Monday, October 06, 2014

Can Our Dysfunctional Health Care System Contain Ebola?

Not to bury the lede, I think it can, but it will be a lot harder than the talking heads on television predict.

I have been writing about health care dysfunction since 2003.  Lots of US politicians would have us believe we have the best health care system in the world (e.g., House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), here),   Much of the commentary on Ebola also seems based on this "best health care system in the world" notion.  For example, in an interview today (5 October, 2014) on Meet the Press, Dan Pfieffer, "senior White House adviser," said

There is no country in the world better prepared than the United States to deal with this.  We have the best public health infrastructure and the best doctors in the world.

However, at least the statistics say compared to other developed countries, US processes and outcomes are at best mediocre using the best of some admittedly flawed metrics (look here), yet our costs are much higher than those of comparable countries.  Furthermore, on Health Care Renewal we have been connecting the dots among severe problems with cost, quality and access on one hand, and huge problems with concentration and abuse of power, enabled by leadership of health care organizations that is ill-informed, incompetent, unsympathetic or hostile to health care professionals' values, self-interested, conflicted, dishonest, or even corrupt and governance that fails to foster transparency, accountability, ethics and honesty.

Thus there is reason to worry that it will be harder than many expect for the US to deal with Ebola.  There is already some evidence that some of the sorts of problems we have been discussing for years made it harder for the US to cope with even the so far limited incursion of Ebola.

Financialization of Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology Companies

George W Merck famously said,
We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear. The better we have remembered it, the larger they have been.

In the pharmaceutical industry, the era of George W Merck is over.  The failure to have access to an effective Ebola virus vaccine exemplifies how things have changed.

If we were to have an effective Ebola virus vaccine, we could have likely used it to vaccinate health care workers and contacts of infected patients and likely thus halt the epidemic early.

A story in Modern Healthcare suggested that now many of the big experts on Ebola and public health are concluding having a vaccine available would be very helpful,

 As West Africa's Ebola outbreak continues to rage, some experts are coming to the conclusion that it may take large amounts of vaccines and maybe even drugs — all still experimental and in short supply — to bring the outbreak under control.


'It is conceivable that this epidemic will not turn around even if we pour resources into it. It may just keep going and going and it might require a vaccine,' Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told The Canadian Press in an interview.

The main reason we do not yet have such a vaccine does not appear to be scientific, but economic.

Here we posted discussion of arguments that pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies up to now have been uninterested in developing Ebola vaccines because they did not anticipate that such vaccines would produce a lot of revenue.  About one month ago, the Independent ran yet another story about an Ebola expert who believed this was the main reason for the lack of effective vaccine development up to now.

The scientist leading Britain's response to the Ebola pandemic has launched a devastating attack on 'Big Pharma', accusing drugs giants including GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Sanofi, Merck and Pfizer of failing to manufacture a vaccine, not because it was impossible, but because there was 'no business case'.

West Africa's Ebola outbreak, which has now claimed well over 2,000 lives, could have been 'nipped in the bud', if a vaccine had been developed and stockpiled sooner – a feat that would likely have been 'do-able', said Professor Adrian Hill of Oxford University.

The US health care system is now heavily commercialized.  Health care corporations, including pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, are often lead by generic managers who subscribe to the business school dogma of the "shareholder value theory," which seems to translate into putting short-term revenues ahead of all other goals.  Thus they have been "financialized."  At least in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sector, such financialization appears to now be global. 

It may now be too late to contain this particular Ebola virus epidemic using a vaccine.  But unless we change how decisions are made about vaccine development, and end the dominance of financialization over drug and vaccine development, we may not be able to control the next deadly epidemic using vaccines either.

Generic Management Deluded by Business School Dogma

On 2 October, 2014, InformaticsMD posted on Health Care Renewal his speculation that the Ebola patient now hospitalized in Dallas was not identified on his first emergency department visit to Texas Health Presbyterian hospital even though a nurse apparently found out he had recently traveled from Liberia because of problems with how the hospital's electronic health record (EHR) transmitted or displayed this information.  This supposition was later apparently confirmed, but then the hospital system CEO retracted this explanation, leaving the reason he was sent home from the ED, thus risking infection of more contacts, unclear (see this post).

I now speculate that the larger reason for the problems the hospital had and is having both handling this patient, and explaining how it handled the patient is hospital leadership by generic managers who do not really understand the relevant health care issues.

Mr Barclay E Berden, the CEO of Texas Health Resources, has had a long career in hospital management.  However, his most advanced degree was "a master's degree in business administration with a specialization in hospital administration from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business."   His official biography suggests that he has no direct experience or training in medicine, health care, or biological sciences.  Nonetheless, when he became CEO this year, according to Modern HealthCare, the chairperson of the hospital system board thought he was fully qualified,

'He brings a well-rounded perspective and unique leadership strengths to the CEO position,' board Chair Anne Bass said in a news release. 'At the same time, he represents stability and continuity that will be critical to advancing our strategy as we confront the challenges of a rapidly changing healthcare environment.'

Nonetheless, the hospital systems seems to have had trouble confronting the challenges of the change in environment due to Ebola.  Also, according to a very recent story in the Dallas Morning News, there have been performance issues at Texas Health Resource hospitals, and specifically at Texas Health Presbyterian,

Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital — under fire for releasing a Liberian man who later turned out to have the Ebola virus — has lagged behind its peers on emergency room care and lost some federal funds the past three years because it had high discharge rates of patients who later had to return for treatment.

The hospital scored significantly worse than the state and national averages in five of six emergency care indicators, with emergency room wait times twice as long as the averages, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

The hospital also was the most penalized in Dallas under a three-year program designed to reduce the number of patients readmitted for care, according to the data.

The delays in patient treatment in the emergency room, in particular, raise important questions about Presbyterian’s emergency care, said Dr. Ashish Jha, a professor at Harvard University’s School of Public Health and a practicing general internist.

In 1988, Alain Enthoven advocated in Theory and Practice of Managed Competition in Health Care Finance, a book published in the Netherlands, that to decrease health care costs it would be necessary to break up the "physicians' guild" and replace leadership by clinicians with leadership by managers (see 2006 post here). Thus from 1983 to 2000, the number of managers working in the US health care system grew 726%, while the number of physicians grew 39%, so the manager/physician ratio went from roughly one to six to one to one (see 2005 post here). As we noted here, the growth continued, so there are now 10 managers for every US physician. 

We have frequently discussed how generic managers in charge of health care organizations may follow business-school dogma at the expense of patients' and the public's health.  In particular, they may also prioritize short-term revenue ahead of all other concerns, and hence may favor high-technology and procedural care, often performed electively, ahead of the the less glamorous and remunerative parts of health care, e.g., ED care of poor, uninsured, febrile patients.

Unfortunately, much of the country's efforts to ward off Ebola are likely to be lead by generic managers who may have little understanding of epidemiology, public health or virology, and little understanding of the state of health care at the sharp end.  So unfortunately I expect continuing "glitches," or worse.  Hopefully, the country, although not every single one of its inhabitants, will survive them.  Then we need to seriously reflect on the wisdom of handing control of health care over to generic managers, rather than health care professionals. 

Commercialization of Health Care Leading to Neglect of Routine Acute Care and Public Health 

Just as national politicians and government leaders have repeated the meme of the US health care system being "the best in the world," now that Ebola has come to Texas, state leaders have sung the same song.  For example, an editorial in the Baltimore Sun quoted the state health commissioner,

'This is not West Africa,' Texas health commissioner Dr. David Lakey said Wednesday at a news conference designed to dispel Texans' (and Americans') fear of an Ebola outbreak after a man there was diagnosed with the disease. 'This is a very sophisticated city, a very sophisticated hospital.'

The Texas Tribune ran a story produced in cooperation with Kaiser Health saying,

At a Wednesday press conference to discuss the Ebola case, Gov. Rick Perry said he was confident in the state’s preparedness. 'There are few places in the world better equipped to meet the challenge that is posed in this case,' he said. 'We have the health care professionals and the institutions that are second to none.'

However, another Dallas Morning News story recounted various problems in the public health response to the Dallas Ebola patient, including,

Delay in blood testing
After Duncan was admitted to the hospital, health officials waited nearly two days to test his blood for the Ebola virus. This may have delayed containment of people who had contact with him.
Slow containment and cleanup
Health officials left some of Duncan’s close contacts in the apartment where soiled linens and towels that he had used remained.
Failure to avoid contact with emergency workers
Ambulance workers and sheriff’s deputies are among those being monitored.

So, there is reason to suspect that the public health system in Texas may not exactly be the best in the world.  In fact, there seem to be systemic problems with public health in Texas that the Ebola scare is bringing to increased public notice.  The Texas Tribune/ Kaiser story went on to explain that in Texas, a state in which distrust of central government is great, and confidence in the private sector is high, public health is both decentralized and often poorly funded,

'We don’t really have a unifying construct for public health in Texas that’s comprehensive,' said Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, the former commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) and current chairman of the Texas Public Health Coalition. 'The system is not as connected as it could be.'


But public health experts argue that the state’s response system is 'fragmented' and vulnerable to local budget cuts, which they say could hamper crisis-response efforts in the case of diseases that are more easily transmitted.

Texas’ local health departments, which provide services like immunizations and disaster response planning, operate autonomously and are funded primarily by local taxes but may be supplemented by state and federal grants. Because local health departments are not held to a single standard, their services and budgets vary tremendously around the state.

A report critical of the state’s public health system, prepared by the Sunset Advisory Commission, found that 'the roles and responsibilities of DSHS and local health departments remain undefined.' The Sunset Commission is tasked with highlighting inefficiencies at state agencies and recommending legislative action.

'A ‘local health department’ can be a few staff conducting restaurant inspections and animal control duties, or a large agency directing sophisticated disease surveillance, operating a public health laboratory and providing direct services to citizens,' according to the report.>

Some public health officials have criticized the state’s model as disjointed. Many local health departments operate independently; however, if local budget cuts to a public health department force it to discontinue a health service, DSHS is often required to step in and take responsibility for that service. The state is then left to foot the bill.

'In the event of a public health emergency ... the resources necessary to adequately respond to that are not all in the control of the health department,' Sanchez said. 'You have to have the money and the authority — whether it’s informal or formal — to actually lead a response and take care of business.'

Local entities have slashed funding for health departments in recent years, said Catherine Troisi, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston. Thirty-six percent of local health departments in Texas laid off staff as a result of budget cuts between 2008 and 2013, according to the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

'Public health is politics,' Troisi said.

In the US, we have pushed commercialization of health, health care and public health.  Much of our health insurance is provided by for-profit corporations.  Some of our hospitals and other organizations that provide direct patient care are for-profit.  As we noted above, most of our health care organizations are now run in a "business-like" manner by managers trained in business, but not necessarily in health care or biological science.  The thus revenue-focused health care system has emphasized procedures and high-technology, often at the expense of the basics.  So it should not be s surprise that Reuters just reported,

 Nurses, the frontline care providers in U.S. hospitals, say they are untrained and unprepared to handle patients arriving in their hospital emergency departments infected with Ebola.

Many say they have gone to hospital managers, seeking training on how to best care for patients and protect themselves and their families from contracting the deadly disease, which has so far killed at least 3,338 people in the deadliest outbreak on record.

Furthermore, using as an example Medstar Washington Hospital Center, the largest hospital in Washington, DC,

Nurses argue that inadequate preparation could increase the chances of spreading Ebola if hospital staff fail to recognize a patient coming through their doors, or if personnel are not informed about how to properly protect themselves.

At Medstar, the issue of Ebola training came up at the bargaining table during contract negotiations.

'A lot of staff feel they aren't adequately trained,' said [Emergency Department nurse Micker] Samios, whose job is to greet patients in the emergency department and do an initial assessment of their condition.

So Young Pak, a spokeswoman for the hospital, said it has been rolling out training since July 'in the Emergency Department and elsewhere, and communicating regularly with physicians, nurses and others throughout the hospital.'

Samios said she and other members of the emergency department staff were trained just last week on procedures to care for and recognize an Ebola patient, but not everyone was present for the training, and none of the other nursing or support staff were trained.

'When an Ebola patient is admitted or goes to the intensive care unit, those nurses, those tech service associates are not trained,' she said. 'The X-ray tech who comes into the room to do the portable chest X-ray is not trained. The transporter who pushes the stretcher is not trained.'

If an Ebola patient becomes sick while being transported, 'How do you clean the elevator?'

Nurses at hospitals across the country are asking similar questions.

A survey by National Nurses United of some 400 nurses in more than 200 hospitals in 25 states found that more than half (60 percent) said their hospital is not prepared to handle patients with Ebola, and more than 80 percent said their hospital has not communicated to them any policy regarding potential admission of patients infected by Ebola.

Another 30 percent said their hospital has insufficient supplies of eye protection and fluid-resistant gowns.

So up to now, it appears that in the state of Texas, and across the country, the preparedness of public health systems and of front-line hospitals to deal with Ebola is unclear.  This may be due to political cuts in funding of public agencies, a payment system that favors procedures and high-technology over basic care, and leadership by generic managers who prioritize making money short-term over less financially advantageous priorities like preparedness for epidemics.  

Thus again there is reason to fear that our commercialized health care system run by generic managers, and our neglected public health system scorned because it is not "business-like" may not be fully up to the task of containing Ebola.  Again, hopefully this too will pass, without too many casualties.  However, one, maybe the only silver lining in the dark clouds of the Ebola crisis seem to be its capacity to challenge the pompous certainty by those invested in the status quo that we have the best health care system in the world.

The Ebola crisis should, again, lead to serious reflection on true health care reform, reform that would address concentration and abuse of power, reform that would enable leadership of health care by  well-informed people who are devoted to patients' and the public's health, who are honest and ethical, who are willing to be held accountable, and would shrink the size and power of individual health care organizations to make them truly responsive to patients' health care needs and the public's health needs. 

ADDENDUM (10 October, 2014) - This post was re-posted on the Naked Capitalism blog, and on


Trevor3130 said...

It may be that those "generic managers" are tuned to maximise 'shareholder value', resulting in selection of employees at all levels of clinical care who say Yes and do not ask for more resources.

Afraid said...

We all miss Maurice Hilleman. I knew him. He'd have never let this happen.

It used to be that folks like Maurice and George Merck cared and understood. They 'did good.' Now the executive class 'professional managers' do not.

I am a believer in the goodness of most folks, so something either happens to these folks or they are born bad.

Not much can save us except a disaster. Maybe it is upon us. A scourge from the almighty? Creative destruction, like the flood?

Judy B said...

It appears that it is now necessary to break up the "MBA guild" to even be able to start reforming the medical industry!

Don Levit said...

Why not use economics for our advantage?
Insurers need to design plans to reduce premiums over time, such as periodically raising pre-funded deductibles.
Don Levit,CLU,ChFC
Managing Partner National Prosperity Life and Health

Afraid said...

Prescient post in retrospect eh? Nice to be proved right, but not at the expense of nurse lives. Sad days are upon us.

Roy M. Poses MD said...

Yes, I was hoping to be proven right, but not at such a cost.

On the other hand, both of the new patients were diagnosed early, so we can still hope for their recovery.