Wednesday, March 30, 2011

How Large Health Care Organizations Set the "Rules of the Game" to Dominate Health Care

The notion that health care is increasingly "dominated by large, bureaucratic organizations which do not honor ... [its] core values"(1) just made it into a main-stream, large circulation US medical journal.  A brand new commentary in the American Journal of Medicine(2) by Supri and Malone declared:
To explain why we have the most expensive health care system in the world and yet one of the lowest performing, we need to take a perspective that focuses on the US institution of medicine as a whole. We expose the hidden rules by which this institution operates and discuss how its powerful organizations shape, control and perpetuate this ailing system.

The article then described the main types of large, powerful health care organizations:
The US institution of medicine is not a single, comprehensive and cohesive system of health care. Instead, it is comprised of a myriad of large and powerful organizations, including insurance companies, Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs), corporate for-profit hospital chains, and pharmaceutical companies. This institutional structure is large and vast, and has over the years become ever more labyrinthine.

Note that there are even more kinds of large and powerful health care organizations, including non-profit hospitals and hospital systems, employers acting as payers for health care, government agencies, device and biotechnology companies, health care information technology companies, public relations firms, medical education and communication companies, contract research organizations, professional societies, patient advocacy groups, accrediting bodies, health care charities, etc, etc, etc.  But the point is that the large organizations, not the patients, the physicians, nor the public dominate.

Supri and Malone suggested that each kind of organization sets the "rules of the game," that is, the priorities important to the organization, which are very different from the core values that many of us believe ought to guide health care:
Not only is the institutional structure large, it is dynamic, and actively creates, shapes, and maintains the institution of medicine. It does this through what we call setting the “rules of the game”; that is, by imposing the terms by which the system operates.

For example,
Insurance companies have set the rule 'restrict choice and coverage.' They enact this through their elaborate system of copayments and deductibles, exclusion clauses and loopholes, each designed to deter patients from claiming the health care they need, and to override physicians' medical judgment.

Similarly, it cited the rules for managed care, "manage care," that is, "restrict utilization of health care" regardless of patients' needs; the pharmaceutical industry, "charges as much as we want, because insurance will pay;" and "corporate hospital chains ... test as much as we want, because insurance will pay." Thus it made the point that US health care now is driven by the priorities of large organizations whose interests at best may disregard and at worst may conflict with providing the best possible care for individual patients.

Further, the resulting complexity is to the benefit of the large organizations:
As each organization has created its own 'rules of the game,' the institution of medicine has grown into a complex entity that few really understand. This very complexity actually works to the advantage of the organizations that comprise the system, creating an operating environment that allows them to siphon off billions of dollars. It is one of the main reasons why the cost of health care has spiraled out of control.

This is very important, and suggests that the system will just become more bureaucratic, complex and opaque until it finally collapses.

Finally, it raised the point that the organizations collude to promote their priorities at the expense of patients' and the public's health:
Although each organization sets their 'own rules of the game,' they are also strongly and deeply interlinked, and cooperate and collaborate to protect the system of health care that they have devised, so that it remains intact and continues to serve their own interests.

Although  Supri and Malone did not differentiate the leadership of large organizations from the organizations themselves, we have pointed out that the top leaders of various kinds of organizations seem to think alike, becoming a sort of de facto executives' guild, with a "superclass" of oligarchs at its pinnacle.  The guild may be enabled by these leaders' often huge compensation and other benefits and corporate arrangements that keep them shielded from the vicissitudes of daily life that patients, health care professionals, and lower level organizational employees must face.  Furthermore, the leadership of these organizations is often interlinked, for example, by leaders of one organization serving on boards of directors or trustees of others.

It is so nice for us at Health Care Renewal to have some company. It is a very important blow to the anechoic effect for these sorts of views to appear in a mainstream medical journal.

When I interviewed a motley group of physicians and health care professionals in the early part of the 21st century, many expressed concerns about how medicine had been taken over by large organizations which did not honor its values. The article published in 2003(1) in Europe which tried to summarize their concerns probably could not have been published at that time in the US, but its publication remote from its main topic only made it more anechoic. It may be that an article published in a respected American journal will generate some more echoes. Here is hoping that Health Care Renewal can help create some such echoes. 

Obviously, those who lead large organizations in health care will not be happy about that, so it is possible this article's appearance in a main-stream journal may incite some pushback, perhaps generated by the public relations machines of the large health care organizations (see this post about how Wendell Potter's excellent Deadly Spin documented how large organizations use propaganda and disinformation to undermine viewpoints that threaten their domination.)

In conclusion, I strongly support Supri and Malone's final sentiments:
The sum of the 'rules of the game' devised by these organizations has resulted in a fragmented, haphazard and broken system of health care. Reform is long overdue, and demands root and branch transformation of the 'rules of the game' governing the US institution of medicine. This requires us to understand these rules, who is setting them, and how these rules are being used to exploit the system of medicine. Only then can we begin to heal our ailing health care system.
Well said!

But now almost 8 years since the publication of "A Cautionary Tale," we still have a long way to go.


1.  Poses RM. A cautionary tale: the dysfunction of American health care.  Eur J Inte Med 2003; 14: 123-130.  Link here.
2.  Supri S, Malone K. On the critical list: the US institution of medicine. Am J Med 2011; 124: 192-193.  Link here. 


Anonymous said...

Of interest may also be the March 26, 2011 WSJ article by Thomas Catan and Avery Johnson, Justice Widens Blue Cross Probe Across Several States. The article highlights how the Blues, the old gold standard, has used its size to control competition and pricing in several states.

Access to data also is used to control the system. Once again the WSJ has been trying to mine Medicare records for over a year and have been stymied by “confidentiality” issues. The March 29, 2011 article by John Carreyou and Tom McGinty, Medicare Records Reveal Troubling Trail of Surgeries highlights the multiple back surgeries performed by Vishal James Makker.

With a string of malpractice cases one has to wonder why the hospitals involved, and even other doctors, did not ask more questions of a doctor performing up to seven surgeries on one patient. My only answer can be profit and maximizing patients insurance.

Steve Lucas

Anonymous said...

Ref 2 link is screwed up? said...

can we stay independent from the big corp/health organisations rules by living back to nature? I think so. live it as our ancestors, they are indeed healthy-living people

Roy M. Poses MD said...

Ref 2 fixed. Thanks!