The Evolution of Precision Health

Health 2.0 sat down with Linda Molnar to discuss the evolution of Precision Health, the imperatives at stake in a fast-paced field, and empowerment through big data. Linda has over 20 years in the field of Life Sciences and is responsible for a number of initiatives that further the field with start-ups, the feds, and for investors.

Her current endeavor is leading the upcoming Technology for Precision Health Summit in San Francisco alongside Health 2.0. “We’re never going to pull together all of this disparate data from disparate sources in a meaningful (i.e. clinically actionable) way, unless we talk about it” she says. “The Summit is an attempt to bring together the worlds of Precision Medicine and Digital Healthcare to realize the full potential of a predictive and proactive approach to maintaining health”.

Check out the full interview here.

As a bonus, save 25% off the standard admission to the Technology for Precision Health Summit by using discount code TPH25Register here!

from THCB

How the Republican Tax Cuts Will Impact the Health Care System

The U.S. tax system and health care are deeply intertwined. The Republican tax bills hurtling through Congress would make significant changes in this relationship.

The proposed changes, primarily a large cut in the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent, would benefit health care (and most other) companies.

But none of the changes would, in the long run, benefit consumers, the public good, or public health. The major components of the proposed legislation are dangerously ill-conceived and ill-timed in the context of the overall economy and in particular health care policy and spending, which is projected to comprise 20 percent of the nation’s economy in 2025, up from 18.3 percent today.

That’s a difference and increase that reflects several trillion dollars of “additional” health care spending over the next decade. Amid this projected rise, the Trump administration and congressional Republicans propose to reduce the rate of growth of overall federal government spending and shift a sizable portion of health spending to other government entities and programs. These include the Pentagon, national security, homeland security, infrastructure projects, and—most notable in the context of the tax bills—a tax cut for corporations and upper income Americans.

It doesn’t and won’t add up—unless two (unlikely) things happen: (1) the economy grows at twice to three times the rate most economists predict and (2) the rate of growth in health spending is dramatically constrained.

Absent both, the Republican tax bills will cause the annual federal budget deficit and the nation’s long-term debt to balloon even more than already forecast.

This outcome is highly irresponsible and could lead to adverse economic consequences, especially in the event of a major war, terrorist attack, natural disaster (such as a pandemic) or weather/climate-change-related event.

In addition, over the long run, excessive deficits and debt are a tax and dangerous burden on our children and grandchildren during a period in which fewer workers will be subsidizing a growing number of senior citizens.

What follows is Part 1 of a series of pieces on the Republican tax legislation’s health care components. This piece deals with the federal budget deficit, national debt, and projected health spending. Part 2 will discuss the proposed elimination of the individual mandate to purchase insurance under the ACA—if that proposal remains in the proposed legislation. As of this writing, it’s in the Senate tax bill but not the House bill. The White House and Republicans have sent mixed signals on the fate of the mandate over the past two weeks.

Deficit spending, debt and health care

As has been widely reported, the tax legislation would add an estimated $1.5 trillion to the national debt over the next decade (some analyses show it closer to $2.2 trillion). Republicans dismiss this as a trivial amount and say economic growth, spurred primarily by the corporate tax cut, will more than make up for it.

Many independent and Democratic-affiliated analysts disagree. They argue that (1) there’s no proof the corporate tax cut will add more than a fraction (less than 1%) to economic growth over the next decade, and (2) that an increase in deficit spending, and thus the national debt, at this point is greatly at odds with the current debt load, national priorities, overall projected government expenditures, and the government’s commitments to provide health insurance and care to upwards of 120 million Americans.

The national debt is currently $20 trillion. That’s more than triple the debt in 2000, when it was $6 trillion. Federal government spending (our tax dollars!) to pay the interest on that debt varies from year to year. It mostly trends between 5 and 10 percent of the federal budget each year. In 2017 it was 6.5 percent. In 2018 it will be 8 percent—$315 billion of a $4 trillion federal budget.

For a host of reasons, interest on the national debt is projected to be the fastest growing federal expense over the next decade. It’s projected to rise every year over the next decade to $787 billion by 2026 and in that year comprise 12.2 percent of the federal budget.

Economists track the national debt in another way, too: as a percentage of overall GDP. That’s considered a more robust and meaningful measure for technical reasons. The table below indicates what many observers believe is a very precarious situation: our nation’s debt is now at around 100 percent of GDP. The GDP was $19.4 trillion in 2017.

The only other time it was that high was during and right after World War II.

And deficits and the debt are poised to rise further. If current tax receipts and federal expenditures, including for health care, were to continue at a pace equal to the past few years (often referred to as the baseline), CBO forecasts a federal budget deficit of close to $1 trillion in 2024.

In CBO’s words: “The projected rise in deficits would be the result of rapid growth in spending for federal retirement and health care programs targeted to older people and to rising interest payments on the government’s debt, accompanied by only moderate growth in revenue collections. Those accumulating deficits would drive up debt held by the public from its already high level to its highest percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) since shortly after World War II.

As is well known by health policy folks, Medicare and Medicaid account for bulk of health spending by the federal government (again, our tax dollars). And there’s no let up in sight.

As most recently projected by CMS’s Office of the Actuary, Medicare spending will increase between 7.1 and 7.6 percent annually from 2019 to 2025. That program alone will make up 18.8 percent of the federal budget in 2019 rising to 21.4 percent in 2025.

Medicaid spending is projected to increase around 6 percent a year between 2019 and 2025, and make up 9.2 percent of federal government spending in 2019 and 9.5 percent in 2025.

Other tax-supported health care spending is also forecast to rise, including for the VA and active military, CHIP, tax dollars devoted to federal employees’ health insurance, and subsidies/tax credits for people who enroll in the ACA exchanges.

CBO issued a report in September taking stock of several of these avenues of expenditures over the next decade—again, as a baseline assessment not factoring in any change in law.

The tax exclusion for employer-based coverage (which, by the way, is among the largest tax breaks in the current tax code) will “cost” the government $297 billion in 2018, rising to $475 billion in 2027. Cumulative cost 2018-2027: $3.8 trillion.

As an aside, the idea of limiting this exclusion has been debated for years since it is regressive; it benefits upper-income people far more than lower-income because upper-income people have, on average, richer benefits. It benefits people who buy coverage on their own and the uninsured not at all. A cap on the exclusion at a certain actuarial level could save between $50 and $100 billion a year. But that is politically unlikely to happen for the foreseeable future.

Tax credits for those who purchase coverage in the ACA exchanges will cost the government $41 billion in 2018, rising to $62 billion in 2027. Cumulative cost 2018-2027: $531 billion.

Medicaid coverage triggered by the ACA’s Medicaid expansion will cost the government $76 billion in 2018, rising to $143 billion in 2027. Cumulative cost 2018-2027: $1 trillion

There are other commitments and costs as well, such as for CHIP (cumulative 2018-2027 spending: $64 billion) and the cost-sharing reduction payments (cumulative over the next decade: $99 billion, if those payments get restored in Congress as expected).

All totaled, the tax benefits in existing law plus commitments and expenditures under the ACA for added coverage for the non-Medicare population add up to $654 billion in 2018. That is forecast to rise to just over $1 trillion in 2027. The cumulative cost 2018 to 2027: $8.2 trillion.

And don’t forget: 30 million Americans under age 65 are expected to remain uninsured each year over the next decade. If we choose as a society to extend coverage further—via Medicaid, the ACA exchanges or new programs—where does the money come from?


The U.S. spends a whooping amount on health care—across the board. Its’ commitments in this area of the economy are huge. Health spending is forecast to rise at a rapid clip over the next decade. Without substantial changes in the way we pay for health care that leads to a reduction in the rate of increase, rising expenditures are unavoidable and become unsustainable if other societal needs are to be met.

Tax cuts and reforms that add to deficit spending and seek to reduce health care spending growth by (a) slashing budgets, (b) eliminating coverage or benefits and/or (c) shifting costs to consumers—without making major structural changes in the way we pay for care and how much we pay—are a dereliction of fiduciary duty.

In this context, the Republican tax bills and the Trump administration’s 2018 budget are bad law and bad policy and should be rejected.


from THCB

A New Gimish Model of Complex Disease?

The appeal of precision medicine is the promise that we can understand disease with greater specificity and fashion treatments that are more individualized and more effective.

A core tenet (or “central dogma,” as I wrote in 2015) of precision medicine is the idea that large disease categories – like type 2 diabetes – actually consist of multiple discernable subtypes, each with its own distinct characteristics and genetic drivers. As genetic and phenotypic research advances, the argument goes, diseases like “type 2 diabetes” will go the way of quaint descriptive diagnoses like “dropsy” (edema) and be replaced by more precisely defined subgroups, each ideally associated with a distinct therapy developed for that population.

In 2015, this represented an intuitively appealing idea in search of robust supporting data (at least outside oncology).

In 2017, this represents an intuitively appealing idea in search of robust supporting data (at least outside oncology).

The gap between theory and data has troubled many researchers, and earlier this year, a pair of cardiologists from the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and the Broad Institute, Sek Kathiresan and Amit V. Khera, wrote an important – and I’d suggest underappreciated – commentary in the journal Circulation that examined this very disconnect, through the lens of coronary artery disease (CAD).

(Disclosures: I’m Chief Medical Officer of DNAnexus, a cloud genomics company, and my training at MGH overlapped with Kathiresan’s.)

Do CAD patients “actually have one of many disease subtypes,” each with its own “distinct driving pathway” and ideal therapeutic approach, they asked, or is CAD a “quantitative blend of causal risk pathways” – essentially, a gimish, with slight defects in multiple pathways collectively contributing to disease manifestation? (See Figure 1.) Kathiresan and Khera tell me they’ve often described these as the “fruit salad” and “smoothie” models of disease, respectively.

Figure courtesy S. Kathiresan, used with permission.

Figure 1: “Fruit Salad” vs “Smoothie” Model Of Complex Disease.

Reviewing the CAD literature, Kathiresan and Khera conclude that while “precision medicine will in fact identify a small subset of individuals in whom an identifiable driving pathways accounts for much of their risk of CAD,” for “the vast majority of CAD patients, it is a quantitative blend of causal processes that underlies disease” – i.e. a smoothie.

In other words, for the vast majority of CAD patients, the disease reflects a collection of contributing genetic (as well as, of course, environmental) factors, a mix of slight defects that collectively nudge the body towards disease in what Kathiresan and Khera call “a probabilistic fashion.”

The implications of this, Kathiresan and Khera argue, is that there probably will not be a “taxonomic revolution in complex disease” – a clarifying subdivision of a complex disease into distinct subtypes – although there will be an opportunity to identify the “causal-risk pathways that contribute, albeit to varying degrees,” to complex diseases like CAD.

The authors point out that both rare and common genetic variants associated with CAD seem to involve the same molecular pathways, and the “vast majority of cardiovascular therapeutics in use today have demonstrated benefits across subgroups.” Perhaps the most visible example of this are the statins, which initially were demonstrated to improve the LDL (“bad cholesterol”) levels in patients heterozygous for familiar hypercholesterolemia (an example of a mutation in one gene profoundly impacting CAD risk); yet statins also proved to reduce CAD risk in the vast majority of patients whose disease was not caused by a single powerful mutation — sophisticated subtyping of disease was not required.

If Kathiresan and Khera are correct, and if their hypothesis extends beyond CAD, it means we should think carefully about reflexively assuming diligent data collection will permit us to subdivide complex disease – like multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s – into biologically and therapeutically distinct subcategories. At the same time, their argument suggests we should aggressively pursue robust molecular clues that have been identified, as pharmacologically targeting the products of genes with seemingly small effect could still have major impact, as the statin experience demonstrates. Individual rare variants with clear phenotypic effect might be particularly helpful in pointing out high value targets. Furthermore, based on Kathiresan and Khera’s hypothesis, drugs developed based on these targets might be expected to impact most patients, not just a select few. In short, while comprehensive genetic and phenotypic evaluation might be required to identify patients with high impact rare variants, once identified, these variants can lead to the development of a new medicine that has generalized utility. In other words: precision research, blockbuster development.

How far beyond CAD does Kathiresan and Khera’s hypothesis extend? For many conditions, after all, existing drugs seem to work for only a minority of patients; it was this very dilemma that motivated much of precision medicine. Surely, for many psychiatric conditions, some kind of improved “digital phenotyping” must be helpful, as Mindstrong Health President and Co-founder (and former NIMH Director) Tom Insel recently argued. And where do immune-related conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and multiple sclerosis fit in – are there biologically distinct, therapeutically relevant subtypes here?

For rare genetic diseases, precise, molecular-defined treatments will likely remain the goal, although here, too, we might be surprised. At this year’s JP Morgan meeting, for example, Vertex CEO Jeff Leiden expressed his hope that most patients with cystic fibrosis – a disease which can be caused by any of a staggering number of different mutations in a single large gene – could eventually be treated with a single (combination) drug regimen, a view reinforced by promising data that arrived this summer, as FORBES colleague Matthew Herper reported. This is similar to what’s occurred for hepatitis C, with the advent of single (combination) regimens that are effective across all viral genotypes, obviating the need for obtaining such molecular assessment in most patients.

At first blush, oncology looks like the most obvious exception to this hypothesis, and seems like a discipline where precise subtyping and identification of unique drivers has truly revolutionized the field, leading to relatively specific treatments that target specific “driver” genes and pathways. Yet, Kathiresan and Khera suggest that immune-oncology research may prove “potentially even more influential.” Immunotherapy, they argue, was born from “recognition of a key causal pathway,” and is “largely agnostic to the specific driver mutation of an individual cancer cell,” and thus may “have utility across a broad range of cancer subtypes.”

Bottom Line

Until now, precision medicine has been animated by the belief that detailed genetic and phenotypic analysis will dissect complex diseases into distinct and more tractable subtypes. Kathiresan and Khera’s recent commentary asks whether we should question this assumption, and suggest that most complex conditions are likely to be caused by a collection of core causal factors, which blend in any given individual to cumulatively cause the disease. The authors endorse the detailed molecular identification of these factors, and anticipate that targeting some of these factors could result in generally effective treatments for many suffering from the condition – though how to pick which of the many potential factors to target seems less obvious; perhaps loss-of-function variants with a clear phenotype could represent a useful starting point.

If Kathiresan and Khera are correct, precision medicine may not produce customized cures for each patient – but instead offer the hope that in elucidating the complex genetic architecture of disease, we will be able to identify and develop novel therapeutics each offering benefit to large numbers of suffering patients.

It’s an interesting theory – but so was the one it hopes to replace. As always in science, we’ll enjoy the conversation, but look for the data.

from THCB

Practicing Medicine While Black (Part II)

Managed care advocates see quality problems everywhere and resource shortages nowhere. If the Leapfrog Group, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, or some other managed care advocate were in charge of explaining why a high school football team lost to the New England Patriots, their explanation would be “poor quality.”

If a man armed with a knife lost a fight to a man with a gun, ditto: “Poor quality.” And their solution would be more measurement of the “quality,” followed by punishment of the losers for getting low grades on the “quality” report card and rewards for the winners. The obvious problem – a mismatch in resources – and the damage done to the losers by punishing them would be studiously ignored.

This widespread, willful blindness to the role that resource disparities play in creating ethnic and income disparities and other problems, and the concomitant widespread belief that all defects in the US health care system are due to insufficient “quality,” is difficult to explain. I will attempt to lay out the rudiments of an explanation in this essay.

In my first article in this two-part series, I presented evidence demonstrating that “pay-for-performance” (P4P) and “value-base purchasing” (VBP) (rewarding and punishing providers based on crude measures of cost and quality) punish providers who treat a disproportionate share of the poor and the sick.

I begin this second installment by presenting some of the evidence indicating that providers who treat a disproportionate share of the poor and the sick suffer from fewer resources, and that P4P and VBP (hereafter just VBP) worsen resource disparities. I will then argue that this outcome is the direct result of a habit, now deeply ingrained among health policy experts and managed care advocates, of calling resource-related problems “quality” problems. I will describe instances of this behavior that occurred early in the history of the “quality” crusade that began in 1999 with the publication of To Err is Human by the Institute of Medicine (IOM).

First do some harm

I closed my last article noting that CMS’s Hospital Readmission Reduction Program (HRRP) may be killing up to 5,000 seniors with congestive heart failure (CHF) every year. Under the HRRP, CMS tracks readmissions for CHF, heart attack, pneumonia and a few other diagnoses. Readmission rates above the national average for patients with these diagnoses are punished by reductions in all Medicare payments to the “bad” hospitals. The savings from the penalties inflicted on the “bad” hospitals are redistributed to the “good” hospitals.

We have no research yet on the mechanism that might cause the HRRP program to harm CHF patients, but we know this much:

  • Research has established that the HRRP as well as other VBP programs punish providers who serve a high proportion of the nation’s sickest and poorest patients, and
  • this terrible outcome is caused by CMS’s inability to adjust readmission rates and other “quality” measures, as well as cost measures, to reflect accurately factors outside clinic and hospital control, the most important of which are the health status and incomes of their patients, and the resources available to the clinics and hospitals.

The result of these and other VBP programs (ACOs, “medical homes,” MACRA, and possibly bundled payments) is that hospitals and clinics serving the nation’s poorest and sickest people are being drained of vital resources.

Harming the poor to improve “value”

The November 2017 edition of Medical Care contains a paper demonstrating that two Medicare VBP programs, the HRRP and the Hospital Value-Based Purchasing (HVBP) program, both implemented in 2013, have hammered hospitals in poorer communities. [1] The authors noted at the beginning of the paper, “Previous studies showed that the … HRRP and the … HVBP disproportionately penalized hospitals caring for the poor.” They stated their goal was to determine how this difference in penalties affected the financial performance of poor hospitals compared with better-off hospitals.

The paper compared the financial performance of hospitals serving the eight-state Mississippi Delta Region with non-Delta-region hospitals over the period 2008 through 2013. The authors, Hsueh-Fen Chen et al., used two measures of financial performance: Operating margin (income from hospital services minus the cost of those services) and total margin (income from all sources minus all costs). They selected the Delta Region because it is much poorer than other regions in the country. [2]

The authors found that Delta hospitals started and ended the study period (2008-2013) with fewer resources than the non-Delta hospitals – they served more Medicare and Medicaid patients, and had lower operating and total margins over the entire study period. Figures 1 and 2 show the changes in operating and total margins for the two groups of hospitals.


Figure 1 Delta hospitals and other hospitals in the United States 2008-2014


Figure 2 Delta hospitals and other hospitals in the United States 2008-2014

Figure 1 is the more revealing of the two. It shows that both groups of hospitals suffered negative or zero-percent operating margins over the study period, but Delta hospitals suffered substantially worse margins. The Delta hospital margins plummeted after 2010 to a low of minus 10 percent by 2013, while the non-Delta hospitals’ margins declined only slightly after 2011to a low of minus 1 to 2 percent. The authors surmise that margins plummeted in the two or three years prior to the implementation of the HRRP and HVBP programs in 2013 because hospitals, knowing those programs were coming, spent money on infrastructure and staff to attempt to score well on the measures used by those programs. Here is how the authors put it: “The growing gap in financial performance between the two hospital groups is likely a result of both the amount of penalties incurred from HRRP and HVBP, and the expenditure from increased investments in infrastructure for reducing readmissions and improving quality of care and the patient experience.” [3]

The authors concluded: “Policy makers should modify these two programs to ensure that resources are not moved from the communities that need them most.” “Modifying” these programs is not the solution. They should be terminated, and more resources should be funneled into to the Delta hospitals and others serving a disproportionate share of the sick and the poor.

To err is human, especially if you’re a managed care advocate

The managed care movement has exhibited a disdain for evidence since its birth in the early 1970s (see my discussion of the culture of managed care here) One manifestation of this cavalier attitude toward evidence is the problem I’m discussing in this series – the willful blindness to insufficient resources that has characterized managed-care-think since at least the publication of To Err is Human by the IOM (since renamed) in 1999. That report offered four explanations for why somewhere between 44,000 and 98,000 “preventable deaths” occur annually in US hospitals. Not one of those four explanations dealt with resource shortages. Here is how the Commonwealth Fund, a zealous proponent of managed care, articulated those four explanations in a 2005 review  of the impact of To Err is Human:

The IOM report provided a blueprint for reducing medical errors, naming four key factors that contribute to the epidemic of errors. First, fragmentation and decentralization of the health care system may create unsafe conditions for patients and impede patient safety efforts. Second, licensing and accreditation processes give insufficient attention to preventing errors. Third the medical liability system, which discourages physicians from admitting mistakes, impedes systematic efforts to uncover and learn from errors. Fourth, third-party purchasers of health care offer little incentive for health care organizations and providers to improve safety and quality.

Not one word about whether insufficient resources, or misallocation of resources, might contribute to some of those “preventable deaths.” Not surprisingly, given this one-eyed diagnosis of the problem, the IOM did not recommend more resources or better distribution of resources (for example, more spending on nurses and less spending on administrative costs generated by managed care schemes). Instead, they called for “transformation” of our “delivery system” via greater consolidation of our already highly concentrated system, more pay-for-performance schemes, installation of electronic medical records across the country to facilitate the implementation of P4P, and studies of alternatives to malpractice suits.

Many studies have documented a correlation between insufficient resources and negative health outcomes. An inverse correlation between nurse-to-patient ratios and adverse events in hospitals, for example, is well established (see Aiken et al. and a review of the literature by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality ). Just as our commonsense tells us a high school football team will lose to a professional football team, so it tells us that inequitable resource distribution will profoundly affect performance by health care institutions and professionals. What possible excuse did the IOM have for ignoring the resource issue in To Err Is Human and their 2001 sequel, Crossing the Quality Chasm? If I could rewrite those books, their titles would be Conflating Quality with Insufficient Resources is To Err Big Time, and Crossing the Resource Chasm.

Misuse of the RAND paper

The IOM is to the managed care movement what St. Paul was to Christians: An indisputable authority on the religion. (I have no idea what the IOM did to warrant that status, but they unquestionably have it among the faithful.) The IOM’s willingness to deny the role that insufficient resources plays in “preventable” adverse outcomes in hospitals has deeply influenced the faithful ever since. An influential paper published by Elizabeth McGlynn and colleagues at RAND four years after the publication of To Err reinforced the principle, first clearly established by the IOM, that blindness to resource disparities is acceptable, perhaps even admirable.

The paper by McGlynn et al. was very useful. It analyzed the relative prevalence of over- and underuse. They reported that underuse occurred four times as often as overuse. “[W]e found greater problems with underuse (46.3 percent of participants did not receive recommended care …) than with overuse (11.3 percent of participants received care that was not recommended …),” the authors concluded. McGlynn et al. found, for example, that only 58 percent of stroke patients were “on daily antiplatelet treatment”; only 29 percent of suicidal patients with “psychosis or addiction or specific plans to carry out suicide” had been hospitalized; and only 5 percent of alcoholics had been “referred for further treatment.”

You might think this paper, having documented so much underuse, would have been seen by managed care advocates as a repudiation of the assumption most fundamental to their creed – that US health care costs are high because the fee-for-service system induces overuse. Nope. Instead managed care buffs seized on the paper’s underuse data as proof that “quality” is bad and doctors are to blame. The title of the paper, “The quality of health care delivered to adults in the United States,” and the authors’ interpretation of their findings (they recommended closer supervision of doctors) bear some of the blame.

Managed care buffs wasted no time distorting the meaning of this paper. Shortly after it was published, I heard a lobbyist for the Buyers Health Care Action Group, a coalition of large employers in Minnesota, characterize this paper before a committee of the Minnesota legislature as follows: “Your odds of getting correct treatment when you walk into your doctor’s office are 50-50, no better than a coin flip.”

Today the deceptive practice of measuring the consequences of resource disparities but not the resource disparities themselves, and blaming the consequences on doctors and hospitals, is at epidemic levels. [4] This practice generates above-average blame and financial punishment for minority providers and the hospitals and clinics that serve a high-proportion of minority patients. This deceptive practice in turn leads to another deceptive practice: Recommending better “quality” measures to catch all those bad doctors, especially the black and brown doctors. And ‘round and ‘round the cycle goes.

A paper by Andreea Creeanga et al. illustrates both practices – blaming high-minority providers for problems caused in whole or in part by insufficient resources, and declaring that the solution is more measurement, not a better allocation of resources. Creeanga et al. sought to determine the rate of complications associated with childbirth in hospitals serving primarily black, Hispanic and white patients. The authors found higher rates of adverse events in the black hospitals. “Twelve of 15 indicator rates were highest in black-serving hospitals,” the authors wrote, “with rates of puerperal infection, urinary tract infection, obstetric embolism, puerperal cerebrovascular disorders, blood transfusion, and in-hospital mortality being considerably higher than in either white- or Hispanic-serving hospitals.” And what did the authors propose to do about this? Why, measure more, of course! “[B]etter obstetric quality-of-care measures are needed,” they intoned. What about resource disparities, you ask? Silly you. The authors made no recommendation. This is a “quality” problem, don’t you know.

Leapfrog should take the Hippocratic Oath

A decade ago, as the evidence-free P4P fad was taking off, a few intrepid observers warned that P4P could have destructive consequences, including worsening of racial disparities. Lawrence Casalino et al. were among those who issued a clear warning early on. In the title of a 2007 paper  for Health Affairs they asked, “Will pay-for-performance and quality reporting affect health care disparities?” Their answer was yes: “P4P and public reporting can have serious unintended consequences, and one of these consequences may be to increase health care disparities.” Those “unintended” consequences arrived quickly. The damage done by VBP to the providers who take care of more than their share of the sickest and the poorest is now obvious.

And yet the Leapfrog Group, MedPAC and other groups and individuals who led the P4P bandwagon in the early 2000s and who flog VBP now refuse to acknowledge the damage their arrogance has caused. Some even go to the trouble of accusing their critics of stupidity or greed. In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, posted on THCB , Leah Binder, CEO of the Leapfrog Group, and three other business representatives were willing only to concede that VBP measures “may have rough edges.” They criticized “some doctors” for daring to criticize VBP, and argued we “can’t wait for quality measures to be perfect.” And why is that? Because of the “widely acknowledged … quality-of-care issues,” said Binder et al.

Binder et al.’s “logic” is circular and faith-based:

  • Quality is deemed to be terrible based on studies that use crude measures of cost and quality and which, therefore, cannot distinguish the influence of resource shortages from the influence of poor quality;
  • because quality is so terrible, something must be done, even if it might harm the sickest and the poorest;
  • so P4P/VBP is unleashed, it worsens resource disparities, which in turn worsen disparities in health outcomes such as infections following childbirth;
  • these outcome disparities are then used to start the circular reasoning all over again: These worse outcomes are deemed to be evidence of inferior “quality,” and, in the strange world manage care advocates live in, this calls for even more crude measurement, not more resources.

What is the solution to this irrational groupthink? This is grist for a much longer essay. My short answer is that health policy researchers, and managed care proponents in particular, should mentally take the Hippocratic Oath every day. That might induce them to recognize that demanding that doctors honor the Hippocratic Oath while they themselves honor no similar principle is hypocritical. Daily recitation of the Hippocratic Oath might induce managed care zealots to recognize that demanding that doctors and patients practice evidence-based medicine while they practice evidence-free health policy is hypocritical, leads to intellectual laziness, and, most importantly, inflicts harm.

[1] The Hospital Value-based Purchasing program purports to measure both quality and cost. Quality is measured by process and outcome measures and patient “satisfaction” surveys. The surveys have been shown to discriminate against hospitals that serve a disproportionate share of minority patients. According to a RAND study ,”Hospitals with a high proportion of minority patients received lower overall HCAHPS [Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems] VBP scores than hospitals with predominately White patients.”

[2] Hsueh-Fen Chen et al. described the Delta Region in grim terms. “The Census Bureau has noted that the Delta Region is among the most socioeconomically disadvantaged areas in the United States. This region is largely rural with a large proportion of minority and underserved individuals, and has high rates of poverty, unemployment, chronic diseases, obesity, physical inactivity, food insecurity, and mortality, and low-birth weights.” As if this weren’t bad enough, the authors continued: “The Delta Region already has a significant physician shortage and poor access to care.  Given the limited health care infrastructure and poor population health, Delta hospitals are … more likely to be financially vulnerable under HRRP and HVBP.”

[3] This paper on the Delta hospitals is a rare example of research into the costs doctors and hospitals had to incur to participate in managed care schemes. Since the birth of the managed care movement a half-century ago, the American health policy community has shown virtually no interest in measuring the additional costs imposed upon our health care system by managed care fads. Proponents of HMOs, gate-keeping, report cards, ACOs, “medical homes,” electronic medical records, P4P, and VBP demanded that lawmakers and payers adopt these programs without the faintest idea what these fads would cost payers (taxpayers, premium payers and out-of-pocket payers) and providers.

Unfortunately, even this paper on the Delta hospitals is insufficiently precise. The authors did not attempt to determine what portion of the financial losses suffered by hospitals since the enactment of the ACA can be attributed to penalties imposed by the HRRP and HVBP programs and what portion can be attributed to the extra costs hospitals incur to improve their HRRP and HVBP scores.

[4] Here are other examples of “experts” who claimed, either explicitly or by referring to the McGlynn paper in an endnote, that the paper measured physician quality:

·       “Studies have documented that nearly one-half of physician care in the United States is not based on best practices.” (Robert Smoldt and Denis Cortese, “Pay-for-performance or pay for value,” Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 2007;82:210-213)

·       “Physicians deliver recommended care only about half of the time….” (Richard Hillestad et al., “Can electronic medical record systems transform health care?….” Health Affairs 2005;24:1113-1117)

·      “[D]espite the extensive investment in developing clinical guidelines, most clinicians do not routinely integrate them into their practices.” (Dan Mendelson and Tanisha Carino, “Evidence-based medicine in the United States.,…” Health Affairs 2005; 24:133-136).

from THCB

Who Owns Your FitBit Data? Biometric Data Privacy Problems


The following blog post is adapted from a talk the author gave at the “Data Privacy in the Digital Age” symposium on October 26th sponsored by the U.S. Department Health and Health and Human Services.

Today, I’ll be focusing on the data privacy issues posed by sports wearables, which I define to include both elite systems such as WHOOP or Catapult and more consumer-oriented products such as Fitbits, and why the U.S. needs an integrated federal regulatory framework to address the privacy challenges posed by private entities commercializing biometric data.

Sports wearables have evolved from mere pedometers to devices that monitor heart rate and sleep, tell athletes how to maximize recovery, and even track food intake and sexual activity – all uploaded to the cloud.

These technologies are now ubiquitous and have wide appeal to consumers – in fact, I’m wearing a Fitbit right now.

But these devices raise several key problems for consumers that are not yet being adequately addressed by the U.S. legal and regulatory system.

Employee Freedom

I begin with what will likely be the biggest impending battle over sports wearables: how employers may use them as a potential economic weapon and restrict employee freedom.

Biometric data isn’t just for personal, voluntary use anymore but is being increasingly used for employee monitoring and evaluation.

In the sports domain, companies such as WHOOP are using wearables to track individual athletes’ data – and sharing it with not only athletes but coaches and other team officials as well.

At the professional level, this has already raised some eyebrows. But professional athletes have high visibility and bargaining power through sports unions, making their use of wearables subject to collective bargaining agreement negotiations.

For example:

  • The NFL Players’ Association signed a deal with WHOOP to make it the Officially Licensed Recovery Wearable of the NFLPA and allow players to commoditize their own data
  • In their new CBA, the NBA and NBA Players’ Association agreed to terms protecting the right of individual players to decline the use of wearables at any time

This is great for pro athletes but most U.S. workers don’t have robust unions protecting them. Employers increasingly offer sports wearables as part of efforts to promote employee wellness and bring down health insurance costs. BP uses data provided by sports wearables to adjust premiums for their employees, and CVS has actually fined employees for failing to disclose health vitals such as weight and body fat percentage.[1]

And this is encouraged to a certain extent by the federal government.  In June 2013, the Department of Labor and HHS shared Affordable Care Act wellness program regulations which allowed, and in some cases mandated, that employees share personal information with their employers in the form of a health risk assessment (HRA).[2] Sports wearables have the potential to help in such efforts. Thus, employers are being incentivized to address major public health concerns – like tackling obesity among the workforce – by creating major privacy concerns.

All of this amounts to an ethical quandary.  What will happen in the future if an employee doesn’t want to share his health data or refuses to wear a Fitbit? Even athletes, whose entire jobs depend on peak physical performance, regularly balk at excessive invasions into their physicality and privacy that render them feeling like “lab rats.” How can, say, Oracle justify similar biometric data tracking for a systems analyst?

Furthermore, what happens when the person in question isn’t an employee at all?  For instance, while the NCAA constantly reiterates that collegiate players aren’t “employees” but “student-athletes,” advanced sports wearables are already being used by at least two collegiate athletic departments. The purported goal is to get athletes to make “positive” behavioral changes with “strong” encouragement to wear WHOOP.[3]  But the data could also be used to monitor every aspect of athletes’ lives and penalize them for “poor” choices such as drinking the night before a game or failing to get enough sleep.

Without better rules on who can access and handle biometric data, fears of Big Brother may shift from the government to Big Business – all under the guise of companies trying to promote “wellness”. 


These issues are further compounded by questions regarding security and technological accuracy.

With sports wearables comprising 24/7 products and often paired with technologies like GPS, collected biometric data can paint a very accurate picture of a person’s habits and proclivities.

And reports show that this data is often easily hacked. This opens wearables users up to unintended access and even falsification of data, threatening harm to economic – and possibly even legal – interests.

Furthermore, we don’t know if the data produced by these devices is even accurate, or capable of being meaningfully used. No universal standard exists regarding how sports wearables operate, and a class action lawsuit has already risen alleging inaccuracies in Fitbit’s measurements. Expect questions about the viability and reliability of sports wearable technology to grow as they become more pervasive – and more central to determining, in dollars and cents, how to evaluate the health of an individual for economic purposes.

The Legal Landscape

Now that I’ve outlined some of the privacy problems surrounding sports wearables – what can Americans do?  Well, currently not much, as the United States remains an outlier by failing to have a comprehensive national policy regarding data privacy.

States appear to be leading the charge on data privacy thus far. All but two have laws in place requiring notice from private and public bodies when security breaches have leaked personally identifiable information[4].  Three states have gone further, defining what is meant by “biometric identifier”, specifying data security requirements, and limiting the period that biometric identifiers can be retained. Illinois goes furthest by creating a private right of action by which consumers can directly sue companies that misuse their biometric data.

From a consumer perspective, it’s good that the states seem to have a plan – because the federal landscape is, frankly speaking, a mess.  I’ll illustrate this by speaking about three major pieces of legislation that demonstrate how the U.S. government and its agencies are ill-equipped to deal with the future of commercialized biometric data. 


HIPAA’s exemption of “mHealth technologies” that include sports wearables leaves current federal regulation largely to the FTC and FCC.  While HIPAA does cover privacy and security of health information, what is covered by HIPAA can get quite parsimonious.  For instance, health information captured under a workplace wellness program isn’t protected unless it is specifically part of a group health plan.

The FTC regulates through its application of Section 5 of the FTC Act which prohibits “unfair or deceptive practices” including failure to properly disclose privacy policies or obtain authorization to disclose personal data. The FTC has also issued a general guidance regarding collection and use of biometric information, though that was primarily based on facial recognition technologies.[5]

The FCC is also getting into the regulatory space through its Connect2HealthFCC senior task force which is designed to review how broadband-enabled health solutions – including sports wearables – should be regulated. There is also growing recognition that the FCC is expanding its regulatory footprint in data privacy more generally by joining such groups as the Global Privacy Enforcement Network.[6]

In short, the FTC and FCC are using their competency in their respective domains – consumer protection and communications, respectively – to attempt to regulate in the brand-new sector of sports wearables. While their commitment may be admirable, the problem is that the U.S. is betraying a siloed history and sectoral approach to a pervasive modern problem.

What I propose is that the U.S. government take an issue-based view of the matter at hand – namely, how do we protect the American citizen from the privacy threats posed by potentially increased access to health data? – and clearly assign policy and enforcement competence and jurisdiction in this field to a single regulator at the federal level.  Not only would this eliminate the inefficiency of having multiple departments and agencies examining the same issue but it would grant the citizen a clear resource for information and for lodging complaints. 

The Rest of the World

Doing what I just mentioned isn’t crazy.  In fact, in much of the rest of the world, data privacy – a broad concept that includes biometric data – is viewed as a right.  The EU has specified that “everyone has the right to the protection of personal data concerning him or her” and that “data must be… for specified purposes”.  The EU Parliament has also outlined regulations and directives confirming the importance of consumer data privacy and clearly defining and regulating biometric data. To safeguard these principles and laws, most EU states also charge a single government agency with federal responsibility over data privacy matters, specifically including biometric data.

To the north, Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronics Act and Privacy Act govern how private and public sector organizations must, respectively, handle Canadians’ personal information.  A single federal regulator, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, is tasked with investigating possible violations of both Acts.

Even Hong Kong, often called the “freest economy in the world”, has an Office of the Privacy Commissioner and a dedicated Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance.

So What Should Happen Here?

While the U.S. doesn’t necessarily need to precisely emulate the Privacy Commissioner models of other countries, there is a need for better coordination and greater transparency – and at the very least a single body tasked with initially interfacing with the public on such matters.  This pro-citizen approach will alleviate confusion as questions about biometric data collection grows.

As is often the case, the sports world will be the testing ground for the initial stages of this battle over ownership of individual biometric data.

In the near future, expect companies who claim “anonymized” data belongs to them – and experts who contend that true anonymization is impossible. Insurers and employers will provide incentives to leagues and players to offer up their data for “research” purposes. Privacy advocates will contend that such data is personal patrimony and that athletes are giving up such information much too cheaply.

These are all worthy debates to track.  But here, at HHS and in Washington DC, I’d like to point out that such battles will soon pass from the sports and technology pages to the front page – and Americans will begin asking, as they rightly should – what is the plan and who is responsible?  It only makes sense, then, to band together and present a singular voice/agency to speak to Americans about this critical subject.

from THCB

The P.A. Problem: Who You See and What You Get

Recently, the New York Times published an article on excessive costs incurred by mid-level providers over-treating benign skin lesions. According to the piece, more than 15% of biopsies billed to Medicare in 2015 were done by unsupervised PA’s or Nurse Practitioners. Physicians across the country are becoming concerned mid-levels working independently without proper specialty training. Dr. Coldiron, a dermatologist, was interviewed by the Times and said, “What’s really going on is these practices…hire a bunch of P.A.’s and nurses and stick them out in clinics on their own. And they’re acting like doctors.”

They are working “like” doctors, yet do not have training equivalent to physicians. As a pediatrician, I have written about a missed diagnosis of an infant by an unscrupulous midlevel provider who embellished his pediatric expertise. This past summer, astute physician colleagues came across an independent physician assistant, Christie Kidd, PA-C, boldly referring to herself as a “dermatologist.” Her receptionist answers the phone by saying “Kidd Dermatology.”

The Doctors, a daytime talk show, accurately referred to Ms. Kidd on a May 7, 2015 segment as a “skin care specialist.” However, beauty magazines are not held to the same high standard; the, a publication in the UK, captioned a picture of “Dr. Christie Kidd”, as the “go-to MD practicing in Beverly Hills.” The article shared how Ms. Kidd treats the Kardashian-Jenner family, “helping them to look luminous in their no-make-up selfies.” While most of us cannot grasp the distress caused by not appearing luminous in no-makeup-selfies, this is significantly concerning for Kendall Jenner. At the tender age of 21, she inaccurately referred to Ms. Kidd as her “life-changing dermatologist.” Cosmopolitan continues the charade, publishing an article on the Jenner family “dermatologist.”

It astounds me how some medical professionals can contentedly live in the gray, south of brutal honesty, yet somewhere north of deceit. Until a few months ago, the Kidd Dermatology website erroneously listed her educational background as having graduated from the USC School of Medicine with honors and made no mention of her supervising physician. It was later modified to reflect she graduated from the Physician Assistant program at USC.

There are laws mandating physicians display diplomas and certifications prominently in the interest of transparency. According to Title 16, California Code of Regulations sections 1399.540 through 1399.546, a PA in “independent” practice is limited to the scope of his/her supervising physician by law. A board-certified plastic surgeon is supervising “skin specialist” Christie Kidd, PA-C, not a dermatologist. The website of the plastic surgeon states, “Trust only a Board-Certified Plastic Surgeon;” which in my opinion, seems astonishingly tongue-in-cheek. He may believe treating bullous pemphigoid disease is just another day in the life of plastic surgeons everywhere, but plastic surgery is a far cry from practicing dermatology and vice versa.

When asked about this, the Public Affairs Manager, Cassandra Hockenson, at the Medical Board of California responded “there is not a huge difference between plastic surgery and dermatology.” She suggested contacting the Physicians’ Assistant Board for the State of California instead. She kept repeating that the supervising plastic surgeon had no complaints against him. I learned two important lessons from contacting the Medical Board of California: 1) Without complaints, a physician can supervise midlevel providers in any specialty they choose, and 2) while required by law to supervise mid-level providers, the safety of patients is not a high priority for the Medical Board of California.

At a minimum, physicians complete four years of college, four of medical school, and between 3-7 years in residency. The years of education required for obtaining a PA degree are considerably fewer than that of an MD. For all intents and purposes, Christie Kidd, PA-C is running an independent dermatology practice directly under the nose of an apathetic California State Medical Board indifferent to regulations. PA’s can be fined and disciplined by their own board for misrepresentation, however, her “supervising” physician is, in fact, also out of compliance with the law.

While not all celebrities understand the difference in education between an MD or PA, mid-level providers and their supervising physicians should not be immune to the rules and regulations. Honesty, trust, and transparency are ideals essential to the medical profession. Physicians are held accountable for the health and safety of the patients we serve. Google Business modified the Kidd Dermatology listing from “Dermatologist” to “Medical Spa.” The unsinkable Christie Kidd struck a compromise, settling on the designation as a “skin care clinic.” Carpe Diem, Ms. Kidd, Carpe Diem.

Niran Al-Agba, MD is actually a physician. She practices in Washington state.

from THCB

Amazon (Probably) Is About to Lose Out

Dear Jeff Bezos:

It looked like a great idea when you started to build a team of healthcare specialists back in the summer. Despite — or perhaps because of — endless attempts to control costs and improve quality, American healthcare remains (in the words of a recent THCB post) “a version of Afghanistan…replete with tribal conflicts, warlords, corruption, a bad communication system, [and] language problems.” Surely, there must be opportunities for Amazon.

Healthcare reporters were quick to pick up on rumors of your company entering the pharmacy business. If Amazon’s purchasing, distribution, delivery and marketing skills could be applied to the Whole Foods grocery business, imagine what might be achieved in the $500 billion pharmacy market. And imagine how this base could be used to transform the entire healthcare industry. No wonder drugstore chains and drug manufacturers saw their stocks swoon as the rumors spread.

Now it seems Amazon may have been aced out.

CVS Health, the largest retail pharmacy chain and a major pharmacy benefits manager, is in talks to buy Aetna, the third largest US health insurer, for more than $66 billion. While some analysts see this as primarily a defensive maneuver to thwart Amazon, it has the potential to dramatically change the healthcare playing field.

In the short run, both CVS and Aetna would be better protected against their current weaknesses. CVS’ PBM business is increasingly vulnerable as major insurers bring drug negotiations in-house, while its retail stores face growing competition from on-line pharmacies and – more recently – from federal approval of Walgreens’ acquisition of Rite-Aid. Aetna has its own weaknesses: it lost money on the Obamacare exchanges, and the continuing move of large groups to ASO contracts means less profitable underwritten business.

In the longer run, the possibilities are huge, with a CVS-Aetna combination potentially upending the healthcare marketplace. CVS could put more and more MinuteClinics into its stores with Aetna encouraging their use by its members. The MinuteClinics could then be expanded into full service primary care clinics—with pharmacies just feet away! Suddenly, there’s the potential for an HMO far larger than Kaiser, with a friendlier retail environment and thousands of locations already serving the member base. It could be the future face of American healthcare.

Has Amazon missed its big chance? Not necessarily, but the kinds of initiatives analysts have tied to the summer hirings offer limited potential. Healthcare advice or prescription ordering via Echo? Marginal opportunities only. It’s possible to see Echo as key to much of Amazon’s on-line retail business, but the risks and penalties for errors in voice recognition ordering of prescription drugs seem too great. Telemedicine and medical data analysis? Others, with better access to insurers and providers, have been working on such projects for years. (And take a look at how well Google Health and Microsoft HealthVault have done!)

So, what should Amazon do?

First, forget about acquiring retail pharmacies for the moment. There’s no point in going after Walgreens as it tries to digest its Rite-Aid acquisition, and there’s no other independent chain approaching CVS’s size. Second, introduce pharmacies into the Whole Foods stores, increasing revenue while learning the complexities of government pharmaceutical regulations, along with the unique problems of monopolistic specialty drug manufacturers. Third, and definitely later, acquire a PBM, giving members the choice of mail delivery or Whole Foods pickup and providing a captive customer market. Then, maybe, with all these pieces in place, it will be time to acquire – or build – a pharmacy chain able to go head-to-head with CVS.

And then the healthcare business will really change.

Roger Collier was formerly CEO of a national healthcare consulting firm.


from THCB

What investors are saying about the state of digital health

Health 2.0 caught up with some of our favorite investors who have a strong pulse on what’s happening in digital health care both past and present. We talked about company evaluation, unmet needs in health care, and their biggest surprises yet.

Read the full interview featuring Lisa Suennen of GE Ventures, Bryan Roberts of Venrock, Rich Roth ofDignity Health, and Brent Stackhouse of Mount Sinai Ventures.

Here’s a preview…

“Pretty much all of my investments are in first time CEOs, which is not particularly what the venture capital playbook tells you to go do. But I find those people to be very hungry and largely underappreciated by the rest of the world. They’re also very willing to bash their head against a brick wall with me for a while, in order to try to succeed at something that is hard to do.”
 – Bryan Roberts, Venrock on what he looks for in an investment.

“There are so “many tech people who want to work their way into health care venture capital. When I started in health care venture in 1998 you couldn’t give it away. I wonder how long it will be before the cycle ends?”
– Lisa Suennen, GE Ventures on what surprises her about the industry right now.

Catch up with Lisa Suennen, Bryan Roberts, and others at Health 2.0’s WinterTech event on January 10, 2018 in San Francisco where you’ll hear more on investment trends, IPO, and the rise in consumer choices. Register today for WinterTech before the early price ends.

from THCB

Health Care Needs Its Rosa Parks Moment

On Wednesday, October 25, 2017 I was at the inaugural Society for Participatory Medicine conference. It was a fantastic day and the ending keynote was the superb Shannon Brownlee. It was great to catch up with her and I’m grateful that she agreed to let THCB publish her speech. Settle back with a cup of coffee (or as it’s Thanksgiving, perhaps something stronger), and enjoy–Matthew Holt

George Burns once said, the secret to a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending—and to have the two as close together as possible. I think the same is true of final keynotes after a fantastic conference. So I will do my best to begin and end well, and keep the middle to a minimum.

I have two main goals today. First, I want to praise the work you are doing, and set it into a wider context of the radical transformation of health care that has to happen if we want to achieve a system that is accountable to patients and communities, affordable, effective — and universal: everybody in, nobody out.

My second goal is to recruit you. I’m the co-founder of the Right Care Alliance, which is a grassroots movement of patients, doctors, nurses, community organizers dedicated to bringing about a better health system.  We have 11 councils and chapters formed or forming in half a dozen cities. I would like nothing more than at the end of this talk, for every one of you to go to and sign up.

But first, I want to tell you a bit about why I’m here and what radicalized me. My father, Mick Brownlee, died three years ago this Thanksgiving, and through his various ailments over the course of the previous 30 years, I’ve seen the best of medicine, and the worst.

My father was a sculptor and a scholar, but he was also a stoic, so when he began suffering debilitating headaches in his early 50s, he ignored them, until my stepmother saw him stagger and fall against a wall in the kitchen, clutching his head. She took him to the local emergency room, at a small community hospital in eastern Oregon. This was the 1970s, and the hospital had just bought a new fangled machine—a CT scanner, which showed a mass just behind his left ear. It would turn out to be a very slow growing cancer, a meningioma, that was successfully removed, thanks to the wonders of CT and brain surgery. What a miracle!

Fast forward 15 years, and Mick was prescribed a statin drug for his slightly elevated cholesterol. One day, he was fine. The next he wasn’t, not because his cholesterol had changed, but the cutoff point for statin recommendations had been lowered. Not long after Mick began taking the statin, he began feeling tired and suffering mild chest pain, which was written of as angina. What we didn’t know at the time was the statin was causing his body to destroy his muscles, a side effect called rhabdomyolysis. Even his doctor didn’t recognize his symptoms, because back then, the drug companies hid how often patients suffered this side effect.

The statin caught up with Mick at an exhibit in Seattle of Chinese bronzes, ancient bells and other sculptures that my father had been studying in art books his whole career. Halfway through the exhibit, he told my brother to take him home; he was too tired to take another step.

Three days later, he was in the hospital on dialysis. The rhabdomyolysis had finally begun to destroy his kidneys. Three weeks later, he was sent home alive with one kidney barely functional. Soon his health would begin to deteriorate at a steady pace.

Fast forward another 15 years, and my father, at 84, was frail, falling down repeatedly, intermittently incontinent, and mildly demented. He had been hospitalized several times over the previous decade for a kidney stone, intractable constipation, dizziness, a small stroke. He was sleeping much of the day and was, as he would tell anybody who would listen, ready to die. He would walk into the ocean, if only he could get to the beach. By then, my stepmother had hidden the gun.

Just before Thanksgiving, Mick was taken by my brother to the local hospital with severe abdominal pain, which turned out to be a volvulus, a twist in the gut that if left untreated can lead to sepsis and a painful death. He was whisked off the hospital in Portland, a two-hour ambulance ride away. Knowing how frail Mick was, and how done he was with being hospitalized much less alive, I told my brother to ask the hospitalist for a palliative care consult. My brother did as instructed. The hospitalist said no, he wasn’t going to call in palliative care, because, and I quote, “We’re not there yet.” In that hospitalist’s mind, palliative care was for those at death’s door, and my father was only in the waiting room.  You won’t be surprised to learn that nobody asked Mick what he wanted, or what course of care he preferred.

By the time I could leave work and get a flight from DC to Portland, six days later, my father’s various doctors had managed to give him a pre-op cardiac stress test, and put him on total parenteral nutrition, a sort of food that goes straight into the blood stream. Only then did the gastrointestinal surgeon see him and pronounce him unfit for surgery; Mick was obviously so frail he would likely die on the table or if he survived the surgery, he would spend the rest of his short life in a nursing home.

Finally, we got our palliative care consult, which allowed us to take Mick home, where he was able to die surrounded by his beloved collection of art and his family.


I suspect that each of you has experienced some aspect of my tale. We all have stories of being misdiagnosed, ignored, not listened to, and maybe most important of all, not being heard. Of having to fight to get the comfort your child, father, sister needed. We’ve all had to seek out the right care, and be vigilant to avoid the wrong care, too little or too much care. Which probably should not even be called care at all, since if it’s unnecessary, it’s not very caring.

Anatole Broyard, an editor at the New York Times, wrote about the patient’s plight in a brilliant essay he published in August, 1990, 3 months before he died of prostate cancer. He wrote, “To most physicians, my illness is a routine incident in their rounds. For me it’s the crisis of my life. . . I would feel better if I had a doctor who, at least, perceived this incongruity.”Later in the essay he says, “I just wish my doctor would brood on my situation for even five minutes, that he would give me his whole mind just once. I’d like my doctor to scan me, to grope for my spirit as well as my prostate. “

What Broyard so eloquently expressed can be summed up as a crisis of relationship—a fracturing of the therapeutic alliance that we know is essential to offering comfort to patients, but is also part of healing. We all know implicitly, that healing involves far more than the physician’s knowledge and skill. It is more than making a correct diagnosis and delivering the right treatment.

True healing, as journalist David Bornstein writes, “is the process by which a doctor helps a patient accept, recover from, adapt to, or endure a serious illness, and it is full of nuance and mystery.  .  . I was often moved by how much my father-in-law — an actor who died from a form of leukemia — drew comfort and even inspiration from the relationship he had with his hematologist (who requested a Shakespeare recitation at each visit).”

Or as my colleague Vikas Saini says, hope and healing come from the companionship between doctor and patient in facing an unknown future together. The therapeutic alliance is a two way street, whose destruction also harms those who sit on the other side of the stethoscope — you in the white coats, you have stories, too.

Of being burned out, and chewed up by the system. Nearly half of medical students report feelings of depression, burn out, cynicism. Medical education has been characterized as being akin to living in an abusive and neglectful family. It places unrealistic expectations on students, keeps them sleep-deprived, overstressed, hypercompetitive, and in a state of fear of making mistakes. It sends a message that doubts or grief should be kept to oneself.

Worse yet, young clinicians perceive the gap between what is formally espoused — the proclaimed ethic of medicine’s empathy, compassion and altruism — and what they are actually learning through the “hidden curriculum.” This hidden curriculum is the socialization process that increasingly teaches them detachment rather than connection. The hidden curriculum says money is what matters in the system. The hidden curriculum instructs young clinicians to see patients as “customers,” and to view the doctors with the biggest incomes as the happiest and most admirable.  It is even teaching residents to do rounds at the hospital by standing in the hallway looking at their laptops rather than gathering at the patient’s bedside.

What the explicit and hidden curricula are not doing is teaching young nurses and doctors to listen without interrupting much less share decisions. Young clinicians are not even learning the ancient and powerful art of taking a history and physical. The novelist and physician Abraham Verghese is doing a booming business at Stanford medical school running remedial courses for young doctors who are coming to their residencies without those essential skills.

So how can we expect such an education system teach clinicians to “perceive the incongruity” of what it means to be sick versus well? Or to take five minutes to “brood” on their patients’ situation?

It should come as no surprise that five out of six doctors say that medicine is in decline. Close to 60 percent would not recommend it as a career for their children.

And as the work speeds up, and clinicians are treated more like assembly line workers than healing professionals, there is less and less time to grope for the spirit of a patient, to serve as a companion in the face of an uncertain future. There’s no time for such niceties when “productivity” is measured as throughput of patients, and when burnout has reached fever pitch.

What all of this means is the topics of today’s meeting strike at the emotional and spiritual heart of what it means to be a doctor, or nurse, or physicians assistant. This gathering also speaks to the deep need of a patient or family member to be heard, and to be cared for as fellow human being who is suffering.

And what you are all doing today, those of you who have spoken before me or are sitting in the audience, Randi Oster, Geri Baumblatt, Tom Delbanco, Harlan Kumholz, and all of the researchers and physicians and patients who have been laboring in these fields for so many years — every single one of you deserves a medal for making these deep and important issues rise to the surface. For giving a voice to patients — and likewise to the clinicians who care about them as well as for them.


And yet . . . here we are today, struggling to make those voices be heard by our colleagues, by our regulators, and our politicians.

Why has it been so hard to get Tom Delbanco’s Open Notes implemented? Why doesn’t every medical and nursing school in the country teach real history taking? How is it that shared decision making has been an idea whose time has been coming—for more than 20 years? Why doesn’t every medical and nursing school in the country teach shared decision-making?  Hundreds of studies, thousands of decision aids later, and we know that shared decision-making is a vast improvement over the misinformed consent that so often occurs. Why are these ideas still lurking at the fringes of medicine?

Why do so few hospitals have family advisory councils, and even fewer have councils with real power? Dig even deeper, and we should also be asking why so few communities have any real say in how hospitals allocate resources.

Where I live, in Washington, DC, three hospitals already have a proton beam machine. A fourth is being built. Each one of these machines costs $100 million— and each one is unnecessary. They get built not because they will benefit the DC community, but because they are good for the hospital’s bottom line. And if shared decision-making were actually practiced, and adult patients were actually informed of the fact that there’s no valid evidence to suggest that their cancer will be helped by using this incredibly expensive machine compared with standard therapy, there would be no reason to build another one.

The building of more proton beam machines holds a good part of the answer to why shared decision-making, and family advisory councils, and Open Notes, are not standard practice in every hospital and clinic in the country. And that answer points to the two reasons there are no community advisory councils to prevent every hospital in the country from wasting $100 million on a useless machine.

Those reasons are money and power.

As individual patients, we don’t have much power. It is incredibly hard to advocate for ourselves. Even doctors who become patients find themselves feeling nearly powerless in the face of their fellow white coats.

This idea that the patient/consumer is going to change the system, one transaction at a time, has become part of our national religion of the free market, and the neoliberal catechism we’ve all been absorbing for the last 40 years. That doctrine says that patients can fix the system — if only they would behave the way they do when purchasing other goods. High deductibles will make sick people and their frightened families more “prudent consumers” of health care, and when all those prudent consumers begin to vote with their wallets, the system will be transformed.

Right. How’s that been working out so far?

Here’s an alternative. There’s only so much we can do as individuals, especially when we are sick enough to be under a doctor’s care. Maybe it’s time to think about a different “theory of change.” Maybe it’s time to stop pretending the “market” will fix health care, and start recognizing that we have to pursue a different path. We need collective action.


This December, it will have been 62 years since a seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. Her refusal and subsequent arrest is just one of many iconic acts of defiance that have come to symbolize the civil rights movement. That movement is ongoing and its business is unfinished, as recent events in Ferguson, Staten Island, and around the country are making clear. But think back to the 1950s and 60s. What an extraordinary distance we’ve come because of collective action by the civil rights movement.

It’s tempting to imagine that all of what has happened since that December day in Montgomery was triggered by a seamstress who was tired and fed up and decided on the spur of the moment to sit in the front of the bus. But that’s not really what happened.

Rosa Parks’ pivotal act of defiance was carefully planned, and it was preceded by years of grassroots organizing that came before. In the first half of the twentieth century, African Americans and their allies mostly fought discrimination through litigation and lobbying, and they set important legal precedents. Yet victories in the courts and legislatures were not enough to change a deeply entrenched culture, and the dream of civil rights only began to make real headway when the activists shifted tactics to real movement building and organizing.

And that organizing began not with a pivotal moment on a bus, but in the black churches. It began when people talked about the lived experience of racism. It was in those churches that people began forming the bonds that made them brave enough to register to vote in the face of police intimidation. Those relationships gave them the courage to face down dogs, and water cannons, and imprisonment for their cause.

It was grassroots organizing that created the bus boycott that followed Rosa Parks’ arrest, and organizing that brought white students from the North to register black voters, and to join marches.  It was the endless press releases sent by organizers that made those marchers impossible for the world and the White House and the U.S. Congress to ignore. If the civil rights movement had stayed in the churches and not moved to the next phase, of organizing and mobilizing, just imagine what our world would be like today.

Make no mistake, what we are doing at this meeting serves the same purpose as the years of discussion that happened in the black churches before the movement truly began.  But now it is time to consider the next step for our cause, which is real organizing and mobilizing.

Getting shared decision making standard of care, fostering a true therapeutic relationship, giving patients control over their own records and communities control over their hospitals are not technical problems, with technical solutions. They are natural outgrowths from a health care system that has become another business, and a powerful one—one that does not want to change.

In other words, this is a fight about money and power, and in the history of the world, very few people and virtually no institutions have given up either willingly just because it’s the right thing to do. Maybe George Washington really did refuse to become King of America because he believed so fervently in the experiment of democracy. But he is the exception that proves the rule. To change the flow of money and power, we the people must take them.

We need a real movement. A movement that is willing to break glass, step on toes, and picket hospitals to force the deep change that is necessary. Health care needs a Rosa Parks moment.

So here comes my pitch to join the Right Care Alliance. We are just beginning to build our ranks of providers, patients, lawyers and community activists.  Our steering committee has started to lay out our strategy for the coming years.

But I have to be honest: We are hardly the only grassroots healthcare movement out there. You can join the National Physicians Alliance, or one of the single payer organizations that exist in every state. It almost doesn’t matter which group you get involved with, because we are eventually going to have to come together to pool our efforts. And our first step will need to involve going into communities and helping Americans understand how bad our health care system really is and what it will take to have a great system. For those of us who are old enough to remember the 60s, you’ll know what I’m talking about when I say we need a strategy for teach ins across the land.  Every one of you can be involved in that effort.

Getting to a system that opens the door to patients being active participants can no longer be left to the health care industry, or even to health care professionals. And it cannot be accomplished by patients acting as individual “consumers” in the clinic and hospital. The demand for change must come from the American people, from students, workers, community activists, business leaders, the clergy — and clinicians and patients, all those who are affected by health care’s failure to deliver.

In closing, I want to pay homage to the incredible work that all of you have done. You are testifying to the lived reality of the need for care that makes patients and families true participants. But to achieve our goals, we must take the next step towards activism and organizing.

Shannon Brownlee MSc is Senior Vice President at the Lown Institute and author of the classic Overtreated

from THCB