Monday, May 20, 2013

America Has A Health Care Paradox

We have a real paradox in American healthcare. On the one hand we have exceptionally well educated and well trained providers who are committed to our care. We are the envy of the world for our biomedical research prowess, funded largely by the National Institutes of Health and conducted across the county in universities and medical schools. The pharmaceutical industry continuously brings forth life saving and disease altering medications. The medical device industry is incredibly innovative and entrepreneurial.  The makers of diagnostic equipment such as CAT scans and hand held ultrasounds are equally productive. 

A few examples.  The science of genomics is revolutionizing medical care in profound ways such as producing targeted cancer drugs, predicting later onset of cardiac disease, offering prognostic data to guide cancer treatment, rapidly identifying a bacteria and its antibiotic susceptibility and suggesting how our diet can actually impact our genes through the science of nutragenomics. 

The pharmaceutical industry has brought us the likes of statins to reduce cholesterol, drugs to prevent blood clotting, and the targeted therapies for cancer. The device industry has created, for example, a potpourri of new approaches that have transformed cardiac care. These include angioplasty, stents, pacemakers, intracardiac defibrillators and now even the ability to insert a prosthetic aortic valve through a catheter rather than doing it via open surgery. And we can now noninvasively image organs in incredible detail and learn about physiology with molecular imaging.

So we can be appropriately awed and proud and pleased at what is available when needed for our care.

But, on the other hand, we have a dysfunctional health care delivery system.

Our current delivery system focuses on acute medical problems where it is reasonably effective. But it works poorly for most chronic medical illnesses and it costs far too much. When the famous bank robber, Willie Sutton, was asked why he robbed banks he replied “that’s where the money is.” In healthcare the money is in chronic illnesses – diabetes with complications, cardiac diseases such as heart failure, cancer and neurologic diseases. These consume about 75-85% of all dollars spent on medical care. So we need to focus there.

These chronic illnesses are increasing in frequency at a very rapid rate. They are largely (although certainly not totally) preventable. Overeating a non-nutritious diet, lack of exercise, chronic stress, and 20% still smoking are the major predisposing causes of these chronic illnesses. Obesity is now a true epidemic with one-third of us overweight and one-third of us frankly obese. The result of these adverse behaviors is high blood pressure, high cholesterol, elevated blood glucose followed by to diabetes, heart disease, stroke, chronic lung and kidney disease and cancer.

And once any of these chronic diseases develops, it usually persists for life (of course some cancers are curable but not so diabetes or heart failure). These are complex diseases to manage and expensive to treat – an expense that continues for the rest of the person’s life.

What is needed is aggressive preventive approaches  and, for those with a chronic illness, a multi-disciplinary approach, one that has a committed physician coordinator. Providers (and I refer here mostly to primary care physicians), unfortunately, do not give really adequate preventive care in most cases. And they generally do not spend the time needed to coordinate the care of those with chronic illness – which is absolutely essential to assure good quality at a reasonable cost.

When a patient is sent for extra tests, imaging or specialists visits the costs go up exponentially and the quality does not rise with the costs. Indeed it often falls. But primary care physicians are in a non-sustainable business model with today’s reimbursement systems so they find they just do no have enough time for care coordination or more than the basics of preventive care. Nor do they have the time to listen carefully or think deeply about a problem; so the response is to send the patient for a test or to a specialist.

So our paradox is that we have the providers, the science, the drugs, the diagnostics and devices that we need for patient care. But we have a new type of disease – complex, chronic illness, mostly preventable, for which we have not established good methods of prevention nor do we care for them adequately once the disease develops. And all of this is exacerbated by an insurance system that puts the incentives in the wrong places. The result is a sicker population, episodic care and expenses that are far greater than necessary. 

No comments:

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).