Friday, December 16, 2016

Suppose the Pope Condemned Health Care Corruption - and Hardly Anyone Noticed?

Introduction - Health Care Corruption as a Taboo Topic

We have frequently discussed outright corruption in health care as one of the most important causes of health care dysfunction.  Transparency International (TI) defines corruption as
Abuse of entrusted power for private gain

In 2006, TI published a report on health care corruption, which asserted that corruption is widespread throughout the world, serious, and causes severe harm to patients and society.
the scale of corruption is vast in both rich and poor countries.

Corruption might mean the difference between life and death for those in need of urgent care. It is invariably the poor in society who are affected most by corruption because they often cannot afford bribes or private health care. But corruption in the richest parts of the world also has its costs.

The report did not get much attention.  Since then, health care corruption has been nearly a taboo topic in the US.  When health care corruption is discussed in English speaking developed countries, it is almost always in terms of a problem that affects benighted less developed countries.  On Health Care Renewal, we have repeatedly asserted that health care corruption is a big problem in all countries, including the US, but the topic remains anechoic.

Yet somehow, a substantial minority of US citizens, 43%, seemed to believe that corruption is an important problem in US health care, according to a TI survey published in 2013 (look here).  But that survey was largely ignored in the media and health care and medical scholarly literature in the developed world, and when it was discussed, it was again in terms of results in less developed countries.  Health Care Renewal was practically the only source of coverage in the US of the survey's results.

"Corruption is Cancer to Health Industry, Pope Tells Hospital Staffers"

Yesterday, this story appeared in the Catholic News Service. It opened with:

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Corrupt business practices that seek to profit from the sick and the dying are a cancer to hospitals entrusted with the care of the most vulnerable, especially children, Pope Francis said.

Doctors, nurses and those who work in the field of health care must be defined by their ability to help their patients and be on guard against falling down the slippery slope of corruption that begins with special favors, tips and bribes, the pope told staff and patients of Rome's 'Bambino Gesu' children's hospital Dec. 15.

'The worst cancer in a hospital like this is corruption,' he said. 'In this world where there is so much business involved in health care, so many people are tricked by the sickness industry, 'Bambino Gesu' hospital must learn to say no. Yes, we all are sinners. Corrupt, never.'

One might think that this condemnation of health care corruption by the leader of a huge Christian religious group would get considerable attention, but one would be wrong. The only other coverage of the Pope's message was an extremely brief (6 sentences) item by the AP (see here via Business Insider.)

Note that Pope Francis not only condemned corruption in the strongest terms, but he linked it the transformation of medicine and health care into a business, with the presumptive result in an era of the "shareholder value principle" that revenue has become more important than caring for patients.  He also implied that the road to corruption begins with conflicts of interests.

Note that Pope Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, also decried the transformation of medicine and health care into a business.  As we noted here, he wrote

during the current economic crisis 'that is cutting resources for safeguarding health,'... Hospitals and other facilities 'must rethink their particular role in order to avoid having health become a simple 'commodity,' subordinate to the laws of the market, and, therefore, a good reserved to a few, rather than a universal good to be guaranteed and defended,'


'Only when the wellbeing of the person, in its most fragile and defenseless condition and in search of meaning in the unfathomable mystery of pain, is very clearly at the center of medical and assisted care' can the hospital be seen as a place where healing isn't a job, but a mission,...

Pope Benedict's call for health care to be restored to being a calling, not a business, remained anechoic too.   


Recently, I became just a bit more optimistic that health care corruption would start getting the attention it deserved.  That may have been premature.  The world seems to becoming ever more friendly to market fundamentalism or neoliberalism.  The notions that every human activity, including medicine and health care, should be conducted as a business, and that in business, revenue come first is likely to be helped by the election of an ostensibly billionaire businessman to the presidency of the US.  That said president-elect once called Pope Francis "disgraceful" after the Pople questioned how Trump's proposal to "build a wall" to keep out supposedly deplorable Mexican immigrants squared with Christian beliefs (look here).

Yet as suggested by the recent Transparency International report on corruption in the pharmaceutical industry,  there is so much money to be made through pharmaceutical (and by implication, other health care corruption) that the corrupt have the money, power, and resources to protect their wealth accumulation by keeping it obscure.  In the TI Report itself,

However, strong control over key processes combined with huge resources and big profits to be made make the pharmaceutical industry particularly vulnerable to corruption. Pharmaceutical companies have the opportunity to use their influence and resources to exploit weak governance structures and divert policy and institutions away from public health objectives and towards their own profit maximising interests.

Keep in mind that the money made from corruption does not just go to innocent peoples' retirement funds that are invested in pharmaceutical stocks.  It predominantly goes to top corporate executives and managers, and their cronies who preside over the corrupt practices.

I might as well repeat myself once again.  As I wrote in 2015,

If we are not willing to even talk about health care corruption, how will we ever challenge it? 

So to repeat an ending to one of my previous posts on health care corruption....  if we really want to reform health care, in the little time we may have before our health care bubble bursts, we will need to take strong action against health care corruption.  Such action will really disturb the insiders within large health care organizations who have gotten rich from their organizations' misbehavior, and thus taking such action will require some courage.  Yet such action cannot begin until we acknowledge and freely discuss the problem.  The first step against health care corruption is to be able to say or write the words, health care corruption.


Anonymous said...

Eighteen months ago I suffered a health scare and was transported to a hospital outside my immediate area that had just become a part of a major medical center known for its high quality low cost care. Interestingly the insurance company only questioned my care and cost when I returned home and they had issues with cost and diagnosis.
The therapist at the local hospital made it very clear they were there to maximize their income from my insurance by extending my therapy. One went into great detail about how she should be a supervisor with a staff. Another refused to speak to patient in greeting outside of a paid appointment.
These therapist learned these attitudes and tricks from those in supervisory positions and would shade patient reports with their full knowledge.
Health care corruption extends down to the floor nurse and therapist who see their main task as maximizing income for their institution, all the while patients suffer and insurance companies are forced to raise rates to cover the higher cost.
Combating health care corruption will not be accomplished by rules and policies, but by changing the attitude of those working on the hospital floor and in the doctor’s office. Patient care needs to be the first priority, not maximizing profit.
Steve Lucas

Judy B said...

I just had a discussion with an MD on Kevin Pho's blog. This guy actually told me that he did not think the compensation levels of hospital administrators and executives were a major driver of medical costs. He thinks that patients' demands for care are the major driver. Of course, no one has actually checked any of this out in a logical or rational fashion...

Roy M. Poses MD said...

Judy B

It's a straw man (logical fallacy) argument. The issue is not how much money goes into the compensation levels. It's how the compensation, and how it is determined, acts as a perverse incentive to drive organizations to prioritize revenue over patient care, leading to both bad care and rising costs.

Afraid said...

There are many causes of the high cost of healthcare. Cost is so out of control that all areas need to be addressed.