Monday, July 31, 2017

What the US "Health Care Reform" Debate Did Not Address

It looks like the bizarre process in the US Senate ostensibly to "repeal and replace Obamacare" (aka the Affordable Care Act, or ACA) may be ending, at least for now.  I can only hope that further discussion of health care reform will let sanity prevail, and start to address the major issues that have led to the massive dysfunction of US health care, but were not discussed during the latest kerfuffle (and not even discussed much in the real debate that preceded the introduction of the ACA.)

On Health Care Renewal we have discussed some of the issues that have received much less attention than the Senate process and the push by the Trump administration to get rid of Obamacare.  I submit the country needs to revisit these issues (and in some cases face them for the first time).

Health Care Dysfunction

Despite some protestations to the contrary (e.g., here), the US health care system has been plagued by dysfunction.  According to a recent Commonwealth Fund study, the US was ranked 11 out of 11 in health care quality, but 1 out of 11 in costs.  Traditionally, health care reform has targeted ongoing problems in the cost, accessibility and quality of health care.  The ACA notably seems to have improved access, but hardly addressed cost or quality.

Early on we noticed a number of factors that seemed enable increasing dysfunction, but were not much discussed.  These factors notably distorted how medical and health care decisions were made, leading to overuse of excessively expensive tests and treatments that provided minimal or no benefits to outweight their harms.

Threats to the Integrity of the Clinical Evidence Base

Evidence-based medicine advocates making decisions for individual patients based on critical review of the best evidence from clinical research to make decisions that will provide patients with the most benefits and the least harms.  However, the clinical evidence has been increasingly affected by manipulation of research studies, including aspects of their design, implementation, and analysis.  Such manipulation may benefit research sponsors, now often corporations who seek to sell products like drugs and devices and health care services.  Manipulation may be more likely when research is done by for-profit contract research organizastions (CROs) which may get more busines when they can produce results to fit the sponors' interests. When research manipulation failed to produce results to sponsors' liking, research studies could simply be suppressed or hidden.  The distorted research that was thus selectively produced was further enhanced by biased research dissemination, including ghost-written articles ghost-managed by for-profit medical education and communications companies (MECCs). Furthermore, manipulation and suppression of clinical research may be facilitated by health care professionals and academics conflicted by financial ties to research sponsors.  Clinical decision making based on evidence delibrately biased to favor particular products or services is liable to distortion, and the overuse of products and services that are excessively expensive, useless, and/or harmful.

Deceptive Marketing

The distorted evidence base was an ingredient that proved useful in deceptive marketing of health care products and services. Stealth marketing campaigns became ultimate examples of decpetive marketing.  Deceptive marketing was further enabled by the use of health care professionals paid as marketers by health care corporations, but disguised as unbiased key opinion leaders, another example of the perils of deliberate generation of  conflicts of interest affecting health care professionals and academics.  These extensive deceptive marketing efforts likely have induced again the overuse of products and services that are excessively expensive, useless, and/or harmful.

Distortion of Health Care Regulation and Policy Making

Similarly, promotion of health policies that allowed overheated selling of overpriced and over-hyped health care products and services included various deceptive public relations practices, including orchestrated stealth health policy advocacy campaigns.  Third party strategies used patient advocacy organizations and medical societies that had institutional conflicts of interest due to their funding from companies selling health care products and services, or to the influence of conflicted leaders and board members.  Some deceptive public relations campaigns were extreme enough to be characterized as propaganda or disinformation.  

Furthermore, companies selling health care products and services further enhanced their positions through regulatory capture, that is, through their excessive influence on government regulators and law enforcement.  Their efforts to skew policy were additionally enabled by the revolving door, a species of conflict of interest in which people freely transitioned between health care corporate and government leadership positions.

Bad Leadership and Governance

A major factor driving various distortions of medical and health care policy making which could have increased costs, decreased access, and threaten quality was bad leadership and governance of the organizations involved.

Health care leadership was often ill-informed.  More and more people leading non-profit, for-profit and government have had no training or experience in actually caring for patients, or in biomedical, clinical or public health research. One could view recent legislative efforts to "repeal and replace Obamacare," which largely shut out the input of health care professionals and health policy experts as a giant example of apparently deliberately ill-informed leadership.  Obviously health care and health policy decisions made by ill-informed people are likely to have detrimental effects on patients' and the public's health.

Health care leaders often were unfamiliar with, unsympathetic to, or frankly hostile to their organizations' health care mission, and/or health care professionals' values.  The most recent example we have posted was a hospital CEO who allegedly over-ruled medical leadership to hire a surgeon despite reports that his patients died more frequently than expected, gamed reports of clinic utilization, and associated with organized crime (look here).

Health care leaders were driven by perverse incentives that prioritized financial goals over patient care.  Executives may received millions of dollars despite reports of poor clinical results or unethical behavior.  We have seen executives get raises after their companies made huge legal settlements of allegations of kickbacks or fraud.  The hospital executive mentioned above was receiving $1.7 million a year, plus perks like a car and driver.  Obviously, providing incentives that disregard patients' and public health outcomes and unethical behavior can induce decisions that lead to excess costs, insufficient access, and poor health care quality.

Health care leaders often had their own conflicts of interest.  For example, leaders of academic medicine frequently had financial relationships with corporations that sold health care products or services. In one study, approximately 60% of academic department chairs had such conflicts.  These included being consultants, paid key opinion leaders (as noted above), or even serving as corporate executives or members of boards of directors (e.g., see our first post on this phenomenon in 2006 here, and this article documenting the frequency of such conflicts.)   The latter conflict of interest is particularly concerning because directors of for-profit corporations are supposed to have unyielding loyalty to the interests of the corporation and its stockholders, although they are frequently accused of acting mainly as cronies of the top hired executives (see here and here).  Leaders who have such conflicts might be biased in favor of their corporate benefactors' interests even when they conflicted with their institutions' missions. 

Moreover, we have found numerous examples of frank corruption of health care leadership.  Some have resulted in legal cases involving charges of bribery, kickbacks, or fraud.  Some have resulted in criminal convictions, albeit usually of corporate entities, not individuals.  One would hardly expect corrupt leadership to put patients' and the public's health ahead of the leaders' ongoing enrichment.

Health care leaders in the private sector (non-profit or for-profit) are supposed to operate under the governance of boards of trustees or boards of directors.  However, these boards may be populated by the leaders' cronies, and fellow corporate executives, but often not by people who primarily represent the interests of patients or the public at large.  Such governance has proven to be opaque, fail to be accountable to patients and the public, and sometimes conflicted (e.g., non-profit trustees who are executives of for-profit health care corporations).  Such governance would be unlikely to restrain bad decision making driven by bad leadership. 

Over-Arching Trends

Finally, bad health care leadership and governance has been enabled by series of over-arching trends.

Concentration of Power

Health care increasingly dominated by ever larger and more powerful organizations.  Such concentration of power may be facilitated by uninformed regulatory changes, and regulatory capture by private interests.  Concentration of power in industries outside of health care, which may culminate in the formation of oligopolies and even monopolies, historically has led to increased prices and hurt consumers and workers.  Concentration of power may well be a major factor in rising health care costs, and declining access and health care quality.

Abandonment of Health Care as a Calling

A US Supreme Court decision was interpreted to mean that medical societies could no longer regulate the ethics of their members, leading to the abandonment of traditional prohibitions on the commercial practice of medicine.  Until 1980, the US American Medical Association had  ruled that the practice of medicine should not be "commercialized, nor treated as a commodity in trade."  After then, it ceased trying to maintain this prohibition. Doctors were pushed to be businesspeople, and to give making money the same priority as upholding their oaths.  See posts  here and here.

Meanwhile, hospitals and other organizations that provide medical care are increasingly run as for-profit organizations.  The physicians and other health care professionals they hire are thus providing care as corporate employees, resulting in the rise of the corporate physician.  These health care professionals may befurther torn between their oaths, and the dictates of their corporate managers.  When corporate imperatives to increase revenue prevail, no matter what, the outcome is likely to be worse patient care, higher costs, less access, and worse outcomes.

Perverse Incentives Put Money Ahead of Patients, Education and Research

We have extensively discussed the perverse incentives that seem to rule the leaders of health care. Financial incentives may be large enough to make leaders of health care organizations rich.  Even leaders of non-profit organizations such as academic medical centers and the parent universities of medical schools often make many millions of dollars a year in the US.  Incentives often prioritize financial results over patient care.  Some seem to originate from the shareholder value dogma promoted in business school, which de facto translates into putting current revenue ahead of all other considerations, including patient care, education and research (look here).   Health care leaders may become "value extractors" who put revenue, and the positive incentives they receive from enhancing revenue, ahead of all else (look here).  This may be a leading cause of mission-hostile management.

Cult of Leadership

Top leaders of health care organizations, be they non-profits or at least publicly held for-profit companies, used to be considered hired managers beholden to the organizations' mission, its board, and its various constituencies.  However, such leaders, particularly CEOs, tend now to be regarded as  exalted beings, blessed with brilliance, if not true "visionaries," deserving of ever increasing pay whatever their organizations' performance.  This pheonomenon has been termed "CEO disease" (see this post).  Afflicted leaders tend to be protected from reality by their sycophantic subordinates, and thus to believe their own propaganda.  Leaders in these bubbles tend to make bad decisions, and put their self-interest ahead of patients' and the public's health.    


Leadership of health care organizations by managers with no background in actual health care, public health, or biomedical science has been promoted by the doctrine of managerialism which holds that general management training is sufficient for leaders of  all organizations, regardless of their knowledge of the organizations' fundamental mission.  Ill-informed management may result from leaders who have no background or training in actual health care.  Managers lacking understanding of or sympathy towards health care professionals' values may be more likely to practice mission-hostile management.

Impunity Enabling Corrupt Leadership

Leaders of health care organizations increasingly have conflicts of interest, as noted above. Such conflicts may be risk factors for actual corruption (as defined by Transpaency International, the abuse of entrusted power for private gain).   Also as noted above, we have found numerous examples of frank corruption of health care leadership.  Some have resulted in legal cases involving charges of bribery, kickbacks, or fraud.  Some have resulted in criminal convictions, usually of corporate entities.  Corrupt leadership obviously can distort, if not ruin decision making, and channel large sums of money into private pockets. 

In the US, nearly all cases involving corruption in large health care organizations are resolved by legal settlements.  Such settlements may include fines paid by the corporations, but not by any individuals.  Such fines are usually small compared to the revenue generated by the corrupt behavior, and may be regarded as costs of doing business.  Sometimes the organizations have to sign deferred prosecution or corporate integrity agreements.  The former were originally meant to give young, non-violent first offenders a second chance (look here).  However, in most instances in which corruption became public, are no negative consequences ensue for the leaders of the organizations on whose watch corrupt behavior occurred, or who may have enabled, authorized, or directed the behaviors.  Since no individuals suffer negative consequences, the deterrent effect of such settlements on future corrupt behavior is likely to be nil. 


When we started Health Care Renewal, such issues as suppression and manipulation of research, and health care professionals' conflicts of interests rarely appeared in the media or in medical and health care scholarly literature.  While these issues are now more often publicly discussed, most of the other topics listed above still rarely appear in the media or scholarly literature, and certainly seem to appear much less frequently than their importance would warrant.  For example, a survey by Transparency International showed that 43% of US resondents thought that American health care is corrupt.  It was covered by this blog, but not by any major US media outlet or medical or health care journal.  We have termed the failure of such issues to create any echoes of public discussion the anechoic effect.

Public discussion of the issues above might discomfit those who personally profit from the status quo in health care.  As we noted above, the people who profit the most, those involved in the leadership and governance of health care organizations and their cronies, also have considerable power to damp down any public discussion that might cause them displeasure. In particular, we have seen how those who attempt to blow the whistle on what really causes health care dysfunction may be persecuted.  But, if we cannot even discuss what is really wrong with health care, how are we going to fix it?

Real Health Care Reform

After the ACA became law, we noted that while it had some worthwhile provisions, it hardly addressed the concerns we had been raising to that point. Nonetheless, these deficiences were hardly raised by any of those advocating "repeal and replace."

Now that perhaps more sober heads a are prevailing, maybe it is time to consider some of the real causes of health care dysfunction that true health care reform needs to address, no matter how much that distresses those who currently most personally profit from the status quo. 


Anonymous said...

What's Most Unfair about US healthcare?

Judy B said...

Great piece, Dr. Poses! I think the only thing you missed was the corrupt guidelines and protocols which help "sell" medical services and products.

Unknown said...

I agree with you somewhat on your views, and also I really enjoyed reading your blog.
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