physician, hospital, etc. Mostly they accept the advice of their personal physician as to drugs, surgery or rehab. That said it makes sense to have high deductible policies with or without health savings accounts or medical savings accounts (HSAs/MSAs.) We should not be fooled that these will necessarily lead to substantially more prudent purchasing as their proponents believe. Their real value is to give individuals the opportunity to purchase care with pretax dollars, a nice saving, and to help put insurance back to being true insurance for catastrophic expenses and not prepaid total healthcare as is most insurance today.

The biggest drivers of costs are related to the lack of preventive care for many of us and the lack of good care coordination for those of us with complex chronic illnesses (e.g., heart failure, diabetes with complications) as discussed in the previous post. These will not be affected much if at all by patients having more “skin in the game.”

But the more we know about our medical care costs and the more we ask our providers why a test, a drug or a procedure is necessary then the more likely it becomes that there will be a reduction in total costs. Being more directly invested in the costs of our care will ultimately have a market effect. This is particularly important when told to get a test, X-ray or drug. Ask your physician if the test is really important or is just being done to “be complete” (i.e., avoid malpractice litigation.) Will the results really effect what the doctor decides to do next? And as for drugs, is a drug what is needed or is it a life style change such as Lipitor versus a change in diet and exercise? Or is a generic available? Or another drug that is equally as effective as the branded drug? It is our money so it is important to have these discussions. Unfortunately, as patients we still have an information gap relative to our provider and we tend to accept advice without questioning – this needs to change and being directly responsible for dollars spent may just provoke that change.

Praise for Dr Schimpff

The craft of science writing requires skills that are arguably the most underestimated and misunderstood in the media world. Dumbing down all too often gets mistaken for clarity. Showmanship frequently masks a poor presentation of scientific issues. Factoids are paraded in lieu of ideas. Answers are marketed at the expense of searching questions. By contrast, Steve Schimpff provides a fine combination of enlightenment and reading satisfaction. As a medical scientist he brings his readers encyclopedic knowledge of his subject. As a teacher and as a medical ambassador to other disciplines he's learned how to explain medical breakthroughs without unnecessary jargon. As an advisor to policymakers he's acquired the knack of cutting directly to the practical effects, showing how advances in medical science affect the big lifestyle and economic questions that concern us all. But Schimpff's greatest strength as a writer is that he's a physician through and through, caring above all for the person. His engaging conversational style, insights and fascinating treasury of cutting-edge information leave both lay readers and medical professionals turning his pages. In his hands the impact of new medical technologies and discoveries becomes an engrossing story about what lies ahead for us in the 21st century: as healthy people, as patients of all ages, as children, as parents, as taxpayers, as both consumers and providers of health services. There can be few greater stories than the adventure of what awaits our minds, bodies, budgets, lifespans and societies as new technologies change our world. Schimpff tells it with passion, vision, sweep, intelligence and an urgency that none of us can ignore.

-- N.J. Slabbert, science writer, co-author of Innovation, The Key to Prosperity: Technology & America's Role in the 21st Century Global Economy (with Aris Melissaratos, director of technology enterprise at the John Hopkins University).