Monday, December 13, 2010

"Health Professionals for a New Century": Calling for "Ethical Conduct," a "New Professionalism," and Improved "Stewardship" and "Social Accountability"

A major article just published in the Lancet urged global reform of health care education  [Frenk J, Chen L, Bhutta ZA, Cohen J, Crisp N, Evans T et al. Health professionals for a new century: transforming education to strengthen health systems in an interdependent world.  Lancet 2010; 376: 1923-1958.  Link here.]

The problems it recognized included
  • "Pitifully modest" spending for health professional education, compared to overall health spending
  • Health care systems that are "dysfunctional and inequitable," due in part to "commercialism in the professions," leading to "breakdown ... especially noteworthy within primary care, in both poor and rich countries."
  • For profit medical education leading to "a so-called de-Flexnerisation process ... in which low-quality professional schools might be proliferating...."
  • Health care corruption, e.g., "the Indian press has reported illegal payments by new private schools seeking accreditation...."
The solutions it advocated included
- Fostering "ethical conduct" by professionals, developing a "new professionalism," earning trust "steered by ethical commitment and social accountability."
Improving "stewardship mechanisms, including socially accountable accreditation"

It is nice to be in such good company.  While the report was written in the subtle, diplomatic language of international public health, it was the only such authoritative report to appear in a widely circulated, highly respected medical journal that I can recall that was this direct about the seriousness of such problems.

In fact, not only is little spent on actual medical education within academic medical institutions, but faculty members are valued more for the money they bring in than for their teaching.  Commercialism in health care has been institutionalized in the last 30 years (for discussion of its history in the US, look here, here, and here.)  The Transparency International Global Corruption Report of 2006 asserted "the scale of corruption is vast in both rich and poor countries," yet has gotten almost no notice in medical, health care research, and health care policy circles.  In 2009, the US Institute of Medicine published a detailed report including fairly strong recommendations on Conflict of Interest in Research, Education and Practice.  The anechoic effect, however, has dictated that discussion of striking examples of mission-hostile management, conflicts of interest, and outright crime and corruption is simply not done, especially in medical, health care, or health policy venues and journals.  The 2006 TI and 2009 IOM reports have infrequently been cited, and their recommendations have widely been ignored.

I do hope that the appearance of a publication as authoritative as the article by Frenk et al leads to some soul-searching by the leaders of health care around the world.  They need to realize that despite the article's measured tones, the problems really are severe, and even more broad than the article implied.  We have discussed in detail how health care education (and all of health care) are hurt by concentration and abuse of power, by governance that lacks accountability, integrity, and transparency; by leadership that ignores the context, core values and mission, promotes self-interest and conflicts of interest, and sneers at ethics; and by results such as suppressed and manipulated research, deceptive and dishonest education (look here, here, and here for examples), stifling of academic freedom and whistle-blowers, then dissatisfied, burned out faculty (here), and finally the final common pathway of rising costs, declining access, and poor quality.  

It is heartening that the importance of our concerns has been corroborated in such a notable venue.  I hope this report gathers less dust than the 2006 Transparency International Global Corruption Report and the 2009 Institute of Medicine conflict of interest report.

I suggest that to truly reform health care education (and health care itself), we will have to attend to the sorts of problems we write about on Health Care Renewal.  On one hand, we will need to improve the stewardship, governance, and leadership of health care education itself, and reduce the pervasive conflicts of interest that ensnare the faculty.  On the other, we will need to make sure education prepares students to deal with these problems in health care at large.

It would be nice if the appearance of the Lancet article signifies that help will soon be at hand to tackle the huge amount of work that needs to be done, in the face of likely withering opposition from those who have enriched themselves from the dysfunctionality of the current system.  We at Health Care Renewal will continue to try to draw attention to these issues, accompanied I am sure by our fellow bloggers (as are listed in the right hand column).  However, a small group of voluntary "citizen journalists," and health care professional curmudgeons cannot solve this problem on our own. I hope we will soon have some more support.

ADDENDUM (14 December, 2010) - See also comments by Paul Levy on the Running a Hospital blog.

1 comment:

Afraid said...

And thank you Dr. Poses for your work to date and work to come.

I fear that things will not change if business folks and not doctors are the CEOs of health systems.

Appealing to a business person about medical ethics is not correctly placed logic if the business person is not a doctor.