In his book The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson explains that a lot of medical care and healthcare services are more about signaling than about the value they bring to the patient in terms of improved health and effective management or treatment of a given condition. Healthcare has a lot of signaling, showing others that we make enough money that we can go do something for our health, pushing others to get care to show how much we value having them be healthy, and giving us or others a chance to show how much we know and understand the human body. However, not a lot of what we push people toward really demonstrates that it adds a lot of value.
This is a problem that Dave Chase thinks is a big contributor to our nation’s healthcare woes in his book The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call. Chase is critical of unnecessary services and a medical system that pushes people toward care, without providing means to ensure that the care we push people toward is actually valuable. He recounts a conversation he had with Dr. Martin Sepulveda, “indiscriminate provision of health care services – absent efforts to help people understand how to use those services – leads to voracious appetites from both patients and providers for services that add little value but add a lot of cost to the individual, company, and society.”
When a child runs to their mother for a kiss on a bruised knee, the kiss doesn’t actually add any value in terms of helping heal the child’s bruise. But the care provided by the mother does signal her love for her child, signals to the child that they are valuable and important, and signals to others that the child has allies who will aid them during a time of need. The example is extreme, but if you look close enough, you will see some of the same aspects at play in many of our healthcare interactions.
Increasing access to healthcare without helping people understand what care they should seek, without helping people understand what options they really have, and without guidance toward high value care, means that we will use healthcare in a wasteful manner. Paying providers just by the number of procedures they do, and not by how much they help patients, encourages unnecessary medical procedures. Telling patients that if they value themselves they will go to the doctor every time they feel a little off will lead to patients overusing primary care. And pushing people to the emergency room every time they say they don’t feel well could crowd our ERs and delay care for those who really need it. The problem is difficult to solve, and I want to acknowledge that it is hard to know what care is really appropriate and what is wasteful signaling. That is the point that Chase makes. Without more transparency and clarity in the system, we won’t really know what medical services we should and should not pursue, and we (along with providers) will likely overindulge in high-signaling low-value care rather than medical treatments that are really useful and meaningful.