Tuesday, March 29, 2016

More Details on Disgraceful Pharmaceutical Practices

Two days ago I wrote about the dual agency problem pharmaceutical executives face: "They're clearly crucial participants in  the sacred calling of health care. At the same time, they're embedded in a highly competitive industry with strong profit demands. Pharmaceutical executives work in the jaws of a severe dual agency challenge: sacred calling vs the invisible hand of the market."

Today's New York Times offered a telling detail on how the jaws of money led Valeant Pharmaceuticals directly to disgraceful - though legal - "leadership" in the health care sector.

Valeant's legal but disgraceful strategy was to achieve monopoly power by buying rights to old drugs and then raising prices to stratospheric heights. I call this disgraceful because human health is not a commodity to be traded and sold. Valeant added "value" (money) for shareholders and staff, but subtracted value from the domain of human health - directly, via reducing access to needed drugs, and indirectly, by contributing to demoralization within and about health care through its sordid practices.

Here's the crucial detail. The CEO would only receive a bonus if the stock price rose by a specified amount each year, and the shares he was awarded would only vest if the stock rose by 15% in three consecutive years. Last year his salary was reduced to zero, making him totally dependent on stock price. These are legal incentives from the perspective of finance, but they're disgraceful incentives from the perspective of improving human health.

On July 31, 2015, Valeant's stock sold for $257.53. At 9:58 AM today it was selling for $28.89. I hope the 89% drop will convey to investors that financial performance should not be the key criterion for evaluating performance in the health sector.

The reason the Valeant story leads me to rant so vociferously is that for health care professionals pharmaceutical companies are partners in delivering health care. When a drug allows us to help a patient in a meaningful way, we're grateful to the pharmaceutical company. It's analogous to our relationship with consultants who help our patients achieve better outcomes.

The problem isn't that Valeant made an honest mistake. We all do that. It's that they were playing by rules that don't belong in health care. Disgraceful rules!

[See here for a previous post on Valeant. For a post on how I felt personally betrayed by a scandal involving the drug Abilify, see here. And for a post about Valeant in today's Pharmalot blog, see here.]

I believe I have reasonable understanding of all the benefits a market economy can provide. I'm writing on one right now. But there's a widespread feeling among clinicians and patients in health care that resonates with this cartoon:

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Who Should be Seen as a "Healthcare Executive" and Why Does it Matter?

The American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE) has as its vision "To be the premier professional society for healthcare executives dedicated to improving healthcare delivery." ACHE's excellent 2015 statement - Creating an Ethical Culture Within the Healthcare Organization - rests on an assertion I wholeheartedly support: namely, that "all healthcare executives have a professional obligation to create an ethical culture." (I added the emphasis)

If you agree with the ACHE assertion, and I'm prepared to go to the mat for it, the first question is: what counts as a "healthcare executive"? How wide is the scope of the term?

Clearly, executives at hospitals, medical groups, and other organizations that deal directly with patients carry major moral responsibilities. After all, health care is crucial for realizing all three of the "unalienable rights" put forward in the Declaration of Independence: life (sometimes health care saves our lives), liberty (we can't exercise our freedom without health), and pursuit of happiness (we can be happy without health, but it's more difficult, and severe enough pain makes it impossible).

ACHE deliberately leaves the scope of the term vague. It defines itself an an organization for "healthcare executives who lead hospitals, healthcare systems and other healthcare organizations." From my experience as a physician, administrator, and patient, I'd cast a wide net for defining "other healthcare organizations" and setting ethical expectations for them.

In the complex U.S. health system direct care organizations aren't the only important moral agents. Health plans and pharmaceutical companies are perhaps the two most important examples of indirect moral agents.

Over the years I've tried to encourage health plans to create ethics programs the way Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, where I have directed the ethics program for sixteen years, has done. I've had zero success. This doesn't mean that other health plans are unethical, but it does suggest that ethical performance is not seen as something that requires the kind of concerted leadership the ACHE statement on responsibility for creating an ethical culture calls for. (For a previous post about my quixotic efforts, see here.)

Executives in the pharmaceutical industry face especially difficult challenges in relation to the kinds of expectations the ACHE standards articulate. They're clearly crucial participants in  the sacred calling of health care. At the same time, they're embedded in a highly competitive industry with strong profit demands. Pharmaceutical executives work in the jaws of a severe dual agency challenge: sacred calling vs the invisible hand of the market.

More than forty years ago, Arnold Relman warned of the potentially disruptive moral impact of what he called "The New Medical-Industrial Complex." Since his prescient warning there have been efforts to establish a shared moral code for all participants in the world of health care. A distinguished U.S. and U.K. group articulated the "Tavistock Principles," but these, alas, seem to have been dead on arrival, and have not been heard from for fifteen years. And for a number of years the American Medical Association sponsored an "Ethical Force" program that sought to establish measurable ethical standards for the major players in the health sector. I had the privilege of being on the advisory panel on health benefits determination. The project produced some excellent materials and a book, but as with the Tavistock principles, the effort was relatively short-lived.

When I mulled over how to end this post I realized that I don't have a tidy upbeat ending. The image that came to mind was of Sisyphus, eternally pushing a rock up the hill. It seems to me that Arnold Relman's call to action points to an ongoing task captured in this cartoon:

I'll do more rock pushing in future posts!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Insurance Coverage for Telemedicine

Last week the Harvard Pilgrim Ethics Advisory Group (EAG) devoted its quarterly meeting to the topic of "Developing a Framework of Ethics for Telemedicine." I chair the group and write a consultation report based on the discussion. Four of the group's recommendations are relevant for all health insurers and health plans, so I'm presenting them here:

  1.  Nationally, telemedicine is evolving rapidly in a somewhat helter-skelter manner. The EAG recommended that insurers should focus coverage on areas in which telemedicine can minister to significant health needs. Fitbit and other health trackers are popular with consumers but do not reflect the kind of “need” that health insurance should cover. In contrast, services for patients who cannot access important care because of geography or limited mobility and services that maintain or improve quality while reducing costs provide real value.
  2.  Patients and physicians both see continuity of care as a crucial health care value. But patients also value access and convenience, which have driven the uptake of telemedicine. Ideally, insurers will find ways to reconcile these potentially conflicting values, as by requiring telemedicine providers to foster communication with the patient’s primary care physician if the patient gives permission. The group imagined technological “fixes” that would encourage patients to be active participants in establishing continuity of care, as by having the telemedicine provider’s note go to the patient, to be shared with whomever the patient wishes to inform. 
  3.  One of the questions the EAG had been asked was: "Should Harvard Pilgrim be a leader in providing telemedicine coverage or wait for well established quality information and support from the relevant professional organizations prior to offering access?" The group saw the question as too either/or. Telemedicine is at once (a) a promising innovation that is (b) energized by societal trends in use of technology in other sectors of life, but (c) uncertain in its impact on cost and quality of care. It encouraged Harvard Pilgrim to be active in the area of telemedicine, but do so in a try it/evaluate it/fix it/or drop it manner, in order to learn from experience and contribute to knowledge about the emerging trend.
  4.   A Google search for "telemedicine providers" brings up a dizzying array of links. There is a lot of money to be made, and the marketplace is in a feeding frenzy. Given the certainty that consumers will be exposed to services ranging from high quality/high value enterprises to bottom feeders hoping to take the money and run, the EAG recommended that insurers only cover services from vendors who share and apply the same values with regard to improving quality, reducing overall costs, and supporting continuity of care. This revenue prediction table illustrates why the marketplace offers patients both promise and risk: 


To learn more about the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care ethics program, see previous blog posts here and here, and this article in Health Affairs

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Computer-Patient Sex

This is a post I've been meaning to write ever since 2013, when I first saw Spike Jonze's remarkable film, Her. I've just watched it again  on DVD. So here goes.

Critics wrote about the film as a futuristic love story, in which Theodore Twombly ("Theo"), played by Joaquin Phoenix, a melancholy, emotionally inhibited, almost-divorced man, falls in love with Samantha, a bodyless operating system, played by Scarlett Johansson, whose voice we hear but who we never see, since she's an artificial intelligence program, not a corporeal being. Theo's job is as a writer of poetic, passionate letters for clients of BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. Outside of work he is bumbling through a life of non-attachments.

But in addition to being a love story, I see Her as a fable about a psychotherapy. As a despondent, lonely 30-something, casting about for what direction to go in life, Theo is a prototypical therapy patient. He hears an advertisement for an AI system that "listens to you, understands you, and knows you." In other words - the perfect therapist.

Theo responds to the ad.

Enter Samantha!

Samantha starts as a stunningly efficient personal assistant. Imagine IBM's Watson with a sultry voice devoting itself to understanding your every need and wish. But things rapidly get more personal. For Theo, listening to Samantha's voice through an earphone is as if he was on the couch, talking to an analyst sitting behind him. With a delighted little laugh he exclaims "you know me so well...I feel I can say anything to you." Who could resist? Theo rapidly falls in love - or, in the words my residency supervisors could have used, "develops an erotic transference."

Samantha responds to Theo's idealization. Soon they're talking at night - essentially having the equivalent of phone sex. For both Samantha and Theo it's an ecstatic experience. For the moment, both are blissfully happy. But when Samantha tries to have a "real," non-transferential experience with Theo, by sending a surrogate to be with him as her body. it's a disaster. Theo can idealize and "have sex" with his invisible therapist, but when reality enters in in the form of a corporeal being (the surrogate), he freezes. Fantasy is one thing. Reality is another.

I doubt that Spike Jonze had the theme of transference and patient-therapist sex in mind when making the film, but the film captures the dynamics of (a) idealization of the therapist, (b) the therapist's response to being idealized, and (c) the emergence of intense erotic feelings from the combination of (a) & (b), with brilliant clarity. Both characters are vulnerable and needy: Theo in his isolation and Samantha in her sense of being trapped in programming language and in that way not fully real.

The psychotherapeutic fable has a bittersweet ending. Samantha gets a grip on herself. She does what therapists who recognize they are losing control should do - she gets a consultant. The ghost of Alan Watts, the Zen philosopher/therapist, helps her recognize that she's not being true to her ideals. She and her companion operating systems go off into space. Theo is initially bereft, but he seems to have taken in Samantha's Wattsian wisdom. He writes a loving goodbye letter to his ex-wife, and in the final scene he is sitting on the roof of his building with Amy, his friend from college. They are clearly right for each other, and it's a more sane relationship than the therapist-patient passion between Theo and Samantha. The therapy has been successful. Both the patient and the therapist have matured, but only, on both parts, by relinquishing the fantasied relationship.

Her is a remarkable film - funny, touching, entertaining, and wise.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Retail Clinics, Health Care Costs, and Medical Ethics

The March issue of Health Affairs includes an report by Ateev Mehrotra and colleagues about the impact of retail clinics on health care utilization and cost. His team used insurance claims from Aetna to study the question of the degree to which retail clinic visits replace physician office and emergency room visits or represent additional utilization.

In-store clinics like the 1,100 CVS Minute Clinics offer prompt attention for minor ailments and preventive care. They're convenient and cost less than physician office visits and vastly less than an emergency room visit. Health policy gurus have hoped that they would improve access and reduce costs.

It looks as if the hopes are half fulfilled. The clinics do improve access for minor conditions and as such are a welcome service. According to the Convenient Care Association - the trade association for retail clinics - to date consumers have made 35 million visits to these entities. But Mehrotra and colleagues found that 58 percent of the visits appeared to represent new utilization, with the result that covering retail clinic visits cost Aetna $14 more per patient per year.

The medical group where I and my family have gotten our care for decades operates its own internal version of retail clinics. During daytime hours it's possible to be seen for same day appointments and advance practice nurses are available 24/7 by telephone. When I've used the service my primary care physician has received immediate feedback via the electronic medical record. In one instance I would have gone to an emergency room if urgent care had not been available. And my impression from what I've read from Kaiser Permanente is that in the setting of an integrated group practice, walk-in capacity is cost effective as well as popular with patients.

So what's the big lesson from the Health Affairs report?

For me the study implies that our recurrent hope for a magic bullet that will reduce cost without integrating the care system and creating a budget for it is a pipe dream. Retail clinics have a lot to offer, but they won't solve our cost problem. Telemedicine also has a lot to offer, but it won't do the cost containment job for us either.

Instead of imagining that a magic bullet will solve the cost trend without our making hard choices, we instead need to bite the bullet and create budgeted care systems like the much maligned not-for-profit HMOs from past years. 

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Using Social Media for Patient Care and Population Health

I'm very interested in the ways we can use digital technologies to improve clinical care and population health. Over the years I've written a number posts on the topic (if you want to see them, the Facebook and Social Networking links will get you there). 

Digital technology in health care is a booming area - a form of the wild west, with some terrific innovations and a lot of hype and racing to make a quick buck. Next week the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Ethics Advisory Group, which I have the privilege of chairing, is discussing the ethics of telemedicine. It's going to be a standing room only gathering with more than 40 participants.

I'm a big fan of Leslie Kernisan, a geriatrician in the Bay Area. I've only "met" Leslie via email, but I follow her terrific GeriTech blog. Last week she wrote a post on geriatricians and social media, in which she spoke in very practical terms about whether, why, and how geriatricians should make use of social media technologies. With Leslie's permission I'm republishing her post here:
Patricia Bach, a geriatric psychology colleague who is active in social media, recently emailed me a question: how to encourage more clinicians in geriatrics and long-term care to use social media?
In particular, she asked me “What do you feel is the ROI for geriatricians to use social media/networking in their professional roles?”
This is an interesting question to consider. After all, we have a limited number of geriatricians available for a growing older population. We also each have only so much time and energy in every day. 
So how should each of us be spending our time? How much should be on social media, and do we all need to be using it? 
I myself really like blogging — obviously — but was a reluctant adopter of shorter-form social media. To this day, I have a minimal personal social media presence. I only got going on Twitter because I started this blog in the fall of 2012. For me, Twitter was a good way to learn about digital health and connect with others interested in tech and aging. 
Then I started using Facebook in 2014, mainly because I was focusing more on my geriatrics content for the public, and at that time Facebook seemed to be a better platform for interacting with the general public, compared to LinkedIn or Twitter. (I would say this is still true. 
In adopting social media for these reasons, I was manifesting something that is very important to consider when it comes to physician behavior — or really any person’s behavior — with a respect to engaging in a certain activity:
  • What are the most important motivators and interests for the person? What are they most eager to accomplish? How does the activity address those?
  • What are the demotivators? What are the downsides to engaging in the activity?
  • How much friction or difficulty is involved in engaging in the activity?
You can also consider an activity in terms of “Return on Investment” (ROI), however, this term doesn’t usually take into account how soon the return is going to arrive. And we know that people are much more motivated by concrete returns that happen fast — and are related to something currently of great interest/appeal/fear to them — whereas they discount returns that are coming way off in the future. 
Social media is about communication and networking
Back to social media itself. It is fundamentally about communicating and networking. So to use it sensibly, I recommend individuals — or larger entities — consider the following:
  • Who do you want to communicate with?
  • What is your purpose in doing so?
  • What actions do you hope the audience/people you connect with will take?
  • What short-term and long-term results are you hoping for?
  • How will this communicating and networking help you advance your most important goals?
  • Which platforms are well-suited to your purposes?
  • What non-social media methods could you use to achieve your goals, and would that be a better fit given your time/resources/purposes?
It is also important to consider the learning curve of whatever platform and communication strategy one is embarking on, as well as any risks or downsides.
For instance, most social media platforms generate a torrent of information. So one downside is that doing social media takes time and energy, and if you aren’t careful or disciplined about your approach, it can swallow up a lot of time and energy. 
Should geriatricians use social media? 
To answer this question, we should consider it from the perspective and interests of various involved entities. At a minimum these would include:
  • The individual clinicians
  • The organizations that clinicians works for in some way, such an employer or even an association that a given clinician feels a duty to serve
  • Entities representing the welfare of the public, such as government agencies, large non-profits and foundations, and others who try to shape the healthcare environment so that the activity of clinicians benefits society.
Each entity has their own motives, interests, and particular priorities. Needless to say, there is often imperfect agreement between what the clinician is most interested in, the employer is most interested in, and other larger entities are most interested in. 
Whenever I hear someone — we’ll call them the “Suggester” — say “Doctors should do this!” or “Doctors should do more of this!” I certainly think about who is saying it, and what’s in it for them. 
And then I think about how to align that with what those individual doctors are interested in doing. Does this request fit in with the doctors’ interest and motivations? How feasible and easy to implement is it? Is the Suggester in a position to influence the doctors’ work environment or motivating factors? 
If you want people to do something, you need to understand how it fits in with what they are most interested in doing. And then you need to help make it possible and appealing for them to do it. 
An example from the published literature on healthcare social media: 
Here’s a quote from the abstract of a 2015 article titled “Social media is a necessary component of surgery practice.” 
“Each surgeon must embrace the power and potential of social media and serve as a guide or content expert for patients and other health care providers to facilitate and share responsible use of the various media available.” 
The abstract goes on to describe the potential power of social media to “improve consultation and collaboration, facilitate patient education, and expand research efforts…[and] to disseminate campaigns to increase disease awareness and communicate new research findings and best-practice guidelines.” 
I would not dispute the description of the potential power of social media. But it’s not at all clear to me that every surgeon must hence be on social media in a professional capacity. 
Instead, I would say that organizations that represent surgeons and surgical expertise should certainly have a social media presence. Certain individual surgeons may also find it serves their primary interests to be active on social media, either because they are doing it on behalf on an employer or professional association, or because the activity serves their personal projects and aspirations. 
Now, some will say that social media is important for maintaining your professional reputation. I’d say this really depends on what kind of work you are doing as a doctor. If you do research, then it can be good to have a social media presence that enables you to connect with colleagues and the media. If you are in private practice and are having trouble recruiting patients then yes, the right social media activity could help you raise your profile and find more work or patients. 
But most doctors I know are busy, and their biggest concerns relate to their working conditions and their ability to perform what they see as their core work. Usually, this is caring for patients and perhaps maintaining financial viability. For some physicians, it’s getting grants and other forms of academic success. 
Only rarely is it providing health information online to as many people as possible (that’s my project but I’m hardly representative of my colleagues) or even raising the visibility of the clinic or organization they work for, unless they are a designated social media ambassador (or trying to become one). 
Social media IS important to geriatrics and to the cause of improving the health and wellbeing of a growing older population 
To return to the question of whether there’s an ROI on geriatricians participating in social media: 
I absolutely believe that social media platforms can and should be used by geriatricians and related organizations, to help promote better health and healthcare for older adults
To begin with, in recent years social media endeavors — such as the Geripal blog — have played an important role in enabling geriatricians to connect with media influencers, which has helped the public become more aware of our field and expertise. The more often geriatric expertise is incorporated into the work of health journalists, the better. 
Then there is providing information more directly to the public. Digital platforms are now the primary way that most adults access information and certain forms of support. Older adults use digital media less than younger ones do, but their use of technology and digital communications is increasing rapidly, as noted by Pew. Pew has also found that family caregivers are often “wired for health.” 
As clinicians providing hands-on care, we should be familiar with the most commonly-used resources our patients and their families are using. These are increasingly digital, although the extent to which they are based on social media seems variable. (I find it depends on topic, niche, patient and caregiver population.) 
If an individual clinician is considering social media, I recommend considering the intended purpose and audience. Especially for those clinicians who mainly provide hands-on clinical work, social media may not be very useful to them. (You can network with colleagues at conferences and keep up with medical news via a few choice websites or journals.) 
However, most organizations should have a social media presence, which means some individuals will spend time maintaining that presence. Having a few clinicians participate in this can be nice, but they should be given time and resources to do it, and to keep up with the ever-evolving social media landscape. 
Social media for health and education 
I don’t have time to review the literature on this topic, so instead I’ll share my perspective as someone who has been creating geriatrics content online since 2008.
For educating and communicating out to the general public, I have found that writing longer content is far preferable to tweets, blog comments, or short Facebook posts. Create something that is more than a blip in a person’s attention, and that really tries to address a question or need. (I don’t personally produce videos but those can be great too. I am now going into audio and podcasting.) This content can be produced for one’s own website, or can be guest-posted to a bigger site with a larger audience. Interactive events like webinars with Q&A capability also have good potential. 
Otherwise, short-form social media (e.g. Twitter, Facebook) can and should be leveraged for dissemination. Such platforms allow clinicians and their audience to share longer content, or to share the notification of an upcoming event or opportunity. 
For learning from the audience — which essential to being truly helpful and to figuring out how to serve your audience — you need to spend a certain amount of time observing/listening, when it comes to what your audience says, does, and asks. Pay special attention to what they ask each other, and what they ask people who are not you, or not in your particular role. It’s also good to invite questions and participate in interactive events. 
Last suggestions for presenting to clinicians about social media 
Walk them through a process for thinking about their needs, their purpose, and how social media might fit in. 
Don’t conflate the needs/motives of the employer or society with the needs/motives of the individual clinicians. 
Provide education to make it easy for clinicians take the next step, if they’re interested.
Provide case studies and examples illustrating how different clinicians and organizations have used social media to achieve their goals. Tailor those case studies to overlap with what is likely to be the interests and goals of the clinicians you are presenting to. Some will be very interested in raising the brand and visibility of their clinic, but that may not be of interest to many geriatricians.