Threats to Professional Values
In a 2007 post, based on an article in JAMA by Dr Arnold Relman, I asserted that the notion that threats to physicians' professional values are a major cause of health care dysfunction was becoming mainstream. Furthermore, Dr Relman's review of the history of the problem suggested that the rising power of for-profit health care corporations, for whom making money came before the health and safety of patients, was a primary culprit.
Dr Relman has discussed the issue frequently (e.g., see this post). However, despite occasional publication in some prestigious medical journals, his views seem to have gotten little traction.
Arrow's Analysis: Is Health Care a Perfectly Competitive Market?
Amazingly, however, the issue has made it into the New York Times, in the form of two posts in the Economix blog by health economist Prof Uwe Reinhardt. Prof Reinhardt started by resurrecting the classic article by "Nobel laureate economist Kenneth Arrow," which argued that health care's special context means that the health care market cannot be truly competitive.
First Prof Arrow reviewed the characteristics of a perfectly competitive market:
To lay down a standard to which to compare the health care sector, Professor Arrow explained first on what basis economists consider a perfectly competitive market for some good or service as 'maximizing human welfare,' an outcome economists describe as 'efficient.'
The crucial characteristics of a perfectly competitive market are (1) that all of the quality dimensions of the good or service traded in that market are accurately understood by buyer and seller; (2) that potential buyers have full transparency on the price they will have to pay per unit of that good or service; (3) that it is easy and relatively costless for potential sellers to enter and exit this market; (4) and that there are so many potential buyers and sellers that none individually can affect the market price of the thing being traded.
If those and some other conditions are met, Professor Arrow explained, then for any given initial distribution of income and wealth that market will settle down at a unique equilibrium, that is, a state from which no potential buyer or seller would want to move. This equilibrium has important attributes.
First, in what Professor Arrow calls the First Optimality Theorem of welfare economics, it can be shown that in this equilibrium the traded good or service is allocated among buyers in such a way that it would be impossible through any reallocation to make someone happier without making someone else less happy.
It is an allocation that economists call Pareto efficient, in honor of the Italian industrialist, economist and philosopher Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), who first proposed this criterion.
For any given initial distribution of income and wealth, economists declare the associated Pareto-efficient allocation of the thing being produced and traded to be 'welfare-maximizing' — hence the term 'welfare economics' for this type of analysis.
Second, and very importantly, in what Arrow calls the Second Optimality Theorem, he explains that if on ethical grounds society wished to distribute a good or service (for example, education or health care or food or beach houses) among people in a particular way — like egalitarian principles — it need not have government directly involved in producing or distributing that good or service.
In his second blog post, Prof Reinhardt summarized why health care cannot be such a competitive market. The problems are uncertainty and asymmetry of information:
This uncertainty has several aspects.Professional Standards and Mission-Oriented Non-Profit Organizations to Remedy Market Imperfections
First, physicians may not agree on the medical condition causing the symptoms the patient presents.
Second, even if physicians agree in their diagnoses, they often do not agree on the efficacy of alternative responses — for example, surgery or medical management for lower-back pain.
Third, information on both the diagnosis of and the likely consequences of treatment are asymmetrically allocated between the sell-side (providers) and the buy-side (patients) of the health care market. The very reason that patients seek advice and treatment from physicians in the first place is that they expect physicians to have vastly superior knowledge about the proper diagnosis and efficacy of treatment. That makes the market for medical care deviate significantly from the benchmark of perfect competition, in which buyers and sellers would be equally well informed.
Uncertainty and asymmetry of information about the quality of goods or services being traded is not, of course, unique to the medical care market. It is ubiquitous in modern economies that trade in highly complex goods and services. We find these characteristics, for example, in financial transactions, including all types of insurance; in automobile repairs, in plumbing and even in the purchase of some consumer electronics.
Wherever asymmetry of information is present, there exists the potential for the better-informed market participants to exploit the ignorance of the less well informed. How society responds to this flaw in markets depends on the severity of its consequences.
In the market for electronic products, for example, the consequences appear to be regarded as trivial. A customer may be seduced into purchasing an excessively complex and expensive product, but society takes no action on this front. In finance, on the other hand, the consequences of asymmetric information can be severe, as we have been reminded once again in the recent financial crisis.
Prof Arrow suggested that how health care worked when he wrote his article, in 1963, could be partially explained as attempting to remedy the problems created by uncertainty and asymmetry of information.
Professor Arrow explained many of the nonmarket social institutions and regulations characteristic of medical care [at that time] that he had identified as 'attempts to overcome the lack of optimality resulting from asymmetry of information and the inability of competitive markets to allocate efficiently all of the risks inherent in health care.'
Pointedly, he said, 'It is the general social consensus, clearly, that the laissez-faire solution for medicine is intolerable.'
That was then and this is now.
The Rise of "Greed is Good"
The problem is, of course, that health care has changed a lot since 1963. In an interview with the Atlantic from 2009, Prof Arrow defended his basic analysis:
I think the fundamental questions are the same. I also think there are more problems in the market today than when I wrote the paper. But I think the basic analysis hasn't changed.
He also discussed how failure to heed it have lead to our current dysfunctional health care system:
The market won't work -- it doesn't work well in the health context. But something else supplements the market, and the thing I put stress on in the paper are the elements that put a non-economic influence on the market: professional commitments to provide a service, to engage in services that aren't self-serving. Standards of caring decided by non-economic actors. And one problem we have now is an erosion of professional standards. In a way there is more emphasis on markets and self-aggrandizement in the context of healthcare, and that has led to some of the problems we have today.
Furthermore, he commented on those who sold the idea, which today ought to be totally discredited, in my humble opinion, that health care could be a perfect market, and this market would make everything right:
Sometimes I think it's because of the Chicago School. I think there has been a general drift around the country towards the idea that greed is good. Look at Wall Street. All of these industries involve a professional element in which information is flowing. You're supposed to be constrained to be honest about it. I don't really know why. But there is now more of an emphasis on popularization, which does improve efficiency but can also lead to an erosion of professional standards. There was this idea that professional standards were a mask for monopoly power--a Chicago theory, which I believe came from George Stigler. I don't know if they were that influential, but they seemed to be saying a lot of things that people were taking up in practice. I'm not totally sure why these professional standards changed, but it's more than medical reasons.
So you do not need to take it from me, take it from a Nobel laureate economist. It now seems clear in retrospect that a major characteristic of modern health care is how the "better-informed market participants ... exploit the ignorance of the less well informed."
Summary: What is to be Done?
We have been sold a real bill of goods that health care could function as an ideal market. That bill of goods has lead to the deprofessionalization and commercialization of physicians, the destruction of the basic values of health care professionals, and the rise of health care organizations that put making money ahead of patients' health, safety, and welfare. And in health care, the dominant slogan has become "greed is good." This is true of course, but only for the greedy.
True health care reform would help physicians and other health care professionals uphold their traditional values, including, as the AMA once stated, "the practice of medicine should not be commercialized, nor treated as a commodity in trade." True health care reform would put health care "delivery" back in the hands of mission-focused, not-for-profit organizations, which put patients' health, safety and welfare first.
These reforms, however, would certainly threaten the continuing wealth of a lot of people who have profited mightily from the current dysfunctional system. So do not expect them to be happy about even the discussion of them.