For example, who noticed when a very famous person wrote this in 2012?
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,'
For those who cannot tell who that was, see the end of this post.
Recently, some illustrations of how health care now puts money ahead of patients came to light.
Intellectual Property Rights Ahead of Sick Patients
The first example is from the KevinMD blog, written by medical and business student Samyutka Mullangi.
My business ethics class recently discussed the case of Cipla Pharmaceuticals, an Indian generic drug manufacturer drawing the ire of big pharma by blithely ignoring international patents or employing workarounds to manufacture low-cost generics in direct violation of the patents. Cipla’s founder, Dr. Yusuf Hamied, stressed that Cipla’s goal wasn’t to steal from the bottom line of the likes of Merck and Eli Lilly, but rather to serve its mission of helping the world’s poor gain access to life-saving medications that they could otherwise not afford.
Students hailing from careers in pharma vehemently stated their opposition to Cipla’s cause, invoking the necessity for pharmaceutical companies to amortize their costs through sales. Though the incremental costs per pill of actual manufacturing were negligible, the high initial investments in research trials and production required a modicum of intellectual property protection.
The argument was briefly halted when
a classmate from the Middle East, who had been holding back furious tears through most of the discussion, raised a trembling hand and broke his silence. He told us of how his father, when he contracted diabetes, would not have survived if not for the availability of exactly such generic drugs.
He said, 'This entire discussion disgusts me.'
However, very soon another student piped up and started talking about incentivizing. Mullangi noted that
At the business school, we use words like incentives, value proposition and return on equity. The liberals in the room had to couch their arguments in these terms. It would have been indelicate to talk about human rights and moral obligations.
While the end of the post suggested that medical students may not understand the language of business students, while business students may not understand the language of medical students. However, it is clearly discussion of what matters to patients, empathy, ethics, morals that is "indelicate," and incentives, value propositions, and returns on equity have won out.
Efficiency Ahead of Patients' Needs
Just published online in JAMA was a commentary by Dr Christine K Cassel, and Robert S Saunders of the National Quality Forum summarizing recent findings by the US President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology on Health Care [Cassel CK, Saunders RS. Engineering a better health care system; a report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. JAMA 2014; doi:10.1001/jama.2014.8906.] While it started with the usual paean to
an increased need to ensure care remains high quality, affordable, and centered around the needs of patients and families.
What it was really about was how
systems engineering ... includes a range of tools to improve efficiency and reliability
So, for example, while some people dislike the US fee-for-service payment system because it may encourage unneeded, useless, or even dangerous care, these authors noted just that it
rewards inefficiency and serves as a disincentive to more efficient care.
The whole point was about increasing efficiency. But efficiency according to economists is "the use of resources so as to maximize the production of goods and services." (per Wikipedia.) It is not about health care outcomes, benefits versus harms, or health care quality. And there was not a word in the paper about patients' values or preferences, benefits or harms, or adverse effects of medical interventions.
The Highest Bidder, not the Sickest Patient, Gets the Earliest Appointment
The starkest example appeared in a Bloomberg article, aptly titled "Doctors for the 1 Percent." The new start-up HelloMD is
a company that connects patients with the best doctors in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, as determined through a selection process. HelloMD offers faster appointments than regular patients can get, for a price: Its customers pay the doctors higher rates than insurance plans offer. And they pay those rates in cash.
HelloMD is a portal to the top specialists in every field, letting you buy your way to the front of the line.
So in the brave new world of HelloMD, presumably a wealthy patient with a chronic or even trivial problem could bid his or her way to specialty care ahead of a more acutely and severely ill patient who lacks the extra money (and even if the latter patient has full conventional health insurance.) Most codes of medical conduct suggest that the needs (meaning clinical needs) of individual patients come first, presumably ahead of the wants of wealthier patients. Yet HelloMD allows the wants of the rich trump the needs of the less rich. (For any rich people who think that may be good for them, remember there is always somebody richer.) To an old school doctor, this seems completely unethical. (And some lawyers might think that participating doctors risk violating any contracts they have with health insurance companies.)
(Note: see another post about HelloMD on the Health Business Blog.O
So right now those who believe that health care should be a business, not a calling, are winning. In an era of deregulation and rampant suspicion of anything government can do to level the playing field, those with more money will win, and patients, no matter how sick, will lose.
By the way, anyone thinking that they are rich enough to buy their way to good care in this brave new world, remember there will always be someone ahead of you who is richer.
Good health care will not survive long in a time when it is indelicate to talk about human rights and moral obligations. Obviously, true health care reform will take more than talk.
Answer to Quiz - Pope Benedict XVI, see this post.