Archive for the ‘Public Health’ category

Healthcare Reform or Health Insurance Reform?

September 12th, 2009

President Obama’s eloquent address to Congress on his proposed changes to the U.S. healthcare system was fraught with ambiguous issues that will certainly provide a feeding frenzy for opponents. When the President stated that “This country’s failure to meet this challenge year after year, decade after decade has lead us to a breaking point,” he was exactly correct. We are the only industrialized nation in the world that has not addressed this challenge.

There are too many people without coverage of any kind who use emergency rooms as their primary care physician. Unfortunately, the difference in cost between a visit to your emergency room vs. a visit to a physician’s office is exponentially different.

Q-tipsIf we, as a country, do not believe that we are paying for these patients in some real way, then we are not cognizant of how the system is being contorted in order to allow hospitals to remain solvent. When you hear individuals complain about the high cost of Q-tips in a hospital, it’s because they are being priced to help cover the losses being incurred from the millions of uninsured.

So, what is it that we must address? When the President said, “Under the present system, due to job loss or illness, many could lose their coverage,” he was totally accurate. Unfortunately, millions of Americans have come to experience this phenomena first hand, and could lose their homes, investments, and their possessions because they have no insurance. So, as President Obama appropriately questioned, “What is the best solution that is both moral and practical and best reflects the ideals and freedoms upon which our country is based?” He was clear to explain that implementation of either a Canadian-style system or an individual based system would both be a radical shift, and each represents extreme positions that would completely change the way healthcare is delivered in this country.

barack-obama-health

So, if we eliminate the extremes and concentrate on compromise, we begin to see signs of conciliation that might be embraced. For example, there appear to be very few people who would argue against providing “more security and stability to those who have health insurance.” The majority of Americans also seem to embrace the concept of providing some type of coverage for those who currently have none.

What the President and most of our elected representatives are avoiding in the conversation is talk about quality, safety, end of life care, wellness, prevention and outcome data.

Nash_inlay
David B. Nash, MD

I had the fortuitous opportunity to hear David B. Nash, MD, MBA and Dean of the Jefferson School of Population Health’s presentation on Population Health. At the risk of misquoting Dr. Nash, I will carefully attempt to touch on only a few of the facts, figures, and points that he made in his analysis of what it would take to fix the system.

One of the most profound points that Dr. Nash made was in seeking the answer to the following question:

What percent of adult Americans do all the following?

  1. Exercise 20 minutes 3x a week
  2. Don’t smoke
  3. Eat fruits and vegetables regularly
  4. Wear seatbelts regularly
  5. Are at appropriate BMI (Body Mass Index)

The answer surprised even this writer. Only 3% of American adults are following all five of these wellness and prevention guidelines, and 40% of deaths are the result of smoking, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and alcohol use. In an interesting analysis of the President’s healthcare speech, finance author  J. André Weisbrod writes: “I see it as a Darwin Awards kind of issue. You are free to be stupid and I am free to not have to pay for your stupidity…”

Bundled payments, end-of-life counseling, evidence-based medicine, an emphasis on quality and systemic approaches to ensuring safety are only a few of the myriad suggestions recommended in Dr. Nash’s presentation.  Bottom line? The third rail of politics is limiting honest, open dialogue regarding reform, and time is running out.

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In My Opinion, It’s Tinker Bell Dust!

June 4th, 2009

Everyone has seen the media reports on the $1.7 trillion of cost cuts being projected by health care leaders over the next decade, but does anyone really believe it? According to this group, the premises embraced that will lead to these cuts are based upon improving care for chronic diseases, reducing unnecessary care, and streamlining administrative costs. Included in this wish/promise list are cutbacks, commitments to permit fewer Caesarean sections, better back pain management, less use of antibiotics and a reduction in diagnostic imaging tests.

U.S. President Obama meets with health care executives at the White House on May 11 (Pete Souza)
U.S. President Barack Obama meets with healthcare executives at the White House on May 11 (Photo credit: Pete Souza)

The groups involved have made commitments to try to reduce medical errors, begin the use of common insurance forms, to initiate a reduction in patient re-admissions, to improve the efficiency of drug development, and to promote the expansion of in-home care. (The majority of the preceding information comes from an article by Janet Adamy entitled “Health Groups Detail Plans to Reduce Costs,” in the June 2nd Wall Street Journal. )

If you are reading this, and you are a health care professional, it may be reminiscent of listening to your three hundred fifty pound, five foot tall neighbor describing how he is going to get back into his size 34 Levi’s. It also reminds me of a conversation that I had about 22 years ago when a hospital vice president said to me, “We are going to begin putting  computers into the hospital, and they will reduce costs, lower the need for staff, and contribute to much higher efficiencies.” What part of this equation didn’t happen? Even at the little hospital from which I just retired, we went from two, to three, to four… to about a dozen experts in every aspect of computer technology, and IT has been a dominant part of the capital budget for over a dozen years. So, what’s wrong with this scenario? As the equipment became more sophisticated, more well trained experts were needed. The higher the cost of the equipment, the greater the overhead required for maintenance, and the larger the demand became for everyone in the facility to be computerized.

It is not my intention to be a complete cynic, but isn’t it true that tens of thousands of people who have become used to a certain standard of living will be controlling these cuts? If we could have improved chronic disease care, why wouldn’t we have done that already? It’s all about the reimbursement system. We are still reimbursing for sickness rather than wellness. How do we line up the incentives so that statements like “we will permit fewer Caesarean sections or we will initiate better back pain management” will not ring hollow as words directed toward placating the new President? Nowhere in the equation is there any reference to initiating tort reform. As long as doctors, hospitals, and other clinicians have to practice defensive medicine, we will not be able to reduce tests. We will not be able to reduce unnecessary costs.

pixie-dustl1Yes, of course a reduction in medical errors would be great. So would common insurance forms, and fewer re-admissions. I’m sure we will see our peers work diligently toward those ends, but, unless or until incentives are aligned, the system will continue to roll along pretty much as is. I’m not sure why the President hasn’t called me yet. Maybe it’s because he knows how I feel about tort reform. Maybe it’s because he knows that I’ll say that the list articulated in the opening paragraph is filled with smoke, or maybe it’s because, like all government-touted initiatives, it’s not supposed to actually come completely into play until two and possibly six years after he leaves office. That philosophy certainly didn’t work for our former Presidents, and, unless someone gets really serious about changing the way healthcare is delivered in the United States, these pledges will be just what they appear to be, “Tinker Bell dust!”

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A Different Kind of Saturday Night Fever for Some

April 25th, 2009

In August 2006, I was inspired to write a disconcerting blog post regarding the potential outbreak of the avian flu.  It was a disturbing post not only because it contained potentially negative statistical mortality outcomes on an international basis, but also because, as a relative insider, it was clear to me that we were not ready at all for this type of pandemic.

Churchgoers in Mexico City | Photo Credit: AP

Churchgoers in Mexico City Sunday | Photo Credit: AP

With new grandbaby Zoey safely here on earth less than a week ago as the youngest member of the family,  today’s opening story of a potential influenza pandemic made my blood run cold.  The rate and speed with which this type of pandemic could overtake our world is almost immeasurable, and, having flown from San Francisco, to San Diego, to Richmond to Pittsburgh in the last week, it was clear that,  if I had been a carrier, literally hundreds of people could have been infected simply by my presence.

Those who are realists or pragmatists will simply say, it is Mother Nature’s way of “thinning the herd,” but herd thinning in our case is something that is uncomfortable, especially in such a random way.  During the pandemic of 1917/1918, mass graves were dug not ten miles from my home, and undertakers were not even permitted to prepare the bodies for burial.

My previous blog focused on the avian virus, but this morphed virus that appeared in Mexico, not China, not the Far East as originally predicted, is a combination of human, swine, and avian viruses.  No one has ever seen or found cures for this type of radical new flu yet.


View H1N1 Swine Flu in a larger map

The World Health Organization came out today with only a level three warning, but when they described this level of warning, they indicated that it was simply because they did not yet have enough information to take it to level six.  There are confirmed cases in San Antonio, San Diego, and one report even indicated that New York had two cases, and over 68 are known dead in Mexico.  Fever, sore throat, coughing, nausea, body aches, headaches, chills and fever are some of the symptoms presenting with this flu that can result in pneumonia and respiratory failure.

Mexico City closed it schools on Friday, and more such initiatives are expected as this powerful force of nature begins to take on a life of its own.

How can you avoid getting this flu?  Wash your hands, stay away from infected people, cover your nose and mouth.

In children, emergency warning signs that need urgent medical attention include:

  • Fast breathing or trouble breathing
  • Bluish skin color
  • Not drinking enough fluids
  • Not waking up or not interacting
  • Being so irritable that the child does not want to be held
  • Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough
  • Fever with a rash

In adults, emergency warning signs that need urgent medical attention include:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Severe or persistent vomiting

Let’s all hope that this never gets any worse than it did in the 1976/77 cycle when only a very few people died at that time…mortality rate was low with swine, but this is swine, avian and  human combination.

Tonight, say a little prayer.

Also by Nick Jacobs:

Are We Ready for the Avian Flu?
Hospital Impact
August 8th, 2006

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